Christmas movies have been around almost as long as motion pictures themselves.
As early as 1901, the five-minute, silent short “A Holiday Pageant at Home” chronicled children performing for their parents, followed by “The Night Before Christmas.”
In 1905, there was the first screen adaptation of the classic poem by Clement Moore and “A Winter Straw Ride” in 1906, directed by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, best known for his ground-breaking “The Great Train Robbery” (1913).
Sounds of season
|“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) Newscom photo
Many of these one-reelers followed simple plots, including “A Christmas Accident” (1912) and “The Adventures of the Wrong Santa Claus” (1914).
Six years before his seminal “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith directed “A Trap for Santa Claus” in 1909, a 16-minute short documenting two children’s plot to trap St. Nick.
Other early films depicted the holiday’s religious roots, including “The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ” (1905) from France’s Pathé, “From the Manger to the Cross” (1912) and Fred Niblo’s silent 1925 epic “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” — all which had Nativity scenes.
With the advent of sound, music could be added to the mix, making it hard to now imagine the holiday-film canon without Hal Roach’s “Babes in Toyland” (1934), starring Laurel and Hardy and based on Victor Herbert’s beloved 1903 operetta, or the Irving Berlin-scored “White Christmas” (1954).
From the 1930s through 1950s, Hollywood churned out seasonal films with regularity, including “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940; remade by Nora Ephron in 1998 as “You’ve Got Mail”), starring James Stewart, and “Holiday Inn” (1942).
The steady stream dried up to a trickle during the 1960s — perhaps the film of biggest note being the infamously bad cult classic “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964). However, the tumultuous decade marked a “golden era” for Christmas on the small screen, with the debut of such perennial staples as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964), “Frosty the Snowman” (1969), “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (1970) and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966; remade in 2000 as an abysmal live-action comedy staring Jim Carrey).
Christmas, or at least Hollywood’s secular, politically correct version of it, rebounded at the movies in recent years, with releases such as “Home Alone” (1990), “The Santa Clause” (1994), “Jingle All the Way” (1996), “Christmas with the Kranks” (2004) and the amiable “Elf” (2003), starring Will Ferrell.
The 1970s, ’80s and ’90s also saw the rise of a new genre, the “anti-Christmas movie,” a toxic trend which metastasized in the new century with lumps of coal like “Bad Santa” (2003), “The Ice Harvest” (2005) and “The Ref” (1994), reaching its raunchy nadir with last year’s “A Very Harold and Kumar (3D) Christmas,” which included a blasphemous depiction of Christ as a boozing playboy. It says a lot about our culture when such offensive fare does better at the box-office than the flawed but well-intentioned animated tale “Arthur Christmas,” both released within weeks of each other in November 2011.
Another ugly offshoot are oxymoronic “Christmas slasher” movies like “Black Christmas” (1974), “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” (1984) and “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” (2010) from Finland.
What follows are my picks for Christmas films. It is neither an authoritative nor exhaustive list, but rather an imperfect attempt to enumerate some personal favorites of this admittedly fallible Catholic film critic.
|“The Nativity Story” (2006) Newscom photo
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946): Any discussion of Christmas films has to start with Frank Capra’s beloved classic, starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, about an everyman who is given a second chance to appreciate the gift of his life. Based on the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, the film was made by Capra partly out of a desire to “combat the modern trend toward atheism.” The movie actually owes its iconic place of honor among holiday viewing to its annual TV airings over the years. Ironically, Capra didn’t initially see it as a “Christmas” story.
“The Nativity Story” (2006): Director Catherine Hardwicke’s artful, reverent and deeply affecting composite of the birth narrative accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is embroidered with apocryphal traditions, as well as the imaginative inspiration of the filmmaker. In an age when movies are usually tone-deaf to the religious meaning of the holiday, Hollywood finally got it right — and in a big way. Arguably, the best Christmas movie ever and a must-see for Catholics.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993): Not exactly a conventional Christmas pick, but Tim Burton’s visually original and quirky fairy tale is a wonderful affirmation of the magic of Christmas.
“Die Hard” (1988): Again, not a typical choice, but how can I not include what is perhaps one of the best action films of the 1980s? Given the film’s violence and language content, which some may find objectionable, it’s definitely not appropriate family viewing.
“The Polar Express” (2004): Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrated children’s book, the animated film is a hauntingly beautiful fantasy about a young boy’s Christmas Eve journey of self-discovery aboard the eponymous train bound for the North Pole. The movie’s heartwarming sentiment is as welcome as a steaming mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night.
“Joyeux Noel” (2005): Directed by Christian Carion, this French import set during World War I dramatizes the real-life events surrounding a Christmas Eve truce between warring French, Scottish and German forces. While a xenophobic bishop doesn’t offer a flattering portrait of Catholic hierarchy, the overall religious — specifically Catholic — tone makes it one of the most moving Christmas films I’ve seen. The lovely scene of the German tenor (Benno Furmann) emerging from the trenches to sing “Adeste Fideles” always brings a lump to my throat. Parents should note, the film contains brief marital sexual content and some wartime violence.
“A Christmas Story” (1983): Based on short stories and personal memories of Jean Shepherd, the film evokes a charming sense of nostalgia for bygone Christmases and childhood in general. Try not to smile — I triple dog dare you!
“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947): Director Henry Koster’s classic holiday parable stars Cary Grant as an angel sent to inspire an Episcopalian minister (David Niven) and rekindle the romance in his marriage to Loretta Young. Grant was originally considered to play George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but ended up starring in this Christmas classic. Still the best tree-trimming scene ever. An inferior but entertaining remake titled “The Preacher’s Wife” was made in 1996, starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.
“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947): Originally condemned by the Legion of Decency for its tacit approval of divorce, the film (remade in 1994) is considered the quintessential Christmas movie by many. It’s hard to root against a film that affirms not just St. Nick, but “everything he stands for ... kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles” and takes the countercultural stand that “there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but the worst is commercialism.”
“A Christmas Carol” (various): There have been no less than 22 screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale, the earliest being a British short from 1901. While the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim is generally regarded as the gold standard, I personally prefer the 1970 musical “Scrooge” starring Albert Finney as the iconic miser, featuring an Oscar-nominated score by Leslie Bricusse. If you aren’t in the Christmas spirit by the end of its rousing finale, you should report directly to Mount Crumpit. Other favorites include “A Muppet Christmas Carol” from Jim Hensen Productions and Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture, animated version (2009).
While Dickens himself distanced himself from organized religion, the tale’s enduring message echoes Christian themes of charity, social justice and, perhaps most of all, redemption. To that I can only add, “God bless us, every one!”