Christmas has always been profitable time for Hollywood. Studios roll out their holiday-themed movies along with their Oscar-worthy contentions. Hollywood has been producing Christmas-related films since it began, producing many classic films, from traditional, family-oriented fare to twisted retellings of classic themes. Regardless, Hollywood’s history of the Christmas film has been a tradition that many filmgoers look forward to as they celebrate the holidays.
Ever since Charles Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, his tale of a miserly old man who learns the meaning of Christmas through the nightly visits of three ghosts has been retold on stage and in movies. Hollywood has revisited this classic tale a number of times. The earliest screen version was released in 1913 under the title Scrooge, written by Seymour Hicks, who also played Scrooge on screen, a role he would repeat in the 1935 talkie under the same name. Three other versions appeared in the 1920s, suggesting that Dickens’ classic became a popular holiday favorite for film treatment early on. Another version, A Christmas Carol, was released in 1938 and starred Reginald Owen in the lead role. But the version most film lovers know is the 1951 version starring Alistair Sims. Considered the most faithful screen adaptation, Sims’ Scrooge hits all the right notes as a man whose miserliness was the result of his sister’s death, but who believably converted his thinking after his ghostly encounters on Christmas Eve. While critics say that this version is faithful to the book, it in fact adds some details that take liberty with the storytelling, namely that of the death of Scrooge’s sister, which is not depicted in Dickens’ original version. Still, this scene provides motivational depth to the character and helps the viewers see the humanity beneath his greed. Other large screen versions of the classic include a 1970 musical starring Albert Finney, the 1988 comedy Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, and a 2009 CGI-animated movie starring Jim Carrey.
The E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker has served as a wonderful source for holiday-themed films. Turned into a famous ballet in 1891 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker tells the story of a young girl named Clara who steps into a magical fantasy world on Christmas Eve. Hollywood has turned to this timeless classic many times over its history. Versions include the 1968 film starring Rudolf Nureyev as Drosselmeyer/Prince, and a 1993 screen version starring Macauley Culkin.
While most Christmas-themed movies tended to be watered-down ideas of faith and belief, Hollywood did churn out biblical-themed films, though they were not necessarily released in time for the holiday season. Movies like The Robe (1953), King of Kings (1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and others represented a time when Hollywood released biblical epics on a regular basis. They approached the theme with epic reverence, though they rarely delved into Christ’s actual teachings. In 1964, Marxist atheist Pier Paolo Passolini released The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a far grittier version of Christ’s birth and teachings than the glossy epics Hollywood released before it. By the 1960s, the genre became passé, though Hollywood would on occasion release one every once in a while over the years. One such example was The Nativity Story (2006), starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, which returned to the story of Christ’s birth, this time delving into Joseph and Mary’s story with more depth and realism.
For the most part, Christmas movies dealt with family and faith. Though not necessarily a Christmas film, the 1944 Vincente Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, features scenes that take place over the Christmas holidays. These scenes alone make this movie a holiday classic, especially for Garland’s original rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The movie itself is about a family torn between moving to New York or staying behind in their beloved St. Louis. Like many holiday-themed movies, Meet Me in St. Louis is about family and unity in the face of social and economic change. Miracle of 34th Street (1947), starring Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and Edmund Gwenn, is about an old man who gets a job as Santa Claus at Macy’s Department store and insists he’s the real deal. After the man is institutionalized, a lawyer (John Payne) tries to prove in court that he really is Santa. Miracle of 34th Street deals with faith and belief as O’Hara’s character, the store manager, refuses to raise her daughter (Wood) to believe in fairy tales, but ends up believing in Gwenn. The notion of family and traditionalism plays heavily in the movie’s theme with a heartwarming touch. A remake of the movie was released in 1994, starring Mara Wilson in the Natalie Wood role. A contemporary example of this holiday-theme is the Chevy Chase-vehicle National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). Written by John Hughes, Christmas Vacation revisited the comical Griswolds as their plans for a big family Christmas dinner go awry. But the underlying themes in the film is similar to other movies as the Griswolds overlook family, work and neighborhood differences to create the kind of special Christmas memories Clark Griswold (Chase) remembers as a child.
But the one film which set the standard of family and faith during the holidays is the Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Ironically, when It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1947, it bombed at the box office. It wasn’t until affiliate TV stations began airing the movie, often ad nauseum, that the movie became a classic to generations of film fans. It’s A Wonderful Life follows the story of George Bailey, the son of a small-town businessman who longs to leave his hometown and explore the world. But his dreams are constantly dashed by circumstances beyond his control and he is forced to remain in Bedford Falls to run his late father’s building and loan company. When Bailey’s uncle loses a bank deposit (actually the mean-spirited town miser Mr. Potter took the money), Bailey falls into a deep depression when he is threatened with imprisonment for fraud and contemplates suicide. During his darkest hour, he is visited by the angel Clarence who makes his wish to never have been born come true, helping him see what a blessing his life truly is with family and friends. It can rightly be argued that It’s A Wonderful Life is a screed against the big city and there is no doubt that the conservative Capra included his own biases in the film. Still, the movie’s message of family and friendship is a deeply touching one, and its willingness to explore the darker aspects of humanity gives it a depth that most Christmas movies lack. The scene where Bailey trashes his work station in his home after he learns about the missing deposit alone reveals Stewart’s range as an actor and is all the more effective because of his previous on- and off-screen reputation as a “nice guy.”
Christmas is the perfect vehicle for telling romantic love stories and Hollywood has supplied many classic films that followed in this vein. Ernst Lubistch’s A Shop Around the Corner, released in 1940, is about two Hungarian shop workers (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), who unknowingly fall in love through the letters they write one another. Unaware of the other’s identity, the two develop a hostile working relationship until they discover the truth and give in to their feelings. Though the film isn’t necessarily about the holidays, it does set a scene at Christmas as the shop prepares for the season. The holiday season gives the movie its romantic air as both Stewart and Sullivan slowly melt away from their hostility and begin to fall in love. A Shop Around the Corner was remade into the 1998 film You Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles. Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a comedy about a food writer who lies about her reputation as a brilliant cook. When the magazine owner which publishes her work decides that she’ll host a WWII naval hero on her farm, the unmarried New Yorker who can’t cook scrambles to find a way to keep up her charade. In the end, she and the sailor fall in love after the truth is revealed. Christmas in Connecticut is a clever movie that questions our ideas of the traditional roles women played in family and home. The 1947 movie The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, is another romantic holiday-themed movie, although one of a different feather; namely angel feathers. Grant plays Dudley, an angel who comes down to earth to help a bishop and his failing church, but winds up falling in love with the bishop’s wife (Young). The Bishop’s Wife is a tender love story about sacrifice and faith as Dudley sacrifices his feelings for the wife to complete his duties as an angel. Penny Marshall scored a hit with a 1996 remake starring Denzel Washington as Dudley and Whitney Houston as the wife in the aptly titled The Preacher’s Wife. Though the film follows the original, its setting within an African American community presents cultural differences that nonetheless are faithful to the movie’s themes. Other recent movies, such as the British entry Love Actually (2003), starring Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Keira Knightly, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and others, continues the tradition of romance and Christmas as a group of Londoners find, lose, then find love again during the holiday season.
Christmas is for kids. So Hollywood has released holidays films that were targeted to children. The 1934 film Babes In Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers), starred comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as characters in a Mother Goose rhyme come to life. In 1985, comedian Dudley Moore starred in Santa Claus: The Movie, which was a retelling of the classic Christmas character. Unfortunately, the movie was a critical and box office dud. In 1990, child star Macauley Culkin fared a better reception when he starred in the box office smash Home Alone. Also starring Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, Home Alone told the story of a young boy who is left home by his family over the holidays and is forced to fend for himself against a pair of burglars. The film was a comic take on holiday themes, especially the idea of how the Christmas holidays can inspire loneliness in the absence of family, a theme many Americans certainly can relate to. The Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sinbad-vehicle Jingle All the Way (1996) isn’t a movie that will become a holiday classic anytime soon, but does deal with the way consumerism and commercialism has taken over the holiday. In this movie, Schwartzenegger plays a dad who will go to any lengths to get his son the hottest toy. Though the movie addresses adult themes, it was marketed as a family film.
But one movie that is targeted to kids and has become a contemporary classic since its release in 1983 is A Christmas Story. Based on writer Jean Shepherd’s stories and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin, the film is about a little boy’s quest to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. What makes A Christmas Story special is its simple and nostalgic tone. The movie presents children in a believable way; they’re not interested in brotherhood, love of mankind and all that other jazz; they just want that perfect Christmas present. Director Bob Clark (who also directed the twisted slasher Black Christmas) brings all the right touches to the movie, from the dialogue and wardrobe to even the setting in Cleveland, Ohio, giving it a homespun, Mid-western appeal. Another movie destined to become a classic with kid audiences is the 2004 CGI-animated film Polar Express. Based on the popular children’s book, Polar Express tells the fantastic story of a young boy’s journey to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. The film, which also stars Tom Hanks, is filled with the kind of magic and awe that makes Christmas such a magical and charming time for children and adults alike.
Movies about Christmas haven’t always been about magic and charm. Some have taken a decidedly twisted and bizarre turn. In the 1964 oddball Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, martians come down to earth to kidnap jolly St. Nick to cheer up their own children back home. Featuring a very young Pia Zadora, this is one movie that is so bad Mystery Science Theater 3000 eviscerated it in a holiday-themed episode. In 1974, Bob Clark directed the horror slasher Black Christmas. Starring Olivia Hussey, Black Christmas tells the story of female coeds who become victims of a serial killer over the holiday break.
In 2003, two holiday-themed movies were released featuring actors and directors not otherwise associated with the genre. In fact, both movies have a fun time satirizing the conventions of Christmas movies. Elf, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Farrell as an oversized elf, is a funny and twisted take on Christmas themes. After discovering his true origins, Buddy the Elf (Farrell) leaves the North Pole for New York to find his father (James Caan), a publishing exec who is going through the motions in his personal and professional life. Elf’s humor plays on the audience’s recognition of familiar holiday themes while contrasting them with a nice dose of irony and cynicism as New Yorkers react to Buddy’s annoyingly holiday cheer. The movie concludes with a cheerful message as New Yorkers help Santa get his sleigh off the ground with a touch of holiday faith. Farrell, a rare comic actor who isn’t afraid of being silly, does a great job of playing the character’s child-like awe of all things Christmas.
The Terry Zwigoff-directed Bad Santa likewise takes familiar themes in holiday movies and turns them on their heads. Starring Billy Bob Thornton as a criminal named Willie who gets a job as a Santa at a department store to steal the store’s cash registers, the movie tells the story of Willie’s friendship with a young, friendless boy who lets him hide out in his Florida home. What makes the movie so twisted is its unrelenting pursuit in showing just how unredeemable Willie is, even after he befriends the young Christmas-loving and lonely kid. When Willie does finally learn a little something about the holiday, it’s done in a way that doesn’t betray the movie’s unwillingness to settle down into mushy sentimentalism.
Regardless of whether the movies honor Christmas’s traditions or prefers a twisted take on the holiday, Hollywood has offered film fans a wonderful variety of films to help you get into the holiday spirit.
Other Christmas Movies
White Christmas (1954)
Die Hard (1988)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Batman Returns (1992)
Santa Clause (1994)
Eye Wide Shut (1999)
The Best Man Holiday (2013)
Black Nativity (2013)