Eight Underrated Holiday Classics
Christmastime is easily my favorite time of the year. I'm obsessed with the decorations, the music, finding the perfect presents, the snowy weather, and, of course, the films. Every year I try to find a new film or two to add to my yuletide viewing, but I also have a litany of favorites I love to revisit. The following list is just a smattering of the little-known, or rather little-discussed, classics I enjoy cuddling up with every November and December. I tried to steer clear of the usual suspects here, so if you're looking to expand your own holiday watchlist or you're just in the mood for something heartwarming, silly, or both, hopefully this post is just the thing for you.
I'll Be Seeing You (1944)
A shellshocked soldier who is on leave from a hospital to try and adjust to daily life, Sgt. Zach Morgan (Joseph Cotten) is charmed when he meets Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers) on a train that is taking her to her aunt and uncle's for the holidays. What Zach doesn't know, though, is that Mary is on furlough from a women's prison where she must serve three more years for a manslaughter charge that really should’ve been seen as self-defense.
I'll Be Seeing You is a melancholic film, and a fascinating critique on the brutality of war, but it is also about rediscovering hope and the strength you can find from love both familial and romantic. Rogers and Cotten's exquisite performances let you feel their characters' yearning for a "normal" existence, making their struggles all the more real and the happiness they’re reaching for all the more profound. Director William Dieterle was a brilliant craftsman, especially when it came to hauntingly beautiful dramas like his other two films with Cotten, Portrait of Jennie and Love Letters, and I'll Be Seeing You is just another example of what a gifted artist he was.
In the Good Old Summertime (1949)
While most people love to watch Meet Me in St. Louis this time of year, I prefer this other Judy Garland musical. A remake of Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece The Shop Around the Corner, which was also adapted as the Broadway show She Loves Me and Nora Ephron's 1998 classic You've Got Mail, In the Good Old Summertime is probably the least well-remembered out of these many versions. On the one hand, it's understandable. The songs are, for the most part, not super memorable, and the story is softened to help homogenize the film as one of MGM's signature family-friendly flicks.
However, once you accept all that, In the Good Old Summertime is just as lovely as its more famous counterparts. Judy Garland is, as always, exceptional, and she is matched every step of the way by Van Johnson. The scene where Johnson seductively nuzzles against Garland as they confess their feelings for each other in hushed tones never fails to turn me into a pile of mush. The rest of the cast is great, too. Buster Keaton does wonders with a small supporting role; he additionally choreographed the film's physical gags, including Garland and Johnson's slapstick meet-cute. This movie is also the screen debut of a three-year-old Liza Minnelli!
Desk Set (1957)
To me, Desk Set is cinematic heaven. With its wonderful Technicolor, sharp script, and the sparkling chemistry of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Desk Set makes me feel cozy and safe in a way that I cherish. Watching this movie is like dropping in on old friends, albeit friends who are much smarter and cooler than you.
Although it isn't blatantly about Christmas, the scenes set during the holiday are some of the film's best, revealing its lovable goofiness as we see Hepburn and Joan Blondell drunkenly crack each other up and its genuine romance as Tracy and Hepburn slowly share their vulnerabilities with one another, resulting in one of my favorite lines ever: "I'll bet you write beautiful letters." Simply a must-see.
You can read my full review here.
Dick Van Dyke is Fitzwilly, a devoted butler who secretly leads his fellow servants in larceny to support the philanthropy of their beloved elderly employer, Miss Vicki (Edith Evans). When Barbara Feldon shows up as Miss Vicki's new secretary, she begins to suspect that something isn't quite right… Can Van Dyke distract her from what's really going on? And will the servants be able to pull off their last big heist?
This charming '60s romp is a big favorite of mine. The premise is fun; Feldon's fashion choices make me drool; the score is by a young John Williams; every single character is interesting and distinctive, and they're all played by such wonderful actors as Norman Fell, Sam Waterston, John McGiver, and Cecil Kellaway. The film does a fine job of balancing its sentimentality and cynicism, and watching Feldon match wits with Van Dyke is pure joy.
Simon and Laura (1955)
When a BBC producer comes up with a TV show that follows the home life of a celebrity couple, he decides there is one perfect choice: Simon and Laura Foster (Peter Finch and Kay Kendall). What he doesn't know, though, is that the Fosters have been at each other's throats for years, their marriage rife with jealousy and insults. Desperate for the spotlight (and the income), Simon and Laura agree to the show and find new fame as reality TV stars. But just how long can they keep up the charade?
Directed by Muriel Box, who has been called Britain's most prolific female director, Simon and Laura is brimming with delicious, biting dialogue, candy-colored hues, and amusing characters. It also offers a surprisingly still-relevant behind-the-scenes look at television, particularly the phoniness of reality shows. While only a holiday film peripherally — there is just one part, an epically disastrous taping of the Fosters' program, that takes place on Christmas — Simon and Laura is ideal for those who like their holiday content to be a little more naughty than nice.
On Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
On Moonlight Bay and its sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon are the definition of "feel-good movies." They were also Warner Brothers' version of MGM's giant hit Meet Me in St. Louis. The similarities are hard to miss: an early 1900s time period; the female star falling for the boy next door; a bratty younger sibling; songs that reflect the period; a bustling house with a sassy maid; Leon Ames as the father...
However, On Moonlight Bay and By the Light are different in their style and tone. Things feel lighter here, despite serious themes like marital infidelity and World War I. The casting of sunny Doris Day and handsome Gordon MacRae helps, of course. Their adorable scenes are the highlights of both films. With charming musical numbers, a perfect cast, and sweet, humorous screenplays, these two films are quality entertainment that will make you feel warm during those chilly December days.
Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank (1957)
Alright, this is actually a TV special. And it's not exactly a great one. Directed by Frank Sinatra, the show features Ol' Blue Eyes and and his two-time co-star Bing Crosby crooning one yuletide classic after another. Although the script is filled with corny dialogue, the atmosphere is a touch too rigid, and Sinatra's performance feels especially awkward when placed next to Crosby's easy, breezy demeanor — as Tom Santopietro wrote in Sinatra in Hollywood, "It's as if Sinatra's impatience with the medium, an impatience that at its worst translated as contempt, came through more clearly on the small screen than in any of his singing or movie roles" — this imperfect slice of '50s live television has become a staple of my holiday line-up. In fact, I think I love it more because of its flaws. It's fun seeing Crosby bust Sinatra up during a duet of "Jingle Bells" and watching Sinatra's real-time reaction when he is singing "Mistletoe and Holly" (a fantastic song he co-wrote) while decorating a tree and he accidentally drops an ornament. And yes, I do love that terrible banter.
Lucky for you, you can watch it in full on Vimeo here!
This is my entry to the Second Happy Holidays Blogathon, hosted by Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. You can see the other contributions here.