Before Kevin McCallister, Scott Calvin, and Buddy the Elf entertained us on big and small screens at this time of year, there were already some really great black and white Christmas movies. I’ll tell you my top five in descending order, because I don’t care much for building up to Number 1 (It doesn’t follow the inverted pyramid). Here they are, with notes on a few others:
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- A Christmas Carol (1938)
- Miracle on 34th Street (1938)
- Holiday Inn (1942)
- The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
It’s the cast that makes It’s a Wonderful LIfe so wonderful. And the simple story Frank Capra chose about appreciating life itself, which began as a greeting on a Christmas card. But not much beats watching Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Beulah Bondi at home in the same small town. There’s even a short performance from Sheldon Leonard, the television genius, as Nick the bartender.
You’d think we would have said good-bye to all of its adult actors by now, but there is one who is still living in the Midwest. The beautiful Virginia Patton, who played Harry Bailey’s new wife is at home in Michigan with her real-life husband, Cruze Moss. The Mosses are retired Ann Arbor business owners and true-maize-and blue University of Michigan supporters. They still enjoy giving interviews.
John Wayne’s buddy Ward Bond played Burt the cop, just one of his supporting roles on the big screen. He was also in Gone With the Wind, the Wagon Train television series and many, many westerns.
Jimmy Hawkins was the youngest Bailey child (“Scuse me! Scuse me! I burped!”) He was a teen actor with Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and also The Donna Reed Show in the 1960s.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens probably has the most movie adaptations. The one that stands out for me was made in 1938, starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. He was actually much younger than Scrooge would have been, and ended his career with Mary Poppins in 1964. The Gene Lockhart family played the Bob Cratchit family, with another Gone With the Wind alum, Ann Rutherford, as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Who can forget little Natalie Wood’s performance in the original Miracle on 34th Street? The story that begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and ends with Santa Claus delivering her to a real home is on many lists of favorites. Edmund Gwynne and Maureen O’Hara were perfectly cast, with John Payne in the part he is most identified with. It was a busy year for Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge in the trial courtroom.
Then there’s all the song and dance talent of Holiday Inn, featuring Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Marjorie Reynolds. Why Ms. Reynolds was not a major star has certainly to do with studio politics, not her ability (She also played a belle in GWTW). Irving Berlin classics, including Easter Parade and White Christmas light up the screen. According to my aunt, the number Be Careful, It’s My Heart was supposed to be the big hit of the film. As much as I love the later movie White Christmas with Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, it heralded the beginning of Technicolor, and so is not in the b/w category.
Lately Holiday Inn has been criticized for racial reasons, and rightly so. Let’s remember that it was a different time, and not diminish the film’s good points. Minstrel shows are part of our history. I also think the black actors outshine their white counterparts in many scenes. Little Daphne and Vanderbilt are adorable.
Does anyone not love to watch ice skaters? Cary Grant’s faux performance on the rink is noteworthy in The Bishop’s Wife. As another angel sent to earth, he encourages Loretta Young in her unenviable position as the wife of David Niven, an ambitious man of the church. Grant was a master of timing and facial expression.
Barbara Stanwyk, the iron woman of The Big Valley and other shows, plays quite different parts in two early movies, Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut. I favor the former because I think the portrait of rural Indiana in the early 20th Century is right on. Beulah Bondi appears again, as the mother of Fred MacMurray, who was quite different looking when he was young (Don’t think of him only as he was in My Three Sons). In the second movie, Ms. Stanwyk is a society columnist who gets caught in her fake story of ideal country living, and has to hire a husband to play it out.
Many black and white pictures have memorable Christmas scenes – including Little Women. I like the one in which Jo March is played by June Allison. Peter Lawford doesn’t hurt it any, either.
The current deluge of Hallmark movies is nice, with several that I enjoy watching more than once. But best are the ones with interesting shadows, old actors, and timeless music. To me, they are the real Christmas gems.