(619) 505-7777

Eight great holiday movie classics

As the song says, “Christmas makes you feel emotional, it may bring parties or thoughts devotional.” One thing is for sure. Those of us devoted to attending multiplexes this Christmas don’t have much to party about.

2009 could be the most depressing holiday movie season on record. For every charmingly diverting film like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “Me and Orson Welles,” there are numerous offerings fraught with themes of suicide, child abuse, child murder, corporate downsizing, war, drug abuse and several forecasts of the end of civilization as we know it.

Here’s an anecdote: Most of us have repeatedly seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street” and there’s a reason for it. They are grand entertainments. But why not take the time to also acquaint yourself with the other movies listed below?

“It’s a Wonderful Life”/Frank Capra (1946)

Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, who looks back on a lifetime of shattered dreams and personal sacrifices. One day, after a string of bad luck, he decides he wants to end it all. But before he can, a bumbling angel named Clarence shows him what life would be like without him. And he convinces George that he really does have “a wonderful life.”

Some argue that Frank Capra’s film is sentimental to the point of being cheesy. While the ending can be viewed as mushy, the film also boasts a dark side. Stewart’s performance as the tortured businessman is a textbook example of post-war frustration and despair. It is strong enough to strip away more than a few layers of schmaltz. And who’s to say that in another ten years George won’t be ready to once again kick the crummy dust of Bedford Falls off his shoes?

By the way, when “It’s a Wonderful Life” entered the public domain in 1974, practically every television station began broadcasting the film during the holiday season. In 1993, Republic Pictures enforced its claim to the copyright and NBC is currently the only U.S. TV station that is licensed to show the film.

“Miracle on 34th Street”/George Seaton (1947)

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and his name is Edmund Gwenn. No other artist in the history of cinema has embodied Kris Kringle quite as convincingly as the British character actor, who took home an Oscar for his performance.

Little did Macy’s Department Store know that after firing its alcoholic Santa, they would luck upon the real deal. After numerous psychiatric exams and a trip to Bellevue, Kris’ authenticity is validated by the young daughter (Natalie Wood) of the store’s special events director (Maureen O’Hara). A sterling example of Hollywood craftsmanship and as convincing a piece of sentimental hokum as any ever filmed.

“The Bells of St. Mary’s”/Leo McCarey (1945)

“Bells” was the follow-up to the hugely successful “Going My Way” and has the distinction of being the first sequel to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Bing Crosby reprises his role as Father O’Malley, a showbiz priest assigned a position at an urban parochial school following the former Pastor’s mental breakdown, brought about after spending years “up to his neck in nuns.” Once established, Father O’Malley falls in love with Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), a tubercular nun, all the while helping a prostitute’s daughter (Joan Carroll) get an education.

One would think that, back in 1946, it would have been easier to film the Bible in real-time than to get this material past the censors, but director Leo McCarey had an understanding of humanity and an ability to find delicate humor in the most unlikely of places. “The Bell’s of St. Mary’s” is anything but cloying. It’s insightful, heartfelt and in many ways more uplifting than “It’s a Wonderful Life.“ It even features Henry Travers, one film before gaining winged immortality as Capra’s Clarence.

“The Bishop’s Wife”/Henry Koster (1947)

Loretta Young plays a dutiful wife, with terrible taste in hats, trapped in a loveless marriage to David Niven, a priest preoccupied by pleading with a wealthy parishioner for financial support. Enter Cary Grant, a celestial being who quickly charms his way into the family and helps to make their dreams come true. The bishop’s motivation appears to have been lifted from “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Both Niven and Father Bing are collar deep in fundraising woes. Bing fights to build a boy’s school while Niven fixates over bankrolling a new cathedral.

It’s a sumptuous film to behold. Credit must go to a couple of Orson Welles protégés, art director Perry Ferguson and cinematographer Gregg Toland, both of whom made significant contributions to “Citizen Kane’s” extraordinary look. Their attention to set decor and detail is staggering. The film’s most charming sequence is an ice skating date between Grant and Young. The Grant stand- in, hired for his world class skating skills, is remarkably convincing due in large part to the cinematographer’s complex lighting plan. No matter where he skates on the enormous, brightly lit set, the double’s face remains in shadow. Toland achieves the best of both worlds: a warm, fuzzy feeling mixed with the clarity and realism of deep focus.

“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”/Abe Levitow (1962)

Though far from the finest filmed version of the Charles Dickens Christmas classic — that honor goes to the 1951 adaptation starring Alastair Sim — nearsighted Quincy Magoo’s journey through a trio of supernatural nightmares is loaded with enough charm, warmth and Jim Backus’ cantankerous vocal characterization to make this a must-see. Even the songs, most notably an introductory musical number where Magoo sings about how great it is to be back, back, back on Broadway, lack the sickly sweet nature of many of its contemporaries.

Magoo’s “Carol” was made at a time when cartoon studios were cutting corners, so the drawing and character movement aren’t up to par with shorts produced in the ’40s and ’50s. While the animation is limited, the appeal is anything but.

“Holiday Inn”/Mark Sandrich (1942)

A pair of song-and-dance vaudeville partners (Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire) decide to chuck it all in and transform a Connecticut farmhouse into an entertainment mecca that’s open only on holidays. Talk about a film for all seasons, “Holiday Inn” is basically a plotless variety show with an array of musical numbers that celebrate everything from St. Valentine’s Day and Easter, to the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. It’s also the first film to feature Irving Berlin’s holiday staple “White Christmas.”

“Holiday Inn” isn’t revived as often as its Technicolor remake, “White Christmas,” probably due in large part to the Lincoln’s birthday number performed in blackface. Bing stars in both versions, but to me at least, the original is a much more enjoyable holiday treat.

“Christmas Holiday”/Robert Siodmak (1944)

Talk about casting against type. With a title like “Christmas Holiday” and Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin (Universal’s “singing sweetheart”) as the stars, one would expect a frothy holiday confection loaded with lively Technicolor musical numbers. Guess again. It’s a stylish, tough-as-nails film noir adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. Ms. Durbin, in her first dramatic role, plays a New Orleans saloon singer who tells her life story to a lieutenant (Dean Harens), whose plane had to make a forced landing. Kelly plays her homicidal hubby who recently made a jail break in order spend the holidays with his bride.

Apart from showing her acting chops, Ms. Durbin is given the opportunity to croon a couple of songs (Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” and Irving Berlin’s “Always”). As one critic put it, “Christmas Holiday” is “a must for anyone who has suffered through 'One Hundred Men and a Girl.' ”

“The Lemon Drop Kid”/Frank Tashlin (1951)

Years before his televised specials documented the yuletide cheer he brought to our troops, Bob Hope starred as Sidney Melbourne, a fast-talking con man on the lam from a gangster he owes $10,000.

Nobody talks about “The Lemon Drop Kid” at Christmas and it’s a shame because there aren’t too many holiday musical numbers that surpass the divine “Silver Bells.” What a set — a stunning Paramount backlot mock-up of bustling New York City sidewalks - crammed with last-minute Christmas shoppers. Through it stroll Hope and Marilyn Maxwell, magically bringing to life the song that ranks second (behind “Thanks for the Memories”) as the tune most often associated with Old Ski Nose.

Take a look at the clip:

Scott Marks is an SDNN contributor.