Doug Hartline: The Five Best Christmas Movies of All Time

I have chosen the following five films as the best Christmas films of all time. I know what you are thinking, just why would the ones I choose be the best? After all, choosing a best is a highly subjective process and can be dependent upon one’s background, age, likes and dislikes, and a myriad of other factors. I couldn’t agree more so I had better be a little more specific.

First, they must be timeless, withstanding the test of time and appealing to multiple generations. More importantly, they are inspirational and represent the best of humanity. It is this that distinguishes my choices from other endearing Christmas films – some of which are humorous, others that are animated and touch our emotions as children, and even some that are adventurous. Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol is such a classic that if you search for it on Amazon you will see no less than 230 films including documentaries, biographies, animated versions from the Muppets to Mickey Mouse, contemporary versions, and classics dating back to a 1910 silent film – there is clearly no shortage of films to choose from.

I will admit that choosing five was rather difficult and I agonized over it because it meant omitting some that I truly love, a few of which I believe contain some of the most memorable scenes ever filmed. Who can ever forget Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in Meet Me in St Louis? In my obsession to be as accurate as possible I even watched multiple versions of A Christmas Carol to validate my final selection: (1) It’s a Wonderful Life; (2) The Bishops Wife; (3) Miracle on 34th Street; (4) White Christmas; (5) 1951 Version of A Christmas Carol

Why do these five films have such universal appeal? I believe it is because at our core we wrestle with the fact that we are human and that we are mortal. Somehow, we want to do something meaningful with our lives and we want to know that we will be remembered for having made a difference after we are gone. People will not always remember what we did or said, but they will always remember how we made them feel.

As Clarence the Angel points out in It’s A Wonderful Life, “No man (or woman) is a failure who has friends.” The best way to have friends is to be a friend – to show love to one another and thus represent God’s desires and character during our short time on this planet. These films show mankind at its best, overcoming obstacles, and demonstrating the true meaning of Christmas. And, of course, if we encounter those obstacles, we also want to believe that God’s angels are there to look after us.

There is something else special about these movies that no longer exists in film productions today. Most movies generated before the 1960’s and certainly all of those produced by the golden era studios exemplified a different form of acting. In those days you had a host of character actors as well as movie stars who had amazing charisma, charm, and personality. When they acted you could tell they were acting, but they were a joy to watch because they were so good at their craft. Following the 1960’s, in an effort to “better” the medium, acting became more realistic – it is far more difficult to differentiate current movies from real life. I think this is a true loss and a reason why so many still love to watch the classics today.

Let me provide you with a sneak peak into each of these films, some of which seem to be increasingly difficult to see nowadays. I believe this is a product of the current generation having too many viewing choices to have the time to look backwards; black and white films being considered too dated to watch, and, in some markets, a desire to not show them because of Christian content or references.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man, George Bailey played my Jimmy Stewart, who finds out what life would have been like had he not been born. He sees what a difference his life made to so many and realizes the sacrifices he made along the way were infinitely worth it. Ironically, this movie was the first one for Director Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart after World War II and it was a flop when it came out in 1947 because it was a little too dark for a postwar audience. Its box office losses contributed to the closing of the film company, Liberty Pictures that Capra cofounded. It was, however, nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is now considered number twenty on the American Film Institutes Greatest Movies Ever Made and number one on its list of most inspirational films of all time. It really became famous and a holiday classic owing to a clerical error in which its copyright expired and television picked it up and began showing it during the Christmas holiday. From there it exploded in popularity and I am so happy that Frank Capra and many of his amazing cast were able to witness its rebirth, particularly since it was Capra’s favorite and he screened it for his family every Christmas season.

2. The Bishops Wife was made just one year after It’s a Wonderful Life. It was also nominated for several academy awards including best picture, and even featured two of the children that were in It’s A Wonderful Life. The stars included Cary Grant as a very debonair angel, Loretta Young as the Bishops Wife, and David Niven as the Bishop. It’s a story of a Bishop who runs into trouble trying to build a cathedral and when he prays for help, he receives it by way of an angel. It is probably one of the last great black and white films of Hollywood’s golden era and is filled with a stellar cast, wonderful acting, and joyful humor. It demonstrates how we can become so busy helping others that we can forget to be there for those that are closest to us. Thank goodness an angel is sent to teach what is truly valuable.

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947 version) was made the same year as The Bishops Wife. (What is this telling you about that era of values and Christmas films?) and was also nominated for Best Picture. The film focuses on a Macy’s Department Store Santa Claus who claims to be the real Santa. It has a stellar cast of Maureen O’ Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and a young Natalie Wood. Maureen O’Hara was so taken by the script that she came back to the United States to film it after moving to Ireland. The movie footage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is authentic with Edmund Gwenn portraying Santa Claus in the actual parade. Natalie Wood was of the age that she still believed in Santa Claus despite her film character being told he was a fairy tale! John Payne loved the movie so much that he actually wrote a sequel to it that was unfortunately never filmed. It so lovingly captures the innocence of childhood as a time when we all believed in magic. Heartwarmingly, we realize that perhaps we should never have stopped believing after all.

4. White Christmas came along a few years later in 1954 and was named after the best selling Christmas Song of all time, first performed by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. The plot centers around Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as two WWII veterans who became famous performers and through a series of humorous and entertaining events, come to the rescue of their WWII General (Academy Award Winner Dean Jagger) with the aid of Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. It is a cornucopia of beautiful music and dancing but the most touching scenes center around the retired General who thinks he has no value. The scene of his granddaughter looking up to him with such love and admiration while he is in uniform and the ending tribute to him by his old company is so touching its hard to imagine anyone not tearing up during it.   Entertainers sacrificing all for the love of a commanding general that saw them through the great war and showing him that he is loved and will always be valued by so many.

5. A Christmas Carol was filmed in 1951 although there are many wonderful versions and, in fact, a 1938 version that gives this one a run for its money. While there are many aspects of the 1938 version I like better, including the overall cast, I chose the 1951 version because of the amazing performance by Alastair Sim as Scrooge. I doubt that this Dickens Classic about a wealthy miser being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future needs any explanation. I think it is foremost a lesson in Christian redemption, that we all have a chance to repent and redeem ourselves and do good while we are here before we face what could be a glorious or regretful end. Caring for our fellow man should always be more important than making money.

In closing, should you decide to have a mini-movie marathon by watching all five of these films, I believe you will not only witness a cinematic tapestry, you will walk away wanting to be a better person. Before each personal interaction you will begin to ask yourself what you can do to make a positive difference in peoples lives In doing so, you will realize that the things of real value can’t be bought – and isn’t that what the Christmas spirit is all about?

Doug Hartline

In 1977, Doug Hartline wanted to be an actor but knew his talent wasn’t there so wisely put that behind him and left Bakersfield, California to start his upper division college work at the University of California Davis (UCD) working on a doctorate degree in Applied Mathematics with an emphasis on Physics. In 1982, God pressed it upon his heart to withdraw from pursuing that to spend more time with his family and to engage more fervently with his church. He therefore left his possible teaching career and part time teaching assistant position to begin a career as a University Administrator on his campus and held a variety of management positions there. Following many years at Davis, he spent the last ten years of his educational career as Director of Core Technologies at the University of California Santa Cruz. With his primary focus on information and educational technologies, Doug served on several statewide committees and was Chair of the Business Advisory Committee for the Corporation for Educational Initiatives in California (CENIC) that was responsible for providing high speed networking to most public and private universities, the community college system and K-12 schools throughout California. This labor of love resulted in him receiving the CENIC Founders Award just prior to his retirement in 2017. In all, he spent nearly forty years with the University of California. Although his career was focused on technology and higher education, Doug had many passions he wanted to pursue following retirement. He is an avid life long learner and has refocused his attentions from the sciences to literature, U.S. and World History, music, and the theater arts and now travels nationally and internationally to make what he learns come alive. To borrow from and paraphrase Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, mathematics and physics was a noble pursuit and sustained Doug’s life, but it is poetry, beauty, romance and love that he finds are worth staying alive for. He is a ballroom dancer and is now learning to play the piano for the first time. As an amateur Hollywood historian, he strives to keep memories of a kinder and simpler age alive by sharing otherwise forgotten films with others and by meeting with stars from yesteryear. In an era of division and discord, he leverages all of these pursuits to show people how much beauty there is in the world if they will simply look for it. His wife of 41 years accompanies him in his travels and together they have two children and three grandchildren. They have had great joy in their marriage and have loved teaching Christian based marriage classes to couples looking to enhance their marriages. Together they realize that healthy marriages are the foundation for healthy families and a hopeful future.

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