Movies that contain scenes about Christmas often seem awkward if we see them at the wrong time of the year. I presume you already know about It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, so I have selected twenty other personal favorites to recommend that have something to do with Christmas. Remember, though, they may not be what you would normally call a Christmas movie.
1. Captain Newman, MD (1964) with Gregory Peck and Tony Curtis: This is a comedy-drama about a psycho ward in an Arizona military hospital during World War II. Angie Dickinson agreed to a six-year contract with Universal in order to play opposite Gregory Peck in this film. Peck commands the psycho ward and highjacks new orderly Curtis to work in his ward. He then coaxes the head nurse of another ward, Dickinson, to transfer to his.
There are great performances from Eddie Albert as a colonel who has become Mr. Future, Bobby Darin as the lone survivor of his fellow crewmen, and Robert Duvall (in his second big-screen appearance after appearing with Peck as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird) as an officer who had avoided discovery by the Germans – and avoided the war – by hiding. The scene when Curtis explains to Peck how the ward got its five-foot Christmas tree is a screen treasure. It ends on Christmas Day.
2. A Christmas Carol (1984) with George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge: This one has been filmed many times, but this version is my favorite thus far. Scott is perfectly cast, but so are the rest of the cast. Roger Rees as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and David Warner as Bob Cratchit add depth to characters who generally get only routine attention. All the ghosts are wonderful with Edward Woodward being the standout as Present. Timeless!
3. A Christmas Memory (1966) with Geraldine Page and young Donnie Melvin: Melvin plays Buddy, who is actually Truman Capote; and Capote narrates this personal memoir of his childhood. Buddy’s best friend is a very simple and kind woman (Miss Page in an Emmy winning role) who “is still a child.” Every Christmas the two of them, with their dog Queeny, gather and buy all the ingredients for fruitcakes and mail the cakes to “friends.” They share the house with Buddy’s two aunts, but we only see them on Christmas morning. This one is super special. “It’s fruitcake weather!”
4. The Christmas Tree (1969) with William Holden, Virna Lisi, Bourvil, and young Brook Fuller: The critics hate this one, but I love it. Holden’s son, Fuller, is exposed to radiation from the explosion of a plane carrying a nuclear bomb. While Holden explains to his girlfriend that his son’s condition is incurable, you hear a car crash. When he leaves, you see the commotion of the accident, but Holden, the devastated father, never notices it. Holden tries to make his son’s last days as happy as possible, and he even gets him two wolves as pets. “We’re so lucky: every day is a holiday!” the boy exclaims. If it were only so. It ends on Christmas Eve. Sadly, although I have a VHS from Goodtimes that I transferred to DVD, it may be impossible to find this little gem commercially.
5. A Dog of Flanders (1959) with Theodore Bikel, Donald Crisp, and young David Ladd (son of Alan and former husband of Cheryl): A boy and his grandfather (Crisp – superb as usual) befriend an abused dog; the dog befriends them by helping to pull their milk cart on their daily rounds; an artist, Bikel, befriends the boy, who also wants to become an artist. But what happens when the grandfather dies and the boy must survive on his own? Filmed on location in the Netherlands. It ends on Christmas Day.
6. The Homecoming (1971) with Patricia Neal and Richard Thomas: This inspiration for The Waltons TV series was recognized as an instant classic the moment it first aired. Patricia Neal was still recovering from three strokes and had to be persuaded to take the part of the mother. It’s the Depression Era, and the father has had to find work far from home. It’s Christmas Eve, and his family is waiting for his homecoming. It’s John-Boy, the recipe, and even a ride in a one-horse open sleigh.
7. The Lady and the Tramp (1955) with the voice of Peggy Lee: This is my all-time favorite Disney animated classic. Can a streetwise stray settle down with pampered cocker spaniel? The Tramp treats the Lady to a spaghetti dinner outside an Italian restaurant and the result is pure magic. Disney’s artists beautifully and realistically captured the mannerisms of our canine friends. The songs are also good, especially one sung by Peggy Lee. This special movie begins on one Christmas Day and ends on another.
8. A Little Game (1971) with Ed Nelson, Diane Baker, Katy Jurado, Howard Duff, and young Mark Gruner: A boy (Gruner) brings his best friend (Christopher Shea) home from the Hastings Military Academy for the Christmas holidays. The boy hates his new stepfather (Nelson), and he may have already murdered a classmate back at the academy. The stepfather hires Al Dunlap, a private detective , to investigate. Dunlap, superbly played by veteran actor Howard Duff in too small of a role, describes Hastings as “a hatchery of war mongerers and twisted little minds.” Mark Gruner is excellent as the deranged cadet who worshipped his sadistic late father and is very possessive of his beautiful mother (Baker). The boy has a master-slave relationship with his “best friend” and wants his own rifle for Christmas! Unfortunately, this was an ABC made-for-TV film that is not available commercially. I recorded it when it was re-shown on a local TV station when I was living in New Orleans in the 1980s.
9. Little Lord Fauntleroy (1980) with Alec Guinness and young Ricky Schroder: An impoverished New York City youth learns that he is the heir to a British title and estate. Although, a product of Hester Street, we can tell that the boy, Cedric, was well taught by his mother and family friend/”servant”: whenever he uses the wrong verb, he quickly corrects himself and speaks properly. His best friends are a grocer and a boot-black. The grocer, Mr. Hobbs, hopes the boy will become a Democrat so that he will help the have-nots. There are many political references comparing the Democrats to the Republicans and the common people to the aristocrats. The boy moves into his grandfather’s castle, but his mother must live separately in a distant cottage. The Earl, wonderfully portrayed by Alec Guinness, wants nothing to do with her. Things begin to change when his grandson and estranged daughter-in-law win over the nearby citizenry with their love and goodwill. The Scrooge-like grandfather begins to get interested in life again. Complications arise when another youth claims to be the rightful heir. Look for Patrick Stewart (Star Trek’s Captain Picard) in a small role. It ends on Christmas Day. [Note: This Jan. 2012, I found a DVD of this little gem at santaflix.com – it’s a widescreen version that allows us to enjoy the Emmy-winning cinematography.]
10. The Lion in Winter (1968) with Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Timothy Dalton, and Anthony Hopkins: Henry II is having a Christmas Court and hopes to pick the heir to his British throne. He invites his three sons and even invites his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he has kept locked in a tower for years. Miss Hepburn won her second of four Best Actress academy awards for this one, and it may be her finest performance. Anthony Hopkins made his debut in this film as Richard the Lionhearted. Don’t miss a single word or frame of this delicious film. And John Barry’s music is fabulous as well.
11. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol ((1962) with the voice of Jim Backus: The nearly blind Magoo is a great Scrooge! You will be surprised at how faithful this animated version of Dickens’ story is handled. There are some catchy tunes, but the dark side of Dicken’s England is captured quite successfully.
12. My Mother’s Castle (1991) in French with English subtitles: This is the sequel to the splendid little film My Father’s Glory, which is one of my favorite summer movies and should be seen first. Autobiographical, this movie continues the story of Marcel Pagnol’s wonderful childhood. With young Julian Ciamaca playing Marcel, the film is in good hands. For the Christmas holidays, Marcel’s family decides to return to the hills where they had vacationed the previous summer. They then decide to return on a regular basis and use an illegal shortcut along a canal to make their visits more practical. This one is fun. And beautiful!
13. My Side of the Mountain (1969) with Theodore Bikel and young Teddy Eccles: One critic described it as “an improbable story of a boy who ran away from home to live on his own in the woods.” Ironically, it is a true story based on the actual experiences of a GIRL! When Jean Craighead George wrote her book, she changed herself to a boy so that readers would find her adventures more believable. Teddy Eccles plays Sam, the young “Thoreau,” with confidence and maturity. Sam escapes from the city of Toronto into the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, he creates a home for himself and his pet raccoon Gus inside a dead tree, he captures and trains a peregrine falcon, he makes his own clothes, he goes skinny dipping in his own pond, and he pursues his experiments with the uses of algae. Theodore Bikel shows up as the wandering minstrel Bando in search of local folk songs, and he and the boy hit it off – but the singer has to leave before the first snow falls. Fortunately, Bando returns on Christmas Day.
14. The Night of the Hunter (1955) with Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, Lillian Gish, and young Billy Chapin (pictured): Billy Chapin carries this film, while being surrounded by some of the very best in the business. Chapin and his little sister, possessing money stolen by their late father, are chased by madman Mitchum, but they find refuge with Lillian Gish. This is the only movie ever directed by screen and stage legend Charles Laughton. Incredibly, this beautifully filmed movie was originally panned by the critics, and Laughton swore never to direct another movie. It ends on Christmas Day.
15. Ordinary People (1980) with Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, and Judd Hirsch: This is Hutton’s film, but his Oscar was for Best Supporting Actor. Ms. Moore’s supporting performance is astounding because we still recall her TV sitcom days; however, she was nominated in the wrong category and lost in the Best Actress competition. This was the first film directed by Robert Redford, and it is pretty near flawless and was awarded the Best Director Oscar. The teenaged Hutton is recovering from a failed suicide attempt. His brother had recently drowned in a boating accident, but he had been able to survive. His mother can seemingly show him no love. His father, superbly played by Sutherland, who amazingly wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, is aware of the growing problem between his wife and son, but doesn’t know what to do. The son begins to see a psychiatrist, best supporting nominee Hirsch, and finds someone he can talk to. This is no ordinary film. Part of the story takes place during the Christmas season.
16. The Rocking Horse Winner (1949) with John Mills and young John Howard Davies: A boy (Paul played by Davies) rides his rocking horse to “know” the winners at the race track. The hired hand (Mills) is a former jockey and places the bets for him. The boy hopes the money will help his mother, who spends money as though she were wealthy. Paul’s father can’t keep a job and is a compulsive gambler who is a terrible card player. The story begins during the Christmas season, and Paul receives the rocking horse as a gift. Soon, Paul begins to hear the house whispering, “Money, money, we need more money.” Considering himself to be lucky, he finds he has a gift for “knowing” the winners of the races. Interesting and off-beat.
17. Simon Birch (1998) with Joseph Mazzello, Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, David Strathairn, and Ian Michael Smith: Young Mazzello plays a boy who is eager to learn who his father is. His best friend is a dwarf named Simon Birch, who believes he has a special destiny. Their church’s Christmas play, with Simon as the baby Jesus, is a riot! Jim Carrey narrates and also makes a cameo appearance at the end.
18. Three Godfathers (1948) with John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Pedro Armendariz, and Ward Bond: Three bank robbers, being pursued by Ward Bond’s posse, help deliver a baby and promise the dying mother to take care of the newborn infant. It’s one of the Duke’s best, and it’s directed by John Ford! Before you know it, you discover the western you are watching is a Christmas tale.
19. We’re No Angels (1955) with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, Leo G. Carroll, Basil Rathbone, and Joan Bennett: On Devil’s Island, three escaped convicts (Bogart, Ustinov, and Ray) help out a naïve family, the Ducotels (Carroll and Bennett), at Christmas time against a ruthless relative (Rathbone) who is coming to check the store’s books. The hero turns out to be Adolph. You never see Adolph, but he is Aldo Ray’s pet snake.
20. White Christmas (1954) with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Dean Jagger: Two army buddies (Crosby and Kaye) team up after WWII as a singing act. They help out another singing duo, two sisters played by Clooney and Vera-Ellen, and go with them for the sisters’ gig at a Vermont ski resort. The resort happens to be owned by the general they served under and loved during the war (Jagger). Christmas is approaching, there’s no snow, there are no tourists at the lodge, and the general may lose his resort! Need I say more?
by David Offutt, October 2005 (Re-edited November 2009 and December 2015)