The holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time to put away our differences in the interest of peace on earth, goodwill toward others, etc., etc., and kick back with a great Christmas movie, a filmmaking tradition that dates back to the 1898 film Santa Claus. In that one, Santa slides down a chimney, stuffs some stockings, and promptly disappears into the ether; the whole film runs just over one minute long.
No one would argue that that early effort was anything but a Christmas movie, but these days, the question comes up frequently: What exactly is a Christmas movie? Is merely being set at Christmas enough? Or is there some elusive other element that makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie?
Also, the movies on this list have to be good. There’s a cynical reason to make a Christmas movie: The demand is high, even for the bad ones, every holiday season, when cable plays them ad nauseam to satisfy Christmas-crazed subscribers. So, sorry, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — just because you’re unavoidable doesn’t earn you a spot on the list.
Another qualifier: We stuck with films that received a theatrical release, mostly features but with a few shorts thrown in as well. That means Hallmark Channel Christmas movies about young people who don’t like each other but then end up liking each other a lot weren’t considered; nor was Netflix’s movie featuring Kurt Russell as a hot Santa. (Apologies, hot Santa.) Not every title will be for everyone, but there should be something for each family here. In the spirit of the season, we erred on the side of generosity.
30. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a remarkable retelling of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker, about a young girl who is gifted a locked egg from her deceased mother and sets out in a magical land to retrieve the key. After restoring peace and tranquility in the Realms, Clara promises to visit the Realms in the future and returns back to London, where time has hardly passed since she left. After she arrived, Clara took her father’s hand and opens her music box and the two of them danced the night away. Clara’s father becomes emotional and reveals that the music box’s song was the first song that he and Clara’s mother had ever danced to.
Disney’s take on the holiday classic is the story we all know; Alice in Wonderland mixed with some pieces of Tchaikovsky’s music and some ballet, courtesy of Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin. The film has grossed over $150 million worldwide as of today against a production budget of around $120 million, and received generally unfavorable reviews from critics, who called the film “soulless” and “incoherent“, criticizing the slow pace and lack of dance numbers, although the visual effects is appealing.
29. Home Alone (1990)
Nostalgia and holidays both have a way of warping emotions. Combined, they’re hard to resist, especially when it comes to movies that won us over when we were younger. That’s why it’s impossible not to include Home Alone — the John Hughes–scripted, Chris Columbus–directed hit in which Macaulay Culkin finds himself unexpectedly left behind when his family mistakenly flies to Paris without him. But it would be unfair to rank it any higher. Have you watched it? Lately? As a grown-up? Like, watched it all the way through from the shrill opening filled with obnoxious kids to the leadenly staged slapstick climax? It’s a much rougher ride than you might remember. Still, Culkin’s charming, and the sentimental ending works every time. Just ask George Costanza.
28. The Great Rupert (1950)
A true Christmas oddity, this is the only holiday movie featuring Jimmy Durante as a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian forced to part ways with his trained squirrel as Christmas approaches. That’s the heartbreaking premise of The Great Rupert, but it’s all a set-up to a happy ending in which Durante is reunited with his four-legged friend, the poor get rich, and the rich learn a lesson (a story element that pops up a lot in the flood of Christmas movies released in the years immediately following World War II). The plot lags at times, but Durante’s always fun, and so is Rupert, the delightful creation of producer George Pal, the stop-motion wizard behind Puppetoons.
27. The Insects’ Christmas (1913)
Before The Nightmare Before Christmas, before Rankin-Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, before even The Great Rupert there was The Insects’ Christmas, from Russian animator Ladislas Starevich. Starevich made a series of films using dead insects as his stars. His Christmas movie expands the cast to include Father Christmas and an animated doll. But insects remain, as the title suggests, front and center in an inventive, enchanting, if a little unsettling, look at how a bunch of bugs (and one frog) celebrate Christmas that climaxes with Santa, a grasshopper, and assorted other bugs skating on a frozen lake. счастливого Рождества to all!
26. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
As Christmas approaches, all is not well for Henry Brougham (David Niven), a Protestant bishop trying to raise funds for the glorious new cathedral of his dreams — a project that’s led him to neglect his wife, Julia (Loretta Young), and daughter and cause him to lose sight of his roots as a minister to the needy. Enter Dudley (Cary Grant), an angel determined to set Henry on the right path. The only trouble: He finds himself increasingly wanting to spend time with Julia instead. The film’s a bit pokily directed at times, but Young and Grant’s chemistry smooths over some rough patches — particularly when Grant gets a wistful look in his eyes suggesting that he might call heaven his home but he knows he could find even greater happiness on earth with Young’s character by his side. (The Preacher’s Wife, the 1996 remake starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, is also worth a look.)
25. Scrooged (1988)
What is Scrooged trying to say, anyway? You can watch the film over and over — easy to do if you have a cable subscription in December, when it plays all the time — and never quite figure it out. Is it a pitch-black comedy about the commercialization of Christmas? Is it a cynical send-up of our once-a-year celebration of kindness and selflessness? Is it a sincere depiction of a man being transformed by the holidays? It’s a tough film to pin down, probably because the darkly comic sensibilities of star Bill Murray and writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue often seem at odds with that of blockbuster director Richard Donner. But what makes this Reagan-era update on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — in which Murray plays a cold-hearted TV network president visited by Christmas spirits — flawed also makes it fascinating, and Carol Kane is especially fun as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Worth noting: Dickens’s classic looms large over the Christmas-movie genre, making this just one of many A Christmas Carol adaptations to make the list. Others include …
24. Scrooge (1970)
For a more tuneful version of the Dickens tale, there’s this 1970 musical starring Albert Finney as the eponymous miser. Finney holds nothing back as Scrooge, truly living up to the moniker “the Meanest Man in the Whole Wide World” given to him in “Father Christmas,” one of many earworm-y songs written by Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory songwriter Leslie Bricusse. Highlights include Alec Guinness as a spooky Jacob Marley and a truly scary Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It’s a big, occasionally tacky, but quite fun take on the familiar story.
23.. The Holiday (2006)
With her follow-up to Something’s Gotta Give, Nancy Myers seemingly set out to ask the question, If I cast four actors who really have no business appearing in a soft-edged romantic comedy in my next movie, could I make it work anyway? The answer: kind of? Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet play, respectively, a tightly wound editor of movie trailers and a British newspaper reporter who decide to swap houses shortly before Christmas. This leads Winslet’s character, now in L.A., to befriend an aging screenwriter played by Eli Wallach and (eventually) fall for a kindhearted composer played by Jack Black. Meanwhile, Diaz’s character, installed in Surrey, unwittingly hooks up with the brother of Winslet’s character, played by Jude Law. It’s a somewhat shapeless movie that goes on too long, but it also has an undeniable, nap-friendly, tryptophan-like charm as four beautiful people overcome the ridiculously small hurdles keeping them from getting together in two photogenic environments. (Also, Wallach’s a lot of fun.)
22. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Bob Hope didn’t so much play characters as variations on the Bob Hope persona, a wisecracking coward with a tendency to get in way over his head then make matters worse for himself. Hope’s not the most obvious fit for a Damon Runyon adaptation, much less a Christmas-themed Runyon adaptation with a deep sentimental streak, but their sensibilities end up meshing pretty well anyway in this 1951 comedy. Hope plays the eponymous character, a con artist who has to flee Florida for New York in order to pay off a debt to a gangster. The ensuing scam involves criminals dressed as Santa and a fake retirement home for “Old Dolls.” The inspired slapstick bits reportedly come from the brilliant animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin, but it’s Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell’s performance of the then-new “Silver Bells” that’s ensured the film its spot in the Christmas-movie canon.
21. Holiday Affair (1949)
Janet Leigh plays Connie, a war widow who unexpectedly becomes the center of a love triangle when her longtime suitor Carl (Wendell Corey) meets an unexpected rival in the form of Steve (Robert Mitchum), a veteran trying to figure out his place in the postwar world. Steve finds himself infatuated with Connie after they meet-cute in a department store — he’s a clerk, she’s a Christmastime undercover shopper — then starts a hard sell, asking him to dump Carl and take a chance on him. Mitchum’s tough-guy demeanor serves him well here, giving an odd energy to the love story. His character is sometimes written as too pushy, but the scene in which he declares his intentions over Christmas dinner, a moment where there’s no room for lies, is downright electric — and the final scene is a stunner.
20. Elf (2003)
Sometimes the right actor in the right role is pretty much all you need. This pleasant, goofy film stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human who’s grown up at the North Pole living under the mistaken impression that he’s an elf, despite developing into a lumbering adult with little skill for elfish endeavors such as toy-making. Eventually, he has to find his way in the human world when he travels to New York in search of his birth father (James Caan). As a cynical department-store employee, Zooey Deschanel provides a fun contrast to Ferrell’s wild-eyed enthusiasm. The film’s more winning the less it relies on wild antics, but Ferrell and others make sure it stays heartfelt throughout.
19. A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The first big-screen Muppet project after the 1990 death of Jim Henson, A Muppet Christmas Carol features some terrific Paul Williams songs, and smartly slots the always charming Muppets in the familiar Dickens roles. (Kermit and Piggy play the Cratchits, naturally, yet it’s details like the Swedish Chef as a party cook that make it a particular delight for longtime fans.) In the end, though, what makes the movies is Michael Caine’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. Caine plays it straight, as if he doesn’t even realize he’s surrounded by puppets, ensuring that the movie works as a moving Dickens adaptation first, and a Muppet movie second.
18. Arthur Christmas (2011)
Aardman Animations, the studio behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts and Chicken Run, brings its own particular whimsical sensibility to a holiday tale with this playful look inside the inner workings of the North Pole, where the latest in a long line of Santas (Jim Broadbent) seems reluctant to give up his post to one of his sons. Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie), who’s been running the operation for his dad with military precision, seems the obvious successor, but it’s the bumbling Arthur (James McAvoy) who best embodies the Christmas spirit, as evidenced by his mad rush to make sure the one kid who mistakenly got the wrong present doesn’t wake up disappointed on Christmas morning. The film mixes clever ideas — dig that high-tech North Pole! — with real warmth, making it feel like nothing less than the future of Christmas itself rests on Arthur’s shoulders.
17. Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Neither Disney animation nor its biggest star, Mickey Mouse, were riding high in the early ’80s. Disney had suffered a string of disappointments and setbacks, and though he remained an inescapable icon, Mickey hadn’t been seen in movie theaters since the ’50s. But this adaptation of the Dickens story suggested there might be life in both yet. Running just 26 minutes — and originally serving as the opener for a rerelease of The Rescuers — Mickey’s Christmas Carol offers a brisk, moving take on the familiar story. Scrooge McDuck (who else?) assumes the Scrooge role, but it’s Mickey and Minnie’s turns as the Cratchits that give the lovingly animated film its heart. After years of cutting corners and coasting on past triumphs, it provided an early sign that Disney was trying again — almost as if the studio has been visited by spirits reminding it what really mattered or something.
16. Remember the Night (1940)
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck famously co-starred in Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir Double Indemnity, but that’s just one of four films to pair them together. They first teamed up for this 1940 Christmas romance in which Fred MacMurray plays John Sargent, a hard-charging DA who, through a misunderstanding, comes to spend the days before Christmas with Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a small-time jewel thief he’s prosecuting. They start to fall in love during a road trip to Indiana, a sojourn that almost allows them to forget that John still has to try to send Lee to jail when they get back. Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a Preston Sturges script, Remember the Night begins as a broad, brisk comedy but shifts moods as John learns about Lee’s difficult past. In a classic holiday-spirit turn, he comes to realize the advantages his loving family have bestowed upon him once he sees how appreciative Lee is after sharing the first warm Christmas morning of her life with his family.
15. Reve De Noel (The Christmas Dream) (1900)
French cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès’s contribution to the Christmas-film canon offers little in the way of narrative, just an abundance of turn-of-the-century Christmas imagery as a pair of sleeping children imagine a winter wonderland filled with frolicking musicians, holiday revelers, and, of course, Père Noël himself. It’s a lovely, whimsical short film that captures the inventive director in a festive mood, and immortalizes on film ways of celebrating Christmas that otherwise might have faded from memory.
14. White Christmas (1954)
After leaving the Army after W.W.II, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) team up to become a top song-and-dance act. Davis plays matchmaker and introduces Wallace to a pair of beautiful sisters, Betty and Judy (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen), who also have a song-and-dance act. When Betty and Judy travel to a Vermont lodge to perform a Christmas show, Wallace and Davis follow, only to find their former commander, General Waverly, is the lodge owner. A series of romantic mix-ups ensue as the performers try to help the General.
A song of yearning for holiday togetherness the singer suspects he’ll never find again, Bing Crosby’s recording of the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas” became a runaway hit in 1942 as America adjusted to the loss and separation of World War II.
13. Holiday Inn (1942)
When singer Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) finds out that his fiancée is in love with smooth-talking dancer Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), he skulks off to milk cows and lick his wounds on the farm he now owns. While his pride heals, a swell idea occurs to him: Why not turn the farm into an inn that’s only open on holidays, with live entertainment and a homemade breakfast in the morning? A girl (Marjorie Reynolds) looking for her big show business break helps Hardy bring his daydream to fruition. Not only is his Holiday Inn a success thanks to her singing and dancing, he’s falling in love to boot. But trouble’s right around the corner. Hanover’s girl has dropped him, it seems, and his search for a new dance partner has him once again courting Hardy’s girl.
Holiday Inn is the better film by a good measure, but watching it means grappling with an ugly blackface number mid-film. (To make matters worse, skipping the scene altogether would result in missing an important plot point.) White Christmas, on the other hand, features fewer songs and a sleepy, low-stakes plot as Crosby and Kaye romance (sort of) a sister act played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Still, its aggressive, Technicolor pleasantness has its own charms.
12. 3 Godfathers (1948)
Not unlike Scissorhands, John Ford’s 3 Godfathers similarly uses echoes of the story of Christ to tremendous effect. A rare Christmas Western, the film stars John Wayne as one of a trio of bank robbers who agree to care for a newborn child while fleeing the law in Death Valley. Ford’s biblical echoes aren’t subtle, nor are they intended to be, but Wayne keeps the film, and its themes of redemption and rebirth, grounded with one of his most sensitive performances.
11. It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)
A great Christmas movie that not enough people talk about, It Happened on Fifth Avenue opens with the homeless sage Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor More) moving, as he does every Christmas season, into the luxurious Manhattan home of vacationing tycoon Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles). From there the film keeps piling on the complications as it breaks down the divide between the haves and the have-nots. McKeever is soon joined by a displaced World War II vet (Don DeFore) and O’Connor’s daughter Mary (Ann Harding), who doesn’t let on that she’s loaded and knows the house even better than those squatting there. The house grows more crowded, new loves get kindled, old loves get renewed, and O’Connor is forced to do a Scrooge-like about-face when he gets reacquainted with those less fortunate than him. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, who took on the project after Frank Capra decided to make It’s a Wonderful Life instead, It Happened on Fifth Avenue earns its warmth honestly, tethering a tale of fresh starts and changed hearts to the real difficulties faced by those reaching for the American dream in a postwar era that was supposed to bring prosperity for all.
10. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
In a film as sexy as it is funny, Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a magazine columnist who risks being exposed as a phony if she can’t create the perfect Christmas at the Connecticut home she’s writing about as part of a PR stunt to reward recuperating GI Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), who’s been dreaming of tasting her recipes while serving in World War II. The only problem: There is no Connecticut home, and she can’t cook. The farcical complications pile up from there, and Stanwyck deftly balances Elizabeth’s mounting sense of panic with wry humor as she reckons with her unexpected desire for Jones — a desire that has popped up just after she’s decided to give up on love in return for a marriage of convenience. Director Peter Godfrey keeps the action fast and light while trusting Stanwyck to excellently bring her character’s dilemma to life, even if it involves changing a diaper as if she’s never seen a baby before in her life.
9. Comfort and Joy (1984)
The end of the year can be a confusing time of reflection for those who feel they don’t have anything to celebrate. That feeling is captured beautifully in Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s tale of a Glasgow DJ (Bill Paterson), who finds himself unexpectedly alone when he’s dumped by his girlfriend shortly before Christmas. Adrift, he finds himself drawn into a turf war between two rival ice-cream vendors, a conflict that might offer him a chance to start over, or might drive him to the brink of madness. Paterson beautifully depicts a man who’s quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, experiencing a nervous breakdown as the world around him grows stranger and more absurd. That it all somehow builds toward a hilarious moment of reconciliation involving an unexpected new ice-cream product is just one of many little miracles in a Christmas movie that takes a roundabout way to celebrating the season’s possibilities of renewal and rebirth, but still gets there all the same.
8. Carol (2015)
Like Comfort and Joy, Todd Haynes’s Carol depicts the holidays as a time of possibility and peril as an intense, forbidden romance plays out against the backdrop of the 1952 Christmas season. The film stars Cate Blanchett as the eponymous unhappy housewife, a woman who unexpectedly falls for Therese (Rooney Mara), a store clerk. But their relationship seems doomed before it really begins once it threatens Carol’s ability to see her child, leaving her with an impossible choice. Inspired by Brief Encounter and adapted from a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, otherwise best known for pitiless crime fiction like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Carol uses its holiday setting as more than a backdrop: Haynes bathes the films in Christmas lights, sure, but he also captures the spirit of a season through Carol and Therese’s relationship. The passing of one year gives way to a potential new beginning of the next — for those who can make it to the other side.
7. Bad Santa (2003)
A proudly mean-spirited black comedy seemingly at war with the Christmas spirit, Bad Santa somehow loops all the way back around to being a heartwarming Christmas movie about one man’s redemption. It’s a weird trick, pulled off in large part thanks to star Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as a hard-drinking con artist who uses his work as a mall Santa as a setup for grand larceny. Actually, “hard-drinking” doesn’t begin to describe Thornton’s Willie Soke, who spends much of the film in a near-stuporous state yet still manages to form an unlikely makeshift family with a misfit kid (Brett Kelly) and a bartender (Lauren Graham) with a thing for Santas. With able support from Bernie Mac and John Ritter, director Terry Zwigoff keeps the humor dark without losing sight of his characters’ humanity — however deep they might sink into a drunken haze.
6. A Christmas Story (1983)
Making his second appearance on this list with a much different Christmas movie, director Bob Clark’s venerable 1983 film adapts storyteller and radio personality Jean Shepherd’s tales of growing up in Hammond, Indiana, while cutting nostalgia and sentiment with just the right amounts of broad, occasionally dark, comedy. The episodic film follows Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) in the days before Christmas, when he wants nothing more than a Red Ryder air rifle — and seems destined not to get one. Narrated by Shepherd himself, it mixes big comic moments, like a kid getting his tongue stuck to a stop sign, with affection for family life and days gone by. Clark renders the memories of growing up in a particular time and place so well that Shepherd’s Hammond — its name changed to “Hohman” — becomes an idealized stand-in for any time and every place.
5. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
There are many great romantic movies set at Christmas, but somehow The Shop Around the Corner still stands above them all. Maybe it’s the irresistible premise: A pair of feuding co-workers don’t realize they’re falling in love with one another via anonymous letters. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Nora Ephron drew on the same source material — the Miklós László play Parfumerie — for You’ve Got Mail.) Maybe it’s a cast headed by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan and filled out with colorful character actors. Maybe it’s because few directors have balanced lightness and romance like Ernst Lubitsch. Whatever the case, it’s both a peerless romantic comedy and one of the great Christmas movies, weaving themes of forgiveness and second chances into a love story that reflects the season in which it takes place.
4. A Christmas Carol (a.k.a. Scrooge) (1951)
What makes an adaptation of A Christmas Carol great? Above all, it’s the actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge. There have been many memorable movie Scrooges (take a look at the multiple entries above), but few as memorable as Alastair Sim. He’s not just terrifyingly convincing as a pitiless miser in the film’s early scenes but also heartbreakingly affecting as a changed man in its closing moments. Not that Sim doesn’t get help from director Brian Desmond Hurst, who whisks the action along while surrounding his lead with lushly realized Victorian trappings and an able supporting cast. But the film rests on Sim’s shoulders, and it’s not hard to see why he’s yet to be supplanted as the definitive Scrooge.
3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Here’s a question: What was going on that led to so many great Christmas movies being released in 1947? That year saw the release of The Bishop’s Wife, It Happened on Fifth Avenue (see above), and offered most viewers their first chance to see the greatest Christmas movie of all time (see below). It also produced this lovely story of a girl (Natalie Wood) whose mother (Maureen O’Hara) unwittingly hires someone who may be the actual Kris Kringle as a department-store Santa at Macy’s. What follows is part fantasy, part romance (as O’Hara’s character starts to fall for a charming neighbor), part indictment of commercialism, part defense of letting children be children as long as they can, and part legal thriller (well, sort of). Mostly, the film, written and directed by George Seaton, is an irresistible bit of Christmas whimsy made unforgettable by Edmund Gwenn’s turn as the man who might be Santa.
2. Tangerine (2015)
It takes time for a film to emerge as a Christmas classic, and while this one may not end up being shown in constant rotation alongside A Christmas Story and Home Alone, let’s stake an early claim for Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a film that follows the Christmas spirit into some unexpected corners. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor co-star as, respectively, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, a pair of transgender sex workers living on the fringes of Los Angeles. Released from jail on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee is driven to frustration when she learns that her pimp/lover Chester (James Ransone) is cheating on her as Alexandra prepares for a musical performance. Chaos mounts as day turns into night in the hours before Christmas.
Baker’s film, co-written by Chris Bergoch, alternates laughs and shocks, but it keeps circling back to how this particular Christmas has become a crossroads for its central characters, and how much they need each other if they’re going to make it through another year. It all ends with an image that, in its own way, is as warm and generous as Charlie Brown’s friends reviving a seemingly hopeless tree.
You might have noticed that this list — some notable exceptions aside — is dominated by stories of prosperous white families. Among its other virtues, Tangerine serves as a corrective to that tradition, serving as a reminder that Christmas isn’t limited to the land of picket fences and neatly trimmed trees. It’s a film as vital, alive, and in touch with the holiday as more traditional entries — an invitation to other filmmakers to redefine what a Christmas movie can be, and as much a story about the importance of human kindness as the one that tops the list.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
What else? Really, what other film could top a list of the greatest Christmas movies of all time? Frank Capra’s enduring classic stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the unwitting savior of Bedford Falls, a man whose goodness and generosity has touched more people than he realizes. In fact, as one bleak Christmas looms, he doesn’t realize it at all and is ready to commit suicide — until an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) arrives to show him the error of his ways.
Though it’s become synonymous with holiday cheer, Capra’s film works because of its willingness to go to some dark places, and because of Stewart’s ability to play a gregarious goof one moment and a man whose world comes crashing down the next. Curiously, the film didn’t go into wide release until after Christmas in January of 1947, which might have contributed to its underwhelming box-office performance. But it received a second life thanks to relentless airings on local television in the ’70s and ’80s, where its depiction of one man’s dark night of the soul (and a nightmarish vision of what unrestrained greed looks like without those interested in fairness and justice to stand in the way of the Mr. Potters of the world) connected with a new generation.
It’s not hard to see why. It’s grounded in details of the times that inspired it — the Depression, World War II — but its vision of holiday kindness, and of the sort of country most of us would want to live in and the values of kindness and generosity most of us share, remains timeless.