Tired of It’s A Wonderful Life? Check out these five comedy classics this holiday season instead.
The Film Forum in New York City might be winning Christmas this year: Their exceptional Christmas Eve double header features two films that don’t have the word “Christmas” in their titles, The Thin Man (1934) and After the Thin Man (1936), both of which take place during Christmas and New Year’s. To continue the spirit of unique holiday offerings, then, below is a short list of alternative classics to enjoy this winter season.
1. The Thin Man (dir. W. S. Van Dyke, 1934)
Recently retired detective Nick (William Powell) quit the business when he married the wealthy Nora (Myrna Loy), because he’s “much too busy seeing that you don’t lose any of the money I married you for.” However, it proves a hard profession to leave behind when Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) approaches him for help, concerned that her father, eccentric inventor Clyde (Edward Ellis, the real “thin man” of the title), has vanished right before her Christmastime wedding. Nick attempts to steer clear of the investigation, which eventually widens to include a few murders (all of which point to Clyde as the prime suspect), but Nora and their dog Asta have other plans: they try their darndest to pull him in so they can have some fun. Eventually, Nick finds himself knee-deep in the case while trying to dodge all the shady characters who accompany it.
Best Holiday Scene: During a silent Christmas Day sequence, Nick tests his Christmas present, a BB gun, out on all the tree’s decorative balloons, while Nora rolls her eyes with a mixture of slight exasperation and wonderment at her husband’s endearingly childish behavior. Eventually, all the balloons have been popped, and the scene ends with Nick curled up in fetal position… and a broken window.
2. Remember the Night (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1940)
With a script by Preston Sturges, Remember the Night boasts a lovely theme: the kindness of strangers during the holiday season. Of course, this stranger, prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), goes a bit far: he feels bad for shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), who is scheduled to spend Christmas alone in jail because of him. So he posts her bail, the idea being that she can spend the holidays with her own family. Naturally, things don’t proceed as planned, and John ends up with a stranded Lee on his hands. After an unsuccessful stop at Lee’s mother’s house, John takes her home to his family, and from there… well, you can guess what happens.
Best Holiday Scene: On Christmas Eve, John plays the piano while Lee sits next to him, taking it all in. Stanwyck barely says a word the entire scene; rather, it’s her eyes that reveal her thoughts as she fights back tears, realizing that this is what it feels like to be part of a family.
3. The Man Who Came to Dinner (dir. William Keighley, 1942)
The Stanleys, a well-to-do Ohio family, look forward to the arrival of noted lecturer Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) for a lunch date–until Sheridan slips and falls outside their door. The accident forces him to set up shop and take over their living room, and slowly, the rest of their house. And their lives. Well, it’s not as dramatic as that, but once the hilariously haughty Sheridan and his right hand woman, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis), make the space their own, a variety of hooligans begin to come and go, rattling the Stanley’s relationships, family dynamic, and sanity in the process.
Best Holiday Scene: On the night of Sheridan’s big Christmas Eve broadcast, all hell breaks loose: moments before he goes on air, Maggie and Lorraine (Ann Sheridan) get into a fight, and as the boys’ choir files in and begins to sing “Silent Night,” the penguins Sheridan received as a gift break loose. Some “silent night!”
4. Bachelor Mother (dir. Garson Kanin, 1939)
On her way home after being laid off from Merlin’s Department Store during the holidays, Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers) sees a woman leave a baby on the steps of an orphanage. After taking the child inside, the employees naturally believe she’s the mother, and Merlin’s management think Polly gave up the baby because she was laid off. The store rehires her… as long as she takes the child; after arguing her case, Polly gives in and lies about the baby’s parentage so she can keep her job. David Merlin (David Niven), the son of the company’s owner, gets involved, and before David knows it, his name is floated around as the baby’s daddy. This news brings both consternation and joy to his own father, J. B. Merlin (Charles Coburn), who can’t stand to think he will lose his own grandson, so naturally he pushes Polly and David to get together.
Best Holiday Scene: After he’s turned down by his first date, David asks Polly to a New Year’s Eve party. Since Polly is nervous to meet his high society friends, the duo pretend she’s from Sweden so only they can “converse” in an absurdly fake language. What tops the scene off is when David runs into Louise (June Wilkins), his first choice, on their way out and asks, “So how do you like her?” Louise turns up her nose: “Pretty good for a fill-in. I’d just as soon go stag.” With a smirk, Polly breaks her Swedish front with a stab in English: “You could, too, with those shoulders!”
5. It Happened on 5th Avenue (dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1947)
Homeless Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) moves into a boarded up 5th Avenue mansion belonging to millionaire Michael O’Connor (Charles Ruggles) before the holiday season. McKeever slowly collects an oddball group to live in the house with him, including evicted GI Jim Bullock (Don DeFore); “runaway” Trudy (Gale Storm), who is really O’Connor’s daughter; a few of Jim’s war buddies and their families; and eventually even the owner and his estranged wife, Mary (Ann Harding), who assume roles in the household under “head” McKeever. Trudy and Jim fall in love, and soon thereafter Jim and his buddies place a bid to buy a piece of land to turn into affordable housing so they can move out. However, scrooge O’Connor puts a wrench in all their plans, as well as his own re-budding romance with his ex-wife, which comes crashing down. In standard holiday fashion, though, Mike eventually sees the error of his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Best Holiday Scene: While McKeever, dressed as Santa Claus, leads the group in a sing-along on Christmas Eve, the neighborhood security guards, whom the group hides from every evening, enter the house. Shocked at first, the guards listen to their story and eventually agree to let everyone stay until New Year’s. Ecstatic, McKeever invites the officer’s families to join in their celebration, even supplying directions for one officer’s wife: “Tell her not to come through the front door. We have a hole in the back fence!” MM