Clearly, a lot of people still adore ’40s-era classic holiday movies. For a good part my life I never understood why. Does anyone really have memories of such a perfect Christmas?
Look, I’m nostalgic about my childhood, too, but because it was a secular Jewish one, Christmas simply didn’t play a huge role in my memory-making. Sure, we exchanged presents on 25 December (as well as during the eight days of Hanukkah), but we skipped just about every other seasonal tradition. In our house, we had no tree trimming, no caroling, no ritual viewings of Miracle on 34th Street.
As a result I only knew the names of the so-called holiday classic films, but had no idea what the films were really about, beyond the obvious. Finally, while in my 20s, when a boyfriend put on It’s a Wonderful Life and I duly sat beside him and watched it, I thought, “eh”, and just considered his affection for the film a quirk in his personality.
I dismissed the movie after I’d seen it—as well as the many classic Christmas films I hadn’t seen—as “heartwarming” and “kid-friendly” but probably not actually good. When, however, as a middle-aged adult I started watching these movies on my own, I realized I’d been wrong for decades. Almost none of them were heartwarming, thankfully, and some of them were surprisingly very good, indeed.
Also, I’d think twice before showing them to children.
1. Miracle on 34th Street, Dir. George Seaton (1947)
I came to these classic holiday movies through what must be an unusual route: a love of all things Barbara Stanwyck. Like most people acquainted with ’40s Hollywood cinema, I knew her as the charming con artist Jean Harrington in 1941’s The Lady Eve and the sexy sociopath Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944).
But after seeing her as a heartless (but somehow likeable) gold-digger in the 1933 movie Baby Face, I realized Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve were no flukes. She was good in everything. (I’m not alone in my admiration; the title of Dan Callahan’s biography of the actress, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, includes the title of her lesser-known 1931 film directed by Frank Capra.)
So I wanted to see her in every film she had done: melodramas, westerns, screwball comedies, and noirs. Stanwyck excelled in nearly every film genre of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s except for one: the musical. Anyone who has seen her play a vaudeville performer in Lady of Burlesque (1943) knows why; though the former chorus girl could dance divinely, she lacked the necessary vocal chops. (Howard Hawks wisely had her singing voice dubbed when she played a nightclub chanteuse in 1941’s Ball of Fire.)
Stanwyck is my cinematic soul mate; even her shortcomings further endear her to me. I loathe musicals, so she made my life easy by not making any.
In the end, there was only one kind of movie that she dabbled in that gave me pause: holiday-themed films.
Of course, Stanwyck wasn’t the only top-tier star of the ’40s to make her mark in films that have gone on to become holiday classics. Jimmy Stewart of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) fame, is of course the best-known example. Bette Davis had us wrapped around her finger as Maggie Cutler in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Judy Garland serenaded the boy next door in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Fred Astaire tap-danced his way through Holiday Inn (1942), while his erstwhile dance partner Ginger Rogers charmed us in the somber I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).
2. Holiday Inn (1942)
Late in the decade, Robert Mitchum was a drifter in the story of Holiday Affair (1949) and Cary Grant played an angel dispensing advice on marriage and millinery in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). (Even child actress Natalie Wood had a memorable turn in Miracle on 34th Street long before she became a full-fledged adult star.)
Still, I had no plans initially to tackle that entire list of movies (not to mention It Happened On 5th Avenue (1947), a film that lacks any iconic star, but which features many well-loved character actors). My initial plan was to stop with my list of must see holiday movies after watching the two Stanwyck movies.
I started with Remember the Night, a 1940 Preston Sturges-penned melodrama. Stanwyck plays a glamorous shoplifter who gets picked up by the police just before Christmas for stealing a bracelet from a high-end jewelry store. At first the Assistant District Attorney (Fred MacMurray) is intent on throwing the book at her. But she’s a young woman, and pretty, and well, it’s Christmas. The prosecutor, unlike the accused, feels guilty; he bails her out of jail and, upon learning that she’s a fellow Hoosier whose mother lives near his, offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays.
Once the two arrive in the Midwest, MacMurray meets Stanwyck’s gorgon of a mother, and he starts to understand how his life might have unfolded differently if he’d grown up without his own mother’s love and understanding. By the end of the film, both characters have had a chance to turn over a new leaf just in time for the New Year. The thief has a chance to atone for her crimes, and the careerist learns there’s more to life than professional accomplishments.
The Christmas setting enhances this theme of personal renewal, but it doesn’t define the film. Indeed, it wasn’t even released by Paramount in time for the Christmas holiday season of 1939, and came out instead in January of 1940. That is, the Christmas setting was used artistically to support the film’s themes, but it wasn’t part of the studio’s marketing strategy for it.
3. Remember the Night (1940)
In retrospect, I’m not surprised that Remember the Night wasn’t deemed an appropriate holiday vehicle. This is a movie that is more about messing up one’s life and finding second chances than it is about expressing joy to the world.
And that, I came to realize, is true of most the classic Hollywood movies of the ’40s. It was only in later years, when the insatiable maw of television had to be constantly fed, that these films became cheesy Christmas traditions. They are broadcast every December, of course, but perhaps only half-watched by distracted viewers wrapping presents, planning festive meals, or otherwise multitasking. Taken out of their Depression-era or wartime context, their themes are perhaps not always well understood and their nuances overlooked.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The granddaddy of them all, It’s a Wonderful Life, seems to us today like a bulletproof classic, but in fact in 1946, it was a rare embarrassment for director Frank Capra—a box office flop. Audiences found it depressing and the FBI considered it a bit of Communist subversion. John A. Noakes noted in Film History / Bankers and Common Men in Bedford Falls: How the FBI Determined That “It’s a Wonderful Life” Was a Subversive Movie, that Capra’s movie was investigated by the F.B.I. as part of the witch hunt for Hollywood “reds”. (Jay Roach’s Trumbo (2015), deals with this same period.) In fact, according to Jonathan Munby in the book Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American British and European Cinema, Capra didn’t regard the story of George Bailey’s stunted life and quashed dreams as appropriate for Christmas at all, and RKO had originally scheduled the film (like Remember the Night seven years earlier) for January. But there was a hole in the December schedule that the studio needed to fill, and at the last minute the release date was moved up a month.
I wonder whether the film might have been better received if it had come out as first intended, after the holidays. American audiences of the time, buffeted by 17 years of hardship since the stock market crash of 1929, accepted film noir and other movies with dark themes. Still, it may have been that at Christmastime they wanted something more uplifting than a film about a man contemplating suicide. In fact, just as the initial failure of It’s a Wonderful Life, might have been due to bad timing, the film’s current status as a classic is an accident of history, as well.
After the film’s ignominious box office performance in 1946, for 30 years it was rarely screened. Then, according to Munby, in 1974 it happened to fall out of copyright and into the public domain. At last, it had found its moment. While ’70s audiences worried about a rise in urban crime, It’s a Wonderful Life and its depiction of quaint small-town life must have provided a distraction from the violent dramas played out daily on city streets. It might also have served as a respite from the other movies of the time, gritty dramas like the string of Dirty Harry movies that made contemporary urban life look like constant hell. (In that context, it’s worth noting that for most of the Capra film, poky Bedford Falls serves as George Bailey’s de facto prison; he longs to escape to see the great cities of the world.) By the ’80s, the film was an established classic.
For my part, the impulse that began in Stanwyck completism eventually got a little out of hand. After all, I like Robert Mitchum almost as much as Stanwyck. How could I resist delving a little deeper and watching a few more movies?
I’m not sure these films will become an annual tradition with me, now. I’ll happily watch Remember the Night again, as well as Stanwyck’s other holiday-themed feature, Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Although the two Stanwyck movies were made only five or so years apart, they’re separated by important milestones. The end of the Depression and the war years are the two historic markers, and there were a couple of personal ones, as well.
Stanwyck made what turned out to be her two most important movies in the intervening years: as mentioned before, she played the female scofflaw of The Lady Eve, and the most fatale femme of all in Double Indemnity. While her chilling portrayal of a murderous SoCal housewife only bolstered her career in the long run, when she wrapped Double Indemnityshe must have worried for a moment or two about the possibility of alienating viewers who might confuse the actress with the cold-blooded character she played.
5. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Choosing to do a Christmas-themed comedy, then, seemed like it would be a smart next step for an image-conscious star. The only problem with Christmas in Connecticut (which came out in July 1945, by the way) is that the protagonist, Elizabeth Lane, is just as self-centered and unprincipled (if not as violent or crazy) as Phyllis Dietrichson.
Lane’s career as a magazine columnist is based on lies. She authors Martha-Stewart-style articles about the joys of family life on a Connecticut farm life without (unlike Martha) ever getting married, having a child, or setting foot outside Manhattan. When her publisher asks her to invite a wounded sailor to her rural home for Christmas, she stages an elaborate charade in the country house of her sometime boyfriend. In return for his complicity, she promises to marry him, although throughout the film she does nothing but try to wriggle out of her end of the deal. In fact, one of the few times in the entire movie she’s honest is when she informs him that she doesn’t love him. Nevertheless, she gets everything she wants by the time the final credits roll.
This unblemished success seems to violate the standards of the Hays Production Code, which dictated that virtue be rewarded and that deceit never pays. If the audience is able to wink at the Lane character’s bad behavior, it’s only because the men she lies to (her boyfriend played by Reginald Gardiner and her publisher played by Sydney Greenstreet) are just as dishonest as she is—and a lot less attractive, to boot.
6. Holiday Affair (1949)
While I might guess that Stanwyck wanted a light comedy after the darkness of Double Indemnity, it seems undeniable that Mitchum’s casting in Holiday Affair was an explicit attempt on the part of RKO to rehabilitate his image after his prison stint for marijuana possession. The trailer unsubtly declares: “You’ll like him in a new type of role.”
Indeed, I’m sure I would: but Holiday Affair isn’t it. The plot centers on a not-very-merry widow (and single mom) and her disruptive passion for a war veteran (Mitchum) with a dream to build boats but to not hold down a full-time sensible job. While the Hays Code forbids “lustful embraces”, it seems that sex is explicitly on every character’s mind (with the possible exception of the Leigh character’s young son). The original ad campaign featured an image of Mitchum seemingly undressing Janet Leigh with his eyes accompanied by the thought bubble, “Baby you’re just what I want for Christmas.” (According to Leigh biographer Michelangelo Capua, Howard Hughes decided to scrap that advertisement and go with the more Code-friendly, “When Mitchum kisses ’em, they hear bells… wedding bells.”)
7 The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Long-term compatibility is also an issue with Bette Davis and Richard Travis in The Man Who Came to Dinner, another worthwhile holiday viewing choice. The film’s plot hinges on Davis’ decision to marry a small-town reporter she meets while her wittily venomous boss (Monty Woolley) recovers from an injury sustained during a Midwestern speaking tour. Davis’ scenes with Woolley are so rollicking and her ones with Travis are so… not. One is hard-pressed to imagine that she’ll be happy turning her back on New York City in favor of a quiet, sarcasm-free rural life. Part of the fun of watching Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday Affair, and The Man Who Came to Dinner is the way they mischievously undermine the values they superficially purport to promote.
8. I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)
Still, the pleasures of holiday films aren’t always cynical. In I’ll Be Seeing You, directed by William Dieterle, small town life isn’t mocked, nor is it regarded as oppressive or confining. If anything, it recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim that “place is nothing”.
In the essay “Self-Reliance” Emerson notes that “the sad self” cannot be escaped by fleeing one place for another, and this is true of both the shell-shocked soldier (Joseph Cotten) and the survivor of sexual violence (Ginger Rogers) who has been serving time in prison for killing her would-be rapist in self-defense. If a movie about the blossoming romance between these two damaged souls sounds contrived or sentimental to a fault, the way the film unfolds is sensitive and believable.
Director Dieterle was a veteran of Germany’s liberated and progressive Weimar-era film industry (even directing and starring in a pioneering gay-themed movie, a silent called Sex in Chains, 1928). Dieterle left for Hollywood before Hitler came to power and turned German filmmaking into a propaganda machine. I’ll Be Seeing You was made in 1944, when it looked as if Dieterle might never be able to return to Europe. (In fact he did, in the late ’50s.) The film implies that it is quite possible—and not simply an outlandish fear—that one might lose everything: home, friends, family, and freedom.
There’s no snow in this Christmas movie; it takes place in Texas. There’s a dog, but it’s no faithful hearthside companion. Terrifyingly, it attacks at random with a seeming intent to kill.
9. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
These holiday “classics” are far from perfect (and that’s not just because two of them, Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn are, ugh, musicals.) They are products of a not always enlightened time. Cringeworthy moments and offensive and dated racial and gender attitudes abound (except perhaps for Christmas in Connecticut—in addition to it’s unfeminine careerist heroine, it has an African-American character who waits tables but whose dialogue suggests that he has a college degree). The films set in New York City show a very white-bread version of the place. (It’s a Wonderful Life makes small-town upstate New York look like a richly diverse ethnic enclave by comparison.) And of course, the villains in Miracle on 34th Street are the Macy’s and Gimbel’s stores (which should have been understood by audiences to be Jewish-owned businesses).
Over the course of the film, the motives of the suits running these department stores need to be “converted” from capitalisim to some non-materialistic form of Christianity that has never to my knowledge actually existed in the United States outside of a handful of religious communities and communes. These shortcomings, which I do not intend to minimize, just serve as a reminder that these films (like all art) are a reflection of time in which they were made, for good or for ill.
Years ago, my mother, upon hearing that some guy had asked me to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with him, let out a little groan of sympathy. Decades later, I will never have to explain to her that I’ve developed respect (if not actual admiration) for Capra’s film. She had a fatal heart attack three days before Christmas six years ago, an anniversary which makes the holiday season particularly painful. With my parents long gone and my brothers far away, I’ll be spending this holiday season with my husband in my dilapidated Brooklyn apartment. I don’t even have my beloved cat this year, since she died right before Thanksgiving.
I think I’ll be perfectly happy to catch some of these holiday classics on TCM during the month of December. (I’ll have to choose carefully, though, since the man I ended up marrying can’t— thank goodness—tolerate too much “Capra-corn”.) I’m glad I waited to watch most of them until I was old enough to understand their context, and to judge them with an open mind. They were made during one of the darkest periods of American history, and even the lighter, funnier ones manage to remind us that not everyone gets his or her heart’s desire on Christmas.
If anything, most of these characters (Elizabeth Lane, perhaps, notwithstanding) find themselves struggling to figure out how to manage when Christmas is disappointing and prospects for the New Year look bleak. The best of these movies aren’t about happiness so much as they are about resilience, or at least maintaining one’s sense of humor, when the going gets tough. That’s something I don’t mind celebrating.
THIS ARTICLE IS CURRENTLY UNDER (RE) CONSTRUCTION (6 Dec 2019)