Christmas is a time for gathering around the fireplace or today’s more common version of the hearth – the television set. If you want to view something other than the usual fare of children’s animated specials, sophomoric Santa Claus comedies, and mindless holiday rom-coms, take the opportunity to introduce your children to a few timeless classics from Christmas past.
These are some of the black-and-white classics many of us were raised on which young people today may not have seen. So cue ‘em up before the world sings “Auld Lang Syne.” The slower pacing, lack of color and antiquated special effects might make the kids restless at first, but if they stick with it these just might rank among their own favorites too.
Less well-known than his other Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” (see below), this Frank Capra film tells a similar story: a small-town man who inspires others, but whose deep despair and sense of failure leads him to contemplate taking his own life on Christmas Eve. Gary Cooper plays the title character who is the subject of a newspaper reporter’s publicity stunt to raise awareness about caring for people in need that is co-opted by the publisher for his own political gain.
We’re cheating a little on this one: Peter B. Kyne’s 1913 novel “Three Godfathers” has been adapted for film many times, with a popular version in glorious black-and-white released in 1936, but it’s hard to find. Another good version, from 1929, is titled “Hell’s Heroes,” but it too is not widely available. So track down director John Ford’s 1948 Technicolor version “3 Godfathers” starring John Wayne. He’s one of a trio of bank robbers on the run across the desert who find a stranded woman in labor, help deliver her baby, and promise the dying woman they will care for the child. One of the outlaws sees religious significance in their avowed mission as they attempt to take the baby to safety on foot despite having little water. It’s a story of redemption with plenty of overt religious themes.
This classic has been remade a few times, but the iconic version is from 1947 with its all-star cast featuring Edmund Gwenn, a young Natalie Wood and Maureen O’Hara. Gwenn is the definitive Kris Kringle who convinces a young girl he is the real Santa Claus despite her mother’s objections. The department-store Santa is put on trial for mental incompetence, and only his clever attorney – the mother’s love interest – and the U.S. Postal Service can bail him out. (Note: Due to a scene of an intoxicated mall Santa, some parents suggest this film isn’t suitable for the youngest kids who remain true believers.)
The Charles Dickens morality tale, sometimes titled Scrooge or other variants, has been remade many times, with versions starring the likes of George C. Scott, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart and even Bill Murray (in Scrooged). But the 1951 film with Alastair Sim is the best of the bunch. The curmudgeonly Scrooge’s dreamlike encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future drive him to repentance and a fresh compassion for his fellow man. Another classic that should be incorporated into your family’s holiday traditions.
No, we didn’t forget this annual rite of passage into the Christmas season. Jimmy Stewart is perfect in this film about an ambitious young man who puts aside his dreams for the sake of serving others and comes late to realize that God’s plans for his life were far better than his own. It also reveals how the life of one virtuous person can have profound and far-reaching effects in bettering the lives of so many others. With angels, villains, cute kids, beautiful Donna Reed, desperate antics, humorous asides, and a rousing closing reunion, this Frank Capra feel-good masterpiece deserves a viewing in every household.
So put on some popcorn, fluff the couch cushions, and have yourselves a merry little “black-and-white” Christmas.
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana.
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