’Tis the season to review offbeat, obscure classic Christmas movies (Part 1)

A promotional still from the 1945 film "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." (Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t get me wrong, I love tradition. At this time of the rolling year, I’m all set to watch Ebenezer Scrooge bless “Jacob Marley, Heaven and the Christmas Time”; hear Gene Lockhart declare Edmund Gwenn “the one-and-only Santa Claus”; and raise a toast to George Bailey, “the richest man in town.”

The following offbeat, unusual Christmas films, with equally redemptive themes, may be watched throughout all Twelve Days of Christmas. They are available on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming services; and for free on TCM cable network, YouTube, and other online websites such as the Internet Archive.

NOTE: Wright’s Wrating system employed here is based on nothing other than my own opinion. Your Humble Scribe encourages parents to view my selections to ascertain whether my choices coincide with your own.

December 26 — 1st Day of Christmas — St. Stephen the Deacon, Protomartyr

1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), the first film directed by Elia Kazan, taken from Betty Smith’s bestseller, offers an unsentimental reminiscence of a Catholic family in 1910. Sister and brother, Francie and Neely Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner — juvenile Oscar winner — and Ted Donaldson) grow up in a Brooklyn tenement.

Katie (Dorothy McGuire), their sullen mother beaten down by drudgery, takes in laundry to make ends almost meet, while her ne’er-do-well husband, Johnny (James Dunn in an Oscar-winning performance), is a singing waiter who works whenever he's sober. Charming and beloved by all, Johnny’s Christmas Eve chat with Francie, and its aftermath, is at once heartwarming and heartrending.

In 2010 the Library of Congress selected A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. When the film was screened at the 2019 TCM Film Festival, Katie’s immigrant mother’s (Ferike Boros) eloquent soliloquy on the importance of education in America won the audience’s spontaneous applause. This is a must-see movie. Wright’s Wrating: Preteens and up

December 27 — 2nd Day of Christmas — St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

2. “I called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes upon the second morning after Christmas, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season,” wrote Dr. Watson beginning the short story, “The Blue Carbuncle”. Christopher Morley, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, extolled this tale as "a Christmas Story without slush." Through the zigs and zags of the case, Holmes’ deductions help him discover the identity of the thief who robbed the Countess of Morcar.

Allow me to commend two versions of the story to your attention, although both change the dating to before Christmas. The first, from 1968, stars Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock as Holmes and Watson. They make a thumping good time of it, although the program suffers from being shot on video tape and, all too obviously, on soundstages.

The 1984 teaming of Jeremy Brett and David Burke, superb as Holmes and Watson, took a whack at the same case on film, making a much more professional-looking teleplay. While still quite enjoyable, this outing is not as much fun as the 1968 version. Wright’s Wrating: All ages

December 28 — 3rd Day of Christmas — The Holy Innocents

3. Remember the Night (1940), written by the wildly imaginative Preston Sturges, tells of a pretty, worldly wise shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) whose trial is interrupted by Christmas Eve. With the odd logic of the Sturges universe, she gets paroled for a week into the custody of the prosecuting attorney (Fred MacMurray). They drive to his Indiana hometown to celebrate Christmas with his mom. Sturges’ script expertly juggles humor and poignancy with a harrowing touch of sordid reality, before ending with an unexpected outcome. Wright’s Wrating: all ages

December 29 — 4th day of Christmas — St. Thomas Becket

4. We’re No Angels (1955): On Christmas Eve in tropical Cayenne, French Guyana, three genial felons, newly escaped from Devil's Island, cast about for money to book passage to Paris. Hoping to loot the cashbox of a failing general store, they instead perform several good deeds for the amiable if downtrodden shopkeeper (Leo G. Carroll), his long-suffering wife (Joan Bennett), and their beautiful, if naïve, daughter (Gloria Talbott).

Humphrey Bogart's deadpan one-liners joined to Peter Ustinov's drollery, remain sharp. Fellow convict Aldo Ray, always a likable lug, gets better-than-usual lines. Dark humor permeates the brightly witty dialogue. Avoid the excruciatingly unfunny 1989 remake as you would the plague. Wright’s Wrating: All ages

December 30 — 5th Day of Christmas — St. Liberius of Ravenna

5. We don’t have five golden rings, but in O. Henry’s Full House (1952) come five golden vignettes in this wonderful anthology. Virtue continues to triumph — although quite inexplicably.

We are again in turn-of-the-century New York City, “Baghdad-on-the-Hudson” as nicknamed by O. Henry, master of irony and the surprise ending. Five top-flight directors and a slew of excellent actors make this a memorable treat. In a fine touch, novelist John Steinbeck introduces each short story with a nod to O. Henry’s genius.

In "The Cop and the Anthem" Soapy, a cultured hobo whose usual bedstead is a Central Park bench, prepares to have his simple needs attended to over the winter by spending a 90-day stint in a warm jail cell. Problem is, no matter the misdemeanor Soapy commits, fate steps in to prevent his arrest. Charles Laughton’s performance is both hilarious and touching.

"The Clarion Call" is a fine sardonic drama, and "The Ransom of Red Chief" is great fun, but neither is set at Christmas.

"The Last Leaf" is a winter’s tale, a veritable poem of sacrificial love. Joanna (Anne Baxter) and her sister, Susan (Jean Peters), struggling artists dreaming of success, live in a drafty, Greenwich Village, cold-water flat. Their upstairs neighbor, a crotchety Russian named Behrman (Gregory Ratoff), is frustrated because his odd, color-splashed, pre-Jackson Pollock canvases remain unappreciated.

Traumatized by a failed romance, Joanna contracts pneumonia and loses the will to live. Counting 21 dying leaves on the ivy vine on the wall opposite, Joanna takes it for an omen since she’s 21. The wind picks up; a leaf blows off the vine. “Look,” Joanna says with sepulchral laughter, “I’m getting younger.” She decides that, when the last leaf goes, she'll die. A sudden storm picks up overnight. Will any leaves see the dawn? Ask your children which of Christ’s teachings is exemplified here.

As many times as "The Gift of the Magi" has been lensed, this version of the beloved Christmas favorite remains unforced, fresh and affectionate. Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger star as poor newlyweds seeking money enough to give really special presents to each other as signs of their unconditional love. Wright’s Wrating: all ages

December 31 — 6th Day of Christmas — Pope St. Sylvester I

6. Repeat Performance (1947) is a fitting way to end the year. A fine example of film noir, the movie opens on New Year's Eve. Famed Broadway actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) stands above the body of her philandering playwright husband, Barney (Louis Hayward) after shooting him. At just the right magic moment, Sheila confides what she’s done to her young poet friend, William Willams (Richard Basehart), wishing she could live the year over.

And so it happens. A few details change yet, despite Sheila’s best efforts, the year inexorably repeats itself. Will Sheila again murder Barney? Wright’s Wrating: Preteens and up

Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated television writer and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He responds to comments sent to [email protected].



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