Another sleigh full of under-the-radar Christmas movies

Last year around this time, your On the PULSE movie critic was hard at work on a book collecting under-the-radar films—so I compiled a list of somewhat obscure holiday cinema for Lycoming Critic’s Corner that December.

Now that my book has actually come out, here are seven more lesser-known Yuletide titles for your seasonal viewing.

IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE (1947)

Entertaining musical-dramedy about a genial drifter who holes up in a sprawling Manhattan mansion every winter while its filthy-rich owner is out of town; this particular year, he finds himself playing reluctant host to a gaggle of house-guests that eventually includes the rich man’s daughter, then the rich man himself, along with his estranged wife (for various reasons, all three of these actual residents are pretending to be homeless as well).

The Yuletide element comes up only at the end, but “Fifth Avenue” does feature the appealing seasonal tune “That’s What Christmas Means to Me”; better yet, it’s got a decent dose of romance, comedy and inspiration … plus two other Christmas connections:

The story was originally optioned by director Frank Capra, who went on to helm the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Likewise, “Fifth Avenue” was Oscar-nominated for best screenplay—losing to “Miracle on 34th Street,” which came out the same year.

114 min. Not rated; very family friendly.

KLAUS (2019)

“Original” is a good catch-phrase for this charming new animated gem:

Not only is it a Netflix original, but it’s also a Santa Claus origin story; and as it shapes the tale of a selfish young postal worker and a lonely old man into all the traditions associated with St. Nick, it really does feel … well, original!

Clever, touching and beautifully animated, with vocal work by Jason Schwartzman, J. K. Simmons and Rashida Jones.

96 min. Rated PG; very family friendly.

CASH ON DEMAND (1961)

Except for snow and a Dec. 23 setting, this hardly comes across as a holiday film—unless you note the way it loosely modernizes Charles Dickens’s classic novella “A Christmas Carol.”

In this case, the cinematic Scrooge is a cold-hearted British banker who, one busy business day before Christmas, finds himself the target of a clever plot to snatch nearly 100,000 pounds from his vaults.

Made on a modest budget by Hammer studio (best known for horror), this real-time drama nets its claustrophobic tension almost entirely through first-rate performances, highlighted by Peter Cushing in the lead.

80 min. Not rated; very family friendly. Free on YouTube.

THE STAR OF CHRISTMAS (2002)

It was only a matter of time before the animated Veggie Tales franchise decided to turn out a Christmas special. (And actually, this is the first of many holiday entries in that popular children’s series, which is now nearing 50 installments.)

Set in turn-of-the-century England, “The Star of Christmas” features Veggie Tales regulars Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber working to stage an ill-advised Christmas play entitled “The Princess and the Plumber”—and learning in the process that some things are more important than big crowds and splashy, expensive special effects.

“Star” doesn’t reach the appealing zaniness of early Veggie videos, but it has a good plot, a great message and a letter-perfect ending.

Watch also for VT’s “Saint Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving,” “It’s a Meaningful Life,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and perhaps even “An Easter Carol” (based on Dickens, of course).

49 min. Not rated; designed for kids & families.

COMFORT AND JOY

How’s this for an unlikely premise: A popular Glasgow disc jockey, devastated by a recent break-up, somehow becomes the go-between in a turf war between two firms of competing ice-cream trucks—“Mr. Bunny” and “Mr. McCool.”

Perhaps only writer-director Bill Forsyth—offbeat specialist who gave us “Local Hero” and “Gregory’s Girl”—could have pulled it off … though he gets considerable help from a charming Bill Paterson in the lead. Great score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, borrowing heavily from the group’s hit album “Love Over Gold.”

101 min. Rated PG for language and sexuality. Free on YouTube.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

“Downton Abbey’s” dashing Dan Stevens plays Charles Dickens in this fanciful biopic about the author’s struggle to finish “Christmas Carol” on deadline in 1843. As the energetic young writer juggles family and financial headaches, he also dashes about his study, arguing with characters who’ve come to life from the book.

Scrooge is beautifully played by Christopher Plummer, still stealing scenes at age 87.

104 min. Rated PG; very family friendly.

THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947)

A sort of neglected second cousin to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” this charmer blends elements of that Capra classic with “Christmas Carol” and perhaps also a bit of the tasty 1936 screwball comedy “My Man Godfrey.”

Cary Grant plays an angel come down to help a struggling Manhattan bishop who’s lost his way in life, having become too focused on worldly goals, at the expense of his family—and his integrity. Frankly, I couldn’t picture the suave and urbane Grant as a heavenly being—and indeed he was at first slated to play the bishop; but the beloved star brings just the right light touch to this role. This might be the finest work I’ve seen him do.

David Niven plays the bishop, with a lovely Loretta Young as the titular spouse and Monty Woolley as teddy-bearish old prof. Film also co-stars two of the kids from “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Bobby Anderson, who played the young George Bailey in “Life”—and Karolyn Grimes, who appeared as Bailey’s daughter Zuzu.

Incidentally, Grimes—now 80 years old—is still with us. And at nearly the same age, so is this absolutely wonderful movie.

Thank heavens.

Author

  • Smith is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central Pennsylvania. His fourth book, "The Best Movies You Never Saw," is due out this summer. More info is available at josephwsmithiii.com -- or robbwhitefan@gmail.com.

Joseph W. Smith III

Smith is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central Pennsylvania. His fourth book, "The Best Movies You Never Saw," is due out this summer. More info is available at josephwsmithiii.com -- or robbwhitefan@gmail.com.