Call us the Ghost of Christmas Past because we at The Nerd Stash are counting down the top 10 Christmas movies from cinema’s golden age. While we have a list of the best classic Christmas movies of all time, classic is a broad term. Even a modern film can be labeled an instant classic. For this list, we will look at the best Christmas movies from the cinema’s golden age. This refers to a period in filmmaking (mid 1930s to early 1960s) where major studios in motion picture production was run primarily by five major studios (MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO) and where glitz, glamour, movie stars, and revolutions in filmmaking brought us some timeless classics. Such films included Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, and many more, including the Christmas movies you’ll see on this list.
If you want to include some classics that haven’t lost their charm in your holiday movie marathon, here is our list of the 10 best Christmas movies from the golden age of cinema.
10. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
In Christmas in Connecticut, Barbara Stanwyck stars as a successful food writer, but one who is putting on a face for her publisher and fans. While she’s convinced them all that she is a wife and mother on a farm in Connecticut, she’s actually a single woman living in a Manhattan apartment. However, that persona is jeopardized when her publisher insists that she host a Christmas party on her farm for a war hero (Dennis Morgan) who is a fan of her articles. Chaos and hilarity ensue as she tries to turn her fake persona into a reality. And if that’s not complicated enough, she faces another obstacle when she meets the war hero, and it is love at first sight.
Aside from being funny and sweet, Christmas in Connecticut is surprisingly relevant for a Christmas movie from the golden age. While most freelance writers today are women, most of their editors are males. Moreover, they still feel they have to fake a persona to get a boost in the industry. Such women may find a character they identify with in this Christmas movie.
9. White Christmas (1954)
The highest-grossing movie of 1954 stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as Broadway stars and aspiring performers working as a duo. While successfully working as performers and producers, they meet two performing sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). They travel with the sisters for a Christmas performance in Vermont. There they run into their old army commander, who has fallen on hard times. The foursome seek to create a yuletide miracle. Warmth, charm, and Christmas cheer make this musical a quintessential golden age Christmas movie.
8. It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
In this lesser-known holiday classic, Victor Moore stars as a hobo named Mac who makes his home in a seasonally boarded-up mansion while its owner, Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), takes his winters in Virginia. During this stay, Mac welcomes in Jim (Don DeFore), an ex-G.I. who has been evicted from the apartment building O’Connor is tearing down. He also welcomes in Trudy (Gale Storm), who is actually O’Connor’s runaway daughter who develops feelings for Jim. Eventually, Mac invites more strugglers to the home to join him for the holidays. If we’ve learned anything from A Christmas Carol, it’s that the best Christmases are about learning how to be a giver and be there for the least of these. That spirit is what makes It Happened on 5th Avenue so special.
7. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Many readers may remember the movie You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But what they may not know is that it was based on a Hungarian play that had been adapted twice before, with the first being this golden age Christmas movie. A young James Stewart stars as the top salesman of a leather goods shop in Budapest who is anonymously corresponding over mail with a woman whose ad he saw in the paper. When a new salesman (Margaret Sullivan) is hired, the pair instantly take a disliking to one another. That’s until he realizes she is the woman he has been sending mail to. While not a Christmas movie in its entirety, it has an ending taking place in the holiday season that is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
6. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Faith and family play a big part for many people at Christmas time, and this film is all about the two subjects and how they can sometimes collide. David Niven plays a married bishop obsessed with building a new cathedral. This obsession is straining his relationship with his wife and daughter. Praying for guidance, he is visited by an angel played by Cary Grant, who is there to guide him and his family. However, things become complicated when the angel develops an attraction to the bishop’s wife. The film is funny, Grant is charming as always, and the movie serves as a reminder that faith shouldn’t take the place of your family. Rather, it should motivate you to treasure your family.
5. Holiday Inn (1942)
We are taking a bit of a risk, including this one on our list of the best Christmas movies of the golden age. However, the film is still treasured in spite of its problems.
While the song “White Christmas” is known for being featured in the previously mentioned film, it actually originated in this movie. Holiday Inn stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as duo performers in New York. When Crosby retires to a farm, he ends up turning the farm into an inn that is only open on national holidays. And on each holiday, the inn features a unique performance to celebrate.
The film does suffer from one inexcusable scene. During the celebration of Presidents’ Day, Bing Crosby and several other actors perform the song “Abraham” wearing blackface. While this was common in this era, that does not make it okay. Despite this big mistake, the movie is still celebrated for its performances, musical numbers, and for getting the viewer into a festive mood.
4. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle, who takes over for a drunken Santa in the Macy’s parade. He’s such a hit that the event director (Maureen O’Hara) hires him full-time. However, when her daughter becomes convinced that he’s really Santa, a belief Kringle affirms, he becomes the subject of a court case to determine his mental health as well as his authenticity. A Christmas classic with one of the most beloved Christmas movie quotes of all time, this is a celebration of childlike wonder and a reminder to keep the Christmas spirit alive all year round.
3. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
We’ve seen many stars suffer the price of fame at a young age (e.g., Demi Lovato, Bug Hall, and Aaron Carter). And one of the saddest stories is that of the legendary Judy Garland. But while showbusiness may have been her downfall, she’s an iconic performer we are grateful to have had on the silver screen. And Meet Me in St. Louis is one of her very best movies and a must-see Christmas movie of the golden age.
The story is actually quite simple. It’s all about a family in St. Louis whose patriarch is considering moving the family to New York. This is hard news for his children, particularly his two oldest daughters, who are falling in love and not wanting to leave the men in their lives behind. The movie is a simple and charming story about the realities of life, and it has powerful performances from Garland and from Margaret O’Brien, who, at the age of seven, won a Juvenile Academy Award.
The musical film features some iconic songs, such as “The Trolley Song.” However, the most well-known song from the film, which is now a Christmas staple, is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” In a somber moment, Garland’s character Esther sings the song to her little sister Tootie (O’Brien) as they emotionally prepare to leave their home. Originally, the song’s lyrics contained the line, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.” Another line read, “Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more.” However, Garland objected to the lyrics, thinking they weren’t appropriate to sing to a child. The lyrics were changed to, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” and “Faithful friends who were near to us will be dear to us ONCE more.”
2. A Christmas Carol/Scrooge (1951)
We’ve seen a thousand different versions of A Christmas Carol starring everyone from Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, and even The Muppets. However, this 1951 British film starring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge is the absolute best. Sim is absolutely perfect in the role, never needing to go over the top as Scrooge goes through a variety of emotions as his hardened heart softens. He perfectly makes Scrooge’s journey from arrogant monster to the soft-hearted “second father” to Tiny Tim absolutely believable. The film is also effectively chilling, which a true ghost story should be. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you are missing the standard that all other takes on A Christmas Carol can only hope to live up to.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Was there any doubt which Christmas movie of the golden age would be number one? It’s been said that the spirit of Christmas should be in your heart all year round. There’s no film that honors that message more than It’s a Wonderful Life and its main character George Bailey.
You may not know this, but this movie is actually another adaptation of A Christmas Carol, although it comes with a twist. While Ebenezer Scrooge is learning how much better off the world would be without him, George Bailey is learning the opposite. Dreaming of a bigger and more adventurous life than he feels he can have in the town of Bedford Falls, George continues to make a variety of self-sacrificial choices for the good of those around him. Depressed and wishing he wasn’t born, an angel appears to help him realize that because he made the choices he made, he’s managed to change people’s lives for the better and even save them. George learns to realize that making the harder choices for those you love makes life wonderful. That is what Christmas should be all about, and that’s why It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas movie of the golden age, if not the best Christmas movie of all time.
These golden age Christmas classics are a must for your movie marathon. Enjoy some blasts from the past this holiday season.