Christmas movie magic: Ten films to savor this holiday season

It’s time for our annual look back at those movies that over the years have best expressed that good old-fashioned Christmas spirit. 2015’s First Five.

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

WASHINGTON, Dec. 25, 2014 — Classic Christmas films−and sometimes even their soundtracks−are a way of looking back on year-end Christmas celebrations as we remember them, or would like to.

Whether the theme of the film is religious—something sadly declining in our own times—or secular, the best Christmas films add exactly the right touch of wistfulness and nostalgia, even creating for some of us more positive images of those Christmases wish we had actually experienced. Even films focused on Santa Claus and tons of presents under the tree can still help underscore the traditional Christmas message of hope, rebirth, charity and kindness, as in “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.”

Read also: More Christmas movie favorites: CDN’s Top Five holiday hits

Christmas movies come and go. But over the years, a number of standout classics have remained in our annual list of must-view Christmas films. This year is no exception. This installment lists our first five selections.

We’ve largely retained our 2014 list this year, but have, with some regret, booted out last year’s 2014 selection, Walt Disney’s 1961 take on Victor Herbert’s early 20th century Christmas operetta “Babes in Toyland.” That film occupied the No. 10 position in our 2014 list.

Coming to the silver screen and headlined by then teen idols Tommy Sands and Disney-nurtured Annette Funicello, the Disney “Babes,” to its credit, does contain a magical, non-CGI human-animation sequence near the end of the flick driven by a Disneyfied version of Herbert’s “March of the Toys.” But the rest of the film, upon sad and sober reflection, is just so much treacle, so out it goes this year, replaced by…

10. Hallmark TV Christmas movies

We break with tradition this year by listing any number of annual, original, made-for-TV Christmas movies cranked out by cable TV’s Hallmark Channel since at least Y2K. Have we gone soft on our standards here? Not by a long shot. So hear us out.

Over the last number of years, TV critics have frequently enjoyed trashing Hallmark’s Christmas originals as unrealistic, saccharine-sweet bits of negligible fluff geared toward audiences that, well, don’t live in New York City and or TV viewers who are entirely lacking in what is today called “sophistication.” By which, we think, they mean “cynicism.”

Although each year’s Hallmark Christmas films tend toward the secular, we haven’t run into an installment yet that doesn’t riff on those cherished Christmas virtues we listed in our preamble above.

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

In addition, after confronting modest to difficult travails, Hallmark’s Christmas heroes and heroines always triumph in the end. That provides each film with the kind of uplifting, positive and often genuinely sweet ending that middle-America’s often-neglected TV viewers still crave, given the current environment of nastiness that seems to have seized both this country and the world.

For example, the plot for a 2014 Hallmark Christmas movie, “Northpole,” was perfectly summarized in a Wikipedia entry:

Northpole, the magical home to Santa (Robert Wagner) & Mrs. Claus (Jill St. John), has grown into a huge city powered by the magic of holiday happiness around the world. Yet as people everywhere get too busy to enjoy festive time together, the city is in trouble. Who can help save the cherished traditions of Christmas? One young boy, Kevin (Max Charles), might have a chance if he can convince his protective mom, Chelsea (Tiffani Thiessen), to rediscover the magic of the season. With a little added help from Kevin’s charming teacher Ryan (Josh Hopkins), a mysterious elf-like girl Clementine (Bailee Madison) and a gospel singer named Josephine (Candice Glover), Kevin is determined to bring his mom in on the fun and prove that one small voice can change the hearts of many.

The past 15 years’ worth of Hallmark Christmas movies unfold in a similar vein, although each plot and suite of characters varies considerably. While we regard the standard Hallmark Christmas film as “ordinary” in many ways, we have to collectively give them an A-plus and a No. 10 slot in this year’s list for consistency in supporting the underlying Christian message that needs to be conveyed in a Christmas film but often is not.

An added plus: Hallmark still proudly uses the soon-to-be-banned word “Christmas” when touting its movies. A bold move with all those PC Police hanging about.

9. “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951)

This Bob Hope classic is based, like “Guys and Dolls,” on the popular fiction of Damon Runyon. The film doesn’t really have a lot to do with Christmas per se, but it did introduce the still popular Christmas tune “Silver Bells” to American audiences.

Current generations likely don’t even know who Bob Hope was, although a new bio of Hope was published in 2014 that might help rectify the error. If anyone can still find a copy. For the benefit of the younger set, Bob, with best pal and fellow song and dance man Bing Crosby, was one half of Hollywood’s most popular film buddy act for the better part of 25 years.

The indefatigable Hope later caught his second wave of fame as a TV personality and famously hosted the Oscar ceremonies for years. Routinely complaining about never winning an Oscar, he arguably did a far better job hosting this often interminable extravaganza with wit and brisk pacing than the current chain of clowns who’ve been guest hosting each annual Oscar boredom-fest.

Hope was also a stalwart supporter of American GIs wherever they were stationed. For decades, he spearheaded and headlined a series of immensely popular USO-style Christmas shows for soldiers in active warzones, some of which were taped and later run on TV as popular Christmas specials, bringing the GI’s together, albeit briefly, with their families back at home, as Hope’s cameras frequently panned his military audiences to send those brief but cherished images to U.S. viewers and families.

Unsurprisingly, Hope unhesitatingly supported America’s war effort in Vietnam. This seriously politically incorrect move was likely why he was largely written out of the entertainment world’s historical narrative and consigned to the Left-Wing Hollywood Blacklist. Reading the still newish Hope bio may help put Hope back in the Hollywood pantheon where he belongs.

In his heyday, Hope was a decent hoofer, a comic genius and a pretty good vocalist to boot, all of which are on display in the following clip. In this film’s signature Christmas tune, “Silver Bells,” the Kid from Cleveland is aided and abetted by co-star Marilyn Maxwell.

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 opening the clip. We’ll give you the answer right after the video if you haven’t already guessed.

Right you are, nostalgia buffs! Our Bad Santa is none other than prickly William Frawley, best known to TV aficionados as Ricky and Lucy Ricardo’s cranky neighbor Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy.”

8. “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945)

Speaking of Bob Hope’s pal, let’s turn now to this sentimental Bing Crosby classic. As our columnist Claire Hickey corrected observed upon coming up with this selection 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.”

The film is also an interesting historical artifact. In this otherwise thoroughly Protestant country (at least back in the day), good-hearted, Irish-American Catholic priests were frequently cast in American films as heroic and morally upright role models, often practicing their faith in poor, inner-city parishes (where Catholics lived, of course). But at the same time, it was unthinkable for a Catholic to become president.

Bing Crosby, playing a youngish parish priest in this film, certainly fit the part of the Irish Catholic priest, since he’d grown up under a parochial school regime himself as a youth. His role also gave the amazingly popular actor/vocalist a chance to sing in the movie, which, along with its two-hanky story line, proved a big hit on the silver screen.

As the film was released, World War II was drawing to a close for America. America’s people were quickly turning back toward their desire for home, family and friends and for the day “their boys” would be coming back home. American hearts swelled universally with an overwhelming pride and gratitude for being part of One mighty and newly triumphant Nation under God.

Today, such thoughts and sentiments are regarded as right-wing extremism.

Let’s go back to an earlier time as we hear Der Bingle singing the title song, accompanied by a bevy of musically accomplished Hollywood singing nuns:

7. “The Santa Clause” (1994)

Bob Siegel, who still writes for us, called this film “A unique idea and fresh take on the Santa Claus legend. This time,” Bob continued, “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, this 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. This is one of our very few almost contemporary Christmas classics. The following official 1994 trailer will give you a clue as to why.

6. “White Christmas” (1954)

Included in our selection of this film is its predecessor, the earlier “Holiday Inn” (1942), which we’d classify as either a tie or an honorable mention. We can’t decide.

“Holiday Inn” paired Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire as a duo of song and dance guys who get involved with trying to make a go of a special Inn that opens only during holidays. Hence the title. Get it? And yes, it’s likely that the eponymous hotel chain derived its name from this film.

“Holiday Inn” is distinctive because it was the first movie outing for the signature tune in both films, Irving Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas.” As sung by Crosby, the song has remained a sentimental Christmas favorite ever since, evoking warm cozy memories of all those wonderful Christmas Pasts that reside firmly in our generally idyllic childhood memories, or perhaps in our memories of Christmases that might have been.

Crosby knows how to deliver the goods. Tempo, phrasing, even his character’s persona are perfect. At least for those of a certain age, particularly on a dark, snowy, lonely night (not this year in DC!) when Christmas lights can be seen flickering in the distance, listening to Bing croon his way through this classic can still bring a wistful tear to the eye.

Not surprisingly, his recording of this song, along with other Christmas classics, is still a best-seller on CD, and probably via MP4 or streaming downloads in 2015.

The magic of the song become all the more astonishing given that this quintessential modern Christmas classic was actually penned by a Jewish composer.

In “White Christmas,” essentially a post WWII re-imagining of “Holiday Inn,” a quirky but very talented Danny Kaye stepped into the Fred Astaire role, joining Crosby in a new riff based directly on its signature tune. The story line of the 1954 film is altered in some significant ways from the original “Holiday Inn,” giving it a still highly relevant World War II backstory that gives the main plot a patriotic lift.

Here’s the final production number from that film. Appropriately, it’s a grand reprise of Berlin’s hit. Everyone joins in with Crosby, Kaye, their best girls and the entire crew of actors, singers, and ex-GIs, bringing “White Christmas” home again at last.

Pull out your hankies as we travel back to a unified, patriotic America the likes of which we may never see or feel ever again.

Next up:

We offer the Final Five in our Top 10 list of Christmas film hits. Meanwhile, feel free to add your comments and personal faves in the comments section below, directly following a few visual plugs.

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