If you’re like me, you can hardly wait to get the Thanksgiving turkey in the fridge before you put on the Christmas songs. I love Christmas, I love everything about it. It’s my favorite holiday. I know that the cool answer in postmodern hipster America is supposed to be Halloween. And don’t get me wrong, I love that holiday, too. But Christmas is my favorite.
I love the anticipation of it, the lead-up, the candy canes and hot chocolate, finding gifts for the people you care about. I love the way kids get around the season, oh-so-hopeful and excited that the tree will be a showcase of surprises just for them, but ever-so-cautious lest they incur the disapproval of old Santa and find a lump of coal in their stocking on Christmas morn.
Yeah, Christmas is a lot of fun.
Above all, I love the movies. There are so many, but it seems that we wind up watching the same ones over and over and over again. Sure, they’re classics, but how special would a Christmas dinner be if you had Christmas dinner every night? Instead of watching It’s A Wonderful Life for the 643rd time this Christmas, why not expand your holiday movie viewing with some of these lesser-known offerings? So here, offered in no particular order, are 10 movies so good that you shouldn’t miss out on them during the Christmas season.
10: The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
You should probably know this adaptation of a Damon Runyon short story because it introduced to the world the now-classic Christmas tune “Silver Bells,” performed on screen in a duet between the film’s stars, Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. But it has a lot more than just that to recommend it.
Bob is Sidney Milburn, a.k.a. “The Lemon Drop Kid,” a wisecracking racetrack tout who gives some bad advice and winds up costing a notorious mobster a $10,000 payoff. The Kid manages to fast-talk Moose into giving him until Christmas Eve to raise the dough. Out of time, out of options and out of luck, he concocts a Christmas charity scam involving a bogus old ladies’ home that starts to make money hand over fist. For a while, it looks like he might just make it out of the mess with his skin intact, but complications arise with his long-suffering girlfriend, Brainey Baxter (the absurdly beautiful Marilyn Maxwell), the rival mobster that she works for, and, of course, The Kid’s own guilty conscience.
This was the second time that Bob had headlined in an adaptation of a Damon Runyon story, the first being the 1949 remake of Little Miss Marker titled Sorrowful Jones, and it’s really a shame that Bob Hope didn’t visit Runyonland more often. His high-powered fast-talking delivery and wiseacre personality were tailor made for the colorful characters that inhabit Runyon’s New York, and like Sorrowful Jones, he’s at his comedic best here. The Lemon Drop Kid is sincere without becoming too treacly, partly because the scam he cooks up to dig himself out of the mess he’s in is so absurdly underhanded that you can hardly believe that he’ll have redeemed himself by the final reel and recaptured the affections of the far-too-beautiful for him Brainey. The darker shadings of the character and the world he inhabits serves to balance the inevitable last-minute redemption, and Bob Hope is so likable in the role that you can forgive him his trespasses, which makes it feel more plausible that the rest of the cast might, too. Hey, it is a Christmas movie, after all.
9. Lost Christmas (2011)
So much of the Christmas entertainment we are served during the holidays asks us to view the world through childlike eyes. But what would we see through childlike eyes wet with tears and heavy with regret? I loved this thoughtful and melancholy Christmas fairy tale, based on the award-winning children’s book by David Logan, because it is a more reflective and somber look at a holiday that doesn’t necessarily have, for everyone, the sort of cheerful memories that we generally tend to associate with it. Lost Christmas has more gravitas than many of the more well-known holiday classics, but delivers just as much heartwarming holiday magic.
Goose (Larry Mills), like any child, wants to spend Christmas Eve with his father, so in an attempt to force him to stay home from work, he does a very childish thing that has very tragic consequences: The loss of both his parents in a automobile accident. One year later, we find that in order to support his ailing grandmother, Goose has turned to a life of petty crime under the tutelage of Frank (Jason Flemyng), a cynical career criminal. Their lives are desperate and without hope until Frank, on Christmas Eve, stumbles across the mysterious Anthony (Eddie Izzard), an amnesiac with a strange and perhaps even magical ability. The three embark on a journey through the lives of several disparate people grieving for what they have lost because of the terrible decisions they’ve made in the past, and discover that life is more interconnected than they have imagined, and that second chances and even miracles are not impossible.
Delving into heartbeaking themes such as death, guilt, grief, abandonment and loss, you might be surprised when I say that this may be the most magical and uplifting film on my list. Lost Christmas might best be described as a modern successor to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, a holiday classic that speaks to the virtues that I personally find comfort in during the holidays, and is not afraid to mix tragedy and despair into the Christmas cheer and redemption. The journey is fraught with darkness, but as Andrew rightly counsels Goose, “Sometimes you have to go towards the things that make you want to run away.” Especially when what you’ve lost, and need to find, is something as necessary to life as hope.
8. I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)
Ginger Rogers had a pretty robust cinematic resume apart from her classic movie pairings with Fred Astaire; in point of fact, those jaunty movie musicals for which she is best-known represent only a fraction of a career that spanned over 60 years and nearly 80 films in a number of genres. Though Ginger is indisputably at her best in comedies like The Major and the Minor and Roxie Hart, her dramatic roles are impressive as well, and perhaps none quote so much as in this tender holiday romance, a quietly sentimental story of two lonely, damaged people who find comfort and eventually love with each other, but whose secrets threaten to destroy their chances for happiness.
Here, Ginger is Mary Marshall, a woman serving a six-year prison term for accidental manslaughter, who is granted a Christmas furlough so that she can spend the holidays with her uncle and his family. On the train she finds herself seated next to Zach Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a troubled army sergeant on leave for the holidays from a military hospital; he is shell-shocked from his horrific experiences at Guadalcanal and is now prone to severe panic attacks. The two are immediately drawn to one another and over the course of the Christmas season their friendship blossoms into romance. But time is working against them both, and Mary is as reluctant to tell him that she must soon return to prison to serve out her sentence as Zach is to tell her about the lingering psychological damage he must contend with.
Yes, the dueling secrets plot has been rehashed a thousand times on screen, but that’s not the point. The point is the magnificently subtle performances that Ginger and Joesph bring to their characters. It’s so nice to see two gentle people find gentle comfort in one another – yes, I know, Mary is in jail for killing a man, but the fact that she went to jail at all, as you’ll see from her flashback, is an outrage. Likewise, Zach isn’t the typical gung-ho super-soldier that populated films of the era, he’s a quiet everyman type who has lived through some brutal experiences and can’t quite put them behind him. It’s hard not to root for these two to work things out and wind up together in the end. It tugs at your heartstrings in all the right ways, and if you feel a little misty-eyed before the end, well… you have my permission to blame it on the cider.
Best of all, you can watch the whole movie for free on YouTube!
7. 8 Women (2002)
There’s no shortage of movie musicals to be found at Christmas time, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and speculate that this is the only one kicking around with a plot involving lies, secrets, adultery, homosexuality, and murder. This gorgeous dark comedy from director François Ozon is a period showcase of beautiful women behaving badly that wickedly blends outrageous, catty soap opera shenanigans with the arch, dry humor of a Hitchcock thriller and the murderous screwball slapstick of 1985’s murder mystery farce Clue.
Based on the 1958 play by unfairly forgotten French playwright Robert Thomas, 8 Women begins (after lush opening credits that would make Douglas Sirk green with envy) on a glorious snow-covered morning at an remote mansion in the French countryside, where a wealthy family has gathered to celebrate the holiday season with the beloved patriarch of the family. But the festivities are put on hold when the household wakes to find that the patriarch is not quite as beloved as everyone thought, because sometime in the night someone left a dagger neatly stuck between his shoulder blades! The killer can only be one of the eight women staying at the house, but which one? Was it the victim’s snobbish wife Gaby, played by the astoundingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve? Her bitter spinster sister Augustine, played by Isabelle Huppert? Or their greedy, grasping invalid mother, played by Danielle Darrieux? Could it have been one of the victim’s two innocent young daughters, played by Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier, who may not be as innocent as they seem and may not actually even be his daughters at all? Perhaps his stylish femme fatale sister, played to the hilt by Fanny Ardant, did the dastardly deed. Even the pouting sexpot of a maid, played by Emmanuelle Beart, and the beloved cook, played by Firmine Richard, are not above suspicion. Each woman has a motive. Each woman is guilty of something. But which one is guilty of murder?
I have no idea why this sharp, funny, gorgeous movie isn’t better known. Aside from being a roaring good time, the movie is packed with so many layers and so much sly inside humor and cinematic references that it literally has something for everyone to enjoy. Highly recommended.
6. Three Wise Guys (2005)
Another Damon Runyon story! I love Damon Runyon. I’m also not immune to the occasional bit of delicious cheese cinema. Especially at Christmas; I still maintain that Jingle All The Way is one of the most enjoyable holiday films of its time. Seriously.
Anyway, like AH-nold’s foray into highly-enjoyable but meretricious family-friendly Christmas pabulum, Three Wise Guys delivers a lot of oddball fun of the sort that goes hand with snuggling up on the couch under a comforter with a mug of hot chocolate and a big plate of S’mores. Based on the Runyon short story about three hapless hoodlums who wind up in an eerily familiar situation on Christmas Eve when they fall in with a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth, Three Wise Guys runs the plot through the quirky crime movie blender to produce a surprisingly delightful guilty pleasure that makes you groan as often as it makes you chuckle.
Murray Crown (Tom Arnold) operates a shady casino and is under investigation by the feds, as well as by his jealous wife Shirley (Katey Sagal), who rightly suspects him of carrying on behind her back with Miss Mary Ann Davidson (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). It seems that Mary is pregnant with Murray’s illegitimate child, and so, worried that Murray might overreact, she snatches some insurance for herself in the form of an incriminating computer disk and hightails it to parts unknown. Murray overreacts by sending three goons – Joey (Eddie McClintock), George (Judd Nelson), and Vincent (Nick Turturro) – to track Mary down and recover the disk. But she’s a lot more cunning than they realize, and it isn’t long before the three mugs are questioning their loyalties and getting themselves into comedic jams while trying to protect her. Sure, it was filmed better back in 1936. But this is an oddly charming holiday candyfloss treat and it deserves to be appreciated, too. If for no other reason, because Rowdy Roddy Piper has a cameo as a priest. Hell, yeah!
5. Holiday Affair (1949)
I’m not ashamed to say that I love a good romance, and the more sincere the better. And this sweet little movie should be quite the pleasant surprise for those who only know Robert Mitchum from darker like Night of the Hunter or Cape Fear, or from his work in adventure and war films.
Not that Mitchum himself is in any way softened by the light atmosphere of the movie. In fact, his straight-shooting yet idealistic Steve Mason is just one element that keeps the film sweet without ever becoming saccharine; likewise, Wendell Corey’s nice-guy kindness, Janet Leigh’s heartbreaking sincerity, and most of all little six-year-old Gordon Gerbert’s endearing performance as little Timmy all help keep the movie on an even keel.
Mitchum is really quite endearing as Steve, a ex-army drifter who loses his job because of an act of kindness towards grieving war widow Connie Ennis, achingly played by Janet Leigh. One thing leads to another, and Steve winds up at dinner Connie, her adorable son Timmy (played by a charming Gordon Gerbert) and her boyfriend, super nice-guy lawyer Carl, played by super nice-guy Wendell Corey. When Steve spends the last of his money to surprise Timmy with an expensive train set the boy desperately wants but which Connie cannot afford, this further act of kindness snowballs into a series of hysterical and eventually life-changing complications and disasters which eventually cause everyone concerned to re-examine their personal relationships and decide what they really want out of life. Naturally, love is just around the corner, but Steve and Connie will have to take a few emotional and comedic bumps before their happiness begins.
Like I’ll Be Seeing You, this is a tenderhearted little film about broken and bruised people trying to move beyond their past personal tragedies and find happiness for the future by embracing what is being offered to them in the present. If you like your holiday romance as gentle and sweet as a comforting cup of hot tea, you’re sure to enjoy Holiday Affair.
4. Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
(also known as And So Goodbye)
What’s Christmas without a good ghost story?
In Beyond Tomorrow, George (Harry Carey), Allan (C. Aubrey Smith), and Michael (Charles Winninger) are three lonely bachelor millionaires who concoct a plan to pick three random strangers to invite to dinner on Christmas Eve at the ritzy New York Mansion they share with Madame Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya), a former countess displaced by the Russian revolution. The plan is this: They will toss three wallets into the street, each containing a small amount of money and their respective business cards; anyone who returns a wallet will then be invited to dinner. Two wallets make their way back to the mansion, in the possession of fish-out-of-water singing cowboy Jimmy (Richard Carlson) and pretty, wistful social worker Jean (Jean Parker). Romantic sparks begin to fly between the two hapless lost souls over dinner, and it isn’t long before the two are in love. They become fast friends with the wealthy trio, who are positively delighted at the idea that they’ve inadvertently helped a couple of people find the love that they never made time for in their own lives.
Okay, but what about the ghosts, right? I promised you a ghost story. Okay, okay, just hang on a minute. See, this is the part where the movie takes a wild left turn into darker territory. The three millionaires are scheduled to catch an airplane that will whisk them away to their next important business meeting, but Madame Tanya has a bad feeling about the trip and begs them to take the train instead. They don’t listen, and during the trip the plane goes down in a terrible storm, and all three men are killed in the crash. Jean and Jimmy get the terrible news from Madame Tanya just as they are arriving to announce their engagement.
But we’re not done with George, Allan, and Michael yet. They return to their mansion as ghosts, only vaguely perceived by Madame Tanya, to discover that Jimmy is messing things up with Jean. He’s been putting his career over their relationship – and dallying with foxy singing star Arlene (Helen Vinson), a libertine woman who has turned Jimmy’s head in all the wrong ways. But maybe – just maybe – with a little help from the afterlife, Jimmy can be set back on the right path.
This is a strange, wonderful little movie that might best be described as a mash-up of A Christmas Carol and Topper, with a tiny smidge of A Matter Of Life And Death thrown in for good measure. It’s very sweet, but also surprisingly dark in places. All in all, it’s a solid fantasy romance that, like so many other films on this list, needs to be seen by more people. Fortunately, that’s easy enough to for anyone to do, since it’s available to watch in full on YouTube!
3. The Hebrew Hammer
Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. You know, there are other holidays during this season. It’s not reserved exclusively for Christmas.
Although if the evil Santa has his way, it will be.
I know what you’re thinking. Santa? Evil? Oh, yeah. See, the Santa you remember, the cuddly guy with a beard? Yeah, he’s gone. He got rubbed out. His evil son Damian (Andy Dick) has taken over the North Pole in a bloody coup, and the diabolical little runt has a plan to destroy all rival holidays and force everyone to celebrate Christmas, consolidating the Claus cartel’s grip on the winter holiday season.
The North Pole wanted Hanukkah. Instead, they got Hammer… Up to here.
The Hebrew Hammer. Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg), the world’s first Jewish blaxploitation hero. Jewsploitation? Is that a thing? Can we make that a thing? The chief of the Jewish Justice League (Peter Coyote) recruits the Semetic supermentsh to drop the hammer on Damian’s plot and make the world safe for dreidels and latkes. Along the way, he’ll get a helping hand from the chief’s sexy daughter Esther (Judy Greer) and fellow tough-guy Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles) of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front.
Forget about heartwarming holiday entertainment or sentimental family time with this one. The Hebrew Hammer is 100% kosher absurdity. And probably one of the most unusual and entertaining holiday flicks you’ll ever see.
2. It Happened On 5th Avenue (1947)
This Academy Award-nominated film was the first film released under the Allied Artists Pictures banner, which was established when Monogram Pictures decided to make a try at clawing their way off Poverty Row. Even though it lost to Miracle on 34th Street, It Happened On 5th Avenue has plenty of charm and holiday warmth of its own. If it strikes you as being a sort of Frank Capra-type project, then give yourself a gold star; you’re very clever. Frank Capra thought so, too (not that you’re clever, but that it was his type of story). Capra optioned it through his production company, Liberty Films, in 1945, but decided instead to let it go to director and producer Roy Del Ruth, while he devoted his time and energy to another project that had caught his interest – a little film you might have heard of called It’s A Wonderful Life.
An almost farcical story of mistaken and hidden identities, It Happened On 5th Avenue introduces us to one Mr. Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore), a New York transient who weathers the cold winters in the Big Apple by squatting in a 5th Avenue mansion while the house’s owner, multi-millionaire Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), vacations in Virginia. O’Connor’s interests are varied, and among them is a new skyscraper project that is going to be built right on the site of the cheap apartment building that unemployed army veteran Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) calls home. Sympathetic to Jim’s plight, Aloysious invites him to stay in the mansion.
They also invite an 18 year-old runaway named Trudy (Gale Storm) to stay as well, not realizing that the she is in reality Michael O’Connor’s daughter. Trudy has become smitten with Jim, and keeps up the ruse, hoping to win Jim’s affections. Jim also invites a couple of his old war buddies and their families to stay in the mansion – is it just me, or is it getting crowded in here? -until they can find more permanent housing.
When O’Connor returns to New York unexpectedly, Trudy tells him that she is in love and convinces him, for her sake, to pose as a homeless panhandler that she has invited to stay in the mansion, so that he can meet Jim and see what a wonderful guy he is. O’Connor is less than impressed, however, and threatens to throw all the squatters out of his house and have them arrested, so Trudy calls her mother, O’Connor’s ex-wife Mary (Ann Harding), to keep the peace while posing as a cook. Of course love wins in the end, as it should in all truly classic Christmas films.
Even though this film has been overshadowed since the day it was released by Miracle on 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life, and in fact was practically a lost film for nearly 20 years, despite having developed a strong cult following since its release, It Happened On 5th Avenue has enough charm and laughs to stand next to any popular classic of the holiday season. Since its release on DVD and through showings of Turner Classic Movies, the film has become better known these last few years – as it should be.
1. The Great Rudolph (1950)
(also known as A Christmas Wish)
Jimmy Durante’s major claim to holiday fame is of course his indelible appearance as the narrator of the 1969 Christmas classic Frosty the Snowman, but this delightful little comedy certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.
It all begins with a squirrel. At the time, audiences were bowled over by the charming little squirrel; they were so impressed with the delightful creature that some people wondered where the filmmakers had found a squirrel that could be so well-trained. In fact, it was not the squirrel that was well-trained, but his animator, bringing his spectacular stop-motion work to the screen in a live-action feature film for the first time. His name: George Pal.
That squirrel. It all begins with that squirrel, the titular Rupert, a singularly talented dancing squirrel who lives in the rafters of a shabby downstairs apartment. The apartment used to belong to his former owner, an aging showbiz vet named Joe Mahoney who has fallen on hard times. Not even a talented dancing squirrel could stop him from being evicted on the day before Christmas, and Joe, unable to take care of little Rupert, set him free in the park. But Rupert couldn’t live out in the wild, so he made his way back to the apartment and built a nest up in the rafters.
Now the apartment belongs to an old friend of Joe’s, Louie Amendola (Jimmy Durante), and his wife (Queenie Smith) and daughter Rosalinda (Terry Moore, who was no stranger to stop-motion animated animals, having just palled around the year before with Mighty Joe Young). The Amendola family has also fallen on hard times, but they have an asset that Joe didn’t: A beautiful daughter. Rosalinda immediately catches the eye of Pete Dingle (Tom Drake, who preferred to pal around with real live animals like Lassie). Smitten, Pete lets the Amendola family move in the same day that Joe was evicted, and without a security deposit. That little romantic impulse doesn’t go over too well with Pete’s dad, Frank, the tight-fisted landlord who lives above the apartment, but Pete doesn’t mind as long as he’s got a chance with Rosalinda. And to tell the truth, Frank has bigger fish to fry. It seems that an old investment has finally begun to pay off in spades, which means a cool $1500 per week. After Frank cashes his first check, he squirrels the money away (see what I did there?) in a secret baseboard cubbyhole that just happens to intersect with Rupert’s nest.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Amendola is praying that the family will overcome their financial troubles… Okay, you can probably see where this is going by now. Money from Heaven! A Christmas miracle! At least, that’s what it seems like to the Amendola family. Cue the comic misadventures and misunderstandings, and a fairly unexpected ending, and a lot of laughs in between. Plus, that squirrel. Sure, it’ll probably seem a little dated and hokey to the viewer that feasts on million-dollar CGI eye candy, but thanks to George Pal’s expertise the darn thing has a lot of charm and personality. It’s delightful and precious in the tradition of Christmas classics that will follow, even though it isn’t as well known. That could change, since a colorized DVD has been released under the title A Christmas Wish in the last couple of years – though I generally frown on colorization, if it helps introduce new audiences to this charmer, then so be it. The black and white version is still in the public domain, though, and can be seen on YouTube.
So there you go! Popcorn’s popped, the tree is up, the hot chocolate’s on, and it’s time to settle in for the night with a Christmas movie. Maybe it’ll be one of these! Or maybe you have a delightful holiday movie that you’d like to share. Can’t get enough of Ri¢hie Ri¢h’s Christmas Wish? Love to sit down with the family for an annual viewing of It Happened One Christmas? Get all misty-eyed every time A Smoky Mountain Christmas is on TV? Tell me all about it in the comments.
By the way – Yeah, I know that there are a LOT of Christmas horror movies that could have gone here and didn’t. I didn’t overlook them. That’s just another list for another day. Until that time… Merry Christmas Movie Viewing!