Comfort and joy. That’s what the song talks about, and that’s what the classic Christmas movies deliver. Whether it’s Die Hard (1988) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Home Alone (1990) or White Christmas (1954), we enjoy these films, in part, because they are so comfortable. Time and tradition have made them as familiar as carols, mince pies, woolly jumpers, and avoiding the lancinating gaze of your least favourite aunt over the sprouts.
But, at the end of 2016, perhaps we can upset the usual way of things. The Christmas holiday should also be a time for Christmas Holiday, Robert Siodmak’s chilly noir from 1944. It starts as it continues: a puppy-dog soldier, excited about proposing to his girlfriend while on leave, receives a telegram just before he sets off — she’s married someone else. Storms and diversions then bring him to a seamy New Orleans club on Christmas Eve, where he meets a girl whose wounds are even deeper.
Christmas Holiday is, in many respects, a Hollywood-ised version of the W. Somerset Maugham story on which it was based — but it gains from being so. The girl, now reduced to singing for drunks, is played by the cherubic soprano Deanna Durbin. The man she fell for in the past, now serving time for murder, is played by Gene Kelly. Casting these actors in these roles is part of the film’s wicked allure. It even has the perversity to show Kelly asking her for a dance, and then fades to black.
There’s no chance of missing the dancing in another of my favourite Christmas movies, François Ozon’s 8 Women (2002). Some of the grandest French actresses, including Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert, hoof and holler their way around a country house as a question hangs over them: who killed the only man of the household? It’s a peculiar mix of Douglas Sirk melodrama (in look), amateur musical (in delivery) and Cluedo (in spirit), with more than a dash of kinkiness. It subverts the season.
Or does it? Perhaps there’s something uniquely festive about trapping people in the same building for a few days, while the snow falls outside, and watching their neuroses collide. We do it as families, after all. And it’s been done in other movies too, such as The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).
This one contains a number of comedic turns so good that they deserve listing. There’s Monty Woolley as the irascible author Sheridan Whiteside, who, thanks to an unfortunate rendezvous with an icy step, ends up inflicting himself on the poor Stanley family. There’s Reginald Gardiner as Noël Coward as a stuttering member of the landed aristocracy. And there’s the Great Schnozzle himself, Jimmy Durante, as Jimmy Durante.
It’s topped off by one of those Bette Davis performances that just skips off the screen. Her eyes flit from jadedness to playfulness to fury and back again as though they have a switch behind them. Even stubborn Mr Whiteside cannot best her in the end.
Whether it’s a writer slipping on ice or a soldier winding up in New Orleans, happenstance is often an ingredient of Christmas movies. In Remember the Night (1940) — written by Preston Sturges and directed by the exceedingly undervalued Mitchell Leisen — Barbara Stanwyck’s jewel thief finds herself spending the holiday with her kind and handsome prosecutor. Holiday Affair (1949) begins with a young war widow buying a trainset from Robert Mitchum in a department store, and then Bob just keeps on coming back into her life.
But rarely is the happenstance happier than in In the Good Old Summertime (1949). You may have seen a version of this film before. It was based on the Miklos Laszlo play in which a pair of bickering colleagues begin to fall in love as pen pals, and which has also been adapted as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) — except this time it’s a musical. He is Van Johnson. She is Judy Garland. They both work in a Chicago music store, so the songs are actually part of their day jobs.
As for the film’s unseasonal name, don’t be fooled. In the Good Old Summertime reaches its peak with Garland singing Fred Spielman and Janice Torre’s ‘Merry Christmas’ for the first time on screen or off. No one else could imbue the line ‘so be jolly’ with as much sadness.
Garland in Technicolor is enough of a miracle for me. But if you’d prefer something more literally spiritual, there is always 3 Godfathers (1948), a John Ford western that casts John Wayne as one of three bandits caring for an orphaned baby on the way to a town called New Jerusalem. It’s not quite the story of the Three Wise Men, yet it does have the Duke shooting for a star — and that, we can all agree, is the true meaning of Christmas.