Dr. Adrienne L. McLean, professor of film studies at The University of Texas at Dallas, has compiled a list of her top movies for the holiday season.
“The most significant films are likely to be those that you and your family have turned into traditions yourselves,” said McLean.
She says some families might watch Stephen King horror movies every holiday, and others might be theater bound for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which opens Dec. 21 but which is obviously not a celebration-themed family flick.
The holidays are also probably marked as much by favorite television shows or any one of the animated specials featuring Charlie Brown, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Grinch or Frosty the Snowman.
“My favorite holiday movies have virtually always been experienced as television shows, in the living room, ideally with friends and family but not always, and maybe it’s the relationship of these movies to the living room that makes them traditional. They’re revived over and over, if you’re lucky, and seeking them out on the television schedule is itself part of the holidays to me,” said McLean.
Her favorite “conventional canonical classics” are:
Holiday Inn (1942). Starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby at their peak, this black and white “putting on a show” musical is not strictly speaking a Christmas movie, in that it covers many other holidays as well. The Inn opens and closes during Christmas and New Year’s, and by far the most famous of its songs is Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which it, and Bing, introduced to the world here. Other numbers are great too, but there is also a cringeworthy blackface “tribute” to Lincoln. And, rumor has it that the hotel chain got its name from the film.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The film did not do very well upon its initial release, and it’s not hard to see why – it is something of a film noir, and while there is a “happy ending” it takes many wrenching scenes to get us there. In fact, the disturbing vision director Frank Capra gives us of an “alternative” postwar American culture, in which money and power are grabbed by the greedy who destroy families and communities for their own selfish interests, is arguably just as powerful as the message that it’s OK if your dreams don’t come true as long as you focus on what you do have.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947). This black and white film was for a time available only in a “colorized” version, but is now back in its original form. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, it too is interesting for what it represents about postwar American life. The film depicts affluence and optimism as well as some cynicism about people’s beliefs and motives – there is also a loss of innocence. The later television version, with Mara Wilson, isn’t bad either, although it’s much more saccharine.
White Christmas (1954). Another backstage musical with an over-the-top finale and a plot involving two song-and-dance men who try to save the inn of their former World War II Major General, who has fallen on hard times. The “girls” in the romance plot are singer Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt) and dancer Vera-Ellen. While the ending is ostensibly “happy” – the inn is saved by the snow that should bring in the skiers, the romances all survive the required misunderstandings – you can’t help but wonder whether good fortune is going to stick around through the new year and beyond.
A Christmas Story (1983). Although this film exhibits something of the raunch and sarcasm of Scrooged or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it is also a sunny and very funny account, adapted from the novel by Jean Shepherd (who also wrote the screenplay), of a “typical” suburban Christmas. Phrases like “You’ll shoot your eye out!” that lots of people of a certain age remember from their youth now resonate with modern-day kids as well. The same can be said for certain situations, like the tangled strings of lights and overloaded electrical sockets of the holiday season, the snow suits that are so padded you can’t move in them, the bizarre objects – the leg lamp – that your parents fight over. It is sometimes called a cult film because it wasn’t originally all that popular. Now there is a stage version, A Christmas Story, the Musical! (produced by the film’s Ralphie, Peter Billingsley), that may or may not be Broadway-bound.