A thread of deception or at least alternate versions of reality runs through some notable Christmas films, such as the fake idyllic life of a food columnist in “Christmas in Connecticut” or the visions of what might have happened or could still come to pass in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Carol.” The plot of “White Christmas” depends on a bit of fakery and a lot of misinterpretation of motives. And even “Miracle on 34th Street” turns on a character’s possible delusions and other characters’ unwillingness to entertain possibilities beyond their perceptions of reality.
You can check them all out for yourself (along with a complimentary cup of hot chocolate from the concession stand) when The News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre presents the miniseries “Best Xmas Movies Ever” this week, each evening at 7 p.m. (and one Saturday afternoon). And this writer will be on hand after most of the screenings for further discussion.
“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945)
7 p.m. Monday
Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) writes a popular women’s magazine column about the idyllic life she leads in the Connecticut countryside and the wonderful meals she prepares. None of what she writes is true, however; she can’t even cook. A couple of days before Christmas, her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet), unaware of her deception, insists that she play hostess for Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), the heroic survivor of a sunken destroyer, and then decides to invite himself as well. Elizabeth has to come up with a farm, a husband and a baby even if it means agreeing to marry architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), an insistent suitor she does not love who does own a Connecticut estate. Sloan’s cook babysits for women who work in a local defense plant, so the baby problem gets solved as well — except that it’s a different baby each day. Something like love at first sight with the sailor only complicates matters more.
Released in August (rather than at Christmastime) just days before Japan’s surrender ended World War II, the film became an immediate hit and one of the top-grossing movies of the year. Bits of incidental song and dance add to the festive side of the film, while Greenstreet shows off his comic abilities as the dictatorial publisher, and Stanwyck does a complete about-face from her murderous conniver in the previous year’s “Double Indemnity.”
“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)
7 p.m. Tuesday
When event planner Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) hires elderly Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to play Santa for Macy’s Department Store, she doesn’t realize he really believes he is Santa. Kris is soon directing parents to other department stores for hard-to-find or less expensive toys, but that actually promotes customer loyalty to Macy’s and it becomes store policy. Both Doris and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) refuse to believe in fantasies, but Kris wins the two pragmatists over eventually. When a mean-spirited psychologist gets Kris committed to a mental hospital, Doris’ neighbor and suitor, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne), defends him court and can only do that by proving that he really is Santa Claus.
All the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade scenes were shot during the actual parade, and Macy’s itself provided several locations. So in addition to its other pleasures, the film provides a peek into merchandising and New York life in the late 1940s.
In addition to the film receiving an Oscar nomination for best picture, Gwenn won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role (the only actor to receive an Oscar or even just a nomination for playing Santa Claus), Valentine Davies won for best story (no longer a category), and writer-director George Seaton won for best screenplay. The film opened in June (unusual for a Christmas film) and stayed in theatres well past Christmas.
“White Christmas” (1954)
7 p.m. Wednesday
Romance between a successful song and dance team (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) and a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) gets complicated when Bing and Danny try to help out their former World War II commanding officer (Dean Jagger) at his failing Vermont resort hotel (no snow, so no skiers). The solution? Put on a show, of course! Paramount’s first film in the widescreen VistaVision format and Technicolor starred Crosby at the top of his career, with music by Irving Berlin, including two Oscar-winning songs: “White Christmas,” which won its Oscar when Bing sang it in 1942 in “Holiday Inn,” and “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep).”
Vera-Ellen’s dance numbers with John Brascia and Kaye are energetic show-stoppers. Future supporting actor Oscar-winner George Chakiris (for “West Side Story”) shows up as one of the back-up dancers in Clooney’s “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” number.
The film’s military component and the songs sympathizing with army generals might strike modern viewers as a bit odd. Of course, at the time, World War II was still very much a recent memory for audiences. In the 1950s, a decade of war movies and service comedies, the real-life answer to the film’s musical question “What Can You Do with a General?” was “Make him President;” and Jagger’s casting here probably resulted in part from his resemblance to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“A Christmas Carol” (1951)
7 p.m. Thursday
Charles Dickens’ well-loved 1843 novella (“A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas”) about a mean-spirited miser whose life changes on Christmas Eve when three spirits show him scenes of his past, present and future Christmases has been adapted to film and television more often than any other single literary work. (You can even see “It’s a Wonderful Life” as heavily influenced by it.)
This rendering (originally entitled “Scrooge” in Great Britain) starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge is the definitive film version of the tale and the main character. As its original British title might suggest, it fills in more of Scrooge’s backstory than Dickens offered; it even introduces a new character in his past.
Sim was at the height of his film career in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the film also features a myriad of British character actors immediately recognizable from other classic films and even television series. In particular, look for Patrick McNee (a 1960s icon playing intelligence agent Steed in the British adventure series “The Avengers” — no relation to the Marvel films) as the young Jacob Marley.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
7 p.m. Friday; 1 p.m., 7 p.m. Saturday
George Bailey (James Stewart) always hoped to get away from his small hometown, Bedford Falls, but his family’s Building and Loan company, its opposition to greedy banker and slumlord Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and his own love for his wife Mary (Donna Reed) keep him there. When his company’s funds go missing and he faces jail, George despairs, but heavenly intervention comes in the form of Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) who shows George what the town would have been like if he had never been born. That doesn’t so much change his life as make him realize how wonderful his life really is.
Producer-director Frank Capra collaborated with husband-and-wife screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who had written comic mysteries in the Thin Man series and some Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie musicals) on the script, and it’s very much in style of the pre-war socially aware comedies that had established Capra’s reputation. The film earned five Oscar nominations: picture, actor (Stewart), director (Capra), sound and film editing, and won a technical achievement award for its new techniques for making artificial snow.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” fell out of copyright in 1974, and television stations ran it multiple times at Christmas. All that repeated exposure turned it into a well-loved tradition and ultimately a film classic. In 1993, though, Republic Pictures, which still owned the rights to the underlying story, managed to assert control over the film. That drastically reduced annual television screenings and made seeing it on big theatrical screens such as the Virginia Theatre’s more of a special holiday event.