The Five Great Christmas Movies

December 23rd, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

The image this week is our Christmas card to you – originally sent by my parents some time in the early ‘50s.

I’ve talked about Christmas movies here before, and last year I emphasized the fun of looking at some of the more obscure but good Christmas movies, like BELL, BOOK & CANDLE and THE FAMILY MAN.

But there are only five great Christmas movies. This is not a topic for debate. This is strictly factual. You are welcome to disagree and comments to that effect are welcome, but they will be viewed with Christmas charity as amusing, misguided and somewhat sad opinions in the vein of the earth being flat and 6000 years old.

Here are the five great Christmas movies, in this year’s order (it shifts annually).

1. SCROOGE (1951). Alistair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the definitive filming of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Faithful, scary, funny, unsentimental, sentiment-filled, flawless (except for a cameraman turning up in a mirror). Accept no substitutes, although the Albert Finney musical is pretty good.

2. MIRACLE ON 34th Street (1947). Hollywood filmmaking at its best, with lots of location shooting in New York. Edmund Gwen is the definitive, real Santa Claus; Natalie Wood gives her greatest child performance; John Payne reminds us that he should have been a major star; and Maureen O’Sullivan is a smart, strong career woman/working mother who could not be more glamorous. Admit to preferring the remake at your own risk.

3. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Heartwarming but harrowing, this film is home to one of James Stewart’s bravest performances and happens to be Frank Capra’s best film. Have you noticed it’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL from Bob Cratchit’s point of view? (View at your own risk: Capra’s last film, A POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, just barely a Christmas movie, recently released on blu-ray and DVD. Longer than an evening with your least favorite relatives.)

4. A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). The great Jean Shepherd’s great movie that has turned, somewhat uncomfortably, into a cottage industry of leg lamps, Christmas decorations and action figures. Shepherd’s first-person narration has the snap and humor of Raymond Chandler, and the mix of cynicism and warmth is uniquely his. Plus, it’s a Christmas movie with Mike Hammer and Carl Kolchak in it.

5. CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) continues to grow in reputation, possibly surpassing the original film. Somehow the John Hughes-scripted third VACATION go-round manages to uncover every Christmas horror possible when families get together and Daddy tries too hard. It’s rare that a comedy can get go this broad, this over the top, and still maintain a sense that we’re watching a documentary about everything than can go wrong at Christmas.

You don’t have to agree with this list. I am perfectly happy with you putting the films in some other order, as long as the first three films I’ve listed remain in the first three. I think I’m being remarkably flexible.

There are two Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movies that have gained blu-ray release and in one case a limited theatrical showing. The latter is a 1945 dog called CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (paired in theaters by TCM with a mediocre 1938 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL – a stocking full of coal of a double feature). But the sleeper, and a small masterpiece, is REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), written by Preston Sturges and co-starring Stanwyck’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY lead, the wonderful Fred MacMurray.

* * *

Both MIKE HAMMER full-cast audio novels (starring Stacy Keach) get reviewed, here and here. The reviewer really likes THE LITTLE DEATH.

Nice mention of SUPREME JUSTICE here.

Here’s a delightful look at ANTIQUES CON from a theatrical point of view.

Finally, Merry Christmas! Remember, you can get in the Christmas spirit (or anyway the Xmas spirit) with ANTIQUES SLAY RIDE and ANTIQUES FRUITCAKE on e-book, and “A Wreath for Marley” in THE BIG BOOK OF CHRISTMAS MYSTERIES.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “The Five Great Christmas Movies”

  1. Mike Doran says:

    Right MIRACLE, wrong Maureen.

    It’s Maureen O’Hara who’s in 34TH STREET. She was the tough Maureen, as opposed to Mia Farrow’s mom, who ran to sweetheart types.

    (Or maybe you were sneaking in a backdoor plug for ROAD TO PERDITION …)

    Anyhoo …

    May I just mention in passing (again, I think) my own all-time favorite Christmas movie, STALAG 17.

    That Xmas party with the POWs is still my favorite of all such scenes, what with the singing of a pre-Chipmunks Ross Bagdasarian,
    and the forlorn POW who kept saying “I believe it … I believe it!” (you know who that was, don’t you?), and the dancing of Harry and the Animal …
    … even the Nazi mole gets into the spirit (after a fashion).
    ” … und now, ve are all frenss again!”
    My kind of holiday fare.

    All kidding aside, merry happy joy joy to one and all.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    Just an early morning slip of the keyboard — of course I know it’s Maureen O’Hara. So beautiful and charming in the film (“Oh, ‘tank you!”) and such a great film presence in so many movies, an understandable fave of both Johns (Ford and Wayne). On the other hand, O’Sullivan was Jane in the first J.W. Tarzan pics (like you don’t know), so she’s kinda tough.

    There are a lots of really good movies with a Christmas scene — like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is another — but the great Christmas movies all center on the holiday in some way. On the other hand, there are no rules picking a favorite.

    By the way, nobody seems to remember that the original I, THE JURY was a Christmas movie — with Christmas music and ironic peace-on-earth Christmas cards as scene connectors throughout. That’s what I want for next Christmas — a Blu-ray 3d release of that!