Christmas is a time for memories, traditions, and old-fashioned celebrations. For many of us, it is both a tradition and a memory to celebrate the holiday season with old holiday movies. Some of these are widely remembered and beloved; you can find them in many stores in special collections or individually this time of year. Others are practically forgotten gems. Below I have begun a list of our favorite Christmas movies from the Breen and sometimes Shurlock era. Please join me and add to the list.
1. White Christmas (1954): I could not begin with any film save White Christmas with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney. It may not be the most famous, but it is our family’s favorite. It simply would not be the Christmas season for us without watching White Christmas at least once. We often watch it on Christmas Eve. It is one of the last Breen films, but it still contains all the wholesome charm of our favorite era. It begins on Christmas Eve, 1944, in a German battle zone. Crosby is Bob Wallace, a talented performed turned major, and Kaye is Phil Davis, a hopeful private. Together they are giving a Christmas show for the troops. When Davis narrowly saves Wallace life but injures his arm, Bob agrees to perform a number he wrote with him back in America. Ten years later, Wallace and Davis are a hugely popular musical team, singing, dancing, and now producing musicals. Phil has coerced Bob do all these things by constantly reminding him that he saved him, but now he wants Bob to get married. Bob is uninterested in women until he meets the Hanes sisters, a charming sister act. Phil is interested in younger sister Judy, a slim dancer portrayed by Vera Ellen, and he sees fascination between Bob and Betty, the beautiful, shapely older sister who sings and is portrayed by Rosemary Clooney. He tricks Bob into going to Vermont, where the sisters are singing at a lodge. They all arrive at the lodge to find it snowless and empty. When they realize that their kind, former general owns the place, they know they must do something to save his business and his pride. They begin rehearsing their show up at the lodge, since they plan to use their names as a lure for customers. Many charming complications and wonderful musical numbers ensue, but the movie ends, as it begins, with Bing singing the iconic title song and a magical snowfall.
2. Holiday Inn (1942): This is the perfect film for every holiday. It begins on Christmas Eve and features New Year’s Eve, Lincoln’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Fred Astaire adds to the classic dynamic of this fantastic holiday classic, which is full of songs, dances, and old-fashioned charm. Bing Crosby plays Jim, a night-club entertainer who is tired of performing. After the Christmas Eve show, he and his beautiful co-star Lila are going to get married and move to a farm in Connecticut. The only problem is that his other co-star, tap-dancer Ted, is also in love with Lila and has persuaded her to marry him instead. Their manager clumsily reveals the new arrangement minutes before Jim’s departure. Ted and Lila have decided to keep dancing, “dedicating their lives to making people happy with their feet.” Jim still retires to the farm to “just be lazy.” After a year of so-called laziness, he realizes that owning a farm is much harder than singing and dancing. On Christmas Eve he visits the still unmarried Ted and Lila at the nightclub, telling his old friend that he is going to turn his nightclub into Holiday Inn, a musical inn which is only open on fifteen holidays each year. The next day, a hopeful flower shop girl named Linda goes to the inn for a job as an entertainer. She says she can sing a little and dance, and Jim hires her for next week’s show on New Year’s Eve. Saying that he promised himself that he would sing his new song that night, Jim sings “White Christmas,” accompanying himself at the little piano and enhancing his beautiful voice with his famous whistling. This was the first time this famous song was heard, but it certainly would not be the last time Bing sang it. On New Year’s Eve, Lila leaves Ted for a Texas millionaire, so he drunkenly goes to the inn and dances a great routine with Linda. The next morning, he and his manager are desperate to find out who the girl is, since they want her to be Ted’s new partner. Jim is eager to keep his new sweetheart secret, knowing Ted’s habit of stealing his women, and pretends that he doesn’t know her identity, either. The year passes with lots of wonderful singing, fantastic dancing, and charming trickery. On the next New Year’s Eve, Linda and Jim are reunited, and fickle Lila returns to Ted.
3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): This is one of the most popular Christmas movies. It was James Stewart’s first film after his heroic contributions during World War II. Although it was not a financial success at its release, it restarted Mr. Stewart’s career after the war; it remains a classic. It begins on Christmas Eve, when the angels are discussing the numerous prayers for George Bailey. They decide to send Clarence, a kind and eager but wingless angel second class, to help the beloved man. First, they show Clarence everything that has happened in George Bailey’s life. Young George is played by Bobby Anderson, and his grown counterpart is famously portrayed by James Stewart. George has always wanted to leave his dull little hometown, Bedford Falls, but he has always been prevented by something. He has helped his brother, his uncle, and especially the Bailey Building and Loan Company at the cost of his own dreams. He has continued to fight his father’s nemesis, Mr. Potter, who is the wicked old miser who owns everything in the town except the Building and Loan company. Lionel Barrymore brilliantly plays the greedy villain. George married a sweet girl from Bedford Falls and has four children. Over the years, he has built a charming housing community called Bailey Park for the poor people who used to live in Potter’s slums. He couldn’t go to war because of one deaf ear, but his younger brother, Harry, is a hero who has just received the Congressional Medal of Honor. His absent-minded uncle takes eight thousand dollars out of the bank. When he boasts to Mr. Potter about his nephew’s war victories, he accidentally puts the money in the old enemy’s newspaper. When the evil man finds the money, he sees his chance to ruin the Baileys. George and Billy search everywhere for the money, and George begins to lash out at his uncle, his wife, and his children. When he crawls to Mr. Potter for help, the tyrant tells him that he’s worth more dead than alive and that he’s going to be arrested for fraud. George is about to jump into the river when Clarence saves his life by jumping in first. George saves him but refuses to believe that the funny old man is an angel. When George rashly says he wishes he was never born, Clarence gives him his wish and shows him how Bedford Falls would be without him. George finally begs to live again, and he rushes home to find that all his neighbors and friends are giving him the money to cover the deficit. Clarence gets his wings, and George realizes that he truly has a wonderful life.
4. The Bishop’s Wife (1947): This romantic comedy features Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Niven plays Bishop Henry Brougham, a frustrated young Episcopalian clergyman who is disturbed and overworked trying to raise the funds for a new cathedral. His beautiful young wife, Julia, play by Loretta Young, is unhappy, lonely, and concerned because her husband is too busy flattering the cold society woman endowing the church to spend time with her and their daughter, Debbie. As the bishop prays for help, a handsome angel named Dudley, played by Cary Grant, miraculously appears. He tells him that he has been sent from heaven to help him. The bishop refuses to believe him, but Julia is thrilled that her husband has taken an assistant. Dudley frequently prevents Henry from revealing his identity as an angel. Since Henry refuses take Dudley’s advice to relax and spend time with his wife, Dudley takes his place with Julia. The charming angel brings happiness to everyone in the bishop’s household except the bishop himself, who grows increasingly suspicious and jealous. He shows everyone the true meaning of love and faith. When he visits the millionairess who is going to build the cathedral, he softens her icy heart; she decides to give her money to the poor and needy. Henry talks to his old friend the professor, a kindhearted atheist played by Monty Wooley. Dudley has inspired the old man to begin writing the history book he has discussed for years. Henry is able to tell the professor that Dudley is an angel. The professor tells him that he has to fight Dudley for Julia. Henry challenges Dudley to a fight, saying that Julia means more to him than his life. Dudley says that his job is finished and that he must never return, since it is dangerous when an immortal envies a mortal. As soon as he is gone, no one remembers him. Everyone has been changed, though. Henry delivers a meaningful Christmas Eve sermon with his smiling wife and the converted professor in the congregation. The invisible Dudley stands by smiling then walks away.
5. A Holiday Affair (1949): Janet Leigh is a beautiful young war widow named Connie Eniss who supports her six year old son Timmy by comparison shopping for Fisher and Lewis. She buys an electric train from a playful toy salesman named Steve Mason, played by Robert Mitchum. Her son peaks in the box, thinking the train is for him, but he is heartbroken when his mother says that the big package is not for him. When she returns the package, Mr. Mason says that he knows she’s a comparison shopper, but he doesn’t report her when she tells him about herself and her fatherless son. He gets fired, so they have lunch together and exchange ideas. When he visits her house to return her lost packages, he meets her kind but droll lawyer fiance, Carl Davis, who is jealous of the handsome stranger. He also meets Timmy, who likes him immediately and tells him about the train. On Christmas morning Timmy receives a train from Steve, but Connie feels that it isn’t right. Trying to bring him the money brings them together again and again. Will she be able to choose between the stable lawyer and the impractical dreamer who love her, or will she choose to live only with Timmy and the memory of her dead husband?
6. Meet Me In St. Louis (1944): This charming musical is set in 1903. It shows a year in the life of the Smith family, the happy St. Louis family of a stern but kind banker. Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer are the charming, beautiful, and eligible older sisters, Esther and Rose. Margaret O’Brien and Joan Carrol are the morbid, mischievous younger sisters. Henry Daniels, Jr. is their older brother, and Harry Davenport is their lovable grandfather. The parents are endearingly portrayed by Leon Ames and Mary Astor. The older sisters are busy dreaming about the World’s Fair next year and the eligible young men whom they hope to marry. Rose is coyly awaiting a proposal from her reluctant college beau, while Esther is femininely pursuing the handsome boy next door, John Truett, played by Tom Drake. Everything is happy and hopeful until Halloween, when Mr. Smith proudly reveals the news that they are going to move to New York. The family is heartbroken, but they agree that the father knows best. The climax of the film is Christmas Eve, when Esther and Rose attend their last dance in St. Louis. Brother Lon and Rose are reunited with their sweethearts, and Esther receives a proposal from the boy next door. When she goes upstairs, she finds Tootie, her younger sister played by O’Brien, waiting for Santa Claus’s arrival. The sisters pretend to be happy about their move in a few days, and Esther sings the iconic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her sister. Afterwords, her sister becomes hysterical and runs outside to destroy the snowmen they have made, saying that no one else will have them. The father sees and finally realizes how miserable he is making his family. He calls everyone downstairs and says that they are staying in St. Louis. The film ends with the family happily going to the fair. They conclude that they are very fortunate to live in the most exciting city in the world. This film is filled with wonderful acting, charming songs, and beautiful period costumes.
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