By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 19, 2020 at 03:38 PM EST
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Credit: Everett Collection (4)

Films about the holiday season deck the halls perennially, but some years catch Christmas magic in a bottle.

Two in particular top the cinematic tree: 1947 and 2003. The former, according to Jeremy Arnold, film historian and author of the TCM book Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, marks the rare year in which a holiday film was in theaters essentially year-round: The James Stewart vehicle It’s a Wonderful Life entered wide release in January 1947, followed by the premieres of It Happened on 5th Avenue in April, Miracle on 34th Street in June, and The Bishop’s Wife in December.

Then there’s 2003, when a trio of modern classics — ElfLove Actually, and Bad Santa (all of which were released in November) — made their debuts.

Arnold defines a Christmas film as “any movie in which some aspect of the Christmas season plays a meaningful role in the storytelling.” He elaborates, “That gets interesting because Christmastime can mean different things to different people. It means love and togetherness and compassion, but it also means cynicism and despair and loneliness.”

The blend of those two extremes is why he feels It’s a Wonderful Life is the perfect Christmas movie. “It fully embraces both the love and humor and compassion, all the positive elements of Christmastime,” he says. “But it does not shy away from the darker aspects of the season, so it feels very honest.”

Though It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in 1946, it entered wide release in 1947, contributing to that year’s unique essentially year-long run of holiday themed feature films.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was a fitting follow-up to It’s a Wonderful Life, considering it was originally conceived as a directorial project for Frank Capra. “It is a very Capra-esque story of a homeless guy in Manhattan, who every year sneaks into a mansion on Fifth Avenue after the mansion's owner decamps to Florida for the winter,” explains Arnold. “In this season, he invites other people to stay with him and collects a group of strangers who are all down on their luck in some way.”

Arnold also notes the film was particularly timely in its themes involving a national housing shortage. “After World War II, there was a housing shortage in many major cities in America because people had gone to many different cities for the war effort,” he says. “Now, you have millions of soldiers coming back home, and everyone was sort of uprooted. It was very topical at the time.”

Miracle on 34th Street came next with a summer release, which though it may sound strange now, was chosen purposely to try to maximize the most popular time for movie-going. Initial advertising omitted any mention of Christmas, but the film went on to become a huge sleeper hit and an Oscar winner.

Arnold points to its themes of family, belief, and cynicism about the commercialism of Christmas as reasons for its enduring popularity. But he cites its realism as the real reason behind its magic. “Any fantasy that we think of in this film is conjured in our minds by the script and the directing and the acting,” he reflects. “You don't see any magic. You don't see elves. We just imagine that this guy could be Santa Claus and the movie works if you think he is and the movie works if you're sure that he isn't.”

There’s also potent links between Miracle and some of the banner titles from its sister year, 2003. Director Jon Favreau pays homage to the Christmas classic with the presence of Gimbel’s department store, a direct nod to the Macy’s competitor that features in Miracle. Additionally, Arnold posits that perhaps the drunken Santa Claus who clears the way for Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle in the film’s opening was the inspiration point for Bad Santa. “You could almost see the makers of Bad Santa seeing this movie and thinking, ‘Let's take that character and make a whole movie about it and we'll make him even more despicable,’” he quips.

Elf also briefly borrows from It’s a Wonderful Life in a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge wishing he’d never been born and perhaps contemplating suicide.

Similarly, Arnold points to ties between It Happened on Fifth Avenue and Love Actually with their large ensemble casts and intersecting storylines, often romantic, that take place around the holidays. “There is a similarity, which is, those are two Christmas movies in which there’s a family unit that is formed by strangers gathering together,” he notes. “And in Love Actually they’re together just for the audience because they’re all edited together, but they feel like a big family to us.

1947 is then rounded out by the premiere of Cary Grant classic The Bishop’s Wife in December (which similar to It’s a Wonderful Life then expanded its general release in 1948). The film, which was remade as The Preacher’s Wife, stars Grant as an angel Dudley, who comes to Earth to help bring a Bishop (David Niven) and his wife, Julia (Loretta Young) back together. Things get complicated when Dudley falls for Julia. The project had a dysfunctional start with Grant and Niven originally cast in opposite roles. Producer Samuel Goldwyn actually shut down production, hired a new director, and swapped the actors’ parts.

“It's very hard to do fantasies that are mostly dramatic, but this film is an example that succeeds,” Arnold says in explanation for its inclusion in this pantheon of merriest movie years. “It realistically makes the audience believe that Cary Grant is an angel, which is important. The comedy comes when the wife falls in love with Cary Grant as the angel and [he] does with her too. You don't really know what's going to happen, but it just emanates holiday spirit. And it has a lot of warmth to it.”

But why were both these years a breeding ground for holiday chestnuts? The answer is far from festive: They came on the heels of the years long trauma of World War II and the tragedy of 9/11, respectively.

“If you look at it just through the prism of family, World War II was a time where families were being torn apart,” says Arnold. “Post-World War II was a time of families rebuilding. This led to Hollywood starting to treat Christmastime as representing the family unit. Just about every Christmas movie has to do with family dysfunction or reconciliation — the family coming back together.”

Love Actually references the events of 9/11 in its opening narration, and director Jon Favreau intentionally set out to reclaim a happier vision of New York City in Elf. (There are no such good intentions in Bad Santa, far more determined to put the ho in ho ho ho.)

Could the ordeal of COVID-19 precipitate another banner year for cinematic Christmas cheer?

“A lot of people cannot go home for the holidays this year,” Arnold reflects. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in a year or two or three we get another glut of Christmas movies.”

Well, we do need a little Christmas.

To read more on holiday film favorites, order the December issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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