WASHINGTON, Dec. 25, 2017 — Classic Christmas films, and sometimes even their soundtracks, are a way of looking back on Christmases past. Whether the theme of such films is religious or secular, the movies we regard as classic Christmas films add exactly the right touch of wistfulness and nostalgia to their holiday message. They conjure up positive, nostalgic images of those Christmases we wish we had actually experienced but probably never did.
Although some today decry the secularization and commercialization of Christmas these days, films focused on Santa Claus and tons of presents under the tree can still help underscore the traditional Christmas messages of hope, rebirth, charity and kindness, as in “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.”
Christmas movies come and go. But over the years, a number of standout classic Christmas films remain in our more or less annual list of must-view Hollywood cinema favorites. This year is no exception. This article lists films 10 through 6 from our current Top 10 list. Our next one will list the Fabulous Final Five.
10. Hallmark TV Christmas movies
We break with tradition in 2017 by listing under a single heading the growing number of annual, original, made-for-TV Christmas movies cranked out by cable TV’s Hallmark Channel since at least Y2K. Are Hallmark Christmas films really classic Christmas films? Have we gone soft on our standards here? Not by a long shot.
In recent years, liberal TV critics have enjoyed trashing Hallmark’s Christmas originals as unrealistic, saccharine-sweet bits of negligible fluff. This year, some have even called for a boycott of the Hallmark Channel. Why? They’re guilty for showing films of the heart geared toward audiences that, well, don’t live in New York City; or otherwise deplorable TV viewers entirely lacking in what is today called “sophistication.”
While Hallmark Christmas films do 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.
In addition, after confronting modest to difficult travails, Hallmark’s Christmas heroes and heroines (and love, of course) always triumph in the end. That provides each film with an uplifting, sweet conclusion that middle-America’s TV viewers still crave.
Need an antidote to counter the media’s nattering nabobs of negativism? How about the plot for a 2014 Hallmark Christmas movie, “Northpole” as 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.
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 of classic Christmas films. They consistently support the underlying Christian message that should be conveyed in a Christmas film but often is not.
An added plus: Hallmark still proudly uses the nearly-banned word “Christmas” when touting its movies. That was a bold move in the dark days of Obamanation. Under the new administration, however, Christmas – and Hallmark – are now bringing Christmas back.
9. “The Lemon Drop Kid” (1951)
Some might argue that this vintage 1950s movie in no way belongs among our classic Christmas films. Like “Guys and Dolls,” this somewhat forgotten Bob Hope movie is based on the popular fiction of Damon Runyon. And yeah, it doesn’t really have a lot to do with Christmas per se. But “Lemon Drop Kid” introducde that popular Christmas tune “Silver Bells” to American audiences. Some 66 year later, that tune has clearly become a Christmas standard.
Current generations likely don’t even know who or what Bob Hope was. A newish bio on the life and times of the Kid from Cleveland (who was actually born a Brit) was published in 2014. If still available, that might help rectify this error. For the benefit of the millennials in the crowd, 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 vulgar clowns who’ve been guest hosting each annual Oscar bore-fest.
In his heyday, Hope was a decent hoofer, a comic genius and a pretty good vocalist to boot. His skills are amply displayed in the following clip featuring “Silver Bells.” The Kid from Cleveland is accompanied here 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 that opens the clip. The answer follows the video if you haven’t already guessed.
Quiz Answer: This original Bad Santa is none other than prickly William Frawley, best known to vintage 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 suggesting 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.” That’s what makes it one of our classic Christmas films.
“St. Mary’s” is also an interesting historical artifact. In an otherwise mostly Protestant country, good-hearted, Irish-American Catholic priests were frequently cast in American films as heroic and morally upright role models. They often gave witness to their faith in poor, inner-city parishes where Catholics often lived in the 1940s.
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, attending a Jesuit high school in his home town of Spokane, Washington, and briefly attending college there at Gonzaga University before getting bitten by the entertainment bug.
Crosby’s role in “St. Mary’s” gave the wildly popular actor/vocalist a chance to sing in the movie. That, along with its two-hanky story line, proved a big hit on the silver screen.
Let’s return to that 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, one of our longtime CDN contributors, 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, 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. This is one of our very few almost contemporary classic Christmas films. The following official 1994 trailer will give you a clue as to why.
6. “White Christmas” (1954)
Speaking of classic 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 who get involved 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 a well-known, eponymous hotel chain derived its name from this film.
“Holiday Inn” is distinctive because it was the first movie outing for the signature tune sung in both films: namely, Irving Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas.” As soulfully sung by Crosby, that song – penned by a Jewish composer no less – has remained a sentimental Christmas 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.
1954’s “White Christmas” is essentially a post WWII re-imagining of “Holiday Inn.” In this later film, a quirky but very talented Danny Kaye stepped into the Fred Astaire role (Fred declined to reprise it), joining Crosby in a new take focused directly on Berlin’s signature tune. The story line of the 1954 film is altered from the original “Holiday Inn.” The all-holiday plot is scuttled in the updated film and Christmas is front and center. The film’s highly relevant World War II backstory gives the main plot a patriotic and nostalgic lift that’s only helped by a heap of wonderful Christmas sentimentality.
Crosby still knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to delivering this film’s signature song. Tempo, phrasing, even his character’s persona are perfect. At least for those of a certain age – particularly on a dark, snowy, lonely night 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 one’s eye.
Bing’s recording of this song, along with other vintage Christmas favorites, remains a best-seller on CD, and probably, by 1917, via streaming downloads as well.
BTW, “White Christmas” – the film – has experienced an interesting comeback of sorts over the last decade or so. It’s been reconstructed as a live musical that’s performed quite frequently by amateur and professional theater groups across the U.S. We caught a sprightly performance several years back at Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia, Maryland. What a treat!
Without further ado, here’s the final production number from “White Christmas,” the film. In a grand reprise of Berlin’s hit, Crosby, Kaye, their best gals and the entire crew bring “White Christmas” home again. Grab your hankies.
The Final Five in our Top 10 list of Christmas film hits. Feel free to add your comments and personal faves in the comments section below, directly following a few “important messages.”