The Best Holiday Films
by Thomas C. Baggaley
You’ve finished the last of all that Christmas shopping. The kids are home from school for a few weeks. Perhaps family has come in from out of town. It’s the week of Christmas and you’re finally ready to really get into that Christmas spirit. Chances are that part of your Christmas tradition includes taking in a movie or television special to help bring in some of that holiday cheer. You may have some traditional favorites you see year after year. Or you may be looking for that new gem of a film that will help to enhance your Christmas experience and remind you what this is all about. With this in mind, I solicited the help of family, friends and acquaintances, both inside and outside of the filmmaking profession, asking them what their favorite Christmas-time films are. From their suggestions and some of my own personal favorites, I gleaned the following list. It includes classic favorites and new films you may not have even heard of. Bonus points were given if an LDS film professional was involved in its production, although the films were never actually ranked and the list is not in any particular order.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Any list of holiday films has to be headed up by the Frank Capra classsic, starring Jimmy Stewart. It seemed like every person I talked to mentioned this one. You may be aware that this film was considered a financial flop in 1946, and although it received five Academy Award nominations, including for best picture and for Jimmy Stewart as best actor in a leading role, it didn’t win a single Oscar. (The winner in both of these top categories that year was “The Best Years of our Lives”, which starred Fredric March.) It wasn’t until the 1960’s that it took its place as a holiday classic, following repeated television showings. However, you probably didn’t know that some of the music for the film was written by Academy Award-winning LDS film composer Leigh Harline (although he was not listed in the film’s credits). Among Harline’s other films were Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio and a couple of early church productions: Man’s Search for Happiness and In This Holy Place. You also may not have known that Jimmy Stewart’s personal copy of It’s a Wonderful Life was donated to Brigham Young University in 1983 along with many of his other works.
Mr. Krueger’s Christmas (1980) – Sticking with a Jimmy Stewart theme, for years this film has been a huge part of my own holiday tradition. As a youth, I felt a trip to see the lights at Temple Square wasn’t complete without stopping in at the visitor’s center to catch a showing of this film, which was directed by Academy Award-winning LDS filmmaker Kieth Merrill and featured music by the Tabernacle Choir.
A Christmas Carol (various versions) – There have been so many different versions and variations on the classic Dickens tale – I’ve counted at least 43 myself – that I’m tempted to just suggest you go to the source text itself and read it this year, but this article is about films and TV specials, not books, and besides, some of these adaptations have been excellent. Everyone has their favorites. The Alistair Sim version (1951) is commonly considered THE classic adaptation, although you should make sure to try and see it in the original black and white, not the colorized version. Other oft-mentioned versions include the ones starring George C. Scott (1984) and Patrick Stewart (1999). Among my favorites are musical adaptations Scrooge (1970 – starring Albert Finney) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), both of which have excellent music. Plus, I love fun level of irreverence with which Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Rizzo and company approach this overworked although invariably heart-touching story.
If you’re looking for a film that will help put the whole season in perspective, I have a couple of suggestions:
Ben Hur (1959) – This film seems to be more popular as an Easter-time film along with The Ten Commandments (1956), but this “story of the Christ” is really a perfect fit for the Christmas season. Not only is this a story about the message of forgiveness and love that the Christ child would bring, but the character of Balthasar, who is supposed to be one of the wise men who visited the young child, reminds us at various points in the film of Christ’s words: “For this purpose came I into the world…”
The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (2000) – Again, perhaps you haven’t considered this excellent church-produced film (written and directed by Kieth Merrill) as a Christmas film, but I love the opening sequence, which depicts events at the birth of Christ, especially among the Nephites and Lamanites, and it really does help to put this whole Christmas season in perspective. If you can make it to the one or two locations where it is being shown, this is an excellent Christmas-time activity.
Some lesser known flicks to check out…
Christmas Mission (1999) – This very well-done short film on the LDS mission experience is certainly not as well-known as Richard Dutcher’s God’s Army, but it has already found a place in the Christmas traditions of many LDS families. If you haven’t seen it yet, you ought to give it a try this year.
One Magic Christmas (1985) – stars Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba and Deen Stanton as Gideon, the angel who must show a mother the true meaning of Christmas. It’s not just presents and materialistic things, but the people she cares about.
Borrowed Hearts (1997) – Roma Downey (from Touched by an Angel, which is filmed in Utah) stars in this charming made-for-TV movie of a single mother who reluctantly consents to help her self-centered boss pretend he has a family in order to close a business deal with a mysterious foreigner (played by Hector Elizondo) who is more than he appears to be.
The Christmas Box (1995) – TV adaptation of the popular story by LDS author Richard Paul Evans starring Richard Thomas and Maureen O’Hara.
A Christmas Story (1983) – A lot of people make a point of seeing this comedy each year in which a boy (played by Peter Billingsley) tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that a Red Ryder BB gun really is the perfect gift.
As for more of the classics…
White Christmas (1954) – Admittedly, most of the Irving Berlin musicals were simply a collection of his songs tied together by a very loose story, and this is no exception, but the singing and dancing is great, and Danny Kaye is my favorite comic actor of all time. Plus, the fifth billed actor is Oscar-winner Dean Jagger, who was a convert to the church and whose performance as General Thomas F. Waverly in this film was excellent. Jagger also played Brigham Young in “Brigham Young – Frontiersman” (1940).
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) – 1946 and 1947 seem to have been a good years for Christmas films. I’ve already mentioned It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946, of course, but these films – both from 1947 – are wonderful, touching holiday favorites. Both films have had remakes in recent years, but the newer versions pale in comparison to the old black and white classics.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) – Speaking of films to have been recently remade, as popular as the Jim Carrey version (2000) of this story was, you can’t beat the original animated adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story. Boris Karloff’s narration is a classic.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Growing up, a holiday just wasn’t a holiday if you hadn’t seen the associated Charlie Brown special. Snoopy and the gang provide a nice insight into the holiday season.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) – There were a whole smattering of animated Christmas specials from this time period – all basically the same story done by the same production team. Most of them you can miss. This was the best of the bunch. Why? More than the familiar Burl Ives songs or the story, it’s Yukon Cornelius that makes the difference for me.
Finally, some others which bear mentioning: The Christmas Gift (1986) – starring John Denver, The Fourth Wise Man (1985) – adaptation of the excellent Henry van Dyke story starring Martin Sheen and Alan Arkin, The Santa Clause II (2002) – LDS screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio are among those credited with the screenplay for this fun, new Christmas film, and you’ve got to applaud Disney for finally figuring out that a film about Santa Claus should be rated G, even if it is a live-action film, Nora’s Christmas Gift – produced by the church starring Celeste Holm, A Celebration of Christmas (1991) – originally on PBS featuring BYU musical ensembles, Luke II and The Lamb of God – deeply touching church productions about the birth and life of Christ shown at many visitors centers during the holiday season.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.