9 (Lesser Known) Alternatives to Popular Holiday Movies
A scene from "It's a Wonderful Life." Clockwise from top: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Simms and Karolyn Grimes. Photo: Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
Everyone loves curling up with their favourite Christmas classic. But what about those lesser-known gems we often forget about?
We all have our go-to holiday favourites — everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to Home Alone. But what about those other seasonal movies that don’t get the same attention we give to others around this time of year? There’s a wealth of other holiday-set movies out there — so many, in fact, that we often forget they exist.
For those looking to try something new this year, we took some of your all-time best holiday picks and paired them with an equally enjoyable alternative.
If you love: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Try: The Bishop’s Wife (1947) or The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
Frank Capra’s 1946 gem It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple: Christmas just isn’t Christmas unless you’ve watched George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) joyously running through the snow. It’s also the rare holiday flick that earned itself a trip to the Academy Awards with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. With a premise that pulls some of its themes of redemption from A Christmas Carol, a suicidal George Bailey is shown (with the help of an angel) what life would have been like had he never existed. Its heartwarming climax could warm even the grinchiest of Grinches.
In keeping with the idea of kindly angels who miraculously arrive in time to help humans sort out their earthly business, we also have The Bishop’s Wife. Released close on the heels of It’s a Wonderful Life, this film often gets lost in the holiday shuffle. But we think any movie that features the always-charming Cary Grant as an angel (named Dudley, no less) who helps a bishop repair his fractured marriage just in time for Christmas is a must-watch.
And, in a similar vein to The Bishop’s Wife, there’s the popular 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife. This time around, Reverend Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) is the charming pastor of a small struggling Baptist church in a New York City neighbourhood. With membership declining and bills piling up, Henry is under pressure from real estate developer Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines) to sell the church’s assets. As a result, Henry has become neglectful of his wife, Julia (Whitney Houston), and their son. Henry, in a moment of desperation, prays to God for help, which comes in the form of Dudley (Denzel Washington), a witty angel. This charmer, directed by Penny Marshall, was an instant holiday classic.
If you love: Scrooge (1951, or any of the other countless adaptations)
Try: 3 Godfathers (1948)
When it comes to A Christmas Carol, you can take your pick of the litter as to which adaptation is your favourite. (But can anyone really top Alastair Sim in the lead role of the 1951 version, Scrooge? Unlikely.) At last count, there are at least a whopping 46 screen incarnations of the Charles Dickens classic, be it TV specials, silent movies, short films or big screen adaptations. It’s hard not to love watching Ebenezer Scrooge find love, respect and a renewed purpose in life, just in time for the chiming bells on Christmas morning.
If, however, you’re looking to change it up a little this year? Pair your annual screening of A Christmas Carol with this under-the-radar John Wayne western, set during the holiday season. Loosely based on the story of the Three Wise Men, this John Ford film follows three bank robbers, led by Wayne, as they struggle to safely cross the desert with an orphaned newborn baby whose life they saved. Watching three criminals rally together — and better themselves in the process — to protect the life of an infant is heartwarming to watch.
If you love: White Christmas (1954)
Try: Babes in Toyland (1934 or 1961)
Nothing rings in the holiday season better than Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen gathered together at the lodge in Pine Tree to sing “Snow” and “White Christmas.” With catchy songs written by the legendary Irving Berlin, vibrant costumes and exciting choreography, White Christmas is often heralded as the must-watch holiday musical.
If you want to keep your toes tapping, follow up a viewing of White Christmas with one of the big screen adaptations of Babes in Toyland. Whether you prefer the 1934 Laurel and Hardy original or the candy-coloured 1961 Disney version, the films both centre around Mother Goose and other popular nursery rhyme characters as they scramble to help the Toymaker get Santa’s gift order right in time for Christmas Eve.
If you love: A Christmas Story (1983)
Try: A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)
“You’ll shoot your eye out!” At least, that’s what little Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) is told whenever he asks for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. But Ralphie’s one Christmas wish is thwarted at every turn, by everyone from his mother to the department store Santa. With scenes involving family outbursts, puffy snowsuits and tongues frozen on flagpoles, A Christmas Story became an instant holiday classic for its nostalgic portrayal of early childhood in a simpler time.
If you’re looking for more anecdotal retellings of Christmastime from the viewpoint of a small child, check out A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Based on Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ 1952 illustrated book, this made-for-TV special is loosely based on his own childhood recollections of the holidays — and it’s bound to bring a (happy) tear to your eye.
If you love: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Try: It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
You wouldn’t think “Christmas” and “court proceedings” would go hand-in-hand when it comes to fun and wholesome family entertainment, but this holiday classic is anything but dull and dreary. Starring a pint-sized Natalie Wood as Susan Walker and Edmund Gwenn as old Kris Kringle, much of the setting takes place inside a courtroom as Mr. Kringle defends himself against accusations that he’s insane for believing he’s the real Santa Claus. There’s no denying Miracle on 34th Street is a real heart-warmer.
However, Miracle isn’t the only holiday film about a family embracing a complete stranger. Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) is a homeless New Yorker who has made quite a career for himself breaking into rich people’s homes to squat on their property while they’re away for Christmas. When the “world’s second-wealthiest man” (Charles Ruggles) leaves town, Jim takes over his mansion and gradually invites some of his fellow homeless friends to live with him and celebrate Christmas — until his plans are suddenly interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the owner.
If you love: Love, Actually (2003)
Try: The Shop Around The Corner (1940)
Love, Actually is one of the more recent holiday classics, and it’s replayed endlessly on TV during the month of December. With its huge ensemble cast, from Hugh Grant to Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman to Liam Neeson, it has no shortage of star power. Each character (and there are a lot of them) has their own dilemma that is neatly resolved at the end — just in time for Christmas! — and we dare you not to reach for a tissue during the finale.
Much like some of the storylines in Love, Actually, this underrated Jimmy Stewart film revolves around two people unwittingly falling in love during the holiday season. Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) are two gift shop employees who can’t stand one another. Little do they know, they’re actually falling in love through letters as each others’ anonymous pen pal. Think: You’ve Got Mail (1998) in the days when snail mail was the main mode of written communication.
If you love: Home Alone (1990)
Try: Remember the Night (1940)
You’ve watched it a million times with your kids and grandkids, but there’s no denying the lasting charm of Home Alone (and it’s equally hilarious sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York). It’s one of those perfect holiday classics, appealing to both adults and children alike. And the wacky antics of little Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) and those treacherous Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) still get us laughing every time.
Although this one likely won’t appeal to the kids in your life, Remember the Night also involves the silly antics of robbers and shoplifters — albeit a little less villainous than the Home Alone goons. Just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is charged with her third shoplifting offence. Since it’s difficult to set a trial date around Christmastime, her lawyer (Fred MacMurray) shows some sympathy for her plight and arranges for her bail and takes her home to his family for the holidays. Inevitably, love soon follows.
If you love: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Try: Holiday Inn (1942)
In this rousing Vincente Minelli musical, the four Smith daughters (led by Judy Garland) learn lessons about life and love as they reluctantly prepare for their family’s move to New York. Taking place over the span of a year, the final quarter of the film is set during the celebratory days of the Christmas holidays and includes Garland’s beautiful rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Sure, it’s only one-fourth of a holiday movie, but it’s so wonderfully magical that it’ll leave you feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside.
Much like St. Louis, the underrated musical Holiday Inn takes place over the span of 365 days — beginning and ending during the Christmas season. This Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire charmer also includes Crosby’s iconic version of “White Christmas” — nearly a decade before he sang it again in White Christmas. Set in an inn, a crooner and a dancer both vie for the attention of a beautiful rising ingenue (Marjorie Reynolds). It’s a funny, romantic and memorable crowd-pleaser that often gets left by the wayside compared to other holiday fare.
If you love: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Try: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Oh, that zany Griswold clan … can they ever do anything right? For fans of this manic comedy starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, Christmas isn’t complete without watching Clark and company ruin their seasonal celebrations with wild antics and a streak of really bad luck. The holidays can sometimes be a little uncomfortable with extended family around, but the Griswold’s take it to a whole other level.
Speaking of wacky holiday celebrations: Christmas in Connecticut stars Barbara Stanwyck as a food writer who lied (in print) about being the perfect housewife and head of her family, when in reality she’s a single mom who can barely fry an egg. Now she has to scramble to cover her tracks as both her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) and a returning war hero (Dennis Morgan) unceremoniously invite themselves over on Christmas Day to experience the perfect traditional family meal.
A version of this article was originally published in December 2018.