By Maureen Lee Lenker
There’s no shortage of classic holiday films, and we all have our favorite. But with the popularity of films like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Holiday Inn (1942), White Christmas (1954), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947), it’s easy for some of the lesser-known classics to get lost in the holiday rush. By all means, these classics are like a well-worn sweater or a beloved blanket – warm, comforting, and assuring each holiday season. But consider an underappreciated classic this year when you’re planning your Christmas viewing schedule – you might just discover a new favorite. These are our top 5 underappreciated Christmas Classics.
5. We’re No Angels (1955)
A movie about three escaped convicts played by Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov may not seem like the stuff of warm winter memories at first glance, but it’s a delightful and warm-hearted surprise of a film. Capitalizing on their personas as gangsters, the trio plays a group of escaped criminals from Devil’s Island taking refuge in a French coastal town. Initially setting out to steal from and terrorize a local family, they instead feel for the family who are down on their luck and experience a Scrooge-like Christmas change of heart. It’s a charming reminder that we’re our best selves during the holiday season, and the opposite of what you’re expecting from a “gangster” picture. If you’re looking for an oft-overlooked gem with a heavy sprinkling of Christmas sentiment and wry humor, this is it.
4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
The plot of this Barbara Stanwyck starrer is the stuff of classic screwball comedy – as Elizabeth Lane, Stanwyck is a magazine writer who pretends to be the perfect housewife in her column (in actuality, she’s an unmarried New Yorker who doesn’t even know how to boil an egg). But when her boss announces he’s taking a returning war hero to her Connecticut farmhouse for Christmas, she must orchestrate an elaborate charade. Stanwyck has never been lovelier and more romantic than she is in this film. The scene where she decorates the Christmas tree while Dennis Morgan plays carols on the piano is swoon-worthy movie magic. If you’re looking for a romantic comedy in the holiday spirit, there’s none better than this delightful romp.
3. Remember the Night (1940)
The first pairing between iconic duo Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, Remember the Night is an ahead of its time picture with its morally ambiguous leading lady and open-ended conclusion. Stanwyck plays a shoplifter who, through happenstance, ends up accompanying her prosecutor home for the holidays and rather inconveniently falling in love with him. For those used to seeing the MacMurray-Stanwyck duo in noir classic Double Indemnity (1944), it’s wonderful to see a softer side to their chemistry. Stanwyck is radiant, and MacMurray, so memorable in later years as a father figure, is divinely sexy. What’s more – you get two onscreen holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, for the price of one.
2. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Today, the 1996 remake of this film The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston is better known, but there’s nothing quite so touching and heart-rending as the original. Cary Grant stars as an angel named Dudley sent to earth to help a Bishop (David Niven) who’s lost sight of what truly matters. However, the real jewel of the film is the chemistry between Grant and Loretta Young as the titular Bishop’s Wife. Dudley helps her find joy and meaning in her life, while also slowly falling in love with her himself. Their bittersweet friendship as he breathes life back into her and restores her family to her is the perfect thing to tug at your heartstrings if you’re looking for something sincere, earnest, and sentimental. It’s a Wonderful Life may dominate the popular imagination, but this film does as much with similar themes in a quieter and lovelier fashion. Bonus points for the scene where Grant’s Dudley magically decorates an entire Christmas tree with a sweep of his hand.
1. Holiday Affair (1949)
The poster for this film features a photo of Robert Mitchum with a speech bubble that reads, “Baby, you’re all I want for Christmas.” We can’t help but return the feeling. This delightful romantic romp stars Janet Leigh as a young war widow who, in the midst of trying to create the perfect Christmas for her young son, finds herself caught between the sensible Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) and the reckless unpredictability and passion of Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Mitchum is wry, devastatingly handsome, and churlish as always – he was one of the first to curate a bad boy appeal in a more modern sense. The film is a simple boy meets girl plot, but its magnetic leading actors and the undeniable charms of the young Timmy (Gordon Gebert) make it an unforgettable Christmas-themed film. The joy Timmy feels throughout is infectious, reminding us all of how magical Christmas can be for a child. Chief among the film’s delights is that the plot should seem ludicrous or far-fetched, but instead it’s just utterly enchanting, sweeping you up in its tale of holiday love.
Consider expanding your holiday classic viewing horizons this year, and enjoy one of these under-appreciated cinematic Christmas presents.