Christmas films are a special breed of cultural phenomenon; standalone films (primarily) that return into our personal consciousness around mid-November as the weather starts to get a bit nippier and people start trimming the tree. With the days shorter and the nights longer, we return to these films annually for the uplifting feel of their endings, whether those come through triumphant returns of characters or emotional reunions with tears shed and laughs had.
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1. It’s a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey; an everyman from Bedford Falls who is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve to overcome financial difficulties for his small buildings and loans company. The film is predominantly told in flashback as we see the totality of George’s life, from his being a youngster on the ice in winter-time through to him stood on a bridge staring into the abyss at Christmas. A guardian angel by the name of Clarence comes down to show George what a gift he has been to the people in the town, and shows him a dark alternative world that would have resulted had he never been born.
George learns that family and friends are perhaps the most important aspect of not just his but anybody’s life – as the card from Clarence notes ‘No man is a failure if he has friends’. The film’s climax at the Bailey household finds George redeemed and reborn, full of mirth and joy, as he is surrounded by his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and a town full of benevolent friends. The cathartic release of the film’s finale helps George to prioritise family above money, love above ambition; these lessons are universal and explain the annual appeal of the film. As they sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in unison at film’s end, the message is clear that It’s a Wonderful Life is about friendship.
Much like George, the film gained a second chance in the 1970s when it was shown repeatedly on television in the United States; the message of unity through family and only knowing what you have once it’s gone speaks to us all, this masterpiece remaining iconic and beloved to filmgoers old and new year upon year.
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2. White Christmas
Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), White Christmas (based upon Irving Berlin’s hit single) stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis – army buddies who post-WW2 go into showbusiness together. Over the Christmas holidays, they happen upon a holiday resort that is run by their former Major in command (Dean Jagger) and has fallen on hard times. With the help of sisters Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen they enlist their show to help the inn return to its former glory.
While Crosby does charm his way through the film, the star of the show is Kaye. As the buffoonish Davis, Kaye does wonders with a sidekick role and has the best dance number in “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing”. It’s feel-good filmmaking for the soul.
The ending is wonderful in that the whole platoon from the start of the film returns to pay homage and honour the service record of their former leader. All the soldiers appearing in uniform to respect their commander means more to him than anything else – a show of solidarity and brotherhood you could only find in the military. Then the film concludes with a rendition of the famous titular song by all the cast as snow descends upon the Vermont location. The magic of Hollywood.