?He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.?
Roy L. Smith
It’s hard to sum up the Christmas season better than that. The holiday turns on what we make of it; our attitudes and actions are key to creating that special Christmas atmosphere. It all comes down to what’s in the heart. And That’s the theme of the final part of the Saturday Night at the (Old) Movies Christmas series: uplifting classics that warm the heart and soul. Some are well-known, others more obscure, but all are full of Christmas spirit.
My favourite Christmas film?and indeed, the top of the list for many film buffs?is 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Banker George Bailey once had ambitious dreams, but they’ve long since been buried in the realities of everyday life. One Christmas Eve, facing prison for a crime he didn’t commit, he attempts suicide. He’s convinced that his life has been nothing but a string of failures. Just in time, he’s rescued by an angel with a mission: to show him the difference he’s made in the lives of others. George finally realizes that his life truly has been wonderful, and this heartwarming movie wraps with a rousing Christmas chorus.
Trivia: The film’s softly falling snow has an interesting history. Prior to this movie, crushed cornflakes were used to simulate the effect. However, when actors walked on this ?snow? the crunching sound was so loud that their voices had to be dubbed over afterwards. To avoid this problem, the studio pioneered a new ?fake snow? technology that involved firefighting foam, soap, and water pushed through a wind machine. The special effects department actually received an award for developing the new snow.
A much more suave angel plays guide in 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife. Bishop Henry Brougham is unhappy. He’s become obsessed with building a new cathedral?so obsessed that he’s put family and friends on hold and is even willing to ignore his own better judgment in order to placate a wealthy patron. After calling on Heaven for help, the Bishop receives it, but not in the form he wants or expects. The angel?played by Cary Grant?sets about bringing happiness into the lives of everyone involved in the cathedral project. But there’s a catch: the angel begins to fall for the Bishop’s lonely wife. It’s a sweet and warm-hearted, but often overlooked, Christmas classic.
Trivia: Originally, Cary Grant was intended to play the role of the bishop, but since he wanted to take the angel’s part instead his role was switched with the angel?s.
In a lighter vein, the Christmas comedy It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) begins with a hobo taking up winter quarters in a wealthy industrialist’s home. The millionaire family is spending the winter in the south, so the man makes himself comfortable. Then he gets company. First a homeless young veteran, then a finishing-school runaway (who doesn’t reveal that She’s actually the daughter of the home’s owner), then three families, and finally the industrialist himself (incognito, of course) and his divorced wife all join the ?family.? By New Year’s Day the house is empty again, but everyone leaves much happier and more fulfilled.
Trivia: Alan Hale, Jr., who plays former GI Whitey in this film, later took the role of the Skipper in the Gilligan’s Island TV series.
Another lighthearted offering, Irving Berlin’s Christmas musical Holiday Inn (1942) centres on the members of a successful musical act, Jim and Ted. Jim, tired of the entertainment world, plans to retire to a quiet New England farm with co-star Lila. At the last minute, however, Lila stays on with Ted. Alone on the farm, Jim conceives the idea for the Holiday Inn, an inn open only during holidays, and hires aspiring performer Linda to help with the inn’s entertainment.
All goes well until Ted arrives. Lila has since left him, and Ted thinks Linda will be the perfect new addition to his act. Jim’s determined to keep Linda with him and the hotel going. Ted’s determined to hire Linda; and both Linda and Lila, who’s returned, are determined to get to Hollywood. Although the film includes songs for all the major holidays, its beginning and closing during the Christmas season, together with its launch of the popular songs ?White Christmas? and ?Happy Holidays,? make it an enjoyable holiday movie.
Trivia: You might have noticed that during the November calendar segment, the Thanksgiving turkey can’t seem to decide whether to land on the third or fourth Thursday of the month. In 1939 and 1940, President Roosevelt switched the US Thanksgiving holiday from the fourth Thursday in November to the preceding week, in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season (and hopefully boost the economy.) Public outcry caused the holiday to be fixed by law as the fourth Thursday in November.
There’s no singing, but 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street is another holiday staple. Disillusioned divorcee Doris Walker and her daughter Susan don’t believe in fairy tales or make-believe, but their beliefs are stood on end when they meet Kris. A last-minute replacement for the role of Santa Claus in a Thanksgiving parade, Kris makes an excellent Saint Nick. He’s charming and authentic in every way, but something’s wrong: he won’t admit that he isn’t actually Santa Claus. His insistence on his identity leads jealous individuals to question his mental competence, and just before Christmas Kris is brought to court to determine if commitment to an asylum is required. Is Kris really Santa Claus? If nothing else, he seems to have the power to work miracles . . .
Trivia: If you thought this film would have been a holiday release, you’d be mistaken. Because studio executives believed that a summer release meant more moviegoers, the film actually came out in May. It also was not advertised as a Christmas film; in fact, this was kept quite secret, and its promotional trailers focused on endorsements of the movie rather than previews of the storyline. Pre-release posters, too, hid Kringle’s image in the background. Strange beginnings for a movie That’s become a Christmas classic!
Last, but not least, is perennial holiday favourite A Christmas Carol. There have been countless adaptations of the classic story of miserly Scrooge, visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. However, my personal favourite is the 1938 version, A Christmas Carol. Because it leaves out a few key plot devices, although It’s largely faithful to the book, this film is often frowned upon by purists. It’s also not as dark as Dickens intended. However, That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The 1938 version is spirited and full of optimism, and is very watchable for all ages. (If you still prefer a closer adaptation, see 1951’s A Christmas Carol.)
Trivia: Mr. and Mrs. Crachit were played by a real-life couple, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, and one of their daughters played a Crachit daughter onscreen. Gene is also recognizable as the flustered judge in Miracle on 34th Street.
Christmas is just around the corner! In the frenzied week ahead, take some downtime to set the mood with a heartwarming holiday classic. Happy watching?and may the spirit of Christmas last in your hearts forever!