Bishops, Marxists & tigers: 10 Xmas classics
What springs to mind when you think of Christmas movies? It's a Wonderful Life, obviously, though Frank Capra's classic melodrama is not especially festive when you consider that its lead character at one point tries to kill himself.
There's Scrooge, of course, in various versions, White Christmas, Holiday Inn and Miracle on 34th Street. And there are also films like Die Hard, The Wizard of Oz, Home Alone and Some Like it Hot that have become synonymous with Christmas despite having no particular connection with it.
They'll all be shown on TV in the coming weeks, and great fun they are too. But there are other Christmas films, lesser known and even neglected in some instances, that capture the joy and the underlying melancholy of the season, and sometimes subvert the bland and saccharine yuletide consensus.
I'm quite fond, for instance, of the 1974 Canadian film, Black Christmas, a rather camp and creaky horror film in which a group of sorority students led by Margot Kidder are stalked by a deranged killer during a messy Christmas party. It's often hailed as one of the first slasher films, which may or may not be a good thing.
Terry Zwigoff's 2003 black comedy Bad Santa has become something of a cult favourite around Christmas, but blacker still is the 2010 Swedish film Rare Exports, in which an ancient, vengeful Santa emerges from the tomb to prey on naughty children.
It's very funny but perhaps not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the season. All the films I've chosen below seriously examine the meaning of Christmas, and some of them make you count your blessings. They're my top 10 lesser known Christmas films, and all are worth investigating. Happy Christmas.
Meet Me in St Louis
Vincente Minnelli's classic musical follows the fortunes of well-to-do St Louis family the Smiths on the eve of the 1904 World's Fair. Disaster looms on Christmas night when Pa Smith announces that the family will be moving to New York after the holidays.
His devastated daughters react differently, and while Esther (Judy Garland) croons out a soulful version of 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) marches out to the garden and lops the head off a snowman with a stick.
Deanna Durbin was best known for portraying wholesome gals in romantic musicals, and got a lot of stick for playing a woman of the night in this disturbing Robert Siodmak film noir. But Durban later said it was the best thing she ever did, and she's absolutely right.
An army officer stranded in New Orleans amuses himself by hooking up with a bar hostess. But when they go to midnight Mass together, she breaks down and tells him the story of her nightmarish marriage to a psychopath (Gene Kelly, cast totally against type).
Ma Nuit Chez Maud
Films don't come much less Christmassy than Eric Rohmer's seminal 60s drama. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Jean-Louis, an earnest young Catholic who runs into an old friend called Vidal around Christmas.
Vidal, a passionate Marxist, introduces Jean-Louis to the glamorous, free-living and recently divorced Maud (Francoise Fabian), and over the course of a long evening the three discuss religion, atheism and philosophy.
A Christmas Story
This delightful black comedy did modest business when it was first released, but became a cult favourite when HBO started showing it on television a few years later. Set in smalltown Indiana in the 1940s, it tells the story of a little boy called Ralphie, who is determined to get a BB air rifle for Christmas.
As he canvasses his father, mother, extended family and even a grumpy department store Santa, he's constantly told "you'll shoot your eye out". Which turns out to be a very prescient warning.
Remember the Night (1940)
I've always been a huge Preston Sturges fan, and trust him to buck the 1940s trend for treacly, nauseatingly sentimental Christmas movies. When a young woman called Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested for shoplifting jewellery in New York on Christmas Eve, a young assistant district attorney (Fred MacMurray) is assigned to her case.
After her trial is postponed he sportingly offers her a lift home to Indiana, and along the way she gets him into a whole lot of trouble and they fall in love. A delightful and sometimes forgotten Christmas screwball comedy.
Christmas in Connecticut
This sparkling 1940s farce is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, and stars Barbara Stanwyck (her again) as Elizabeth Lane, one of America's most famous food writers who's managed to market herself as a kind of contemporary Martha Stewart.
Only trouble is, it's all a front: Elizabeth can't even boil an egg, and all her recipes come from her snooty French friend Felix.
And when her magazine editor insists she host a dinner for a returning war hero, Elizabeth must work like crazy to prevent her cover being blown. Hilarious.
The Christmas Toy
This absolutely charming made-for-TV Jim Henson movie may have provided some of the inspiration for Toy Story.
Set in a child's bedroom, and originally introduced by Kermit the Frog, the film follows the fortunes of a group of toys who only come to life when no one is around, but must be very careful because if a person ever catches them out of position they'll be frozen on the spot forever.
Dark stuff, and to make things worse a stuffed tiger called Rugby can't get over how loved he felt when he was put under the tree and opened last Christmas, and yearns to relive the experience again. Another toy can't get over the trauma of having been put in the washing machine. Great fun.
The Bishop's Wife
This lesser known Henry Koster Christmas comedy stars David Niven as Henry Brougham, a driven and ambitious Episcopal bishop who's become obsessed with his plans for a lavish new cathedral.
He hopes a wealthy but stubborn old widow will fund his grand scheme, but meanwhile has lost sight of his own family and of why he became a priest in the first place. Enter Dudley (Cary Grant), a suave and unflappable angel, who sets about undermining Henry at every step – for his own good of course.
Loretta Young co-stars in this sweet, funny and uplifting film.
Un Conte de Noel
Arnaud Desplechin's darkly comic saga stars Catherine Deneuve as Junon, the frosty matriarch of the wealthy and talented Vuillard family. The Vuillards are a brittle, endlessly chattering bunch who write plays and play instruments and seem to be gifted at everything except getting on.
Their relationships have been blighted by a family tragedy many years before, but they must all put aside their differences when Junon is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a marrow transplant from one of them.
It's dark but also touching.
The Holly and the Ivy
Ralph Richardson gives a brilliant performance in this nervy little English film based on a play by Wynyard Browne. Richardson is the Reverend Martin Gregory, a Norfolk country parson who's loved far and wide for his charitable acts in the community.
But when his grown children come to the Vicarage one Christmas Eve, it soon transpires that Browne's ostentatious Christianity was achieved at the expense of his own family, whom he has neglected. Celia Johnson, Denholm Elliott and John Gregson co-star in this very fine film.