The Best Holiday Films Mischievously Undermine the Values They Superficially Promote

Rachel King

These holiday movies are more about messing up one’s life and finding second chances than they are about expressing joy to the world.

Clearly, a lot of people still adore '40s-era holiday movies. For a good 45 years of 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 really 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 those 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.

Miracle on 34th Street (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; one biography of the actress, alluding to one of her lesser-known films, is called Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman (1931)

So I wanted to see her in everything 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 ofIt'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).

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.

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.

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.

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