Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Here is my list of what I consider to be the Greatest Christmas Films of All Time. Yes, this list is relegated to Christmas. It's not like you have a bunch of Kwanzaa films, or Hanukkah films, or Winter Solstice movies. Ah well. Maybe some day.


1) It's A Wonderful Life (RKO, 1946) -- Directed by the legendary Frank Capra and co-written by Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling, this film ranks #11 on the American Film Institute's list of the all-time greatest films of all time. The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey; Donna Reed as Mary Bailey; Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter; Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy; and Henry Travers as Clarence.

Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker and Clifford Odets all did uncredited work on the script.

The part of George Bailey was originally developed by another studio with Cary Grant in mind. When Frank Capra inherited the project, he rewrote it to suit Stewart.

Lionel Barrymore convinced Jimmy Stewart (a fellow Pennsylvanian) to take the role of George, even though Stewart -- newly back from World War II and 38-years-old -- felt he was not up to the part. Stewart had been the first movie star to enter military service in World War II, joining a year before Pearl Harbor. He was initially refused entry into the U.S. Army Air Force because he weighed five pounds less than the required 148 pounds, but he talked the recruitment officer into ignoring the test. Stewart worked his way up to colonel and earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars. (One of the sergeants in his unit was Walter Matthau.) In 1959, he entered the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 1968 as a brigadier general.

Stewart declined to talk about his war-time experiences, in part because of the trauma he suffered in killing others and watching friends die. The roles he chose after returning from the war were generally darker becaused he was hardened by combat.

The name of the character for George Bailey came from a man Jimmy Stewart was acquainted with while in the military. Stewart liked his "everyman quality" and wanted to use the name.

Stewart was nervous about the scene here he kisses Mary for the first time, because of his age, Reed's age (she was a mere 25) and because he had been changed to much by the war. Stewart filmed the scene in only one unrehearsed take. It worked so well that part of the embrace was cut because it was too passionate to pass muster with the censors.

While filming the scene where George prays in the bar, James Stewart has said that he was so overcome that he began to sob right then and there. Capra blew up and reframed the shot so that it became a closeup because he wanted to catch that expression on Stewart's face.

James Stewart cited George Bailey as being his favorite character.

Jean Arthur was Capra's first choice for the part of Mary. Arthur had been working since 1923, and had made more than 95 films by this time! The blond bombshell had had an unremarkable if prolific career until Capra cast her opposite Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). She was perfect as the hard-boiled city girl whose heart melts into innocence. Capra had cast her as communist sympathizer Jimmy Stewart's eccentric fiancee in You Can't Take It With You (1938) and again as a cynical Capitol Hill insider whose heart melts when country-bumpkin Stewart is appointed to the U.S. Senate in the oustanding Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). She'd played true to her Capra persona by portraying a union organizer in the superb comedy The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).

But Arthur was already committed to making another film, so Capra chose Donna Reed for the part of Mary.

For the scene in which Donna Reed had to throw a rock into a window of "the old Granville House," Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out for her on cue. To everyone's amazement, Donna Reed threw her rock with perfect aim and took out the window on her own!

Vincent Price was considered for the part of the villainous Mr. Potter, but Capra quickly turned to his old friend, Lionel Barrymore. One of the three celebrated Barrymores -- his brother, Lionel, was also a film and stage star and his sister, Ethel, was considered the greatest film and stage actress of the first half of the 20th century -- Barrymore had been working steadily since the invention of the motion picture. He was amazingly talented: He invented the boom microphone, was a respected artist (his etchings of seaside scenes sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars) and a noted film, Western, and classical composer. His performances could be wildly inconsistent, and yet his career never waned. He'd won an Osar in 1931, and Capra had used him as the curmudgeonly grandfather in You Can't Take It With You. Barrymore had tripped over an electrical cable while filming pick-up scenes for Saratoga (1937). The injury left him crippled with arthritis. From then on, he performed in a wheelchair.

Barrymore often fell into self-parody as the years went on. But Capra has boldly used this tendency to chew the scenery to good effect in You Can't Take It With You. Capra saw that Barrymore's hamminess could be used effectively in the right role. And that role was the "sick, warped, twisted old man", Mr. Potter. (Other directors saw the same thing. Barrymore turned in superb performances in 1946's Duel in the Sun for King Vidor and as the crippled hotel owner taunted mercilessly by Edward G. Robinson in 1948's Key Largo -- arguably his best performance ever, and one elicited by John Huston.)

Some additional trivia:

It's A Wonderful Life contains a number of scenes in which snow is falling. Prior to 1946, films used cornflakes painted white for falling snow. But whenever anyone walked on cornflakes, the crunch they made was so loud that dialogue had to be dubbed in later. Frank Capra's production crew solved this problem by using foamite (a fire-fighting chemical) mixed with soap and water. The mixture was pumped through a wind machine to pulverize it and throw it high into the air. The falling foamite looked just like silent, falling snow. The RKO Effects Department received a special award from the Motion Picture Academy for the development of the new "film snow."

As a drunk Uncle Billy leaved the Bailey home, it sounds as if he crashes into some trash cans. In fact, a crew member dropped some equipment right after actor Thomas Mitchell had walked off-screen. Both Mitchell and Stewart continued with the scene (Mitchell improvised his line: "I'm all right! I'm allllll right!"). Capra thought the incident was so funny that he kept it in the final cut. He gave the stagehand $10 "for improving the sound."

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) is showing at the movie house as George runs down the street in Bedford Falls. Henry Travers, who plays Clarence the angel, played Howard Bogardus in The Bells of St. Mary's.

It took nearly two months to construct the set for Bedford Falls. The set was one of the longest sets ever made for a motin picture, and covered four acres of the RKO Encino Ranch lot. The set included 75 stores and buildings, a main street, a factory district, a middle-class residential district and a slum. Main Street was 300 yards long --more than three whole city blocks. The Bailey Park scenes were not, however, filmed on a set. They were filmed in the newly-built city of La Crescenta, Calif.

The name "Bedford Falls" was created from the name of two existing towns in upstate New York: Bedford Hills and Seneca Falls. The town of Elmira (mentioned by the bank examiner) is a real town in New York, not far from Seneca Falls.

At a cost of just over $3.7 million, It's A Wonderful Life was the most expensive independent film ever made up to that time.

Yet, It's A Wonderful Life was not a hit when released on December 20, 1946. It only earned $3.3 million at the box office, and was dismissed as sentimental palaver by most critics. Still, the film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

Changes in American copyright law required copyright owners to re-register their copyrights. The copyright to It's A Wonderful Life had been owned by Frank Capra's production company, Liberty Films. But with Liberty Films defunct, the copyright lapsed.

It's A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1974. For 19 years, It's A Wonderful Life was a ubiquitous Christmastime presence on hundreds of television stations around the U.S. In 1993, Republic Pictures bought seveeral of the key rights to the film, including the original television syndication rights, the original nitrate film elements, the music score and the story on which the film is based. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stewart v. Abend that even if a film's copyright had not been renewed, it was derivative of various works that were still copyrighted. Subsequently, Republic Pictures began to enforce the copyrights it did own, and It's A Wonderful Life was removed from the public domain.

Many people feel It's A Wonderful Life is a piece of treacle -- sappy and soapy and nostalgic for a time that never existed.

But these individuals overlook the film's darker elements and the rather subtle but pointed social commentary in the film. The film portrays the narrow-mindedness and insularity of small-town life very well, and points out just how poisonous such places can be. The film is decidedly anti-capitalist; indeed, when it was released, the FBI thought it was subversive and considered asking the Hays Office to censor it. Even in this materialistic day and age, It's A Wonderful Life contains a polemic against greed and profit-taking that is well worth listening to. Less subtlely, the film makes the point that sacrifice is not altruistic and wonderful; George Bailey suffers, and suffers horribly, for giving up his life's dreams. His life is a good one, but he remains deeply wounded over his lost opportunities. That's not your typical feel-good movie hero.

Many critics of It's A Wonderful Life also overlook the cinematic elements of the film. Joseph Biroc and Joseph Walker's cinematography is superb. Jimmy Stewart's acting is outstanding; the venom in his voice when he turns on Clarence in the aptly-named Potter's Field is chilling. Jack Okey's art direction is similarly jaw-dropping. From the clean, modern line of the high school gymanisum to the wonderful, stage-like interior of the Bailey Savings & Loan to the delightful turn-of-the 19th-century buildings on Main Street, Okey's art direction provides the subtle visual clues that help key audience emotions and reactions.

It's one of my all-time favorite films.


2) Miracle on 34th Street (Fox, 1947) -- This has to be the most second-loved of all holiday films. Written and directed by George Seaton, the film stars Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle; Maureen O'Hara as Doris Walker; John Payne as Fred Gailey; Natalie Wood as young Suan Walker; and Gene Lockhart as Judge Henry X. Harper. Everyone knows the story: A man claiming to be Santa Claus reimbues the Macy's department store with the Christmas spirit before being institutionalized as insane. A young lawyer tries to get him freed while wooing the woman who hired Kringle for Macy's. The movie hinges on Gwenn's portrayal of Kris Kringle. He offers just the right mix of seriousness and...well, elfishness. He almost seems to be laughing at the too-serious people around him, while never being dismissive or cynical about the role he is playing. There so many superb acting moments in the film: When Gwenn talks to Susie about wanting a house for Christmas; when Gwenn talks to young, fat Alfred (Alvin Greenman) about Mr. Sawyer's (Porter Hall) nailbiting; when Gwenn is caught between R.H. Macy (Harry Antrim) and Mr. Gimble (Herbert Hayes) as they argue over the X-ray machine; and when Gwenn gently coaxes a song out of the frightened Dutch girl. It's downright superb.

But for my money, the best moment in the film comes right at the end. When Doris and Fred look at the corner and see that cane there, it's cinematic history in the making. In today's Hollywood, there would be a big ending, an upswelling of music, a lot of discussion and pointing out...maybe even another scene. But not in Miracle on 34th Street. It never talks down to its audience. It works its Christmas magic, and lets it be.


3) The Bishop's Wife (RKO, 1947) -- Relatively unknown today, this film by director Henry Koster, based on a script by Leonardo Bercovici, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Robert E. Sherwood, features Cary Grant as Dudley; Loretta Young as Julia Brougham; David Niven as Bishop Henry Brougham; Monty Wolley as Professor Wutheridge; and Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Hamilton. Niven plays a newly appointed Episcopalian bishop who has decided to build a cathedral as a way of uniting his wealthy, elderly congregation behind him. He thinks it's a way out of the political traps being set for him by his battling, conniving, suspicious flock, but it's trapped him in a life of money-grubbing and endless toil. He begins to ignore his beautiful wife, Julia (Young), and sweet daughter. He prays for assistance -- and it is sent, in the form of Dudley, an angel. Soon Dudley is wow'ing the old ladies. But he also seems more than just a tad interested in Julia. Dudley begins to work his magic on crotchety old Mrs. Hamilton, athetistic old Prof. Wutheridge and Julia herself.

This being a film from 1947, Dudley's not going to break up a marriage. The film has its sentimental moments, of course. But the film has real heart, and at the center of the picture is the love affair between Julia and Dudley.

For me, one of the best moments in the film is when Dudley visits Prof. Wutheridge (the spectacular Monty Woolley), the tired old has-been who has not only lost his faith but his belief in himself and his own mental faculties. Another highlight is the superb scene between Grant and Cooper as Dudley shows old Mrs. Hamilton what true love means -- and once mean to her.

One of the things I love most about this picture is Loretta Young. She may have been a prudish, right-wing Catholic with an outsize ego, but goddamn she's a good actress. And in this film, she's nothing short of luminous.

The Bishop's Wife was remade in 1996 into a horrible film with Whitney "Cocaine" Houston and Denzel Washington. It utterly sucked.

To renew your faith in cinema, watch the 1947 version.


4) Christmas in Connecticut (Warner Bros., 1945) -- Christmas often means sentimentality. But it can also mean comedy. That's why I love this 1945 effort from writers Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini, and director Peter Godfrey. The film stars Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane; Dennis Morgan as Jefferson Jones; Robert Shayne as Dudley Beecham; Sydney Greenstreet as Alexander Yardley; S.Z. Sakall as Felix Bassenak; and Reginald Gardner as John Sloan. It's pure froth, but froth in egg nog is a good thing. Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, the 1945 version of Martha Stewart. A wildly popular columnist for a leading women's magazine, she lives in her cozy home in Connecticut with her hunky husband and child, cooking up snazzy recipes and making her own clothes on a refurbished spinning wheel. Or does she? It's all a lie, of course: Lane is a city girl through and through, interested more in mink coats, parties, and nightlife than in spinning wheels. But then her publisher (corpulent character actor Sydeny Greenstreet) decides that a hunky near-drowned Navy sailor (Gardner) should get a home-cooked meal at Lane's Connecticut home -- and the magazine will cover it to boost sales.

Lane quickly ropes her friends into a scheme to conceal the truth. She has architect pal Dudley loan her his house and pretend to be her husband. She gets her German chef to whip up the meals. But things never go as planned in these films, and the lies pile as high as the Christmas snow before everything comes crashing down like a drift off the eaves.

It's pure fun and Stanwyck makes the most of her role.


5) Meet John Doe (Warner Bros., 1941) -- Frank Capra directs from a script by Robert Riskin. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell; Gary Cooper as John Doe; Edward Arnold a D.B. Norton; Walter Brennan as The Colonel; and James Gleason as Henry Connell. Given that this is a Frank Capra film, you expect social commentary. Boy, do you get it.

Stanwyck is a Ann Mitchell, a hard-boiled reporter for a big-city newspaper. Her publisher, Henry Connell, is pushing her to break some big stories to help the political campaign of the state political boss, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold in a superbly grim, greasy, evil turn). Mitchell cooks up a scheme to print a letter to the editor from "John Doe" -- an everyman fed up with the state's politicians. The "John Doe letters" whip up public sentiment in favor of Norton's candidates. It's a great scheme -- until the public demands to meet John Doe. Mitchell finds him, all right: She dredges up a real John Doe (Gary Cooper), a penniless bum accompanied by his mentally-ill sidekick, The Colonel (Walter Brennan). Mitchell cleans up and coaches Doe on what to say and do. Soon, the John Doe campaign turns into a national tidal wave of political feeling. Norton wants to ride it right into the White House. But Doe begins to have second-thoughts, and flees. Norton decides to keep using the John Doe name to promote himself, leading Doe to try to expose him. Instead, Norton pulls a double-cross and denounces Doe as a fake.

Devastated, Doe realizes that the state's politicos are indeed corrupt power-hungry monsters.

He writes a letter to the editor: He will throw himself off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest against the city's rulers. A desperate Ann Mitchell, lovelorn and exhausted, tries to find him before it's too late -- leading to a midnight confrontation on top of the city's tallest skyscraper.

The film sounds hokey. But it's not. It's sincere and honest, and brutal in its portrayal of political corruption and the manipulation of an honest man. Many have compared it to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in this respect.


6) A Christmas Carol (United Artists, 1951) -- One of the better adaptations of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," this film was adapted by Noel Langley and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Not quite true to the novella, the film nonetheless remained a favorite of audiences through the 1960s. Lionel Barrymore, who had played Scrooge every Christmas for years on the radio, was due to portray Scrooge on film. But his worsening arthritis forced him to bow out. Barrymore then pushed for his good friend Sim to take over. Sim brings a more sour portrayal to Scrooge than the miserly, money-grubbing one most people expect.

Still, for all its faults, I still think this is the best version of this story around. Sure, the film chops short the final Spirit's visit. Sure, the film goes out of its way to show Scrooge as a nasty guy. Sure, the finale is a bit overdone. But Sim is just absolutley dead-on perfect in his portrayal of Scrooge. The biggest test of any actor in this story is the first one, when Marley appears. Sim nails it to the wall, paints over it, puts up a picture, and sits down to egg nog! That's how good he is in that scene, and how spectacular he is in portraying one of fictin's greatest villains.


7) A Christmas Story (MGM, 1983) -- The film is based on humorist Jean Shepherd's book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, a collection of short stories he wrote for Playboy in the 1960s. Shepherd, first-time writer Leigh Brown, and Canadian director Bob Clark co-wrote the script. Clark, who had made the horror film Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972) and the raunchy high-school-virgin-gets-laid film Porky's (1981), was a big fan of nostalgic movies set in the 1930s and 1940s. His success with the two "Porky's" films essentially let him pick his next project, and Shepherd's Christmas story was it. Clark also was the genius behind the offbeat casting. Melinda Dillon was better known for her goofy, New Age off-screen personality and her dramatic roles: She'd been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar in Absence of Malice (1981) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Darrin McGavin was the star of the TV horror series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Shepherd is not only the writer and narrator of the film, but has a cameo as the irate man waiting in the Santa Claus line at Higbee's department store. Clark has a cameo in the film as the Parker's the dim-witted neighbor who marvels at the Leg Lamp from the street.

Some trivia: A Christmas Story was a huge hit. Released just before Thanksgiving, the $3 million film racked up $18 million in ticket sales. MGM was forced to keep the movie in theaters an extra month to accommodate demand. The film's popularity inspired the television show The Wonder Years. Scott Schwartz, who played Flick, later was an actor in straight adult porn films. Redhead Zack Ward, who played the bully Scut Farkus, is now a handsome, muscle-bound stud and acted on the Fox TV show Titus and has more than 35 films to his credit.


8) Home Alone (Fox, 1990) -- Writer and director John Hughes is synonymous with classic '80s films. Mr. Mom (1983), Vacation (1983), Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), Pretty in Pink (1985), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), and Christmas Vacation (1989) are just some of his superb films. Hughes, a National Lampoon alumnus, didn't really click past the 1980s (although he had a number of minor hits). Home Alone was his last big film. Written by Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, the film stars Macaulay Culkin as Kevin, Joe Pesci as Harry Lime, and Daniel Stern as Marv Merchants. Everyone knows the story of the boy left behind as his family vacations for Christmas, who then has to fend off two burglars in a series of slapstick scenes. Culkin is a sniveling shit of a human being today. But at the time this film was made, he was a fresh face and entirely worth watching.


9) A Christmas Carol (TNT, 1999) -- This is undoubtedly the most faithful adaptation of Dicken's novel. English actor Patrick Stewart has spent nearly two decades performing a one-man show of the novella during the Christmas season. Stewart and his then-wife, Wendy Neuss, brought the classic Christmas tale to the small screen in 1999 as a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" four-hour mini-series. David Hugh Jones directed from an adaptation by Peter Barnes. The cast features some fine English character actors, including Stewart as Scrooge; Richard E. Grant as Bob Crachit; Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past; Ian McNeice as Mr. Fezziwig; Dominic West as Fred; and handsome Kenny Doughty as Young Scrooge. The film reunited two comedy legends: Trevor Peacock played Old Joe and Liz Smith played Mrs. Dilber. Fans of The Vicar of Dibley will recognize them as cast members from that show.

Typical of TNT efforts, the production values are just barely passable. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come looks like a guy with a bucket on his head. The glowing effects surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Past are noticeably intermittent. Other choices in the film show a similar lack of style. Tiny Tim sings a pathetic version of "Silent Night, Holy Night" -- and to no real purpose, except to yank people's heartstrings (or make them nauseous, I'm not sure which). Scrooge goes to church. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," the song most associated with the Dickens story, is barely heard in the film. Yet, the picture is very good, and that's largely due to the solid acting from the five major actors.


10) The Nightmare Before Christmas (Touchstone, 1993) -- It's a Tim Burton film, right? No. Tim Burton came up with the story and produced it. But the film was directed by Henry Selick from a script by Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride, Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family). The film starred Chris Sarandon as Jack Skellington; Danny Elfman as Jack Skellington's signing voice; Catherine O'Hara as Sally; Ken Page as Oogie Boogie; Glenn Shadix as The Mayor; and Ed Ivory as Santa Claus. It's not clear whether this is a Halloween film or a Christmas film. But it really doesn't matter. The story of the King of Halloweentown who begins to lose faith in his holiday and discovers Christmas -- to everyone's dismay, in the end -- is a wonderful musical.



Those are my Top Ten Christmas films of all time. There are others I like as well. In descending order, they are:

11) Christmas Vacation (Warner Bros., 1989) -- Directed by Jeremiah Chechick from a script by John Hughes. Starring Chevy Chase as Clark W. Griswold; Beverly D'Angelo as Ellen Griswold; Juliette Lewis as Audrey Griswold; Johnny Galecki as Rusty Griswold; and Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie. The Griswolds are at it again, this time as Clark prepares for the ultimate Christmas ever while the whole family drops by. This film cracks me up endlessly.

12) Gremlins (Warner Bros., 1984) -- Directed by Joe Dante from a script by Chris Columbus. Starring Zach Galligan as Billy Peltzer; Phoebe Cates as Kate Beringer; and Hoyt Axton as Randall Peltzer. It's about a goofy father who brings home a strange new animal for his son's Christmas present. But you can't break the three rules: Never expose them to light; never feed them after midnight; and whatever you do, ever ever get them wet. I thought Zach Galligan was as hot as the sun when I first saw him. Woof City.

13) While You Were Sleeping (Hollywood Pictures, 1995) -- A terrific feel-good movie! And probably Sandra Bullock's best film ever. Directed by Jon Turtletaub from a script by Daniel Sullivan and Fredric LeBow. Starring Sandra Bullock as Lucy; Bill Pullman as Jack Callaghan; Peter Gallagher as Peter Callaghan; Peter Boyle as Ox Callaghan; Jack Warden as Saul; Michael Rispoli as Joe "Little Joey" Fusco, Jr.; and Ally Walker as Ashley. A beautiful but emotionally lost woman (Bullock) rescues a rich but vain and materialistic man (Gallagher) when he's mugged and falls on the train tracks. Only, he goes into a coma. To care for him, she pretends to be his fiancee. She has to maintain the ruse when his family shows up. Worse, when he wakes, she has to pretend he has amnesia! It's funny and goofy and full of wonderful site-gags (watch the plastic snowman that Jack Warden puts his cigar on). It's a terrific Christmas movie, with a superb soundtrack and wonderful cinematography.

14) Holiday Inn (Paramount, 1942) -- Directed by Mark Sandrich from a script by Claude Binyon, with songs by Irving Berlin. Starring Bing Crosby as Jim Hardy; Fred Astaire as Ted Hanover; Marjorie Reynolds as Linda Mason; and Virginia Dale as Lila Dixon. One of the best musicals ever made, this film contains the Yuletide favorite, "White Christmas." Bing Crosby was at the height of his popularity. He'd done Pennies From Heaven six years earlier, and was in the middle of his extremely popular and funny "Road" movies with Bob Hope (Road to Zanzibar, Road to Morrocco, Road to Singapore). He had yet to deliver his best actor Oscar-winning performance in Going My Way (1944). Here, he is a hoofer and singer competing for the girl with his vain best friend, played by Fred Astaire. To get out of the rat race, he flees to Vermont and sets up a bed-and-breakfast. The catch is that instead of being closed on holidays, it is only open on holidays! And the staff put on a song-and-dance show for the guests. It's really a great musical, with some of the best choreography and holidays songs around.

15) White Christmas (Paramount, 1954) -- Holiday Inn and the song "White Christmas" were such smash hits that Paramount re-made the film 10 years later as White Christmas. Directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz from a script by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank. Starring Bing Crosby as Bob Wallace; Danny Kaye as Phil Davis; Rosemary Clooney as Betty Haynes; Vera Allen as Judy Haynes; and Dean Jagger as General Waverly. Crosby and Kaye are just out of the Army, and in hot pursuit of sisters Judy and Betty Haynes. The girls high-tail it for an inn in Vermont where they put on a variety show every Christmas for the guests. Only, the inn is owned by the boy's old commanding general. They have to help him raise the cash to save the inn while wooing the girls. Pure fluff, but pure enjoyment, too.

16) The Bells of St. Mary's (RKO, 1945) -- Bing Crosby followed up his Oscar-winning performance in Going My Way with another hit. Leo McCarey directed from a script by Dudley Nichols. Once more, Bing is Father Chuck O'Malley. The film also stars Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict; Henry Travers as Horace P. Bogardus; Joan Carroll as Patsy; and Dickie Tyler as Eddie Breen. Father O'Malley arrives at a decrepit local Catholic school just before Christmas to close it down. But the nuns convince him that God has told them that the industrialist who just built a manufacturing plant next door will give them the building, free. The film is full of sentimentalism, sometimes to the point of gooey gibberish. Ingrid Bergman saves the picture with her sincere, gentle portrayal of a nun struggling to come to grips with the outside world.

17) Three Godfathers (MGM, 1948) -- Directed by John Ford, from a script by Lawrence Stallings and Frank Nugent. Starring John Wayne as Robert Hightower; Pedro Armendariz as Pedro Fuerte; Harry Carey, Jr. as William Kearney; and Emilia Yelda as The Baby. Three gunfighters on the run from a posse come across a wagon-train ambushed by Indians. A dying mother puts her newborn baby in the hands of the three gunmen, making them swear to bring her child to safety to the baby's father, who lives in the town of Jerusalem on the other side of the desert. As the gunfighters flee across the desert on Christmas Eve, the law tries to catch up to them. One by one, the gunmen learn about their better natures. The film is slow and wordy, but it lacks the traditional gun-play and flight-from-the-law junk that normally filled a John Wayne Western.



18) Babes In Toyland (MGM, 1934) -- Directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers, from a script by Hank Butler, Nick Grind, and Hal Roac. With songs by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough. Starring Stan Laurel as Stannie Dum; Oliver Hardy as Ollie Dee; Charlotte Henry as Little Bo Peep; Felix Knight as Tom-Tom Piper; Henry Brandon as Silas Barnaby; and Virginia Karns as Mother Goose. A 1961 remake by Walt Disney starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello isn't nearly as good as this superb, even scary effort by Hal Roach. Laurel and Hardy star as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, bumbling boobs in Toyland. The story is a familiar one: The evil Silas Barnaby wants Little Bo Peep for himself, but she loves Tom-Tom the Piper's Son. When Barnaby unleashes a horde of Bogeymen on Toyland, it's up to Laurel and Hardy to send the Toy Soldiers marching off to war. The film is in two-strip Technicolor and looks colorized, but it isn't. The extensive and elaborate full-size sets are wonderful, and the bogeymen are downright scary!

19) The Man Who Came to Dinner (Warner Bros., 1942) -- Directed by William Keighley, from a script by Julius and Philip Epstein, based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Starring Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside; Bette Davis as Maggie Cutler; Ann Sheridan as Lorraine Sheldon; Billie Burke as Daisy Stanley; Richard Travis as Bertram "Bert" Jefferson; and Reginald Gardiner as Beverly Carlton. Although Nathan Lane recently won a Tony award for his role in the play (and did a movie version of it), this is the definitive motion picture. Woolley is downright superb as Sheridan Whiteside, the irascible, vain, cruel radio personality who has tricked the country into believing that he's a sweet, gentle soul. When Whiteside slips on a prominent Ohio family's icy front steps after attending a dinner at the home, he decides to take advantage of their worried hospitality by taking up all their space, eating them out of house and home, and turning their lives upside-down. Bette Davis takes second-billing as Whiteside's cynical secretary Maggie who has her heart melted by the local hunk. The film is a series of comic set-pieces as Whiteside commits one outrage after another on the Stanleys, but the ending is a pleasant surprise and Davis is wonderfully subtle.



20) Miracle of the Bells (RKO, 1948) -- Directed by Irving Pichel, from a script by Ben Hecht and Quentin Reynolds. Starring Fred MacMurray as Bill Dunnigan; Frank Sinatra as Father Paul; Alida Valli as Olga Treskovna; Lee J. Cobb as Marcus Harris; and Harold Vermilyea as Nick Orloff. This is a strangely surreal film, but a deeply moving one. MacMurray plays a cynical Hollywood press agent, Bill Dunnigan, who agrees to bring the body of a dead actress back to her Pennsylvania home town after she made her one and only movie, Joan of Arc. But something's amiss. Dunnigan saw the girl's performance, and witnessed something magical in it. Her sole request was to have bells peal over her dead body for 24 hours. But the girl's home town is full of feuding religious sects, greedy mine owners, angry miners, putrid land developers, xenophobic in-breds, and worse. Getting any church to play the bells proves almost impossible. But Dunnigan has a greater plan in mind: To get every church in America to peal its bells 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- all to bring attention to the girl's amazing performance. It all comes to a culmination on Christmas Eve. MacMurray is an overlooked actor; people remember him for his sappy turn in My Three Sons and Follow Me, Boys rather than his superb performances in films like The Apartment, Double Indemnity, and Miracle of the Bells.

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