For many people, the holidays are about tradition — and nothing says “old-fashioned” more than a classic film from the old Hollywood era. These films have enough sentimental stories and sparkling good cheer to brighten your holidays. Don’t be a Scrooge: find the spirit of the season in these vintage favorites.
The Shop Around the Corner
This heartfelt story about two employees at a Budapest gift shop who, unbeknownst to them, share a relationship as pen pals has all the tongue-in-cheek banter your Ernst Lubitsch-loving heart desires. Set during the days leading up to Christmas, The Shop Around the Corner was famously remade as You’ve Got Mail in the ‘90s. But the chemistry between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan is far more charming to watch unfold.
Remember the Night
Barbara Stanwyck was a shoo-in for any role that required a good girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In Mitchell Leisen’s 1940 romantic comedy-drama, Stanwyck played a woman who gets arrested for shoplifting during the holiday season. Fred MacMurray is the sympathetic assistant district attorney who rescues her from jail and brings her home to his family for Christmas. A love blooms, but her upcoming trial poses a serious threat to the relationship. It’s the right kind of sentimental schmaltz for a cozy viewing.
O. Henry’s Full House
Based on five O. Henry stories, Full House features a rare appearance from the reclusive John Steinbeck, who narrates the introductions for the five-chapter anthology. The most Christmasy of the bunch is a Henry King adaptation of “The Gift of the Magi,” starring Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger as penniless newlyweds who sacrifice their cherished possessions to treat each other to a proper Christmas. Grab your Kleenex.
Sun Valley Serenade
It wouldn’t be a holiday without a musical in the mix — and this one features a famous sequence starring the Glenn Miller Orchestra performing their “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (with Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge dancing). “An otherwise modest musical picture has been converted into a visual delight through the use of a Sun Valley background, many shots of the spectacular outdoors, breath-taking visions of skiers rocketing perilously down mountain-sides,” reads the New York Times’ 1941 review. Christmas isn’t in the foreground of this cheerful story about love at a ski resort, but the heartwarming comedy and romance makes it a holiday favorite.
It Happened on 5th Avenue
Victor Moore, a 1920’s Broadway icon, plays a hobo who finds shelter in a boarded-up New York City mansion. He makes friends with folks who are facing their own troubles and invites them to move in. But what he doesn’t know is that the homeowners are living there alongside him in disguise. Oh, those wacky ‘40s storylines. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story, but lost to Miracle on 34th Street. It Happened on Fifth Avenue takes a humanist approach to its Christmas theme, but still tugs at the heartstrings.
Christmas in Connecticut
Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a popular columnist for a woman’s magazine. Her writings depict her as the perfect 1940’s housewife, doting on a loving husband and their child at the family’s beautiful Connecticut farm. In reality, Lane writes from her New York City apartment. She’s single with no children, and — gasp — she can’t even cook. The charade is up when Lane’s boss and war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) show up for Christmas dinner. Christmas in Connecticut delivers screwball comedy shenanigans in a genre overrun with sappy stories. Stanwyck is appropriately saucy — helped by her wardrobe, which was created by famed designer Edith Head.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ famous tale of redemption, A Christmas Carol, has been adapted many times — making it a popular Christmas tradition for many families. What separates this 1938 version from the rest of the pack is Reginald Owen’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge — a less hammy, far more truthful miser than most who played the part.
The Bishop’s Wife
Cary Grant plays the Heaven’s handsomest angel, helping a local bishop (David Niven) refocus on the important things in life during the holidays: family (Loretta Young is the bishop’s neglected wife), love, and community. Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston starred in a lukewarm version of the story in 1996, but the star power in the original can’t be beat.
I’ll Be Seeing You
A pair of troubled outcasts (Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten) meet on a train while traveling during the holidays. They are lonely and frightened — Mary is facing a prison sentence for accidental manslaughter, while Zach struggles with shell shock — but find solace in each other’s arms. Look for a teenage Shirley Temple in an atypical role that helped her transition from child star to adult actress.
Here’s what the New York Times had to say about this Christmas-set film starring none other than Robert Mitchum (yes, really!) in 1949:
An amiable little romance in which a boy meets a girl at Christmas-time, and the sentiments are quite as artificial and conveniently sprinkled as the snow is provided—for those who like such things—in RKO’s “Holiday Affair,” a strictly holiday item . . . light-weight in story and treatment, it is one of those tinsel-trimmed affairs which will likely depend for popularity upon the glamour potential of its stars.