Christmas is a time for movies. But if it’s your job to bake the Christmas cake, put up the tree, wrap the presents and cook the turkey, you may find it hard to set aside the 2¼ hours you need to watch The Holiday (2006) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Which is why short films are so valuable.
Christmas has been the subject of short films since the dawn of filmmaking, when Santa and Scrooge quickly became recurrent characters on screen. BFI Player has 2 versions of A Christmas Carol made in the early years of the 20th century: the first film adaptation of the story, W.R. Booth’s Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost (1901), and Harold Shaw’s A Christmas Carol (1914). The earliest film on BFI Player to feature Father Christmas is even older: G.A. Smith’s Santa Claus was made in 1898.
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Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, short films have remained central to Christmas viewing habits. In the 1960s, animated shorts such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) became fixtures on American TV during the holiday season. Similarly, in Britain, watching The Snowman (1982) has become as much of a Christmas tradition as watching The Queen’s Speech.
Ranging in length from just over a minute to just under half an hour, here are 10 of cinema’s finest stocking fillers – short films that either are, or deserve to be, Christmas classics.
Santa Claus (1898)
Director: G.A. Smith
G.A. Smith’s Santa Claus is what is termed a ‘trick film’, a brief short intended to showcase surprising visual effects. But the film is more than a neat example of cinematic sleight of hand: the shot of Santa superimposed over the main picture, which allows the audience to watch action occurring in 2 locations at once was a significant step in the evolution of on-screen storytelling.
Smith made the film with his family. He plays Santa; his wife, Laura Bayley, plays the maid; and their children, Harold and Dorothy, play the excited boy and girl she puts to bed on Christmas Eve. In the CGI age it’s difficult to understand the experience that seeing this film would have been for Victorian viewers, but it’s still possible to appreciate the ingenuity on show. Historical importance aside, what’s most remarkable about Santa Claus is how well it’s retained its charm.
Peace on Earth (1939)
Director: Hugh Harman
Peace on Earth’s Christmas carols and cutesy talking animals are just what we’d expect from a classic Christmas cartoon. The unsettling images presented alongside them are not. The title sequence includes a menacing shot of soldiers. Dormant cannons and twisted barbed wire stick out of the snow. And the animals appear to live in houses made from old army helmets. When 2 young squirrels ask their grandfather what the word ‘men’ means in the phrase ‘peace on Earth, good will to men’, we begin to realise that this is a world where humans have finally fought each other to extinction.
Peace on Earth’s anti-war message is as stark and important as ever, but modern viewers may also find that the cartoon resonates with fears about climate change. After all, it’s the story of a scorched planet managing to survive long after humans have made it uninhabitable for themselves.
Christmas under Fire (1941)
Director: Harry Watt
“For the first time in history,” intones US war correspondent Quentin Reynolds, “no bells ring in England to celebrate the birth of the saviour… If they do [ring], it will mean the invader has come.” In December 1940, America was still a year away from entering the Second World War. Britain, meanwhile, was enduring the Blitz. And so the Ministry of Information and the GPO Film Unit decided to celebrate the UK’s conviction that “war or no war, the children of England [will] not be cheated out of the one day they look forward to all the year.”
Like many wartime propaganda films watched in peacetime, Christmas under Fire can seem overwrought – “It’ll be a Christmas of contrasts: holly and barbed wire, guns and tinsel!” – but this is a film made with an urgent purpose: to erode isolationism on one side of the Atlantic and forestall despair on the other.
- This film is included on the BFI DVD compilation If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3
A Christmas Dream (1946)
Directors: Karel and Borivoj Zeman
The first film from master Czechoslovak animator Karel Zeman prefigures both Toy Story (1995) and The Snowman (1982). Its rag doll is like Sheriff Woody: an old-fashioned toy who loses his place as his owner’s favourite when the child receives something flashier. He’s also similar to the title character in The Snowman: he comes alive one winter night, frolics with household objects, and is lifeless again in the morning.
Like The Snowman, A Christmas Dream needs only music and images, and dispenses entirely with words. So convincing is its stop-motion magic that, even in black and white, it can still bewitch 21st-century children. Just be sure to show them the elegant 10-minute original version and not the ugly 8-minute American re-edit, which replaces the music, inserts superfluous intertitles and superimposes shots of Santa, which are artless and unnecessary.
On the Twelfth Day… (1955)
Director: Wendy Toye
Wendy Toye’s exuberant, Oscar-nominated farce demonstrates the facility short-form comedies have to take a clever premise, let it play out for as long as it is amusing, and then end as soon as it ceases to be. Toye is writer, director, choreographer and star here – and yet she is still billed below the film’s designer, Ronald ‘St Trinian’s’ Searle, in the opening credits.
She plays a genteel Edwardian lady whose true love (David O’Brien) gives to her all the gifts listed in ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. Because the characters say virtually nothing and the plot is explained by ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ being sung on the soundtrack, On the Twelfth Day… manages to be both a silent film and a musical. Shot in sumptuous and oversaturated Eastmancolor, Searle’s design scheme anticipates Cecil Beaton’s work in My Fair Lady (1964) and intensifies the atmosphere of festive excess.
A Christmas Carol (1971)
Director: Richard Williams
Alastair Sim made such an exceptional Scrooge that he played the character in 2 classic films. Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 feature Scrooge is the better known but it was Richard Williams’s 1971 short that won an Oscar. Despite that win for best animated short, Williams’ 25-minute masterpiece is too often omitted from lists of great Christmas films. The superb voice cast reunites Sim with Michael Hordern, who reprises the role of Marley’s ghost from the 1951 film, and also includes Joan Sims and Michael Redgrave.
The animation is rich with details designed to delight Dickens aficionados – the influence of A Christmas Carol’s original illustrator, John Leech, is obvious, while the opening credits recall the cover of the first edition – and the rapid pace makes other adaptations of the story feel flabby. Far from being a footnote to the more famous feature film, Sim’s second on-screen outing as Scrooge deserves to be enjoyed as often as his first.
The Tale of Karl-Bertil Jonsson’s Christmas Eve (1975)
Director: Per Ahlin
The Tale of Karl-Bertil Jonsson’s Christmas Eve (known as Christopher’s Christmas Mission in the dubbed English version) long ago ascended to the top tier of Christmas movies: those that thousands, if not millions, of viewers rewatch every year. A staple of Christmas Eve television schedules in Scandinavia, equivalent to The Snowman in the UK or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the US, this sweet-natured animation tells the story of a boy who has a holiday job at the post office, where he spends his shifts daydreaming about Robin Hood. Soon he realises he too can rob from the rich and give to the poor by taking Christmas parcels destined for wealthy addressees and giving them instead to the underprivileged.
Whether such a scheme would be well-received in real life is questionable, but in the film it’s a triumph of the Yuletide spirit.
The Junky’s Christmas (1994)
Directors: Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, The Junky’s Christmas is as faithful a literary adaptation as any film could be. We hear William S. Burroughs reading his 1989 short story as we watch Nick Donkin’s ultra-expressive claymation figures act it out (Donkin directs the animated sequences while Melodie McDaniel directs the live-action scenes that bookend them.)
Burroughs tells us of homeless New York drug addict Danny the Carwiper, who spends Christmas Day desperately searching for a fix. The greyscale cinematography emphasises both how colourless Christmas can be for those forced to spend it alone and how dull Danny’s days are without heroin. While its style and subject matter may sound depressing, The Junky’s Christmas ultimately manages to capture the essence of Christmas on both human and religious levels. The film’s climactic miracle is, in its own sacrilegious way, as uplifting as the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life.
…Long Distance Information (2011)
Director: Douglas Hart
The first moments of …Long Distance Information suggest it will be a distressing domestic drama. And it is. But it’s also a bitter kind of comedy, something hinted at by the brilliant tagline “Dad always said not to talk to strangers. But you’ve got to phone home sometimes.”
At 3pm on Christmas Day, a young Scottish man decides to call his father, from whom he is evidently estranged. To reveal any more is to reveal too much. …Long Distance Information seems to exist to offer proof of the observation, attributed to Charlie Chaplin, that “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” The further our own lives are from the lives of the characters in the film, the funnier it seems. For many it will feel uncomfortably close to reality. It depicts the kind of Christmas that is seldom seen on film but that millions of people have experienced.
Director: Jonathan van Tulleken
In one of the most arresting opening scenes in any Christmas movie, Santa (Tim Key) has crash landed in a snowy wilderness soon after setting off on Christmas Eve. The accident occurred, he insists, because of Anthony the Elf (Tom Basden) “pissing about” in the back seat of the sleigh. Jonathan van Tulleken’s brilliant black comedy follows the bickering pair as they try to contact civilisation and deliver the single present necessary to keep Christmas alive. It’s filled with gruesome moments that make us feel guilty for laughing, the funniest of which is surely the sight of a survivalist Santa roasting Rudolph for Christmas dinner.
Partly because it was filmed on location in Finnish Lapland, Anthony feels similar to Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports shorts (2003-05). But while they ultimately seem like proof of concept for the feature film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), Anthony is complete, and completely satisfying, on its own.