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Scott R. Larson

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The Christmas classics

So, what are the ten must-see Christmas movies of all time?

Like me, you are probably asked this all the time. Well, now I’m going to give you the answer so that you won’t have to stammer and look embarrassed when someone pops this question on you at the office Christmas party.

Christmas movies can be divided into two general sub-categories. These are 1) the warm-hearted classics for the ages that generation after generation enjoy and over and over and 2) the kitschy, pop-culture guilty pleasures that give us some much needed comic relief during the stressful holiday season.

This week we will cover the no-brainers, the five all-time classics. Tune in next week for the five kitschy ones.

A Christmas Carol (Scrooge) (1951), directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst. This is the biggie. There are at least three straight-forward adaptations of this classic Charles Dickens story, including ones starring the likes of George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart, not to mention quite a few loose adaptations, including a musical starring Albert Finney and a new version about a diva played by Vanessa Williams called Ebony Scrooge. But let’s stick to the basics. The 1951 version starring Alistair Sim, while not the first adaptation, is the one that all others must be measured by. Sim is such a sour-faced Scrooge that he is totally believable as an incorrigible curmudgeon. So much so that we can’t imagine him going through a conversion to a generous nature. Thus when it happens it is truly a revelation. Bah, humbug, indeed.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. Not an instant classic when first released but now an inescapable mainstay during the holiday season, this heart-warmer is among the best of Capra’s oeuvre. We mainly remember the soft, gooey parts at the end, but this fantasy earns its lumps in the throat with a lot of darkness in the early and middle reels. Lionel Barrymore makes a memorable villain, and the all-American Jimmy Stewart is at his peak here. Unlike some of the other classics, this one fully deserves all of the tears that it induces at the end. Stewart isn’t just a character in a fantasy. He is all of us, putting off our grand dreams to make time for life and being lucky enough to find the grace that comes from awareness of a life well lived.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), directed by Vincente Minnelli. This is not strictly a Christmas movie since it covers an entire year in the life of a family. But its Christmas scenes are etched permanently into our collective memory because of the song sung by Judy Garland to a young Margaret O’Brien called Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The song has become a Christmas standard, and the movie (directed by Garland’s soon-to-be-husband) is a classic because of this song and all of the other memorable songs in the soundtrack. (The second most famous one, The Trolley Song, has nearly been ruined because of a recurring Saturday Night Live skit about singing sisters several years ago.)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947), directed by George Seaton. Here is another one that has been remade more than once. But, as is usually the case, we are best sticking to the original. After all, it has Maureen O’Hara as the no-nonsense mother, Edmund Gwenn as the kindly old man who may or may not be the real Santa Claus, and the young Natalie Wood as the little girl growing up in her mother’s image. Sure, the climactic courtroom scene is as preposterous as a legal appeal in a Florida election and the denouement is too good to be true. But it just feels so good. What’s wrong with that?

White Christmas (1954), directed by Michael Curtiz. A quasi-remake of 1942’s Holiday Inn, which also starred Bing Crosby (with Fred Astaire in the Danny Kaye role), this is pure sentimental, crypto-patriotic hokum. But because of Crosby’s and Kaye’s screen charm and the evocation of post-World War II America, we go with it anyway. The plot device of snoopy Mary Wickes inadvertently upending the romance between Crosby and Rosemary Clooney is particularly contrived. But when we see the snow start falling (oops, hope I didn’t spoil it for anybody) and all those ex-soldiers marching in to salute Dean Jagger, we can’t help but feel the old tear ducts well up. But isn’t unearned emotion what the season is all about?

-S.L., 14 December 2000

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