Top 10 Best Classic Christmas Movies

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Writing about classic movies — regardless of genre within the “classic” category — is always a tricky situation. Primarily because motion pictures are an art form and art, by definition, is a subjective enterprise: both by the creator and the observer. Art is personally meaningful (hopefully it’s meaningful) to both the artist and the consumer. So in setting out here to suggest a list of classic Christmas movies, we must assert from the top: this is not meant to be a definitive list. We aren’t saying that these are the best classic Christmas movies out there.

However, there are markers on the road that allow us to divvy the subject up as we journey toward the goal of qualifying a batch of movies. Primarily, a crucial element of art is time. Does the work stand up to the test of time? Does it prove its relevance by consistently reaching and stirring the minds — and, probably, the hearts — of those who observe the art? By using these questions as part of a framework for creating this list, it narrows the choices to a handful of movies that one can confidently say, yes, these movies have been well received, both critically and popularly, for some time. These movies continue to be viewed and continue to be discussed. So, taken as a whole, there are some consistencies to these movies that definitively qualifies them to be included in a discussion of “classic Christmas films.”

Classic Christmas Movies: A Timeframe

A classic Christmas movie does not have to be a certain age. The impact of a piece of art — or the impact of anything, for that matter, from an athletic achievement to a civic action, etc. — can be so impactful that it very quickly establishes itself as significant. It is set apart. It becomes important. There are movies from the past 10 years that will always hover toward the top of any conversation or list-making about film. Even more so with movies from the past 20 years. From the past 30, yet more. And so on. That said, we decided, for this list of classic Christmas films, to begin our search in 1960. It was an arbitrary decision just to put some parameters on the process. There’s nothing that makes pre-1960 Christmas films better than post-1960 Christmas films. We just needed a place to start! The oldest film in this list is from 1940 (there are two). The youngest film in the list is 63 years old, from 1954. (We put the year of the movie’s release and whether the film is in color at the beginning of each review.)

Christmas Films Are Usually Comedies

It turns out that each movie in this list can, to a greater or lesser degree, be classified as a comedy. Some are out-and-out comedies, while others simply feature many (many) funny scenes. They are all, certainly, “feel good” movies, and that makes them perfect for a feel good season like Christmas season. If you are looking for some recent funny Christmas movies, check out our list of the Top 10 Best Funny Christmas Movies.

Don’t Forget Your Favorite T.V. Funny Christmas Movies

If you are interested in “small screen” stuff, then we know exactly what you’re thinking because it’s for sure that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas are as much a part of tradition as anything when it comes to Christmas entertainment. Here’s a great seven movie collection of Christmas classics, including Rudolph.

But for the “bigger” movies — the classic Christmas movie that debuted in a movie theater — you’ve come to the right place. Heck, we think you should supply yourself with some great Christmas fruitcake or some traditional Christmas candy so when it’s time to settle in, you can make an event of it as you watch something from this list of the Top 10 Best Classic Christmas Movies.

1. It’s A Wonderful Life

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(1946, black & white) In writing about this movie, it’s a bit like taking a moment to write about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or a Picasso painting or a Frank Gehry building. What can I add that would be as meaningful as everything that’s already been said? Of course It’s A Wonderful Life is great. Point of fact, it’s on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, coming in at number 20. (That’s not a holiday movie list. That’s just a movie movie list.) In approaching the topic of writing about It’s a Wonderful Life, and all the films on this list, I notice that my attention just automatically goes toward convincing you the films are good. And I don’t know why I feel the need to convince you that any of the films — certainly It’s A Wonderful Life — are good movies. Like I said, of course it’s good. And, obviously, there are a whole lotta people who think so because 71 years later, it’s still the first or second movie people think of when they think of classic Christmas movies. But when I looked at the clip below, it occurred to me that it might be tough to get someone younger than, oh, 35 years old, to be motivated by that movie trailer to, then, watch the film. (Just remember, trailers aren’t made by the same people who make the movie. The trailers are made by marketing people whose job it is to gain viewers.) So what you need to do (he says, working to convince you that it’s a good movie) is to strip away the “corny” aspects of the trailer. The narrator. The excessive exclamation points. The music. The black and white, for that matter. What you need to do is realize that the movie’s story, itself, is fascinating: what impact does an everyday person have on the world around them? Then you need to watch the actors: James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed. They’re all fantastic. And what you need to do is remember that It’s a Wonderful Life — despite its Pollyannish title — is a complex film that portrays many layers of human character. The all American Jimmy Stewart, at more than one point in the film, snaps, to put it simply. Sometimes it’s very uncomfortable to watch. It’s also tough to watch Lionel Barrymore because he’s so…mean. An awful guy that confirms all the awful things we all think about selfish, rich people in places of power. But, mostly, the movie is funny. It’s got a great plot that keeps you glued. And keep the hankies ready because it will bring tears to your eyes.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about It’s A Wonderful Life

* The It’s A Wonderful Life Museum is in Seneca Falls, New York, and the town celebrates with an It’s A Wonderful Life Festival the second weekend of every December.

* Was a box office flop when it debuted in 1946.

* The scene on the bridge was filmed on a back lot in the summer in 90-degree temperature, which accounts from Jimmy Stewart’s sweating.

Price: $8

Buy It’s A Wonderful Life here.

2. Miracle On 34th Street

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(1947, black & white) While there are a couple of predominant positions on the true meaning of Christmas, we’ll forego any of the arguments about its place in the Christian religion and talk, instead, of a more humanistic bent, which is what Miracle on 34th Street gets at. This classic Christmas movie focusses on the core, if not esoteric, issue of “identity.” In a nutshell, there’s a guy who claims to be the actual Santa Claus. Says his name is Kris Kringle. And what does he get for this assertion? He gets locked up in a mental health hospital. Without spoiling too much of the plot, we’ll just say that getting out of the hospital is a central plot point. But there’s a heck of a lot more, obviously, including a pretty crazy court case. And speaking of some of the things that Christmas means to many, this movie pinpoints a big one, which is the commercialization of the holiday. Macy’s Department Store, after all, is a central character. Couple of interesting points about this movie: nine year old Natalie Wood plays Susan Walker and the movie was remade in 1994, with Mara Wilson taking the Susan Walker role and Sir Richard Attenborough playing Mr. Kringle. Macy’s, by the way, refused to allow its name to be used in the remake. Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about Miracle on 34th Street

* The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade shots were from the actual parade in 1946.

* According to the number of toothpicks on the table next to the telephone, Mrs. Shellhammer has consumed nine martinis by the time she’s on the phone with Mrs. Walker.

* The movie was released in June 1947 — not at Christmas!

Price: $15.47

Buy Miracle On 34th Street here.

3. White Christmas

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(1954, color) Yes, the song “White Christmas” is featured in this movie. Bing Crosby, who plays soldier Captain Bob Wallace, sings the song that would forever be associated with him. (He actually sings it twice in the movie.) But, Bing sang the song in two other movies: Holiday Inn and Blue Skies. White Christmas centers around Captain Bob and Private Phil Davis, played by Danny Kaye. After the war, they become successful entertainers and, then, producers. At one point, they audition two sisters — Rosemary Clooney, playing Betty Haynes and Vera Ellen as Judy Haynes. If you’re thinking, hmmmm…two guys, two gals…I wonder what could ensue? Well, we’re not about spoiling plots, but suffice to say that there are some twists on the road to the possible pairings. It’s well known that Bing Crosby was, at one time, the dominant entertainer worldwide (Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams). According to “A Pocketful of Dreams” author Gary Giddins, Crosby was a leader, from 1931 to 1954, in record sales, radio ratings and motion picture grosses. For my money, though, it’s Danny Kaye who really makes this movie. His talent-at-everything alone makes this Christmas classic worth watching. Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about White Christmas

* It was the top grossing film of 1954 while the second most successful movie that year, The Caine Mutiny, featured Rosemary Clooney’s husband, Jose Ferrer.

* Bob Fosse was the uncredited choreographer for the movie.

* The railroad conductor is played by Percy Helton, who also played the drunk Santa at the beginning of Miracle on 34th Street.

Price: $10

Buy White Christmas here.

4. Meet Me In St. Louis

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(1944, color) The big star in this movie is Judy Garland, who was 21 years old when the film was shot. She plays Esther Smith, one of the four Smith sisters that the plot centers on. It’s a great song and dance film and it’s clear as heck why Judy Garland was a star. The film is set in St. Louis, where the Smith family lives. Sadness ensues when dad gets a job in New York and the family prepares to leave. Things get really interesting in the plot, at Christmastime, when all sorts of relationships hang in the balance. The movie is based on the writings of Sally Benson, whom the character Tootie is based on. Judy Garland appeared in this film five years after she starred in The Wizard of Oz. Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about Meet Me In St. Louis

* Judy Garland married the film’s director, Vincent Minelli, a year after the film debuted.

* Besides Christmas, the other “holiday” in the movie is Halloween.

* Judy Garland recorded “The Trolley Song” in one take.

Price: $22.99

Buy Meet Me In St. Louis here.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner

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(1942, black & white) The Man, in this case, is a radio star named Sheridan Whiteside. He goes to dinner at the small Ohio town home of the Stanleys, but when he slips on some ice, he ends up staying — and causing all sorts of mayhem — for a lot longer than expected. He’d planned on making it to his annual Christmas Eve gig in Los Angeles, but a broken leg changes his plans. The movie stars Bette Davis, who plays Whteside’s secretary, Maggie Cutler. It turns out that Maggie falls in love with a local and ends up wanting to stay. So what does Whiteside do? He fakes being sick so he can stay longer because he doesn’t want to lose Maggie. Lots of funny lines in this classic Christmas movie, mostly coming from Monty Wooley, who plays Whiteside.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about The Man Who Came to Dinner

* After seeing the Broadway play version of the movie, Bette white immediately made it known she wanted to play Maggie in the film version.

* Sheridan Whiteside is based on the famous theater critic Alexander Woollcott.

* Cary Grant was originally signed to play Whiteside, but withdrew because of Bette Davis’s objections.

Price: $14.99

Buy The Man Who Came to Dinner here.

6. Remember The Night

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(1940, black & white) Well if there’s a heart-tugging way to start a classic Christmas movie, this is it: a woman — Lee Leander, played by Barbara Stanwyck, gets caught shoplifting and the prosecutor, John Sargent, who is played by Fred MacMurray, ends up postponing the court proceedings because he doesn’t feel he can get a fair trial around Christmas. So, of course, he ends up taking her home to spend Christmas with his mother. From there — surprise! — somebody falls in love. And now there’s a big problem: what about that darn trial? Remember The Night is a great Christmas comedy.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about Remember The Night

* Actor Sterling Holloway, who plays in the movie, was also known for being the voice of Winnie the Pooh in Disney films.

* During one scene, John Sargent volunteers to pay Lee Leander’s hotel bill. He reaches into his pocket but pulls it out quickly when she tells him the tab is $126.40. That’s $2,140 today.

* Fred MacMurray bought a winery in 1941 and, today, his daughter Kate plays a major role in running the estate.

Price: $11.76

Buy Remember The Night here.

7. Holiday Inn

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(1942, black & white) Jim loves Lila and Ted loves Lila. Lila loves Ted and Ted loves Linda. Jim loves Linda and — well, you get the picture. This classic Christmas film stars Bing Crosby (Jim), Fred Astaire (Ted), Marjorie Reynolds (Linda) and Virginia Dale (Lila). The film also features Bing’s brother Bob’s orchestra and they get lots of screen time because there are all sorts of singing and dancing numbers. The Holiday Inn of the title is the farm that Bing Crosby has converted into a performance venue that only mounts productions during the holidays. Of course, the majority of the plot centers around the comings and goings during Christmas, but there’s also a Fourth of July segment. One of the greatest stage and screen dancers of all time, Fred Astaire, has a memorable number where he dances, while his character is drunk, with Marjorie Reynolds. Bing Crosby sings the song “White Christmas” in this movie, which screened 12 years before the movie White Christmas. Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about Holiday Inn

* According to IMDB, Fred Astaire consumed eight drinks of bourbon while filming the “drunk dancing” scene.

* Irving Berlin won an Oscar for his song “White Christmas” in the movie.

* The founder of the Holiday Inn motel chain named his hotels after this movie.

Price: $11.38

Buy Holiday Inn here.

8. The Bishop’s Wife

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(1947, black & white) Starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven, the movie centers around the efforts, by Episcopalian bishop Henry Brougham (Niven), to build a new cathedral. He needs the money of Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) but she attaches some strings that really make it tough for Henry. He’s getting more and more frustrated when, in answer to prayer, an angel shows up: it’s Dudley the angel (Grant). He actually tells the bishop he’s an angel, but the bishop can’t tell anyone. The comedy is in the interplay between Cary Grant and David Niven, along with a lot of funny scenes involving Mrs. Hamilton. At one point, she demands that her late husband’s face be etched into the stained glass in the new cathedral — the glass that depicts the scene of St. George and the dragon. When she tells him that she wants her late husband’s face to be in place of St. George’s face, he says: “Who do you see as the dragon?” There’s a great scene with Cary Grant, as the angel, dictating a sermon to a typewriter on Christmas Eve. As for the bishop’s wife, Julia Brougham, she is played by Loretta Young. No spoilers here, but we will tell you that she falls pretty hard for the angel. What does she do? It’s a great Christmas film to get…so you can find out! Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about The Bishop’s Wife

* Cary Grant started the film as the bishop and David Niven was the angel. A change in directors led to the change in characters played by the actors.

* Famed director Billy Wilder, uncredited, rewrote some of the scenes.

* The film was screened as a Royal Command Film Performance for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.

Price: $9.98

Buy The Bishop’s Wife here.

9. Christmas in Connecticut

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(1945, black & white) Another romantic comedy set at Christmastime! In this case, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is a nationally famous food writer for a magazine. Everything is great until the magazine’s publisher says he’s going to bring a sailor — who survived 18 days at sea after his ship was sunk — to her Connecticut farm for a lovely Christmas dinner. The sailor — Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) — is a fan of the writer, so he’s thrilled. What he — and the publisher, and many other people — doesn’t know is that Elizabeth Lane lives in a New York City apartment and she doesn’t know how to cook. She gets all her recipes from her restaurateur friend Felix and all her farm stories from her “friend” John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), who happens to have a major thing for her. The publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) can’t learn the truth, so the farm gets borrowed for the dinner and that’s where all sorts of funny episodes happen. Barbara Stanwyck alone is worth watching because she’s got such an interesting command presence in her films.Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about Christmas in Connecticut

* Bette Davis was originally cast as Elizabeth but was replaced by Barbara Stanwyck.

* The character of Elizabeth was loosely based on a popular Family Circle Magazine columnist, Gladys Taber.

* When Felix meets Yardley, he mumbles under his breath “Fat man.” Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Yardley, played Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon.

Price: $5.79

Buy Christmas in Connecticut here.

10. The Shop Around The Corner

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(1940, black & white) This may be one of the only classic Christmas movies set in Budapest, Hungary. This may be one of the only films set in Budapest, Hungary. This movie, though, like many other great classic movies, stars Jimmy Stewart as Alfred Kralik. He works in the Budapest shop, along with another employee, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan). Alfred and Klara sort of get on each other’s nerves and life’s not entirely happy for them. But they both have a secret: they each have a pen pal with whom they trade long, heartfelt letters with. Eventually, Alfred gets sacked from his job, but a bright spot is that he’s finally going to meet his pen pal in person. When he shows up, at the designated time and place, is he in for a complicated surprise. The complications culminate on Christmas Eve. You can find out how everything works out by watching this classic film on Christmas Eve yourself! Or any other time! Streaming version here.

Classic Christmas Movie Trivia

Three Quick Facts about The Shop Around The Corner

* The original source material for the plot is the 1937 play Illatszertar by the Hungarian writer Miklos Laszlo.

* The movie’s director, Ernst Lubitsch, said this film was “the best picture I ever made in my life.”

* Lubitsch said he cast Jimmy Stewart because Steward was “the antithesis of the old-time matinee idol; he holds his public by his very lack of a handsome face or suave manner.”

Price: $36.94

Buy The Shop Around The Corner here.

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