10 great Christmas musicals

Nothing banishes the ‘Bah, humbugs’ like a Christmas musical. Prepare to have your cockles warmed…

Matthew Thrift

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

It’s a well-established fact that the musical is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, tapping out its tunes on the brain’s pleasure receptors in a manner unmatched by any other genre. Throw the sentimental accoutrements of the festive season into the mix, and we’re in catnip-for-the-soul territory. Resistance on a cold winter’s night becomes wholly futile.

The best musicals have a way of disarming even the most defiantly opposed to their charms, if you can get them watching. Throw a melancholy Christmas ballad up on the screen, preferably after a couple of snifters of brandy, and any erstwhile Grinch will be dewy-eyed before you can say “Bah, humbug.”

Even our usual, stringently hard-boiled definition of ‘great’ gets a little leeway when it comes to the Christmas musical. Blame it on seasonal sentiment, or just blame it on the brandy, but every one of our 10 remains just the ticket to give those singularly Christmassy endorphins a workout. 

Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Director H. Bruce Humberstone

Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

A ski resort at which he’d recently enjoyed a vacation; a three-times Olympic gold-winning figure skater he’d just signed to a contract; and one of the most popular recording artists of the time – 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck was a veritable MacGyver when it came to packaging a picture with whatever he happened to have at hand.

Sun Valley had been Zanuck’s Idaho winter retreat; the Olympian was Norwegian sensation Sonja Henie; the recording artist Glenn Miller, appearing with his band for the first of two big-screen acting gigs (Orchestra Wives would follow in 1942). The run-up-to-Christmas plotting is utter madness, with Henie starring as an adopted refugee infatuated with Miller’s pianist, John Payne (lead of that other Xmas perennial, Miracle on 34th Street).

It’s all just an excuse to get Henie skating – or rather, spinning psychotically – and Miller knocking out the hits. The latter are what make the picture, not least when ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ gets its first ever airing (“It sucks,” said the band leader on first hearing it), with a nifty segue from big band soloing to dance number featuring Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers.

Holiday Inn (1942)

Director Mark Sandrich

Holiday Inn (1942)

In December 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May revealed Holiday Inn (1942) to be her favourite Christmas movie. While Twitter was quick to proclaim the picture as “No one’s favourite Christmas film,” most media was even quicker to point towards the notorious blackface scene that often finds itself cut from television broadcasts. “A real holiday classic,” was how she described it, as other members of her cabinet extolled the less controversial virtues of Elf (2003) and Home Alone (1990).

Twitter was probably right, but there’s no escaping Holiday Inn’s durability, even if for little else than gifting the season Bing Crosby at the piano, crooning ‘White Christmas’ a dozen years before the song spawned an eponymously titled picture of its own. Irving Berlin, responsible for both story and the film’s numbers, presumably saw commercial potential in a film that celebrated all the holidays of the year, hoping it’d be the go-to 100 minutes every couple of months. It wasn’t to be, but its modest charms filling TV schedules whenever December rolls around is surely no poor consolation almost eight decades later.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Director Vincente Minnelli

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Despite being structurally divided by the seasons, with perhaps more screen time dedicated to Halloween than December, Meet Me in St. Louis is still most fondly thought of as a yuletide musical, what with its introduction of the seasonal standard ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ Divorced from the context of the film, the song itself – a hit for both Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, who sings it here – is charmingly sentimental, but in situ it proves the culmination of Meet Me in St. Louis’s devastating ironies.

The warm textures of the production design (all gas-lit oak and soft furnishings) and George Folsey’s Technicolor photography bring homespun cosiness to the fore for Vincente Minnelli’s time machine, travelling back from contemporary concerns to supposed ‘better times’. As the four Smith girls await the arrival of the 1904 World’s Fair, Minnelli transposes their childhood and adolescent fears into a key of existential threat by way of a necessitated move to New York. It’s the brittle take on notions of sanctuary and nostalgia, played off against its lush, comforting surfaces, that makes it one of the greatest musicals of all time.

On Moonlight Bay (1951)

Director Roy Del Ruth

On Moonlight Bay (1951)

While hardly as well known as Meet Me in St. Louis, this Doris Day vehicle from Warner Bros makes for a terrific companion piece to the earlier film. Leon Ames stars again as the paterfamilias, father this time to just the one daughter of marrying age; and the move threatened in the Minnelli film has already occurred as this one opens.

Serving up a Rockwellian portrait of small-town Americana in the latter days of the First World War, where horse-drawn carriages vie for space with motor cars, On Moonlight Bay is taken from the Penrod stories of Booth Tarkington, from whose source novel Orson Welles adapted The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). If it eschews the moral decay of the Welles, and the bittersweet ironies of the Minnelli, there remains a simpatico distrust for the postcard-phoney, wish-fulfilment nostalgia (and the allotted roles therein) it presents “while Europe is in flames”.

Moving from balmy summer to snow-covered winter for its second half, like Meet Me in St. Louis it’s not a musical driven by its songs, but Day gets a big seasonal number with ‘Christmas Story’. Highly recommended.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Director Jacques Demy

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

‘Décembre 1963’, reads the title card 10 minutes before the end of Jacques Demy’s musical masterpiece. That the preceding 80-odd have little to do with the festive season doesn’t temper the power of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s heartrending epilogue, or invalidate its inclusion on our list.

Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) are long since parted, following his draft into the Algerian war. It’s Christmas Eve when she pulls into the gas station he now runs with his wife, Madeleine (Ellen Farner). Madeleine and the couple’s young son François have gone to see the Christmas displays, as Guy invites his former lover in, while their daughter, Françoise – conceived before his draft – sits in the car. The couple can barely look at each other, their halting discomfort only interrupted by a garage attendant. “Are you doing well?” she finally asks, before retreating to her car – “Yes, very well” – and driving away. Madeleine and the young boy return, as the love theme from Michel Legrand’s score swells to choral and orchestral ecstasy, as Demy takes to the skies with a crane shot for the ages. Tears rain.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Director Chuck Jones

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

“And then they’ll do something I hate most of all, every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, will stand close together with Christmas bells ringing, they’ll stand hand in hand and those Whos will start singing!”

You don’t need a heart “two sizes too small” to wonder if perhaps the Grinch has a point. Suffice to say that the festive arrangements of the inhabitants of Who-ville are an acquired taste, their one Christmas song, delivered ad nauseam, enough to drive anyone to infamy.

CBS hoped to repeat the success of the miniature masterpiece they aired the previous year with A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), enlisting Looney Tunes veteran Chuck Jones to persuade the hesitant Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) to licence his seasonal classic. It runs a mere 26 minutes, is narrated by Boris Karloff (sadly not responsible for delivering the character’s theme song, ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch’), and what it wants for Charlie Brown’s existential melancholy, it makes up for in primary coloured anarchism. A pair of lesser TV sequels would follow in 1977 and 1982, with ill-advised feature-length attempts – live-action and CG-animated – coming in 2000 and 2018 respectively.

Scrooge (1970)

Director Ronald Neame

Scrooge (1970)

As far as we can tell, the first – or at least the earliest with surviving fragments – adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol came in 1901 with the British short Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost. Jump ahead seven decades, over a good dozen big-screen adaptations, and a new approach was needed for this umpteenth stab at the nightcapped miser’s tale. And with Carol Reed’s Oliver! taking home a slew of Oscars (including best picture) at the end of the 1960s, any conversation on which route to take was presumably a short one.

Reed’s influence is on full display in the late number ‘Thank You Very Much,’ a full-on Cockney knees up down the streets of Shepperton’s immense soundstages, wonderfully decked out by Oliver! production designer Terence Marsh. The rest of the numbers by Leslie Bricusse do little to make up for his work on the 1967 catastrophe Doctor Dolittle, but there’s ample recompense in the nasally sniping lead performance by Albert Finney and a scene-stealing Alec Guinness as the clog-popped Jacob Marley. The latter’s attempt to sing – something between a growl and a cough – is worth the price of admission alone.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Director Brian Henson

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

While there’s little disputing Brian Desmond Hurst’s take on A Christmas Carol – Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim – as the definitive version of the Dickens perennial, its want for musical numbers means it’s of little use to us here. Luckily, a motley crew regathered for their fourth big screen outing, bringing the fozz-tivities for the first time since the death of creator Jim Henson two years earlier.

Tempering the anarchism of the previous features, The Muppet Christmas Carol charts a pretty faithful course through the source text, despite a framing device that sees Dickens – “a blue furry Charles Dickens who hangs out with a rat” – commenting on proceedings.

As a musical, it works a treat, even when Michael Caine sings, with songs by Phantom of the Paradise (1974) star Paul Williams. Some controversy erupted around the exclusion of the number ‘When Love Is Gone’ from the theatrical cut, removed by exec Jeffrey Katzenberg despite director Brian Henson’s objections. It found its way back into various home video releases, but to these ears at least, the film was better off without it.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Director Henry Selick

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Back in 1993, Tim Burton was on a roll following Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and a pair of Batman films (1989/1992). He’d written a poem inspired by a store window changing its decorations from Halloween to Christmas, a “Grinch-in-reverse tale of someone who loves Christmas so much, he tries to do it himself,” leading to this stop-motion animated classic that arrived with his name plastered above the title. Fully on-brand in both design and gothic sensibility, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the best Tim Burton film that he didn’t actually direct.

Given the challenges director Henry Selick has spoken of when it came to getting his own work into production, Disney’s erasure of the animation genius in favour of the more marketable brand of Burton leaves a bad taste, especially given the hindsight of the all-devouring business model that would follow. Even the Blu-ray’s making-of speaks of “Tim Burton’s visually stunning images”.

Selick certainly delivers on the “visually stunning image” front, but we’ve regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman to thank for the musical side of things, never better than when the Pumpkin King protagonist first arrives in Christmas Town to sing ‘What’s This?’

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

Director Sofia Coppola

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

They may be a staple of homegrown yuletide TV schedules around the world, but these days at least, the last thing a Christmas variety show could be accused of is an excess of cool. Whatever variation on Ant n Dec’s Christmas Thigh Slapper we get this year, we guarantee it’ll be wanting for the star power of Netflix’s 2015 Xmas joint from Sofia Coppola.

“We have George Clooney,” yells Bill ‘The Murricane’ Murray to his nonplussed manager (Michael Cera) en route to the soon-to-be-cancelled live broadcast. “I rest my case. You saw Monuments Men?” comes the reply, implicitly confirming our suspicions that these things are always destined to be a bit rubbish. “Some weather issues” mean no one shows up, leaving Murray to kick back in New York’s Hotel Carlyle bar, shooting the breeze and belting out Xmas tunes at the piano with all and sundry. Uniquely far from rubbish, at just 56 minutes it hardly outstays its welcome, at its best playing loose at the relaxed tempo of the first 30. A fantasy finale sees the action shift to “a soundstage in Queens”, where the promised Clooney rocks up to mix a martini in a tux, bringing Miley Cyrus with him for a knockout rendition of ‘Silent Night’.

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