Oh, you're a holiday

Making a list

Michigan in the snow

Winter is coming. Time to hunker down inside and watch some classic movies.

The Winter Solstice approaches. Daylight hours grow shorter as the dark of night lengthens. What better reason for streaming some entertaining films in the warmth of the family den? Below are five movies that I believe have proven appeal for holiday and family/friend gatherings. In my estimation each seems to have avoided the cliche plot conceits that are too often used in mass appeal seasonal film fare:

  • Holiday reunions designed to reconcile estranged family members
  • The “perfect” holiday gathering where nothing goes right
  • The emergence of unfamiliar relatives of Santa Claus
  • Having to contend with the presence of the “drunken uncle”

Scroll down the TV listings over the next few weeks, and you’ll probably see what I mean.

Checking it twice

Two of the most cherished holiday movies embraced by film fans were produced during the immediate aftermath of World War II, a time when world-weary warriors were turning their attention back to family and the challenges of post-war domestic life.

It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street rank near the top of the list when it comes to prevailing holiday classics. That’s due in large part to the thematic depth and memorable quality of their stories.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's A Wonderful Life still

(RKO Radio Pictures, 1946.)

Among its indisputable sentiment is a dark story of human frustration and despair. Banker George Bailey (James Stewart) contemplates the meaning and value of his life in the small village of Bedford Falls, N.Y. Director Frank Capra said in a 1976 interview that this fantasy drama, which includes a guardian angel (Henry Travers) who comes to earth and interacts with the troubled Bailey, was meant partly for the “intention of combatting a modern trend toward atheism.” (It’s A Wonderful Life: A Memory Book, Stephen Cox, Cumberland House, 2003, p.11.)

Roger Ebert in a “Great Movie Review,” (Jan. 1, 1999) said that the enduring appeal of Capra’s holiday fantasy — his first film made after serving in World War II — came from his goal of “celebrating the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors.” It’s a Wonderful Life’s classic story of personal despair and ultimate redemption never fails to inspire and warm the heart.

Since 1996 NBC has been licensed to show the film on national television with a traditional broadcast every Christmas Eve.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street still

(20th Century Fox, 1947.)

For many film lovers Miracle on 34th Street falls right in behind It’s a Wonderful Life as a cherished holiday classic, worthy of an annual revisit. In its way, it too is a fantasy drama in which the protagonist comes to reaffirm the intangible gift of faith in a doubting, cynical world.

Delightful 6-year old Susan Walker (Natalie Wood) is a committed Santa Claus skeptic. But she begins to have second thoughts when unexplained events unfold after Macy’s Department Store hires a fellow named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace its intoxicated Santa during the holiday season. Susan begins to wonder if this mysterious Kringle might not be the real thing.

The plot evolves into a courtroom procedural as Kringle is first sent to a hospital for mental evaluation and then is put on trial to determine whether he’s sane or insane. At the outset the defense declares bluntly that Kringle is indeed sane. Testimony to the contrary follows. At film’s end a dead-letter mail scheme, hatched by young Susan, provides an “evidence” coup that settles the trial in Kringle’s favor.

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said after seeing the film: “… let’s catch its spirit and heartily proclaim Miracle on 34th Street the freshest little picture in a long time” (June 5, 1947). That “freshest little picture” was based on a book by the same name. Author and U-M graduate Valentine Davies, BA ’26, earned the 1947 Oscar for Best Original Story.

Little Women (1994)

Little Women still

(Columbia Pictures, 1994.)

Louisa May Alcott’s two-volume novel Little Women (1868, 1869) has reached movie screens via six adaptations — two silent versions (1917, 1918) followed with feature works from George Cukor (1933), Mervin Leroy (1949), and Gillian Armstrong (1994). On the page and on the screen Alcott’s coming-of-age story about four devoted sisters growing up in Concord, Mass., during and immediately after the Civil War never fails to charm. Each of the three feature adaptations is excellent, generally true to the novel, and populated with outstanding casts.

For family viewing, I heartily recommend Armstrong’s 1994 version. The renowned Australian director is known for films with strong independent female characters.

Her early My Brilliant Career (1979) was a critical success worldwide. In a beautiful period film, Judy Davis portrayed real-life Sybylla Melvin, an aspiring young writer from the Australian Outback. The film signaled Armstrong as a director who would become noted as much for her attention to screen imagery as to compelling characterizations. Armstrong brought these same qualities to Little Women in what can only be described as a luscious viewing experience. Glorious exterior scenes of New England’s passing seasons are combined with cozy interior settings conveying period antiquity, holiday decor, and domestic warmth.

The superb cast includes Wynona Ryder as Jo March, appropriately strong-willed and charming.

Ryder’s performance generated a Best Actress nomination from members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. If you’ve never seen the film, you might be in for some surprising discoveries. Who is that portraying spirited young Amy? It’s 12-year old Kirsten Dunst, an acting feat matched by 15-year old Claire Danes in her film debut as ill-fated Beth. Assured Susan Sarandon is a solid Marmee, overseeing the March clan while their father is off at war. Among the daughters’ male friends are Laurie (20-year old Christian Bale) and Irishman Gabriel Byrne as a convincing German professor who befriends Jo in New York City.

Released on Christmas weekend 1994, Armstrong’s Little Women has come to be regarded as the best of the big-screen adaptations of Alcott’s classic tale.

Babette’s Feast (1987)

Babette's Feast still

(Nordisk Film, 1987.)

If there’s a single film that might be described as perfect for any holiday or festive gathering surely Babette’s Feast would be a top contender. Gabriel Axel’s film was developed for the screen from a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), first published in a 1953 issue of The Ladies Home Journal. The magazine’s editors told Dinesen that stories about cuisine and cooking always went over well with readers.

The protagonist of the seemingly simple plot is Babette (Stephane Audran), a Paris chef who leaves for Denmark’s’s Jutland Coast after the death of her husband in a civil conflict.

Arriving on a stormy night, she makes her way to the home of two sisters as directed by a friend in Paris. There Babette is taken in as an unpaid cook for the women who are the pious daughters of a deceased minister. Since their father’s death, the sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), have done their best to oversee the minister’s anemic religious sect that, comically, appears to have lost any semblance of communal spirit.

Intercut flashback sequences from 49 years past reveal brief relationships between Martine and a handsome young Swedish hussar (Gudmar Wivesson) and between Philippa and a depressed French opera impresario (Jean-Philippe Lafont). The men are taken with the beauty and charm of the young sisters, but the relationships are abandoned when the father urges his daughters to remain single and stay entirely committed to his unworldly, selfless mission.

The story returns to the present where Babette has for some time dutifully cooked simple meals for the sisters. One day she receives word that she has won 10,000 francs on a French lottery ticket bought by a friend in Paris. Missing her role as a grand chef, Babette decides to use the money to prepare a meal for the occasion of the deceased minister’s 100th birthday. The sisters have requested “only tea and ale-bread soup.” Undeterred, Babette makes preparations for a splendid meal, and she sets about ordering food and drink from France. One shipment brings a carton containing a large turtle for a first course of Potage a la Tortue (Green Turtle Soup) to be paired with Amontillado sherry. Watching Babette in the kitchen preparing her elaborate meal is pure pleasure for anyone who loves cooking. The menu, with its remarkable French-inspired culinary delights, champagne, and vintage wines, was widely recreated for special gatherings and charitable events.

As the meal is served to the naive sect members and a few notable neighbors from nearby, reactions are understandably mixed. One elderly parishioner describes a vintage wine as “just like lemonade.” Present is the Swedish hussar of long ago, now a general, who recognizes the meal for what it is. He raises his glass for a toast and offers elegant testimony to the powerful relationship between “bodily appetite” and “spiritual appetite.”

He likens the effect to one where bliss and mercy kiss. Indeed animosities among the once grouchy members of the religious sect give way to smiles and forgiving attitudes. The film reaffirms the old adage that a pleasurable meal can feed the soul and mind, as well as the body.

For Babette, the act of preparing her meal is expressed in a mantra about the need of artists to perform: “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist. Give me the chance to do my very best.”

The pleasures and joys of Babette’s Feast are many, not least of which is the film’s expansive injection of music — classical opera and traditional hymns are beautifully sung by the actors. Many film fans have named this timeless, heartfelt picture their favorite, including Pope Francis 1.

Hugo (2011)

Hugo still

(Paramount Pictures, 2011.)

Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s multi-tasking story of a 12-year old boy who’s left with the job of maintaining the clocks above a Paris train station, provides ideal material for children and adults alike. Navigating 1930s Paris, orphaned Hugo Cabret (the very talented Asa Butterfield) must fend for himself, acquiring food and drink snitched from the station’s convenience shops. His presence attracts the attention of watch-dog security officer Gustave (Sacha Baron-Cohen) who is determined to capture Hugo and ship him off to an orphanage.

Shades of Charles Dickens lurk throughout the picture. In the clock tower is an inoperable machine left behind by Hugo’s deceased father (Jude Law), and Hugo is determined to revive the automaton. The film reaffirms cinema’s ability to imbue inanimate objects with a life of their own — children love that. Scorsese’s camera captivates with its lingering perusal of objects in the mise-en-scene: the clock hands and the huge gear wheels that drive them; the mysterious parts of the automaton’s interior, foregrounded by a metal heart composed of plates, springs, and cogs.

Hugo’s world takes a different tact after he befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) the goddaughter of station toy shop owner Georges (Ben Kingsley). Hugo has been stealing toys from Georges to access mechanical parts required to restore the automaton. Isabelle has interest in the automaton and film history and together she and Hugo visit a Paris library where they come upon reels of film made by the great illusionist Georges Melies (1861-1938). The creator of A Trip to the Moon (1902) and hundreds of other fantasy films, Melies came to financial ruin after unfulfilled business agreements with the Pathe and Edison companies. He made his last film in 1912 and essentially disappeared from public sight. To survive, Melies turned to selling candies and toys in Paris’ Gare Montparnasse train station. Thus, Kingsley’s on-screen Georges is revealed as a surprise representation of Melies.

Scorsese employs historical flashbacks to transport the viewer to Melies’ turn-of-the-century production studio, meticulously recreated, where demonstrations of special effects techniques and trick photography (demonstrated in several delightful films) illustrate how the master illusionist created his unique approach to cinematic expression.

Significantly, Hugo resurrects and honors Melies as the early innovator of film art born entirely of imagined worlds. New Yorker critic David Denby spoke to this significance: “The movie is intricate, touching, and a reverent summing up of the past of the movies, and a heart-swelling surge into the future.” (Dec. 5, 2011.)

Audiences continue to “discover” and revisit Hugo.

Naughty or nice?

Addendum: As noted above a good film for festive occasions need not necessarily have a seasonal holiday theme. One of my colleagues told me that her family likes to gather and watch alternative movies of a more serious type. Some possibilities come to mind: Casablanca (1942) or, say, the noir classic The Big Sleep (1946) adapted from the Raymond Chandler detective novel. Watching Bogart in these two classics is in itself cinematic nostalgia personified. I think the stop-motion claymation feature Chicken Run (2000) also is a good option. Its plot about doomed chickens attempting to escape their barnyard incarceration is a clever and entertaining take on the classic World War II POW camp film, The Great Escape (1963).

I’ve also screened Robert Flaherty’s enduring documentary Nanook of the North (1922) for special occasions where children are present. Its study of an Eskimo family’s capacity for survival in the frozen world of Canada’s Hudson Bay area is great human drama. We all watch spellbound as Nanook goes about the task of fashioning hunting and fishing tools from animal tusks, training his husky dog team, building an igloo to shelter his family, and teaching his young children the skills needed for life in an unforgiving environment. An hour-and-15 minutes in length Nanook of the North opens the conversation as to how Flaherty’s documentary achieves both heroic and poetic dimensions. Flaherty’s critics claimed the director staged several sequences, but the silent film remains relevant as a portrait of human courage. In 1989, Nanook of the North was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Note: The original story was edited after publication to correct the author’s name regarding The Big Sleep.


  1. Eleanor Davidson - 1979 MD

    Wow! What a wonderfully rich article. I feel as though I’d like to sign up for a film course now. Keep this coming….


  2. jim stasheff - 1956

    Hi Frank,
    In remembrance to time past
    jim stasheff


  3. Deborah Locke - 1992

    I remember well Frank’s screening of “Babette’s Feast” in film history class. A superb movie, an enlightening class and a brilliant professor. Wonderful memories. Thanks Frank.


    • Rusty Schumacher - 1954

      Frank – a great list of favorites (we always added “White Christmas,” too). I loved the inclusion of “BABETTE’S FEAST.”


  4. Don Sowle - 1973

    I remember the day in your film history class when Frank Capra visited in 1972-73. He was very gracious in answering our questions about “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other films.


    • Deborah Holdship

      This sounds like a great idea for a column! Frank?


      • Herb Bowie - 1973

        I also remember well Frank Capra’s visit to campus that year. My friend Rich Glatzer organized the film festival, and remained friends with Capra for years afterwards. Rich’s later life in the film industry might also add some interest to a potential article.


  5. Frank Beaver

    Thank you, Don. Inspired by your comments, I plan to write a follow up column about Frank Capra’s campus visit along with other directors and important film figures who visited the University in the 1970s. As you note it was an exciting time for film students and for us professors.
    Thank you, Deborah, for the suggestion.


  6. Herb Bowie - 1973

    “The Thin Man” has also become another favorite holiday classic of mine. It’s a little less for the residents of Bedford Falls, and a little more for those who escaped to The Big Apple, but it’s certainly a family tale of sorts, with Nick and Nora as the happily married detecting couple, and the Thin Man’s dysfunctional family providing comic relief.


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