It is a Fact of Life that black-and-white movies are superior to movies in color, and that’s true of Christmas movies in particular, too. It’s true even if you exclude the obvious and over-watched It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, and it’s especially true if you look at the hideous fare that usually makes lists of best Christmas movies, from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Bad Santa to Die Hard.
So here are five black-and-white classics that embody the real Christmas themes of spiritual transformation and rebirth, and demonstrate once again why the best outdoor Christmas scenes are shot in black-and-white on a sound stage.
A Christmas Carol (1951). The best of all the film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s classic, this British version perfectly captures the dark, foggy world of Dickensian London and the rich spirit of his original. Scottish actor Alastair Sim gives one of the screen’s great performances as Ebeneezer Scrooge, revealing from the start the emotional vulnerability beneath the old miser’s cynical shell. Some scenes, especially at the end, are so touching they almost are beyond watching, but look for brief appearances by Sir Michael Hordern as Marley’s Ghost, Patrick Macnee (later John Steed in the original TV series The Avengers), Peter Bull (the Russian ambassador in Doctor Strangelove), and Hermione Baddeley (who later wound up being Bea Arthur’s maid in the TV series Maude). Warning: Steer clear of Hollywood’s 1938 film of the same name, which completely rewrites, and makes a travesty of, the Dickens story.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Barbara Stanwyck plays a successful journalist whose column is based on the lie that she’s a happy homemaker with a farm, husband, and child in rural Connecticut when in fact she is single, lives in Manhattan, and can’t boil water. Suddenly she has to turn fiction into reality in order to host a returning war hero for Christmas, and the farce is on. In the process she discovers love and the value of honesty over celebrity. As light and luminous as the staged farmhouse in which the action takes place, Christmas in Connecticut also serves up two familiar faces from Casablanca: Sydney Greenstreet as Stanwyck’s comically domineering publisher, and S. Z. (“Cuddles”) Sakall as the Hungarian restaurateur Stanwyck brings out to her make-believe farm to cook the recipes she’s passed off as her own.
The Cheaters. Another 1945 film about people pretending to be who they aren’t, but who learn the value of honesty and integrity at Christmas. This one stars longtime suave Hollywood heavy Joseph Schildkraut as a homeless and alcoholic ex-actor who gets taken in at Christmas by the dysfunctional Pigeon family (headed by bullfrog-voiced Eugene Palette and Billie Burke, the latter of whom played Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) so they can steal an inheritance. They all, including the ex-actor, wind up being transformed for the better.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Cary Grant is the omnicompetent urbane angel who’s come to Earth to save a bumbling bishop (David Niven) from his obsession with building a costly cathedral, which has alienated him from his friends, his parishioners, and his wife, played by Loretta Young in what I think is her single best role on film. The graceful performances by Grant, Niven, and Young, plus Monty Woolley as a bumptious professor of ancient history and Elsa Lanchester as the bishop’s mousy maid, raise what might have been a limp version of It’s A Wonderful Life to the level of cinematic art.
I’ll be dreaming of a black-and-white Christmas.
Meet John Doe (1941). No Christmas movie list is complete without a Frank Capra film, and in this one we again get the treat of Barbara Stanwyck as a dishonest journalist. This time she’s trying to save her job by penning a phony letter from someone claiming he’s going to commit suicide on Christmas Eve in order to protest the injustices in the world, and signing himself “John Doe.” When the letter causes a publicity sensation, she has to find a real John Doe and recruits a shy, out-of-work semi-pro ball player (Gary Cooper). The pair quickly become caught up in a national frenzy of John Doe Clubs, which turn out to be manipulated by a wealthy millionaire with dark political ambitions. As a penetrating commentary on American democracy, and an exploration of the possibilities as well as dangers of a runaway populism, the movie not only puts Capra’s earlier Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the shade, but gives us an important film to watch in the era of Donald Trump as well as at Christmas. The final scene, where the main characters all reunite on a snow-covered Christmas Eve with their lives changed forever, is one of the most beautiful Capra ever filmed — and makes even the heart-warming last scene of It’s A Wonderful Life seem syrupy and sentimental, which is of course it is.
So celebrate December 25 by watching Die Hard for the umpteenth time, if you must. I’ll be dreaming of a black-and-white Christmas, with visions of Cary Grant, Alastair Sim, Sydney Greenstreet, and Barbara Stanwyck dancing in my head — and on the screen.