Not Your Typical Christmas Movies

christmasopenerI’m not a holiday type of person, because bad things tend to happen to me on holidays. Even Labor Day makes me anxious. Despite my anti-holiday attitude, I do like to watch Christmas movies. This month TCM has been celebrating the season by showing a variety of Christmas movies, including titles that rarely make the lists of holiday classics.  The Grinch in me leans toward those holiday-themed movies in which Christmas provides an ironic, tragic, unusual, or unique backdrop to the narrative, and a few of those have landed in the TCM line-up. I can’t recommend these films for cheerful family viewing, but take them off the shelf and dust them off if you are alone and up late over the holidays.



LADY IN THE LAKE. Based on Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel, Lady in the Lake is famous for the way director Robert Montgomery tried to interpret Chandler’s first-person narrative style. Montgomery also stars as the main character, Philip Marlowe, but the audience rarely sees him onscreen. Instead, subjective camera and extensive point of view shots are used to represent Marlowe’s visual perspective.  Though an interesting experiment, Montgomery’s gimmick denies viewers the chance to see and therefore identify with the protagonist, one of the satisfying ingredients of movie viewing. This makes Lady in the Lake more interesting to talk about than to watch. Interestingly, the film’s Christmastime setting is left out of most of these discussions. The opening credits actually look like a series of Christmas cards, while a chorus harmonizes carols in the background. It is not what viewers might expect from a film noir, until the credits end with a gunshot.  The juxtaposition of holiday festivities and decorations with a noir story about lying, cheating, and murder creates a cynical tone that matches Marlowe’s sarcasm.



PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT. Jim Hutton and Jane Fonda star as newlyweds George and Isabel Haverstick,  who begin their honeymoon already disillusioned. On Christmas Eve, they pass through Tennessee to visit Ralph, an old army buddy of George’s. Tony Franciosa costars as Ralph, who has advanced his career by marrying the boss’s less-than-beautiful daughter, played by Lois Nettleton.  In the passing years, Ralph has actually fallen for his wife, but her insecurities make it difficult for her to accept this, or him. Each couple observes the problems of the other, learning something about themselves in the process. There is nothing like relationship problems to undercut the holiday spirit, which Tennessee Williams conveyed so well in his original play on which the film is based. Even though Period of Adjustment is a comedy with some genuinely touching moments, those receiving engagement rings for Christmas might want to skip this one.



YOUNG AT HEART. Sunny Doris Day falls for misanthrope Frank Sinatra in this musical remake of Four Daughters. Day passes over handsome, charming Gig Young to marry the cynical musician, though their life together turns out to be a constant financial struggle. At Christmastime, Frank feels guilty for taking his wife away from her idyllic small-town family, and he decides to do her a favor by killing himself.  Of course, he fails, and then comes to understand that Day really loves him. I like Young at Heart, which features my favorite Sinatra saloon song, “One for the Road,” but the suicide-at-Christmas climax has always seemed unusually dark to me.

MR. SOFT TOUCH.  Oddly enough, crime and Christmas work well together, whether the holiday is used ironically as in Lady in the Lake or as an inspiration for redemption as in Mr. Soft Touch. Glenn Ford stars as wayward Joe Miracle (“miracles” at Christmas, get it?), who hides out from the Mob in a settlement house at Christmastime. The home is run by a pretty, young social worker played by Evelyn Keyes, who sets him on the right path.



I’LL BE SEEING YOU. Second chances is the theme of this touching wartime melodrama starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten. Rogers plays a woman on holiday furlough from prison, and Cotten costars as a shell-shocked soldier on medical leave. She is visiting her kindly aunt and uncle for the holidays, while he hopes to readjust to everyday life by living away from the hospital for a few days.  Produced in 1944, the film reflects the attitudes, issues, and struggles of life on the home front during WWII. From little details such as teenager Shirley Temple’s letter-writing campaign to boost the morale of servicemen to the issue of psychological trauma suffered by those in combat, I’ll Be Seeing You is a snapshot of wartime America. Modern-day audiences may be oblivious to the scenes of family dinners, baking, cleaning, and evening strolls through small-town neighborhoods, but these images would resonate deeply with wartime audiences hungry for normalcy. Even the shot of the uncle working a jigsaw puzzle is more than it seems, especially when Cotten picks up a piece that has fallen on the floor. It makes a nice metaphor for the characters–and for anyone–who had to pick up the pieces because of the war. Simultaneously melancholy and heartwarming, I’ll Be Seeing You airs on TCM on Christmas Eve at 11:45pm.



SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. Shirley Temple and Joseph Cotton also costarred in this high-profile wartime melodrama about a mother and  two daughters who struggle with the absence of the family patriarch. Claudette Colbert stars as Anne Hilton and Temple and Jennifer Jones play her two daughters. At almost three hours, this David O. Selznick extravaganza is long, even though it spans only one year of the war, 1943. During that time, the impact of the war on those at home is made clear via financial difficulties, shortages, and the deaths of loved ones. The film concludes with a Christmas sequence in which the family is prepared to make the best of the season. If the Christmas scenes in this well-crafted melodrama don’t touch your heart, then you have moved past the Grinch stage and are too far gone to save.  The scenes of romance, tragedy, and drama are enhanced by the beautiful black and white cinematography of Lee Garmes, Stanley Cortez, George Barnes, and Robert Bruce.

NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Crime and Christmas may go hand in hand, but serial killers and Christmas seem a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, this movie-lovers’ favorite starring Robert Mitchum concludes with a Christmas scene in Depression-era West Virginia. After “good” in the form of matriarchal Lillian Gish triumphs over “evil” in the guise of devilish Mitchum, she tells the Christmas story to the pack of homeless children she has taken in because they have nowhere else to go.  It’s an extensive sequence, especially considering the villain is long gone, that restores normalcy by evoking the innocence and endurance of children.



SUSAN SLEPT HERE.  This talky romantic comedy, which would never get made in today’s Hollywood given contemporary sensibilities, is my favorite on this list. Dick Powell stars as Mark Christopher, a middle-aged Oscar-winning screenwriter who is about to join his glamorous date for a Christmas Eve party in Hollywood. His plans are disrupted when two police acquaintances drop off a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent named Susan, played by ultra-spunky Debbie Reynolds. Apparently, Powell once mentioned that he would like to interview a delinquent for research for a potential script, and the cops take him at his word. Moreover, Susan would have to stay in jail over Christmas if she did not spend the night in Powell’s apartment. The unlikely premise provides the set-up for an equally unlikely romance between Mark and Susan. On Christmas Day, Mark marries Susan to prevent her from going to a juvenile home until she turns 18. The marriage isn’t consummated and Mark immediately relocates to his country cabin to finish his script. Susan finds herself in love, but Mark fights his attraction to a teenage girl. Dick Powell is one of my favorite actors, and I would have no trouble marrying him at any age, but Susan Slept Here offers  additional fun besides Powell”s way with a wisecrack. A surreal dream sequence features a bizarre musical number in which Powell dances, costar Anne Francis is dressed as a spider, and Reynolds swings in a cage. My favorite part of the film is the Hollywood insider’s view provided by director Frank Tashlin and scriptwriters Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb: I am sure the May-December premise is Tashlin’s wink-wink at the improbability of typical Hollywood romances. Finally, it is the only movie I have ever seen that is narrated by an Academy Award, which sets up the film in the beginning, offers a snarky comment on two, and then has the final word.  Susan Slept Here airs Tuesday morning at 7:30am.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.

37 Responses Not Your Typical Christmas Movies
Posted By LD : December 23, 2013 12:34 pm

A couple of my favorite atypical choices for Christmas films is THE LION IN WINTER and DONOVAN’S REEF. I would like to have seen LADY OF THE LAKE this season, especially since the recent passing of Audrey Totter.

It is traditional in my home to show THE THIN MAN sometime on Christmas Eve and AFTER THE THIN MAN around New Year’s Eve. The other four are shown on New Year’s Day, usually while cooking.

Happy holidays to all Morlocks and those who make such interesting and informative comments.

Posted By The Morning Read: Summer Love, Atypical Christmas and 2013′s Best : December 23, 2013 2:00 pm

[…] “Not Your Typical Christmas Movies” — An annual examination for us all, Susan Doll at Movie Morlocks moves beyond Die Hard to offer some classic unChristmas Christmas flicks. It’s an atypical Atypical Christmas Movies article. […]

Posted By robbushblog : December 23, 2013 5:58 pm

Suicide at Christmas: Another great example is The Shop Around the Corner. That little bit of seriousness was left out of the remake, You’ve Got Mail. I think it would have been a much better movie had that been included.

I’ve wondered why they allowed Sinatra to live in Young at Heart when his Four Daughters counterpart, played by John Garfield, actually did die. Is it solely because it was Sinatra? I wonder.

These are all great choices (Well, the ones I’ve seen are anyway), especially The Night of the Hunter, one of my personal favorites.

Posted By Doug : December 23, 2013 8:32 pm

Susan, thank you for introducing us to some Christmas themed movies
which I wasn’t aware of such as “Since You Went away” and “Period of Adjustment”.
I was thinking of “I’ll Be Seeing You” just the other night after watching another Ginger movie, “The Major and The Minor”.
This may be a bit of a cheat, but the ending of “My Favorite Wife” DOES have Santa and sleigh bells,so…close enough?

Posted By AL : December 23, 2013 9:50 pm


Posted By LD : December 23, 2013 10:00 pm

Lady “IN” the Lake. Another mess up, and I wasn’t even thinking about Tennyson.

Posted By george : December 23, 2013 10:25 pm

THE APARTMENT has a suicide attempt in the Christmas/New Years time frame.


Posted By Susan Doll : December 23, 2013 11:04 pm

LD: I love DONOVAN’S REEF and almost included it but decided it was too much fun given the other titles on the list. However, now that I live in Florida, I can relate to the idea of a tropical Christmas.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 23, 2013 11:04 pm

George: I forgot about THE APARTMENT. Definitely a good addition to the list.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 23, 2013 11:17 pm

a noir for Christmas…one of the latter early 60′s ultra cynical types is Blast of Silence…a hit man’s holiday in NYC during the season of good will towards all men

Posted By Jenni : December 24, 2013 12:01 am

I was also thinking about tivoing the Rogers/Cotton film and now I definitely will. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

Posted By William Serritella : December 24, 2013 12:02 am

Another good blog I enjoyed very much. I will definitely check out SUSAN SLEPT HERE. And, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too!

Posted By michaelgsmith : December 24, 2013 1:21 am

Great list of atypical Christmas movies! I especially love SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, which I’ve always thought of as the “homefront” version of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. My own favorite anti-Christmas movie is BLAST OF SILENCE.

Posted By Debbie A-H : December 24, 2013 1:42 am

Thanks for these recommendations. You never steer me wrong!

Posted By george : December 24, 2013 2:22 am

” … a noir for Christmas”

How about CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly?

Posted By george : December 24, 2013 2:25 am

This one isn’t a noir, just a good movie that should be better known: REMEMBER THE NIGHT, with Stanwyck and MacMurray.

Posted By Jim Cameron : December 24, 2013 2:41 am

Lady on a Train, an excellent comedy-mystery, also with Deanna Durbin and set at Christmas time. She sings “Silent Night.”

Posted By terje rypdal : December 24, 2013 7:12 am

I’ve just seen “Christmas Holiday” — a highly peculiar film, to say the least … I think Durbin may have “played against type” a lot better than Kelly did, in a sense — but well worth seeing!

And I’m planning to see “Blast of Silence” when it plays a Chicago rep house next weekend …

As far as the genre of “Christmas noir” is concerned, I never want to miss any opportunity to reccommend one of my favorite films — the criminally underrated “Holiday Affair” with Robert Mitchum & Janet Leigh … A film about how the trauma of the unexpected and sometimes shake up our counter-productive complacencies & allow us to realize our hearts’ truer desires! Anyone who’s never seen it should certainly seek it out!!

Posted By Marshall : December 24, 2013 8:04 am

Lion in Winter is my favorite holiday movie, followed by Auntie Mame, then The Man Who Came to Dinner. I also like The Thin Man to round things off.

Posted By John Carvill : December 24, 2013 2:43 pm

How about ‘The Reckless Moment’, where Christmas in LA acts as a background for Joan Bennett (in probably her greatest performance) getting blackmailed by a saturnine, conflicted James Mason? Sorting presents and picking the right tree are more of a challenge when your art school daughter has just accidentally murdered a sleazy older man with whom she was having an ill-advised affair! Certainly not your average ‘Christmas Movie’ but unmissable if only for Joan Bennett, hardly a household name these days but an enormously accomplished actress who combined beauty, class, sensuality, and humour to unique effect. Effectively blacklisted after her not entirely faithful husband (producer Walter Wanger) shot her agent – with whom Bennett had been having an affair – and sparked a scandal, Bennett deserves to be better known these days, as does ‘The Reckless Moment’.

Posted By Steve : December 24, 2013 2:51 pm

I would also recommend Blast of Silence and Christmas Holiday for some bleak film noir Christmas blues.

Posted By B Piper : December 24, 2013 5:38 pm

COMFORT AND JOY. A great movie and hard to find.

Posted By george : December 24, 2013 6:27 pm

The 1953 version of I, THE JURY is another noir with a Christmas setting. It even has a treacherous Santa!

Posted By Susan Doll : December 24, 2013 7:11 pm

I ran across CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY when I was researching this post, but I have not seen it, so that is why it was not on the list. I am making a list of suggested titles I have not seen. My readers are always a great resource.

Posted By george : December 24, 2013 8:06 pm

I saw CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY earlier this year, after Denna Durbin died and I realized I had never seen one of her movies. (The local TV stations never showed her movies when I was growing up.) So I decided to get caught up.

It’s an extraordinary movie with an incredible, bizarre ending. Good companion piece to Robert Siodmak’s other great noir of 1944, PHANTOM LADY.

You can watch CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY on YouTube. It’s also on DVD, albeit on a Region 2 disc.

Posted By Doug : December 24, 2013 8:41 pm

Barely tangentially connected to the post, but in “Wild At Heart” Lula’s cousin Dell LOVED Christmas so much that he dressed as Santa. All the time. He’s still making sandwiches somewhere in David Lynch’s imagination. Merry Christmas, Dell!

Posted By Maryann : December 24, 2013 10:57 pm

Christmas Eve with George Raft is one of my favorites.

Posted By george : December 24, 2013 11:15 pm

There was Sandra Dee’s mom shoving her into the Christmas tree in A SUMMER PLACE. Not a happy holiday in that house.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 25, 2013 2:13 am

Christmas Holiday is on the internet,so it must be public domain,i was going to mention it in my previous post,but i’ve never seen it….i’m personally going to view it AFTER Christmas,but here’s the link ….and also a plug for a very excellent blog @…..Joan the author found it online,so all kudos to her

Posted By SallyGW : December 25, 2013 3:06 am

Two dramas I love that have major Christmas sequences are Stalag 17 (remember the prisoners dancing with each other to Jingle Bells?), and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And for a much later, and much grimmer, movie: Heavenly Creatures, where Pauline Parker receives a diary for Christmas that she then uses to record plans to “moider” her mother.

Posted By Tom Mason : December 26, 2013 3:52 am

I also like ‘The Lemon Drop Kid,’ the Bob Hope movie where the big finale is set on Christmas Eve.

Posted By Jbenn : December 27, 2013 12:07 am

Susan Slept Here is a guilty pleasure of mine. I think Powell and Reynolds have both never been more ingratiatingly charming (in a good way) and any movie with Glenda Farrell is worth a look.

The subtext and background of the film is just as (if not more) interesting as the film itself. As you say, the plot could never be made today (well it could but not as a comedy) and how it got past the Production Code in 1954 is even bizarre.

For one thing, the film was put out by RKO and owner Howard Hughes personally was involved in the casting of it (Mamie Van Doren writes that she was one of several starlets who “auditioned” for a role in the film in front of Mr. Hughes and HH asked for Debbie Reynolds from MGM in her first loan-out). When you realize HH’s personal predilections (stated in several bios) for teenage girls (of whom Faith Domergue is the most well known) and having his people “procure” starlets for him, the film comes off as even creepier (especially since Dick Powell and Hughes were of the same age, as was Reynolds and one of HH’s then-girlfriends, Mitzi Gaynor).

Hughes wanted his favorite leading man and RKO’s top male star, Robert Mitchum to play the “35-year old screenwriter” in the film. According to a Mitchum bio, RM passed and suggested Dick Powell, who could never be confused with a 35 year old at that point (he literally started at Warner Bros the year Debbie Reynolds was born) but also did not have the machismo and sexual power of Mitchum. With Mitchum in the lead some of the stuff in the film would not come off nearly as innocent.

Anne Francis was borrowed to play the “other woman”, Dick Powell’s “older” girlfriend who he dumps for the Reynolds character. At the time of filming Anne Francis was only 24 and two years older than Debbie. She was still playing innocent ingenues in Forbidden Planet two years later. Considering how young Francis was (they could have casted an older actress) I have to think there’s some deeper meaning, as in Dick Powell’s character despite repeatedly denying it to the contrary and only marrying 17 year old Susan to “help” her, really does have a thing for much younger girls.

Like I said, even in 1954, this seems too risque for the Production Code.

Posted By swac44 : December 27, 2013 1:56 pm

I mentioned this on a FB group, so I might as well throw it in here, Bell Book and Candle which has Kim Novak bewitching James Stewart over the Christmas season.

And way at the other end of the scale, there’s the unforgettable scene of Dawn Davenport, played by Baltimore’s most famous transvestite Divine, not getting her desired cha-cha heels for Christmas in John Waters’ Female Trouble. For years I searched for a copy of the song that accompanies this scene, eventually finding a 7″ single of it: Have a Merry Merry Merry Merry Christmas by Ruby Wright, which was something of a seasonal hit in the midwest (and subsequently covered by Lawrence Welk’s luv-a-ly Lennon Sisters).

Posted By george : December 29, 2013 9:01 pm

I don’t know about CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY being in the public domain. If it were, fly-by-night companies would be putting out cheap DVD editions. But it doesn’t seem to be legally available on DVD in the U.S.

This may be another case of Universal’s infamous lack of interest in putting their old films on DVD. That includes Paramount’s 1929-47 output as well. Thanks to YouTube, though, I’ve managed to watch a lot of early Paramount talkies (INTERFERENCE, THE CANARY MURDER CASE, THE GREENE MURDER CASE, DANGEROUS CURVES, THE SATURDAY NIGHT KID, THE LETTER, etc.)

At least Universal did put LADY ON A TRAIN on one of their Durbin collections.

Posted By Brian : January 4, 2014 10:13 am

“Dead of Night” (1945)…

“Sally (Sally Ann Howes) slips away from precocious Jimmy (Michael Allan) then discovers a frightened youth in ‘The Christmas Party’ segment, directed by (Alberto) Cavalcanti, from ‘Dead of Night,’ 1945.”

Posted By Mark Soper : January 18, 2014 3:39 pm

“Things to Come” (1936) begins at Christmas, with a chilling sequence in which Christmas carols and other features of the season are intercut with, and finally overcome by, ominous music and headlines of the coming war.

Posted By swac44 : January 21, 2014 5:23 pm

There are a number of Universal titles that only seem to be available on DVD overseas (legit copies at that). Besides Christmas Holiday, there’s also a UK DVD of C.B. DeMille’s first Technicolor feature Northwest Mounted Police, which someone has ripped to YouTube.

I thought of this thread the other day watching Caged with a young Eleanor Parker as a teenager who finds herself behind bars after being an unwilling accomplice in her late husband’s gas station stickup. There’s a scene set at Christmas with all the female inmates that’s one of the film’s highlights, especially in terms of how it’s used to show how Parker’s initially innocent character is becoming hardened by her experience.

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