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Best Ever Christmas Films: Presenting our first five for 2018

Written By | Dec 16, 2018

WASHINGTON.  It’s the “most wonderful time of the year,” according to one holiday lyric. Yes, winter solstice fans, we’re talking about Christmas. Once again we can utter that magical but very un-PC word because we have a Republican President in the White House. As in olden times, after dinner, after dark and without permission, we and our friends can once again go caroling around our neighborhoods, spreading Christmas cheer. Chilled to the bone, we’ll next head back to home and hearth and pour ourselves a healthy beaker of heavily spiked eggnog. Then we’ll  settle down before the telly to enjoy the evening’s latest, agreed-upon holiday movie feature. Whether via streaming video or DVD, each film is always chosen from our ongoing list of classic, best ever Christmas films.

Life is good. Christmas is better. So’s the eggnog.

We hope our newly updated 2018 edition of CDN’s Top 10 list of  best ever Christmas films offers you an enjoyable way to look back on your own Christmases past. Both the good and the bad.

These Christmas films still possess the power, even decades after their release, to magically conjure up positive memories of those Christmases we wish we’d actually experienced. But probably never did.




Tired of crass commercialism?

Some today decry the secularization and crass commercialization of Christmas over the past few decades. Retail businesses obsess on sales figures. And in New York City, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the first day of the commercial Christmas season, that once festive event jumped the shark long ago, descending into an hours-long commercial filled with vapid talking heads and rarely taking in the still colorful parade itself.

But ironically, many classic films that focus strictly on Santa Claus and the tons of presents he leaves for us under the gleaming Christmas Tree still underscore the traditionally Christian Christmas message. Joy, hope, charity and kindness are still in fashion in our imperfect world, and this is a time to remember that. As in “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.”

Given how things political have gone down here in The Swamp over the past year or two, we could certainly use a heavy Christmas warmth and joy. It would go along way toward neutralizing the crass commercialsm and insistent political spin that so many continue to decry.

Competitive, new, best ever Chrismas films haven’t happened in 2018

Christmas movies come and go. Many vanish without a trace, some deservedly so. This year is no exception, although we haven’t found any breakthrough films to add to our revised list.

On the other hand, we’ve shuffled the order our 2018 Top 10. A few recent films have struggled upward toward our Final Five, due to their surprising staying power and continuing appeal. Meanwhile, a couple of our classic films have begun to weaken and fade for a new generation that won’t watch primitive black and white movies. Or movies without an ironic or  snarky tone. Sad. But to some extent at least, you gotta change with the times.

Nonetheless, we remain cheerily upbeat in these waning days of 2018. That’s why we’re ready to roll with our current Christmas movie faves. In this, the first of two articles on the subject,  we list, in ascending order, our current choice of best ever Christmas films. Our next article concludes with 2018’s Fabulous Final Five.

10. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

Some might argue that this vintage 1950s movie isn’t really a classic Christmas film. This somewhat forgotten Bob Hope flick is based on the once popular fiction of Damon Runyon, a Depression Era chronicler of America’s Deplorables, the 1930s edition. Frankly, this first of our best ever Christmas films doesn’t actually have much to do with Christmas per se. But “Lemon Drop Kid” introduced that popular Christmas tune, “Silver Bells” to American audiences. Some 67 year later, it’s  become a Christmas standard.

Current generations don’t even know who or what Bob Hope was. He’s been carefully exised from our culture by the PC  crew, probably due to his notably generous support for America’s armed forces fighting abroad. Often at considerable risk, he put together an annual traveling holiday show, including some of Hollywood’s top stars. Then, he took it on the international road to bring some small measure of Christmas joy to our brave but often lonely GI’s during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. For the benefit of our culturally starved millennials, Bob, along with best pal and fellow song and dance man Bing Crosby, was also one half of Hollywood’s most popular cinematic buddy act for the better part of 25 years.

In his heyday, Hope was a decent hoofer, a comic genius and a pretty good vocalist to boot. He displays his ample skills in the following clip, featuring “Silver Bells.” The Kid from Cleveland is accompanied here by co-star Marilyn Maxwell.

Lemon Drop Kid Trivia Question:

At the beginning of the following clip, trivia buffs should pay careful attention. Check out the gruff singing and speaking voice of the very crabby Santa that opens the clip. The winning answer follows the video.



Quiz Answer: This original Bad Santa was none other than prickly William Frawley. Today, Bill is likely best known to vintage TV aficionados as Ricky and Lucy Ricardo’s cranky neighbor, Fred Mertz, on that early TV classic sitcom, “I Love Lucy.”

9. Hallmark TV Christmas movies

We move this one up from last year’s Number 10 position, in deference to the increasing popularity of this annual series of generally (and some say predictably) romantic cable TV movies cranked out by cable TV’s Hallmark Channel. Hallmark makes so many of these – it’s advertising a total of 23 this year – that it’s impossible to choose just one. But it’s the whole annual series that’s somehow gone viral, perhaps because each film is brightly optimistic. And because pretty much every one of these annual films finds good-natured but sometimes troubled couples discovering true romance in the end.

That said, this year, as they’ve done in the past, cynical and generally “liberal” TV critics have gone supernova in 2018, ritually trashing Hallmark’s Christmas originals as unrealistic, saccharine-sweet bits of negligible fluff. Last year, some writers even called for a boycott of the Hallmark Channel. Why? It’s easy to guess. Hallmark pleads guilty for writing and airing films of the heart. Even worse, their films are geared toward audiences that don’t necessarily live on either US coast. You know, those otherwise deplorable TV viewers entirely lacking in what is today called “sophistication.” Movies for them?

Hallmark Christmas films tend toward the secular, likely wishing to avoid the “guns and religion” controversies the left has been stirring up for year. That said, we haven’t run into an installment yet that doesn’t riff on cherished Christmas virtues even though they’re rarely spoken.

Hallmark "Countdown to Christmas Logo." (Via Hallmark)

Previous year’s Hallmark “Countdown to Christmas Logo” (Via Hallmark)

Coastal critics still hate Hallmark films

Perhaps more importantly, however, after our heroes and heroines confront modest to truly difficult life challenges, Hallmark’s Christmas heroes and heroines (and love, of course) always triumph in the end. That gives each film an uplifting, sweet conclusion that middle-America’s TV viewers still crave. But it’s also something that the Coastals just don’t get.

While we regard the standard Hallmark Christmas film as “ordinary” in many ways, we have to collectively give them an A-plus and advance them to the No. 9 slot in this year’s list of best ever Christmas films. Secular or not, they consistently support the underlying Christian message of love and charity toward all.

An added plus, particularly for MAGA fans: Hallmark still proudly deploys the nearly-banned word “Christmas” early and often when touting its movies. That was a bold move during the dark days of Obamanation. Under the new administration, as already noted, Christmas – and Hallmark – are now bringing Christmas back. Long may both of them live.

8. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

Speaking of Bob Hope’s best movie pal, let’s turn now to this sentimental Bing Crosby classic. As our CDN columnist Claire Hickey corrected observed when suggesting this film several years ago, “only part of this movie takes place at Christmas but it gets lots of play during the holidays. The basic message behind this movie is peace and goodwill so it fits.” That’s what makes it one of our classic Christmas films.

Bells of St. Mary’s is also fascinating historical artifact in a way. Back in the 1940s, in an otherwise mostly Protestant country at the time, good-hearted, Irish-American Catholic priests were frequently depicted in American films as heroic and morally upright role models. Often, the prominently gave witness to their faith in poor, inner-city parishes where many Catholics still lived in that era.

Bing Crosby, playing a youngish parish priest in this film, certainly fit the part of the “classic” Irish Catholic priest. He’d grown up under a parochial school regime himself as a youth. He attending a Jesuit-run Catholic high school in his home town of Spokane, Washington. He also briefly attended college in his hometown at Jesuit-run Gonzaga University before getting bitten by the entertainment bug and heading off to do the circuit.

Crosby’s role in St. Mary’s gave the wildly popular actor/vocalist a prominent chance to sing in the movie. That, along with its two-hanky story line, proved a very big hit on the silver screen.

Let’s return to those nostalgic days of yesteryear as we listen to Der Bingle sing the movie’s title song. He’s impeccably  accompanied by a bevy of musically accomplished and very Hollywood singing nuns.

7. The Santa Clause (1994)

Bob Siegel, one of our longtime CDN contributors, called this film “A unique idea and fresh take on the Santa Claus legend. This time,” Bob continues, “we learn that ‘Santa Claus’ is actually the title of an office to be filled. When one Santa dies, another takes his place.”

At the outset, that sounds like another typically stupid Hollywood plot line. But in this case, the stupid plotline became incredibly amusing due to the creativity of this film’s marquee star. Or, as Bob put it in his piece, “The movie would not have worked without the subtle but piercing wit of Tim Allen. His timing and facial mannerisms are priceless.”

Second the motion. Network TV moguls would agree, having brought his latest TV sitcom back from PC oblivion. But more on topic, this Tim Allen film is one of our very few still-nearly-contemporary, best ever Christmas films. The following official 1994 trailer will give you a clue as to why.

Intermission feature

https://www.commdiginews.com/entertainment/myth-trivia-the-warm-and-giving-truth-and-legend-of-santa-claus-110263/

6. White Christmas (1954): This best ever Christmas film immortalized the best ever Christmas song

Speaking of classic, best ever Christmas films, White Christmas is that rare example of a sequel that was more successful than its lesser known predecessor. That’s why we’ve included a mention of Holiday Inn (1942) in this short summary.

Holiday Inn paired Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire as a duo of song and dance guys. They get involved trying to make a go of a special New England inn that opens only during holidays. Hence the title. Get it? A bunch of hotel entrepreneurs certainly did. It’s likely that their well-known, eponymous motel chain derived its name from this film.

Holiday Inn is notable as the first movie outing for the signature tune made famous by both films. Of course, that immortal holiday classic is Irving Berlin’s  brilliant sentimental favorite, White Christmas. As soulfully sung by Crosby, that secular Christmas classic – penned, ironically, by a Jewish composer – has remained a nonstop holiday favorite ever since. Both the music and the lyrics evoke warm cozy memories of all those wonderful Christmas Pasts that reside firmly in our generally idyllic childhood memories. Or, if not, perhaps in our memories of Christmases that might have been.

White Christmas: A sequel of sorts that actually improves on its predecessor, Holiday Inn

1954’s White Christmas is essentially a post WWII re-imagining of Holiday Inn. Trading on the likely box office cachet of the film’s signature song, this later flick introduced a quirky but very talented Danny Kaye. Kaye stepped into the Fred Astaire role because Fred declined to reprise it. Kaye easily teamed with Crosby in Hollywood’s post-war take on the original that focused directly on Berlin’s signature tune.

The story line of the 1954 film is altered from the original Holiday Inn. The new filmmakers scuttled the somewhat confusing all-holiday plot of the original and put the Christmas holidays front and center. Even better, for an audience that clearly included surviving World War II GI’s and their spouses, the new  film’s highly relevant wartime backstory proved a brilliant stroke. It gives to the main plot a patriotic and nostalgic lift. The emotional lift of this patriotic USA boosting plot  goes over the heart-tugging top with a generous helping Christmas sentimentality, American-style.

Better yet, Crosby still knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to his rendition of this film’s signature song. Tempo, phrasing, even his character’s matching persona are perfect for this classic version of Berlin’s holiday masterpiece. At least for those of a certain age – particularly on some dark, snowy, lonely winter’s night when twinkling Christmas lights can be glimpsed from a distance –  listening to Bing croon his way through this immortal Berlin classic can still bring a wistful tear to one’s eye.

Gen X-ers and millennials might not grasp this. But Boomers who still believe in the real America of old do remember those post-war times. Bing’s vocal reminder of these precious, lost, and comparatively innocent times when patriotism was still in flower can still choke up when Bing begins to sing.

White Christmas: AKA, “Merry Christmas.” Still the longest running best-selling album ever

Bing’s 1945 recording of this song, released on platters including other vintage Christmas favorites, remains a best-seller on CD. Probably, by now, via streaming downloads, too. For over 70 years now, that album has never been out of production. No rock star will ever equal this amazing feat.

BTW, White Christmas – the film – has experienced an interesting comeback of sorts over the past decade. The film was later reconstructed as a live musical. Today, it’s performed quite frequently by amateur and professional theater groups to consistently packed houses across the U.S. We caught a particularly sprightly performance several years back at Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia, Maryland. It’s an old-time show that never gets old. What a treat!

Without further ado, we present the final production number from White Christmas, the film. In this grand reprise of Berlin’s holiday hit, Crosby, Kaye and company bring White Christmas home again. Grab your hankies. 64 years after it hit the silver screen, this film, and its best ever Christmas song, still tugs at your heartstrings.

Paradise Lost.

Next up:

Incoming, the Final Five in our Top 10 list of best ever Christmas film hits. Feel free to add your comments and personal faves in the comments section below, directly following a few “important messages.”

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— Headline image: Clifton Mill in Clifton, Ohio is the site of this Christmas display boasting over 3.5 million lights.
The water source is the Little Miami River. (Via Wikipedia)

 

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Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17