Holiday viewing

12 days of Christmas movies

by Sean McQuaid

Save Article Share Tweet
After last year’s article about 12 days of lesser-known Christmas TV classics, I’m applying the same approach to holiday movies. This ruled out long-ubiquitous holiday staples like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Carol (1951) and White Christmas (1954), all faves of mine. I thinned the holiday herd further by arbitrarily excluding short films and specials (like Pluto’s Christmas Tree or A Charlie Brown Christmas), animated projects (like Mickey’s Christmas Carol or The Nightmare Before Christmas) and so-bad-it’s-good cheese-fests (I’m looking at you Christmas Caper and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), all categories which could fill articles of their own. 

That still left a short list of dozens of movies to choose from. Since most of said list dated back to Hollywood’s golden age, I decided to exclude any films made after the 1950s, which eliminated latter-day classics like Gremlins, One Magic Christmas, Die Hard and The Muppet Christmas Carol. The result: 12 days of excellent underappreciated old-timey Christmas movies…

Remember the Night (1940)
A melancholy-tinged romantic comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Preston Sturges for Paramount, this sweet and sour holiday treat stars Fred MacMurray as assistant district attorney Jack Sargent, who prosecutes and then falls for shapely shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) when circumstances force them to spend the holidays together. It’s a kooky premise fit for a modern-day cheeseball Hallmark movie, but treated seriously here with skill, smarts and heart. Said the posters: “The law said she was bad… he said she’s TERRIFIC!”

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Another romantic Christmas comedy with dark undercurrents, this one directed by Ernst Lubitsch and written by Samson Raphaelson for MGM, stars everyman-with-edge Jimmy Stewart and a saucy Margaret Sullivan as Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak, feuding rival sales clerks at a 1930s Budapest shop who are unwittingly corresponding with each other as anonymous romantic pen pals. Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut also star. Adapted from 1930s Hungarian play Parfumerie, the charming 1940 MGM film was later adapted expertly for the stage in 2017 by PEI theatre company ACT. 

Holiday Inn (1942)
A love triangle between song-and-dance stars Jim Hardy, Ted Hanover and Lila Dixon (played by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Virginia Dale) sends a heartbroken Jim to a farm which he converts into the titular inn, an entertainment venue open only on holidays, where he falls for singer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds). Crooner Crosby and hoofer Astaire work their magic in a musical romance featuring stacks of original songs by Irving Berlin, including the debut of Berlin’s iconic “White Christmas” long before the movie of the same name (clearly loosely inspired by this flick). 

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
A delightful comedy directed by William Keighley for Warner Brothers, this film was adapted by screenwriters Julius & Philip Epstein from a hit play by Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman. Monty Woolley reprises his Broadway role as pompous intellectual celebrity Sheridan Whiteside, a big city critic whose slip-and-fall injury during a small-town public appearance finds him recuperating over the holidays in the home of a local family, where no one is spared Whiteside’s withering wit. Bette Davis is top billed as his long-suffering assistant Maggie Cutler, but a voraciously scenery-chewing Wooley dominates as the ultimate highbrow insult comic, like an unholy Frasier Crane/Don Rickles hybrid run amok. 

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
A sequel to iconic horror hit Cat People (1942) set partly at Christmas time, this exquisite 1944 oddity directed by Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise and written by DeWitt Bodeen is helmed by the same visionary RKO producer who masterminded the first flick, Val Lewton; but it’s a drastically different movie, a softspoken suburban psychological drama with ripples of dark fantasy mixed in, as the lonely misfit child of surviving characters from the original film forms strange, dangerous friendships with a reclusive elderly actress and a hauntingly familiar spectral beauty. Much of the film’s publicity misleadingly framed it as a pure horror flick, including posters with slogans like “The Black Menace Creeps Again!” or “The Beast-Woman Haunts the Night Anew!” More understated, more accurate posters said: “Strange, Forbidding, Thrilling…”

The Cheaters (1945)
A cynical-yet-sweet holiday treat directed by Joseph Kane and written by Frances Hyland and Albert Ray for Republic, quirky dark comedy The Cheaters features Eugene Pallette as failing business tycoon James C. Pidgeon; his entitled, free-spending family (picture a 1940s version of the Bluths from Arrested Development) is secretly near bankruptcy, hoping to inherit money from an ailing elderly relative. When said relative leaves his money to obscure actress Florie Watson (Ona Munson), the Pidgeons plot to cheat her out of the loot. Meanwhile, trying to soften their image, the Pidgeons offer holiday hospitality to a charity case, aging alcoholic ex-actor Anthony Marchand (a deliciously puckish Joseph Schildkraut), who complicates their various schemes with dramatic flair. Said the posters: “The picture that may change your life!”

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
A charming romantic comedy fantasy with a wistful streak directed by Henry Koster for Samuel Goldwyn Productions and adapted by screenwriters Robert E. Sherwood & Leonardo Bercovici from Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, The Bishop’s Wife features debonair angel Dudley (Cary Grant), who comes to Earth to help weary workaholic bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) but bonds with the bishop’s neglected wife Julia (Loretta Young) in ways that complicate his divine mission. Monty Woolley also stars as disillusioned academic Professor Wutheridge. Remade in 1996 as The Preacher’s Wife. 

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
A cheerfully good-hearted comedy directed by Roy Del Ruth for Allied Artists and written by Everett Freeman and Vick Knight from an original story by Herbert Clyde Lewis & Frederick Stephani, the film features Victor Moore as shamelessly hedonistic yet loveably wise hobo Aloysius T. McKeever, who spends his winters living in the otherwise vacant mansion of seasonally absent tycoon Michael J. O’Connor (an amusingly irascible Charles Ruggles). When big-hearted McKeever takes in some fellow homeless folk, members of the O’Connor family stumble onto his growing community and shenanigans ensue. Said the posters: “On the street where anything can happen… one wonderful night… EVERYTHING DID!”

Lady in the Lake (1947)
Robert Montgomery doubles as director and star of this MGM film noir Raymond Chandler mystery adapted by Steve Fisher and set in the Christmas season, but with an offbeat twist: the entire movie is filmed from the perspective of the main character, private detective Phillip Marlowe (Montgomery), who is mostly a disembodied voice and seldom appears on screen except in an occasional reflection. Said the posters: “YOU and ROBERT MONTGOMERY solve a murder mystery together!” It’s a memorably odd, occasionally awkward gimmick and a middling mystery, but some hardboiled repartee and the acid charms of film noir femme fatale icon Audrey Totter as love interest/suspect Adrienne Fromsett keep things interesting.

Holiday Affair (1949)
Directed by Don Hartman for RKO and adapted by screenwriter Isobel Lennart from a story by John D. Weaver, this smart, sweetly wise and moodily funny romantic dramedy features Janet Leigh as world-weary widow and single mother Connie Ennis, who’s half-heartedly easing into an engagement with her smitten longtime boyfriend Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), ace lawyer and all-around swell guy; but a chance holiday encounter with drifter turned department store toy salesman Steve Mason (film noir tough guy Robert Mitchum slipping smoothly into an atypically lighter role) creates a love triangle where all three sides are worth rooting for. Said the posters: “It Happens in December… but it’s hotter than July!” 

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)
Directed by George More O’Ferrall for London Films and adapted by screenwriter Anatole de Grunwald from Wynyard Browne’s 1950 play of the same name, this is a smart, moving British drama depicting a holiday gathering of the Gregory clan, whose assorted secrets, resentments, aspirations and anxieties have been festering untended for years because the adult children of Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) feel like they can’t ever be fully honest or human in the family of a country church vicar. It all boils over one fateful Christmas eve in memorably illuminating fashion. Said the posters: “A love story of rare quality flavored with delightful characterizations and priceless humor.” 

We’re No Angels (1955)
Directed by Michael Curtiz for producer Pat Duggan and Paramount Pictures, and adapted by screenwriter Ranald MacDougall from plays written by Samuel and Bella Spewack and Albert Husson, this darkly funny, improbably smooth blend of sentimental sweetness and pitch-black comedy stars Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov as hardened criminals Joseph, Albert and Jules, who break out of the infamous Devil’s Island prison in French Guiana just before Christmas and hide out as hired help at the struggling Ducotel family store in nearby Cayenne, where they spend the holidays affectionately meddling in the kindly Ducotels’ troubles. Said the posters: “A strangler… a swindler… a safecracker… yet you’ll love them!”

13th bonus film: 

The Thin Man (1934)
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke for MGM and adapted by screenwriters Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich from a Dashiell Hammett novel, The Thin Man is a witty comedic mystery starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as hard-drinking, ever-bantering married couple Nick & Nora Charles, an ex-private investigator and wealthy socialite who get drawn into solving a mystery at Christmas time. The chemistry, comic timing and delectably dry delivery of the Powell/Loy duo (who use dialogue like Astaire and Rogers use dance) helped make the film such a smash hit that it spawned five sequels spanning 1936-1947, plus decades of imitators in various media. It’s a better movie than fellow mystery Lady in the Lake but a bit less Christmas-centric, so it’s the caboose of this cinematic holiday train. 

Thirteen Christmas classics not enough for you? Check out a fuller list of notable holiday fare below: all eras, all genres, live action and animation, theatrical and TV films, shorts and feature length movies, timeless classics and cheeseball camp alike… 

Mickey’s Orphans (1931)

Mickey’s Good Deed (1932)

Santa’s Workshop (1932) 

The Night Before Christmas (1933) 

Seasin’s Greetinks! (1933) 

The Thin Man (1934)

Broken Toys (1935) 

Scrooge (1935)

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Remember the Night (1940)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Holiday Inn (1942)

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Going My Way (1944)

Ski for Two (1944)

The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

The Cheaters (1945)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Lady in the Lake (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Holiday Affair (1949)

Toy Tinkers (1949) 

A Christmas Carol (1951) 

Gift Wrapped (1952) 

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

O. Henry’s Full House (1952) 

Pluto’s Christmas Tree (1952)

White Christmas (1954) 

We’re No Angels (1955)

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) 

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

A Special Sesame Street Christmas (1978)

The Small One (1978)

Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol (1979)

Fright Before Christmas (1979)

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979)

Yogi’s First Christmas (1980) 

Yogi Bear’s All Star Comedy Christmas Caper (1982)

A Christmas Story (1983)

Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)

Gremlins (1984)

He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)

One Magic Christmas (1985)

A Garfield Christmas (1987)

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

Care Bears Nutcracker Suite (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

Scrooged (1988)

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Die Hard 2 (1990)

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Home Alone (1990)

Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (1991)

Batman Returns (1992)

It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997)

A Christmas Carol (1999) 

Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999)

Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999)

Winnie the Pooh: Seasons of Giving (1999)

Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse (2001)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001)

It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (2002)

Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (2002)

A Carol Christmas (2003) 

Elf (2003)

I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003)

A Christmas Carol (2004) 

Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004)

The Polar Express (2004)

The Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper (2005)

My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas (2005)

Bah, Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas (2006)

Christmas Caper (2007)

A Miser Brothers’ Christmas (2008)

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008)

Prep & Landing (2009)

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol (2010) 

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

Scooby-Doo! Haunted Holidays (2012)

Iron Man 3 (2013)

A Christmas Melody (2015)

A Nutcracker Christmas (2016)

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (2017)

My Little Pony: Best Gift Ever (2018)

Shazam! (2019)

Beebo Saves Christmas (2021)

Sean McQuaid
Sean McQuaid

Mild-mannered legislative researcher by day and oddball freelance writer by night, past Buzz editor Sean McQuaid has been a contributor since the '90s and a theatre enthusiast for longer than that. He lives in Charlottetown with his wife, daughter, cat and untold thousands of comic books.