Forgotten Christmas Movies x5

I love classic movies. So now that it’s Christmastime, I’d like to talk about some favorite classic Christmas movies. And by classic, I mean movies made before 1990.

I’m a sucker for a good Christmas movie, and there have been some really good ones produced in the last few years. The Polar Express is a favorite, along with Home Alone, The Grinch, Elf, and A Christmas Story. And there have been many, MANY, adaptations of Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol, starring everyone from the Muppets to George C. Scott, and others featuring Alastair Sim, Donald Duck, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, and many more. Take your pick.

For this list, I’m going to stay away from better known Christmas classics – so, no White Christmas, no It’s a Wonderful Life, and no Miracle on 34th Street. Those are all great films that are among my favorites, but I want to focus on some that are not as familiar. All of these listed here are family-friendly and very watchable Christmas films.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This movie has been remade a couple of times, most recently as 1998’s You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but the original is still the best. Jimmie Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as co-workers at a luggage shop who can’t stand each other in person but who have unknowingly fallen in love with each other as anonymous pen pals. Don’t miss Frank Morgan as their boss – as an actor, he’s better known as the title character in The Wizard of Oz (1939). I just love this little movie, though. It’s really wonderful.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck gives a fine performance as a Martha Stewart-type homemaker and magazine writer who is an awesome cook, a loving wife, and a devoted mother, living on her family’s farm in Connecticut. Except she’s really a terrible cook, never married, not a mom, and lives in a high-rise New York apartment. But then her boss at the magazine (Sydney Greenstreet), who doesn’t know that she’s been making up the whole thing, has the idea to have a war hero spend Christmas with the writer and her family at the farm, and she has to scramble to keep everything going. Also with S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as her friend, Chef Felix.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Every year, the world’s second richest man (Charles Ruggles) leaves his mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York and heads south to warmer weather, and every year, as soon as he is gone, a homeless guy (Victor Moore) moves into the vacated manor for the winter. He meets an Army veteran (Don DeFore), just out of the service, who has lost his apartment, and invites him to stay with him in the absent guy’s mansion. Soon, there are more homeless vets, a displaced heiress, and even the homeowner and his estranged wife all living there and trying to hide their true identities and motives. It’s a terrific farce comedy that also takes a serious look at some of the problems returning GIs faced in trying to find their place in post-war America.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

A very cool angel (Cary Grant) comes to Earth to help an Episcopalian priest (David Niven), who is so obsessed with raising money to build a new cathedral that he neglects not only his family and wife (Loretta Young), but also his true calling as a minister. Grant and Niven were originally cast to play each other’s roles in the film, but when the original director was fired, the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, made them swap roles to create this wonderful film.

Holiday Affair (1949)

Robert Mitchum and a very young Janet Leigh (only 22 at the time) star: she is a war widow with a young son, he is a department store clerk. Through a series of interactions, she causes him to lose his job. Even though she is already engaged to one man, when she meets Mitchum, she can’t deny the attraction she feels. He is sensational in a break from his usual tough guy roles. It’s a terrific story with a strong supporting cast; look for a young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) as an exasperated police lieutenant trying to sort things out at one point.

There’s a great book that I would highly recommend for any classic movie fan on your Christmas gift list: Christmas in the Movies – 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, published by Turner Classic Movies. It’s a great look at some terrific holiday films.

Merry Christmas! And please save me some popcorn.

The Movies, 5 x 5

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me, that I love the movies. I like movie soundtracks. I love throwing out movie quotes at appropriate moments, sometimes just to see if anyone will catch it. And frankly my dear, I DON’T like much of what has been coming out of Hollywood lately. Not because of the content, although that is certainly bad enough.

No, my complaint is that most directors, producers and screenwriters seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story visually. Twenty-seven explosions in search of a plot does NOT make a good movie, in my opinion. CGI is no substitute for genuine character development, and SPFX cannot take the place of a good, you know, story.

I write this, knowing that I have friends in the movie business, both writers and actors. And truthfully, I don’t object to good visual effects – in fact, I love them. I think the “Star Trek” reboot movies are a good example – especially this most recent film, “Into Darkness.” I thought it had a really good story that was really well told, and for once, the effects – including the 3D – actually ADDED to the movie’s effectiveness. I saw it in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D shot of the Enterprise rising up out of the clouds was simply gorgeous.

And this from a diehard fan of the original Trek TV show, who really wanted NOT to like what these young whippersnappers were doing with my franchise.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m just being an old curmudgeon, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” sort of guy. I don’t hate technology in movies. I just think I have a right to expect more than that for my $12.

I got to spend some time with my brother David and his family last week, and we got on the subject of favorites movies. Actually, I like playing a little game with other movie fans. Here’s how it goes: you pick a category of movie, and list your five favorites from that category. Drama. Action / Adventure. Horror. Comedy.

Yes, I know it’s nerdy. And geeky. What can I say? I AM a nerd. And a geek. But you must like the movies too, or you wouldn’t still be reading at this point, right? So here’s how we’re going to play. I’m going to pick five categories of films, then tell you my five favorites in that category – 5 x 5, get it?

You are welcome to disagree, debate about which movies should have been listed, wonder how I could be so dense as to have left off one of your favorites from a given list, or whatever. That’s part of the fun here. And I’m not saying these are necessarily the best movies of these categories ever made, just my favorites.  If you really want to get into it, you can always sign up at, and create your own lists that you can post.  It’s showtime, folks! (Quick: what movie is that line from?)

FIVE ALL-TIME FAVORITES –  These are my favorite movies.  They are not all necessarily “great” films, but all them continue to touch me deeply.  Here’s a link to the complete list of my Top 25 favorites.

  • 5.  The Shawshank Redemption.  This movie meets one of my criteria for “favorite,” which is that I watch it any time it comes on TV.  Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are a treat.
  • 4.  Tender Mercies.  Talk about redemption: at the end of the movie, when Robert Duvall is throwing the football with his stepson, you have the answer to the question, “Why?”  Incredible movie.
  • 3.  The Quiet Man.  The John Ford Company Players at their best, along with stunning Irish scenery.
  • 2.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  A sentimental favorite because it was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our first date.  Then 30+ years later, we went to see it at the Paramount on our anniversary.
  • 1.  Casablanca.  Is it a war movie?  Is it a romance?  Is it a character picture?  Yes, all of that, and more.  Bogart.  Bergman.  For all sorts of reasons, everybody comes to Rick’s.

FIVE FAVORITE WAR MOVIES – So-called “war” movies are sometimes accused of glorifying violence, but I think a good one has just the opposite effect, showing the waste and futility.  Here are five good ones.

  • 5.  Gettysburg.  Jeff Daniels shines as the speech professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who receives the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.
  • 4.  The Enemy Below.  Robert Mitchum and Curd Jurgens are amazing as the American and German captains opposing each other.  Who – or what – is the real enemy?
  • 3.  Saving Private Ryan.  I always wondered what it would be like to be behind a landing craft door when it dropped open.  It ain’t pretty.
  • 2.  Twelve O’Clock High.  Gregory Peck as a good man struggling under the burden what he must do to push his men and accomplish the mission.
  • 1.  The Guns of Navarone.  Another great Gregory Peck role, with another fine cast.  David Niven is terrific.

FIVE FAVORITE JOHN WAYNE MOVIES –  John Wayne is, and always will be, known for his Westerns.  But I think he was often at his best when he took that persona and translated it into other kinds of movie storytelling.  Honorable mention: Hellfighters.

  • 5.  The Shootist.  The Duke’s last movie, playing an aging gunfighter who just wants to die in peace.  All actors should go out so well.
  • 4.  True Grit.  Come see a one-eyed fat man.
  • 3.  The High and the Mighty.  John Wayne is a pilot on a doomed airliner.
  • 2.  Fort Apache.  Watching him work with Henry Fonda was always a treat.
  • 1.  The Quiet Man.  Sean Thornton, home from America, to forget his troubles.

FIVE FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Trials naturally lend themselves to good movie making.  Life and death, freedom and imprisonment, right and wrong.  Another of the great ones (even though it’s not on this list): Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

  • 5.  The Caine Mutiny.  Humphrey Bogart is great; Jose Ferrer is superb.  Fred McMurray is agreeably spineless and slimy.
  • 4.  The Verdict.  This was Paul Newman’s greatest role, in my opinion, as an alcoholic ambulance-chaser looking for redemption.
  • 3.  A Few Good Men.  Aaron Sorkin writes, and Tom and Demi go up against Jack.  You can’t handle the truth.
  • 2.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 1.  Twelve Angry Men.  Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.

FIVE FAVORITE BASEBALL MOVIES –  I think it’s fair to say that there have been more great baseball pictures, than all other categories of sports movies combined.  This summer’s 42 is also really, really good.

  • 5.  The Sandlot.  Friends and summers and growing up.  And James Earl Jones ain’t bad.
  • 4.  A League of Their Own.  You know it as well as I do: There’s no crying in baseball.
  • 3.  Field of Dreams.  So many memorable lines and moments.  “No, I mean, what do you want?”  “Oh.  A dog and a beer.”
  • 2.  The Natural.  Yes, it’s cheesy and melodramatic at times.  It’s still wonderful watching Redford knock the cover off the ball.  There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.
  • 1.  Bull Durham.  Okay, this movie has some of the dirtiest language ever put on celluloid, and I really can’t recommend it for that reason.  But it captures the joy of the game and essence of baseball in a way few others have ever matched.  The rose goes in front, big guy.

There, see how easy that was? So now, get your Siskel & Ebert on, and come up with some lists of your own. And please pass the popcorn.