The dewy-eyed Christmas movie – nuclear family gathered around a tree, Ma slaving over a stove, Pa singing by the piano – flourished in the 1940s, a decade beset with geopolitical conflict and domestic rationing. Festive flicks from the era show not only that tinsel was the decoration du jour, but that the cheek-flushed rush of days leading up to Christmas Eve promised endless possibilities for soul-searching. Fitting, considering the breadth of individuals struggling to find connection and purpose after the events of the Second World War.
As a setting, Christmas was catnip for Hollywood script writers: endlessly pliable for use in both romantic comedies and tear-jerking morale boosting dramas, offering a salve for families fractured by the war effort. While certain stars, such as James Stewart, capitalised on their natural charm and starred in numerous festive films, many filmmakers used Christmas as a setting in myriad genres, from western to film noir to the musical. Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, John Ford, Vincente Minnelli: all incredibly different filmmakers, united around the same, snow-sprinkled setting.
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The era of mental healing and scarcity placed a focus on ‘what really matters’. Similarly, Christmas films from this time were optimistic parables that placed emphasis on family and choosing the right path – the yin to film noir’s equally popular, doggedly cynical yang.
That said, Christmas films – often featuring or even named after popular songs of the era – helped switch America’s previous focus on carols to crooner-style ballads, signalling the start of Christmas as entertainment that could bring not just families but countries together.
This was the golden age of the Christmas movie: a decade filled to the brim with stirring films using formulas that many have tried and failed to replicate.
The Shop Around the Corner is back in cinemas from 3 December 2021.
Find other Christmas films in BFI Southbank’s Big Screen Classics strand.
Remember the Night (1940)
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Four years before they would sizzle the celluloid in canonical film noir Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made their first pairing in this altogether more chaste romance. She plays Lee, a sticky-fingered shopper who is arrested on Fifth Avenue in the days leading up to Christmas; he’s the no-nonsense assistant district attorney prosecuting her. But when he tries to delay the trial until after the holidays and discovers she has nowhere to stay, his heart softens and they spend the Yuletide period driving through snow, exchanging witty repartee and – you guessed it – falling in love.
With a sparkling Preston Sturges script, labelled by the scribe as “quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz,” the witty back-and-forth and surprisingly bleak ending means this never quite becomes saccharine. Here, the overarching message is of taking responsibility for one’s actions; Christmas becomes a tool for bringing out the best in someone, whether that’s a soft-hearted jury or a gruff jobsworth who has lost sight of what’s important in life.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
A mischievous and disarming James Stewart – devastatingly young and handsome, all gangly limbs and cheeky grin – lights up the screen as disenchanted store clerk Alfred Kralik in Lubitsch’s much-loved, much-adapted festive comedy-of-errors. In his third collaboration with Margaret Sullavan, the lived-in chemistry shared between the two protagonists crackles with believability, with that classic ‘Lubitsch touch’ enveloping the pair with a charming warmth and intimacy.
They play colleagues locked in a hate-hate relationship with one another, unaware that they have actually fallen in love via letter. Too proud to back down or be honest when he discovers what has happened, it takes until Christmas Eve for Alfred to reveal the truth with the flourishing reveal of a red carnation and a sweet kiss. This is the romantic comedy distilled into its purest form: a heady elixir of utter charm.
I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)
Director: William Dieterle
As a chorus warbles over the opening credits of I’ll Be Seeing You, you may initially be surprised that this ostensibly lightweight wartime drama holds hidden depths. It stars a post-Oscar Ginger Rogers as Mary, a prisoner on eight-day Christmas furlough, and Joseph Cotten as Zachary, a shellshocked sergeant on 10-day health leave due to his “neuro-psychiatric” issues. The brevity of their romance is reflected in the ephemeral whirlwind of the festive period, with both Mary and Zachary hiding their respective secret from one another due to fear of judgement.
There are countless moments bursting with charm: a love-drunk Cotten waltzing with his coat and sighing “happy new year!” to himself, a sassy Shirley Temple demanding a mature neckline on her dress because it would be a “morale builder”, and one of the most raucously fun New Year’s Eve scenes ever put to screen. What’s more, a moment where Cotten suffers an anxiety attack is filmed with startling, moving accuracy. The film is sympathetic to the unfair plight of women who have survived attempted sexual assault and are penalised for defending themselves, too. In short, it transcends, and then some, its marketing as a superficial bauble of a film.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
A large and loving family living in middle-class comfort in 1903 must navigate low-stakes obstacles in Meet Me in St. Louis, Vincente Minelli’s Technicolor musical, which gave Judy Garland her first ‘adult’ role as girl-next-door Esther Smith. Comfortingly gauzy, the main conflict involves whether or not the patriarch (Leon Ames) should move his brood to New York City, thus hampering the burgeoning relationship between Esther and their neighbour.
The film transcends its aw-shucks trappings thanks to the luminescence of its lead star. As she wistfully warbles a skin-tingling rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ by a snowy windowsill, the lyrics are pathos-laden and pertinent considering the ongoing war: “Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow / Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
There’s also the joy of ‘The Trolley Song’ and the toe-tapping fun of ‘Skip to My Lou,’ as well as the titular St Louis World’s Fair: a symbol of technological advancement and looking to the future. Above all this, however, the film was the perfect wartime salve as it’s about your roots – the places you grew up, the family that surrounded you, and the nostalgia inherent in places and people.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Director: Peter Godfrey
Adept at playing both femme fatales and comediennes, Barbara Stanwyck is on peak form in this screwball comedy. Her fraudulent character, Elizabeth Lane, pretends she’s a culinary-minded housewife for her magazine column when in fact she’s a rather shallow ‘modern woman’ whose main ambition in life is to look fabulous and own a mink coat. Trying to keep up the pretence when her editor sends a dashing sailor to her non-existent farmhouse for the holidays, she’ll go to any length necessary to keep her job and the ruse. Things go even further south when Elizabeth begins to fall in love with her guest, who is not only engaged but enamoured with a version of her that doesn’t exist.
There’s something quaintly old-fashioned and stagey about the contained nature of the mania that unfurls across only a couple of locations; when a side character, panicked, says “everything is hunky dunky!” you can picture the meme of the dog sipping coffee as flames engulf the room. Madcap plot twists involving fake babies and invented spouses spin off into yet more problems for our panicked protagonist. As a farce it captures the frenzy of the festive season: the manic expectation to have fun and be perfect, when a pot is always perilously threatening to bubble over.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Director: Frank Capra
What else needs to be said about Capra’s hopeful, heartstring-tugging movie, a lovingly rewatched phenomenon that acts as collective kintsugi each year? About James Stewart’s sensitive performance of a man on the brink of giving up, only to be pieced back together by the love and generosity of his community? Some films are great, but others are genuinely life-affirming: this is the epitome, and only the most churlish grinch could possibly disagree.
As the moon-lassoing, toe-tapping empath George Bailey, Stewart brought to life the idea that hope truly can overcome fear in what feels like an impossible situation. Indeed, his rousing cry of “I wanna live again!” neatly summarises how It’s a Wonderful Life somehow manages to be one of the most comforting films ever, and simultaneously an excellent film about suicide. And while apparently the worst thing a woman can become according to Pottersville is a… librarian, the film acutely understands the impact one person can make in a world that can sometimes feel out of our control.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Director: Henry Koster
Understanding that in a true fantasy world there would be angels with cleft chins and matinee good looks, The Bishop’s Wife gifted us with Cary Grant as a smooth-talking spirit sent to guide David Niven, a bishop who has been neglecting his family due to an obsession with funding the construction of a cathedral. His wife Julia (Loretta Young) is feeling so ignored that when Angel Dudley appears, she finds herself perilously close to falling for him – and the feeling might just be mutual.
It all culminates in a moving sermon that reasserts “loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance,” and you can forgive the rather pious ending when the atmosphere is so evocative and moving. It’s a snowy flick perfect for Sunday afternoons. One ice-skating scene where Grant’s body double pirouettes around an ice-skating rink is so gleefully silly and simultaneously charming that you can’t help but be sucked in by the joy of the whole thing.
3 Godfathers (1948)
Director: John Ford
While the oppressive Death Valley desert may not initially invoke festive cheer, John Ford’s nativity-inspired western is a unique addition to the Christmas film canon. A retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men, the touching oater sees three cattle thieves (played by John Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Harry Carey Jr) become unexpected custodians of an orphaned infant, whom they take to be a symbol of the infant Jesus.
Stumbling towards the town of New Jerusalem as Christmas looms, they must also try to stave off dehydration and evade the chase of Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond). Some of them thar’ themes verge on sentimental – after all, what spells Christmas spirit if not painstakingly squeezing water out of cacti in order to keep a newborn alive – but the overall mood of sacrifice and redemption, as well as Ford’s typically beautiful framing of the frontier, elevates proceedings.
Holiday Affair (1949)
Director: Don Hartman
Starring Robert Mitchum in one of his rare sweet roles (which he reportedly took to fix his image after a cannabis drugs bust), Holiday Affair sees two men fighting for the romantic affections of a fresh-faced Janet Leigh. She plays Connie, a single mother widowed after her husband’s death during the war, who supports herself working as a competitive shopper. Unluckily for her, store clerk Steve Mason (Mitchum) spots her “corporate espionage” and threatens to warn every store in town about her.
After this rocky start, the pair soon realise they get on and find themselves repeatedly drawn to one another in the days leading up to Christmas, much to the chagrin of Connie’s fiancé. Eight-year-old Gordon Gebert is impossibly cute as her six-year-old son Timmy, but it’s the gentle chemistry between Leigh and Mitchum that really helps this sprightly film sparkle.
Cover Up (1949)
Director: Alfred E. Green
What’s Christmas without a murder mystery? In this film noir, an insurance investigator finds himself in a small midwestern town questioning whether a man’s death was suicide or murder. The inhabitants are acting cagey and in cahoots, while the gun is absent from the crime scene and the physical evidence seems to point to foul play. Set during the festive period and also centring the flirtation between Barbara Britton’s Anita and Dennis O’Keefe’s protagonist sleuth Sam, the film is rather genial for typical noirs in the period yet dark for the era’s typical Christmas movies.
For every tinsel-garbed fireplace and sparkling fir tree, there’s a shadowy silhouette and trail of gun smoke – even if overall the dialogue is more over-easy than hardboiled. Despite the thematic tug-of-war, though, Cover Up builds gentle suspense thanks to the off-kilter townsfolk bent on stymieing Sam’s investigation. It’s one of a small collection of film noirs set at Christmas, including Christmas Holiday (1944) and Lady in the Lake (1946), the rather amicable ending here a sign of that good ol’ Christmas spirit winning over.
Originally published: 24 November 2021