The Five Best Black-and-White Christmas Movies

That Aren’t It’s A Wonderful Life

The list of beloved black and white Christmas movies is brief, and generally populated with the films below. Though somewhere past the predictable entries like Miracle on 34th Street and Babes in Toyland, you’ll see this bit of clickable content lacks a certain Jimmy Stewart film. It’s A Wonderful Life is so built into the holiday idiom, embroidered with nostalgia and pop-culture homage. Haven’t there been enough critical questions about its merits?

Beyond the film’s easily problematized depictions of a mythological “better” America, what sort of loving god would place the well-being of so many people in the hands of a foolish man, George Bailey, who isn’t worth liking? And despite all of his carelessness, a holy messenger still confers upon our hero a near-universe-altering sense of self-importance. You know what would be a truly wonderful life? A timeline where Clarence shows George Bailey a world that’s fine without his presence, yet George embraces the existential dread and chooses to live anyway. The rest of the films on this list capture something to love about the holidays. It’s a Wonderful Life? To borrow a Bruce Wayne quote from Christmas with the Joker, I could never get past the title.

5. Babes in Toyland (1934)

The weirdness of this Laurel and Hardy picture endures. Yeah, like, I know it’s loosely based on a popular operetta and chock-full of beloved children’s characters, but the story is so convoluted, so deeply strange, when we arrive at our climax it briefly breaches into the psychedelic.

4. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The Jimmy Stewart movie that should actually be on everyone’s list, you might remember this little number briefly as the play Parfumerie, or its 1998 interpolation—the romcom to end all romcoms—You’ve Got Mail. An epistolary story with beats so familiar it’s as warming as a dang cup of hot cocoa, you hardly notice the film is essentially a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come pointing its skeletal finger at a tombstone that reads, “welcome to online dating.”

 

#3. The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)

The original Bad Santa, this Bob Hope vehicle is largely remembered for installing the song “Silver Bells” into the holiday vernacular. And what could be more indicative of the holiday spirit than an exploitative charity scam where the elderly are used as props cooked up to pay back a crime boss? God bless us everyone, indeed.

#2 Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

The Christmas movie with a June release, this gem harkens back to a simpler time when the Post Office was an entity with power enough to legitimize a Santa. Also, not to go all poststructuralist metacommentary on you, but this genuinely sweet—and oddly legalese-heavy—picture is the perfect antidote to the wearying consumerist holiday ploy, particularly because it’s set in Macy’s.

#1. The Thin Man (1934)

The first of the wildly successful Nick and Nora Charles films, a hard boiled Christmas whodunnit that’ll tell you where to stick that wonderful life. Adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel by a married couple, shot by the inimitable James Wong Howe, and starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Skippy the dog; even at 84 years old, the film wears its perfect mix of humor and suspense as effortlessly as a bough of holly.

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Monte Monreal

Monte Monreal is a museum professional, occasional writer, and companion to multiple sightless dogs.

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