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Christmas Movies Beyond the Expected

Six films to shake up your holiday viewing

By David Lehman | December 18, 2021
Christmastime in New York provides the backdrop for one of the most famous mobster movies of all time, The Godfather. (Everett Collection)
Christmastime in New York provides the backdrop for one of the most famous mobster movies of all time, The Godfather. (Everett Collection)

In many households, a showing of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is an annual event. A suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) gets to see what life in his small town would have been like had he not existed. A benevolent angel helps him to choose life with his lifelong love (Donna Reed). Far be it from me to discourage you from enjoying this movie that ends with a basket of dollars expressing the townspeople’s love of George while the chorus sings “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

Nor would I speak against Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), if only for Judy’s Garland’s magnificent rendition of that most melancholy of all Noel songs, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with its resolve to “muddle through somehow.” Nor White Christmas (1954), another annual-viewing tradition for many families, which boasts the talents of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen. Irving Berlin’s score includes the title number, winner of the Oscar for Best Original Song 12 years earlier for its use in Holiday Inn. It was, and may still be, the best-selling song of all time.

But there are cinematic gems you may have never seen or considered in the context of the holiday season—whether they illustrate the spirit of Christmas or provide an ironic counterpoint to it.

The Miracle of Morgan Creek (1943)

Preston Sturges’s delightfully zany romp takes place on the home front in World War II. Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), the daughter of the town constable (William Demarest), gets drunk at a farewell party and marries a soldier on his last night of freedom. She can’t quite recall his name (“it had a z in it”), but she is carrying his child. Far from punished, the mother-to-be retains, in this radically subversive movie, the devotion of the homely and hapless Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), an army reject who stammers when excited. But though Norval isn’t altogether normal, he truly loves Trudy. The harebrained scheme he hatches to save her reputation lands him in jail on multiple counts including abduction, larceny, breaking and entering, impersonating a soldier, and impairing the morals of an adolescent.

But as Christmas approaches, the governor (Brian Donlevy)—whom we’ve met in a previous Sturges masterpiece, The Great McGinty (1940)—pardons Norval. He and Trudy tie the knot and are blessed with sextuplets, who make the nurses jump for joy, grab headlines, demoralize Mussolini (who resigns, saying, “Enough is Sufficiency”), and cause Hitler to throw a tantrum (“Demands Recount”).

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Fans of femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck—see a previous Talking Pictures piece, “The Highest Achievement in American Film Noir”—will enjoy her in the comic circumstances of Peter Godfrey’s Christmas in Connecticut.  Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) writes the popular “Diary of a Housewife” column for a prestigious New York magazine. Her chronicle of domestic life in a country farmhouse includes references to a loving husband, an adorable baby boy, and gourmet meals, and her recipes delight her loyal readers.

Lane, we soon learn, is a single, city-living sophisticate, and the family and farm life she writes about are entirely fictitious. Her boss is Alexander Yardley, the magazine publisher (Sydney Greenstreet), who thinks it a capital idea for Elizabeth to cook a traditional Christmas dinner for Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), a navy hero who survived 18 days on an open raft at sea and is an avid fan of her columns. With the help of her Uncle Felix (S. Z. Sakall)—the real chef behind her recipes—Elizabeth (poorly) impersonates her literary persona, falls in love with the decorated sailor, gets arrested with him for something they didn’t do, gets fired, gets rehired with her salary doubled, and gets her man.

Stalag 17 (1953)

A trailer for Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, made long after the film’s initial release, proclaimed that William Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for his role and characterized the movie as a comedy. The first statement is accurate; the second—well, there are funny, even joyous moments, and the hero prevails, but it’s a rather bleak comedy. In the godforsaken cold December of 1944, the Battle of the Bulge is raging, and there is a traitor in Stalag 17, the German prisoner-of-war camp consisting of American Air Force sergeants.

In the time-honored fashion of “wrong man” movies, Sergeant J. J. Sefton (Holden) must find out who the true culprit is, and turn the tables. How did the traitor communicate group secrets to the Nazi commandant (Otto Preminger)? Meanwhile, during a make-do Christmas celebration, the men make as merry as they can in dismal captivity. They sing “Adeste Fidelis,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” and the Harlan Thompson and Harry Archer standard “I Love You.” As happens in many a POW flick, a guy dresses up as a doll, and a buddy bewitched by Betty Grable imagines it is she with whom he is dancing. See this previous Talking Pictures piece for my longer analysis on this and a second movie in which Holden is a “model prisoner” of war.

The Godfather, Parts I (1972) and II (1974)

Just to throw a curveball at you, I would remind viewers that it’s Christmastime in New York when gunmen attack Don Corleone in The Godfather. On Fifth Avenue, consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) has his hands full of gifts for his kids when he is abducted by bad guy Sollozzo (Al Lettieri). That evening, the don’s son Michael (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), have just seen The Bells of St. Mary’s at Radio City Music Hall and are discussing the attractions of Ingrid Bergman as a nun when a tabloid newspaper headline informs them of the attempt on the don’s life.

Menace and mayhem have a holiday backdrop in The Godfather: Part II as well. At an extravagant party in Havana on New Year’s Eve 1959, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista announces his defeat at the hands of Castro’s rebels. The same night, an unsuccessful attempt is made on mobster Hyman Roth’s life, and Michael finds out who betrayed him and broke his heart. There should be an all-Godfather, all-the-time station, if there isn’t one already.

Ocean’s 11 (1960)

My favorite New Year’s Eve picture is the original Ocean’s 11, directed by Lewis Milestone. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and associates—the Rat Pack at the height of its glamour—play veterans of a crack unit in the 82nd Airborne Division who assemble in Las Vegas 15 years after their World War II glory days. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) enlists the band to rob five casinos at the stroke of midnight. Memorable songs by Dino (“Ain’t that a Kick in the Head”) and Sammy (“Eee-o Eleven”), though regrettably none from Old Blue Eyes himself, enliven this funny, ironic, and highly tipsy movie.

The guys pull off the ingenious heist and would enjoy their ill-gotten gains if not for an unexpected casualty in their ranks (Richard Conte) and a funereal decision I won’t give away. Reviewer Bosley Crowther didn’t get it. He felt that the movie’s defects were that (a) “there is no built-in implication that the boys have done something wrong,” and (b) “a wholesale holdup of Las Vegas would not be so easy as it is made to look,” a beautiful demonstration of Crowther’s misunderstanding of the medium he covered professionally for The New York Times.

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