By Brian Smith
With the Christmas season upon us, it seems only logical to combine a classic Christmas carol (The 12 Days of Christmas) with classic Christmas movies. The Christmas movie has become one of the most revered and profitable genres in cinema. It’s also become home to some of the most recognizable and beloved titles in the history of American Cinema. Many Christmas films have become a part of our cultural vernacular and movies that should really be considered Christmas-adjacent (I’m looking at you, Die Hard), can raise the ire of otherwise normal people if you dare to suggest that they’re not Christmas movies.
One thing that separates the great Christmas movies from the average to less-than-average Christmas movies are the strong thematic elements held therein. That’s not a terribly bold statement to make since that’s the case with most movie genres, however with Christmas movies it’s deeper. We blogged a couple of weeks ago about Miracle on 34th Street and how the idea of faith and what you can accomplish when you have faith is the real lesson behind that film. That thematic element is why that movie is so fondly remembered while other classics of the same period have been forgotten. Strong themes and big ideas give the best Christmas movies their individual spines and the strongest spines produce the best films.
Like any genre, Christmas movies are subjective. However, many people have their individual favorites that they watch every year. I too have Christmas movies that, if they go unwatched, it feels like something was missing that particular Christmas season. With that in mind, the following is a group of films that should be on your list to help get you in the mood for the biggest holiday of the year.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I’m sure you would have guessed that this film would be on the list, so here it is at the top. It’s easy to say that this film has become a cliché since its release more than 70 years ago, but pay close attention to this film the next time you watch it. It’s a Wonderful Life is truly an extraordinary film. Its main character, George Bailey (James Stewart), is one of the great heroes of American cinema. No, he’s not John McLane shooting up terrorists and rescuing his wife from the evil clutches of Hans Gruber. He is heroic in a smaller, but no less important way in that he puts everyone else’s needs and desires ahead of his own. He could have gone to college and traveled the world. He could have gotten in on the ground floor of plastics and made a fortune. He could have done anything in the world, but he stayed behind in the small town that he thought he hated, running his father’s business that he thought he hated even more, and he made a positive impact on the people of his town, and made all their lives better. The great thematic twist to this is that in so doing, he made his own life better too.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
I spent an entire blog on this film a couple of weeks ago, so please reference that post for more in depth thoughts. But suffice it to say that this is the prototypical Christmas movie that tells us that having faith and believing in fairy tales are what make life worth living.
Holiday Inn (1942)
This film has been a staple in the Smith family home for a long time. While it celebrates all American holidays of the time, Christmas book ends the film. This film also gave us the iconic White Christmas song that is also a staple of the holiday season. And really, if the star power of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire somehow aren’t enough to get you interested in this film, the comedic styling of Walter Abel as Astaire’s manager, adds a layer of depth and entertainment value to this film that make it essential holiday viewing.
White Christmas (1954)
Another Bing Crosby Christmas classic, this time he teamed up with Danny Kaye, along with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen to create one of the most iconic Christmas movies of all time. This is a terrific movie that has great singing, amazing dancing, is hilarious in parts, and is always touching. Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), this film has also become somewhat of a cliché. However, beyond those clichés it’s a movie about finding happiness and contentment in doing something wonderful for someone else.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch and another holiday classic starring James Stewart, the storyline of The Shop Around the Corner will seem vaguely familiar to anyone who as seen You’ve Got Mail. Stewart plays Alfred Kralik, the top salesman in a Budapest gift shop, and has struck up a postal love affair with a woman he thinks he’s never met. Unbeknownst to him, the object of his affection is fellow shop worker Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) whom he cannot stand and who cannot stand him. Also starring the irascible Frank Morgan, this small and subtle film is about finding family and friendship in unlikely places, and how the Christmas spirit often motivates those discoveries.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Nominated for Best Picture, this underrated holiday classic is filled with laughs as well as heart. Cary Grant stars in this film as Dudley, a guardian angel helps people out in ways that they may not want, but desperately need. The Bishop’s Wife is a wonderful mix of comedy and drama that gives us a lesson we all need. That lesson is that we may think we know the path to happiness, but we’re usually proved to be wrong, and the path will come to us in ways we could have never expected.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Magazine writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) learns that being the perfect housewife is nothing like she imagined since it’s something she’s only written about and never experienced. She also learns that the best parts of Christmas, like the best part of ourselves, comes from what’s inside and not the superficiality of the outside.
A Christmas Carol (1951) & A Christmas Carol (1938)
Charles Dickens first published his novella A Christmas Carol back in 1843. Since then there have been countless retellings of the story on stage and on the screen. The 1951 version is considered by many critics to be the best, but don’t sleep on the 1938 version. Both are faithful adaptations of the story, and are worth watching again because A Christmas Carol has become cliché as well. Seeing a faithful adaptation of it (or reading the novella) will remind you of why this has become such a timeless and iconic story.
It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
A comedy with a serious point to make, It Happened on 5th Avenue looks at the serious problem of homelessness through a comedic lens. It also looks at the Christmas motif of sharing what you have with those who have far less than you. This is a fun and funny movie that on the outside looks like it’s a simple and shallow comedy, but on further inspection, has a deep and serious point to make.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
This is a classic film that is probably more of a Christmas-adjacent film than a pure Christmas movie, but it does check a lot of the Christmas boxes. It’s also one of Judy Garland’s signature performances, so there are a couple of reasons to be familiar with this film if you’re a classic movie fan.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Yes, this film comes from a different era, but it is set in the 1940’s and it’s become as iconic a Christmas movie as any other movie on or off this list. It’s hilarious and heartwarming. It’s a movie that anyone who has pined for a Christmas gift that they know they’ll never get can relate to. And it tells us that Christmas is more than the gifts and the turkey. It’s about family and the memories that will last long after the outgrown toys.These movies have more to offer than entertainment value. They’re all highly entertaining, but the real gifts that these Christmas movies provide are the lessons that we can take from them. As Dr. Seuss says in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!’"
Classic Film Correspondent
Brian has been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for companies such as Walden Media and Scott Free Films. Scripts and books that Brian has read and covered include Twilight,Touristas, Nim’s Island, Hotel for Dogs, and Inkheart. Brian has worked in the entertainment industry since 1999, and he has credits on 23 films and television series for Disney, Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation.
Brian is a life-long fan of good stories and he’s spent years studying the techniques and principles of good story telling. He believes that great cinema and great story telling go hand-in-hand. He studied animation and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1999. With that knowledge and his appreciation of good stories, Brian gets real satisfaction in helping writers get the most out of their stories through their screenplays.