Like me, you may enjoy coming together with family or friends after Christmas dinner to watch a beloved holiday classic. A Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Child’s Christmas in Wales… there are so many good ones. But what if Christmas seems to be coming around oftener and oftener, and you’ve seen all of these too many times?
In recent years, I’ve discovered a few “new” (to me) vintage Christmas gems. Nobody seems to ever talk about these, but they’re just as good as the more popular classics. At the very least, they offer something a bit different and prolong the black & white charm. I now present them to you, personally tested and approved, in order of release date.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Those of you who love It’s a Wonderful Life won’t want to miss Ernst Lubitsch’s very cute romantic comedy starring a younger Jimmy Stewart.
An aspiring salesman in a Budapest leathergoods shop, Alfred Kralik (Stewart) must contend with the arrival of a maddeningly headstrong new shop assistant, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). But at the same time, his love life is looking rosy as he begins exchanging anonymous letters with an intriguing woman encountered through a personal ad in the newspaper. As the story progresses, we learn that Miss Novak, who has taken a strong dislike to Mr. Kralik, is also writing to a secret anonymous correspondent of her own… Can you guess where this is going? Also, if this sounds a bit familiar, you may be thinking of Nora Ephron’s 1998 You’ve Got Mail, an adaptation of the same story with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles writing to each other anonymously via some primitive form of email.
Although I liked You’ve Got Mail well enough when it first came out (unaware at the time of this earlier version), perhaps impressed by their use of that newfangled technology, “electronic mail” (!), I now much prefer The Shop Around the Corner. The tight focus on the shop interactions allows us to closely follow the character development and evolving relationships among the staff. Stewart’s endearingly awkward character and the fiery arguments he has with his nemesis/love interest Klara are endlessly fun. I also love that the screenwriters kept the story’s original Budapest setting, including the characters’ Hungarian names, references to the local currency and Hungarian-language text in the shop’s signage. Why must everything always be transposed to an American setting? The world is full of other countries.
Much like in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Christmas season doesn’t make an appearance until a later part of the story. But any inclusion of Christmas during a film is enough to make it officially a Christmas one, I say. 😉
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Decades before smartphones were even imagined, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) has created an Instagram-perfect fake image of her life in the housekeeping column she wrote for a women’s magazine.
Unmarried, childless, living in a city apartment and unable to cook, she writes about the sprawling Connecticut farm she shares with her husband and their baby and the lavish meals she cooks there. Readers of the magazine eat it up and demand more and more. Things are going pretty well for Elizabeth, who is even making enough money to buy a mink coat (which EVERY woman from the 1940s to the 60s seems unfailingly to want).
Until the day when an imbroglio involving her boss, an unrefusable Christmas request, her longtime suitor and a dashing war veteran forces her to confront the falseness of the story she has woven and she must find a way to make the fiction become real…
Christmas in Connecticut is much more of a madcap, implausible story than The Shop Around the Corner, but still delivers on nostalgia and a certain kind of old-fashioned humor.
The Apartment (1960)
The most modern of the black and white films I’m presenting here, both in its year of production and the content it presents, The Apartment is a cute and rather sweet story that happens to take place around Christmastime.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) plays a put-upon insurance company employee who has begun lending his apartment to his bosses for their dalliances with mistresses and doesn’t know how to get out of the situation. Dangling the prospect of a promotion in front of his eyes, they occupy his home every evening, leaving him to stand outside in the cold or work extra (unpaid) hours after everyone else has left. Meanwhile, his neighbors grow increasingly impatient with the constant parties and nonstop parade of different young women through the building. Baxter can only sigh and promise them to be more quiet as he frets over how to extricate himself from the mess, which could also spell the end of his job if the big boss ever finds out.
At work, Baxter has grown fond of a sarcastic but cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who also has a melancholy side. One married executive after another tries to pick her up without success, and Baxter wonders what his chances with her might be. Perhaps when he finally gets that promotion he’ll be in a position to try. Meanwhile, Miss Kubelik has a secret of her own…
I loved this film’s aesthetic, with the worker-bee office setting (and company Christmas party that must have served as inspiration for Mad Men) and the very cozy looking apartment that made me want to move right in – if the executives would stop coming around with their girlfriends, that is. And I was especially fond of Baxter’s frustrated neighbors, one of whom calls him a “beatnik” upon discovering he has no napkins in the house.
A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
And finally, one that isn’t black and white but will charm you all the same! This shortish (47 min.) and often overlooked television special manages to bring together characters from ALL of the shows starring the world’s favorite felt puppets: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies and even Fraggle Rock. It’s a heart-warming celebration of togetherness, family, friends and sharing.
You may already be familiar with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), another favorite of mine but not covered here because this post is about the lesser known things. A Muppet Family Christmas precedes it by five years, but because it was designed for television only, it could not be widely released elsewhere due to copyright on the songs. It can therefore be hard to find, but if you take a look here you may just luck out.
The special begins with Fozzie Bear driving his friends from The Muppet Show to his mother’s house in the country for a surprise Christmas visit. Little does he realize that she’s about to leave for a Malibu vacation and has rented the house to the man from Fraggle Rock and his dog Sprocket, who have already arrived and are relishing the prospect of a quiet Christmas surrounded by nature. But when the gang arrives, they decide to stay with the uninvited guests, whose numbers seem never to stop growing as the program continues. The main Sesame Street cast is soon knocking at her door, followed by random groups of other Muppets, some known (Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) and some that may have been new (the snowman and turkey).
The Muppets meet, sing, negotiate space in the house and worry about Miss Piggy’s perilous journey through a snowstorm to join them. Meanwhile, the Swedish chef, who has arrived with a very large stockpot, sets his sights first on the turkey and then on Big Bird (!!!). The choice he makes next, disarmed by Big Bird’s naive benevolence, is rare both on the screen and in real life.
My favorite moments in this special are when we see a decidedly 1980s Miss Piggy chatting to Kermit over the phone from her photo shoot and shopping session, and when Kermit and Robin discover a spooky portal in the basement.
Be sure to watch to the end for the cameo by a VERY special someone!
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Perhaps some of these will become favorites for you, too! What holiday films do you like to watch again and again? Do you have any other obscure ones to add to this list?
And here’s my recipe for the perfect Christmastime evening:
- Make this Scandinavian juleboller dish for dinner
- Brew a pot of your favorite tea
- Settle yourself cozily on the couch with your favorite person or furry companion
- Watch one of the above Christmas movies while sipping your tea and enjoying some scrumptious dark chocolate mendiants (or the white chocolate version)
Merry Christmas to you! See you again in the new year.