Christmas Without George Bailey

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Every American knows what Christmas means. It means Miracle on 34th Street , A Christmas Carol , and It’s a Wonderful Life . Year after year. For readers who have found themselves finally half wanting Porter Hall to lock up Edmund Gwenn, Scrooge to fire Cratchit, and James Stewart to jump, here are twelve titles just as good that have avoided such wearying ubiquity. They may even reawaken that old holiday spirit in you.

 
 
 
 
 
 

1 The Thin Man (1934).

Of course you remember this movie, but did you remember it was a Christmas movie? Besides the urbane banter of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) and the genuinely clever murder-mystery plot—and Nick’s gang of friends from the wrong side of the tracks, and his coolness under fire when Ed Brophy breaks into the bedroom waving a gun, and the Repeal-happy bar scene where Nora orders five martinis—there’s also a great Christmas morning sequence with a most thoughtful gift for Hollywood’s greatest dog, Asta.

2 Three Godfathers (1936) or 3 Godfathers (1948).

Both versions ace the test of time. Three outlaws fresh from a bank job run across a pregnant woman at a desert water hole just before Christmas. They help her deliver her baby; she dies, but not before they promise to get the infant to safety. The later remake (it was already a movie twice before 1936), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, has the happier ending; the 1936 version has more conviction, and it stars Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, and Walter Brennan. Stone eventually became the lovable Judge Hardy and Brennan the generic lovable old coot, but here they are tough, scary hombres whom you’d want on your side in any bar fight.

3 Bachelor Mother (1939).

One of two stories set in a Manhattan department store by the great comedy screenwriter Norman Krasna (the other is The Devil and Miss Jones ). Ginger Rogers, a shopgirl laid off from the store right before Christmas, runs across an abandoned infant the same day; David Niven, the store owner’s son, assumes, as does everyone else, that it’s her baby and decides to help. Rogers without the dancing, a fine comic actress, makes a superb partner for an extremely funny Niven in one of his first movie roles.

4 Meet John Doe (1941).

The last of Frank Capra’s populist classics has Gary Cooper in top form as a washed-up baseball star whom Barbara Stanwyck, a newspaper columnist, and Edward Arnold, her would-be-politico boss, wangle into becoming the representative “common man” for a national campaign protesting world conditions. It dawns on Cooper that he’s the front man for a fascist type of movement and he tries to alert the public. The Christmas framing device works flawlessly. But the ending? The New York Times critic Howard Thompson says, “We still say he should have jumped.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

5 Holiday Inn (1942).

Not only a Christmas movie but also a diverting comedy, an Irving Berlin musical, and a tale of cutthroat show-biz and romantic competition between Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Shorter and sharper than its overstuffed heir White Christmas , its highlights include Astaire dancing after one too many, Crosby eating Thanksgiving dinner alone while griping about the crooner on the radio (himself), and Irving Berlin’s only song—perhaps the only song—about Lincoln’s birthday (performed, for better or worse, in blackface).

6 Larceny, Inc. (1942).

How often do you get to see a comedy starring Edward G. Robinson and Broderick Crawford? Along with the perennial gangster Ed Brophy they play ex-cons who buy a luggage store so they can tunnel into the bank vault next door before Christmas. Somehow they end up as heroic citizens. Sidelights include Jane Wyman as a love interest and a very young Jackie Gleason. Based on a play by S. J. Perelman.

7 Holiday Affair (1949).

A gem ripe for discovery, this is a grown-up comedy about a widowed mother, Janet Leigh, and the two men pursuing her, a Ralph Bellamy-esque Wendell Corey and a smoothly charming Robert Mitchum, all set in Christmastime Manhattan. Leigh works as a “store shopper,” and we get to see a few retail-espionage tricks along the way.

8 The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).

Bob Hope stumbles into Damon Runyon territory as a horse tipster who ends up owing money to a gangster, enlists an army of bell-ringing Santas to raise the cash, and then decides to go straight. The classic song “Silver Bells” makes its debut. (Ed Wood aficionados should keep an eye out for his star Tor Johnson playing a Swedish wrestler.)

9 The Desk Set (1957).

Spencer Tracy is the efficiency expert sent to shape up the office that Katharine Hepburn manages; the third point of the triangle is Gig Young. Like The Apartment , it’s a time capsule of 1950s corporate culture, including a golden-age office Christmas party.

10 The Apartment (1960).

A dry martini amid eggnogs. Jack Lemmon, a young executive on the rise, lends his apartment to his married superiors for their affairs in exchange for favorable job reports. Directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, it ultimately shucks its astringent cynicism for a happy but not treacly ending. Fred MacMurray is the bad guy, Shirley MacLaine is herself, and the office Christmas party is strenuously pre-political correctness.

11 Fitzwilly (1967).

Dick Van Dyke plays the head butler in the Park Avenue home of a sweet old widow who doesn’t know she’s broke; he and his staff support her and their own high living through white-collar crime, climaxing in the robbery of Gimbels on Christmas Eve. They all turn honest at the end, but before that you get to see a great department store being knocked over at the height of the holidays.

12 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

George Lazenby, an underrated James Bond, is joined by Telly Savalas as the evil Blofeld and Diana Rigg as Bond’s “love” interest. Agent 007's lifestyle may not incarnate the Christmas spirit for everyone, but the second half of the story is set amid snow-covered Swiss Alps full of mountain villages decorated with such earnest picturesqueness that if it fails to kindle some holiday sentiment, you belong in Bedford Falls working for Mr. Potter.