Some of the best moments in hundreds of movies took place at Christmastime. And the author may have seen every one of them.
Christmas hasn’t been all that merry on the screen in the past couple of decades. Santa was as likely as not to be Gene Hackman in costume to make a drug bust in The French Connection; the holiday itself became a horror in films like Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night; and there was even an extraterrestrial turkey called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. So every holiday season, television late shows and repertory movie houses have to reach far back to find films suitable to the season. Of course there are the many versions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with Alastair Sim’s winning out by a wide margin. And there is the inevitable Miracle on 34th Street, in which Edmund Gwenn convinces Natalie Wood, a skeptical child, that there is a Santa.
But Christmas also has a way of turning up in movies that ostensibly have nothing to do with the holiday. And so, this winter, we will certainly see reruns of Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, chasing the hysterical Margaret O’Brien into the snow and calming her about the prospect of the family’s move to New York with a song: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Grave little Margaret went on to have other Christmas experiences on film—in Tenth Avenue Angel and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes. And Judy had had a Merry Christmas one of the first times she appeared. In Love Finds Andy Hardy, Mickey Rooney, in one of his customary Andy Hardy dilemmas, has invited both Ann Rutherford and Lana Turner to the big Christmas dance. He winds up with the little girl next door. And that was Judy.
No December goes by without Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in Holiday Inn, and you’ll also get to see Crosby, twelve years older, singing the same number in a follow-up movie named after Irving Berlin’s song. Bing was probably the movies’ foremost Christmas caroler. He warbled “Silent Night” in Going My Way, ” Adeste Fideles” in The Bells of St. Mary’s, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in High Times, and “The Secret of Christmas” in Say One for Me.
“Adeste Fideles” also provided the choral background to the scene in Since You Went Away in which Claudette Colbert discovers at Christmas that her missing-in-action soldier husband is alive. And, of course, “Silent Night” has been sung again and again, notably by Deanna Durbin (in Lady on a Train, not in the mishmash she made called Christmas Holiday).
You probably recall all those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, lonely in their foxholes, dreaming of a white Christmas. But in what movie? War pictures run together in the memory. Was it Battleground or The Story of G.I. Joe, Wake Island or Guadalcanal Diary, So Proudly We Hail, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Air Force, Destination Tokyo? Was Christmas in all of them—or any of them? However, one distinctly memorable war scene in an otherwise forgotten movie, Balalaika—not even primarily a war film—is Christmas on the Russian front. From a trench comes the voice of Nelson Eddy, singing “Silent Night.” From the enemy trenches echo choruses of the carol. Then the moment passes, and the killing begins again. Some soldiers made it into the outside world for the holidays: Joseph Gotten, the shell-shocked sergeant of I’ll Be Seeing You, not only got away from the war but also met Ginger Rogers, who had a secret of her own—she was a prison parolee.
Barbara Stanwyck was in trouble with the law, too, in Remember the Night, when she went back to Indiana for Christmas in the custody of the district attorney, Fred MacMurray. She had a wonderful holiday with MacMurray’s family, particularly with the warmest of movie mothers, Beulah Bondi. (Bondi could be Scrooge, too—as she was until Christmas touched her heart in She’s a Soldier, Too.)
Stanwyck had other movie encounters with the season. She was a bachelor-girl columnist forced to entertain a soldier on leave in Christmas in Connecticut . And it was Stanwyck, again as a reporter, who created “John Doe,” symbol of the forgotten man of the Depression, proclaiming that he would kill himself on Christmas Eve. He materialized in the shape of Gary Cooper in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe .
It was Capra who was responsible for It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart, the small-town boy facing disgrace and prison, turns on his family, rushes off into the night on Christmas Eve, and after wishing that he had never been born, jumps off a bridge. He is saved by his guardian angel, who shows him what would have happened if his wish had come true and he had never been born. Returning to the present to face the music, he comes home to find that the whole town of Capra types has come to his aid.
That is surely the definitive Christmas movie. But how many memorable moments there are: Myrna Loy in her Christmas mink, calmly watching William Powell taking potshots at the Christmas-tree ornaments (The Thin Man); first-graders putting on their own Nativity play (The Bells of St. Mary’s); Gary Grant and Irene Dunne proudly watching their little girl in her Christmas play (Penny Serenade); Preston Sturges spoofing Christmas conventions as Betty Hutton gives birth to holiday quintuplets (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek); Monty Woolley, an out-of-work actor in a Santa Claus job, snarling at a woman startled by his tremendous alcoholic burp, “What did you expect, Madam—chimes?” (Life Begins at 8:30); and Woolley, in The Man Who Came to Dinner, interrupting his devastation of a suburban household for a cozy Christmas radio chat; Parley Granger and Jeanne Grain in the “Gift of the Magi” episode of O. Henry’s Full House; Hepburn in Little Women, sharing Christmas dinner with a poor family; Lillian Gish and the children in the momentary respite from pursuit by the mad Robert Mitchum (The Night of the Hunter); Cary Grant as an elegant angel who makes everything right for David Niven and Loretta Young in The Bishop’s Wife; Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum in Holiday Affair; the love story of two lonely department store clerks (Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart) during the holiday sales in Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner; Vivien Leigh giving Leslie Howard a homemade sash in Gone With the Wind.
And they don’t stop. Christmas was important in the plots of so many more: Three Comrades, Four Daughters, A Tale of Two Cities, The Goose Hangs High and its remake, This Reckless Age, Things to Come, Bachelor Mother, Beyond Tomorrow, Mother Wore Tights, In the Good Old Summertime, Junior Miss, The Victors, The Cheaters, Giant, Heidi, The Lemon Drop Kid, Caged, Stalag 17, This Happy Breed, The Christmas Tree, Imitation of Life, Peyton Place, The Three Caballeros, and many more…
So perhaps it doesn’t much matter if today’s moviemakers tend to regard Christmas as Walpurgisnacht: we have plenty of alternatives to fall back on.