I know, I know, the annual onslaught of Christmas movies is upon us. Whether it involves those syrupy love stories that pollute certain cable channels or the usual round-up of holiday-themed productions, there are certain films that only show up during December and then vanish for the other 11 months.
However, there are plenty of memorable films where Christmas is a peripheral aspect of the story but not the central focus of attention. If you don’t want to watch the zillionth remake of “A Christmas Carol” or the zillionth rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” here are some non-holiday Christmas films for your viewing pleasure.
“Daffy’s Duck Hunt” (1949): This Looney Tunes cartoon finds Daffy Duck trying to outsmart Porky Pig (who plans to have him for dinner) and Porky’s too-loyal dog by emerging from a freezer chest dressed as Santa Claus and singing “Jingle Bells.” The ruse almost works – Porky spies a calendar that reminds him that it is April – but this brief insertion of Christmas merriment into the slapstick is among the funniest gags in the Looney Tunes series.
“Die Hard” (1988): It seems that the online media has this debate every year – does Nakatomi Plaza have the same holiday season relevance as Santa’s workshop? Considering the film premiered in July 1988, one could assume it was never conceived as a Christmas film. But is Christmas really Christmas without Hans Gruber falling to his death?
“Invasion U.S.A.” (1985): Santa Claus isn’t the only bearded hero of the season – don’t forget the ultimate kick-ass 80s icon Chuck Norris saving the land of the free from some nasty Latin American guerrillas. The film’s action sequence in a Christmas season shopping mall is a peak of Norris’ canon – not to mention the Cannon Releasing’s canon.
“Lady in the Lake” (1947): This adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel takes place during the Christmas season, but there is little merriment in this grim film noir mystery with tough-guy private-eye Philip Marlowe investigating a disappearance and murder. The film is less remembered today for its holiday trimmings and recalled for the odd experiment by leading man and director Robert Montgomery in having the film framed almost entirely from Marlowe’s point of view, with the character only being visible through mirror reflections.
“Lethal Weapon” (1987): Another violent action film that takes place during the holidays, this franchise-inspiring offering has a Christmas tree farm and a climactic fistfight on a holiday-decored lawn between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey.
“The Lion in Winter” (1968): The Christmas gathering of a severely dysfunctional English royal family is the setting for this award-honored gem. And while the holiday itself is given the briefest of considerations, James Golden’s harshly cerebral adaptation of his play and the extraordinary performances by Peter O’Toole as the beleaguered King Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as his scheming consort Eleanor of Aquitaine makes this a film suitable for any time of the year.
“Mame” (1974): There are plenty of films that include a Christmas segment within its march through the seasons, but none are as brilliantly bizarre as this musical with Lucille Ball singing (if you can call it that) “We Need a Little Christmas.”
“Mr. Arkadin” (1955): The search for the last surviving member of a once-notorious crime gang amid Munich’s Christmas season frames the convoluted plot of this Orson Welles film. Leave it to Welles to turn Christmas into a thoroughly unsentimental yet wickedly funny setting – especially with Akim Tamiroff’s low-rent crook agreeing to evade assassination by demanding for a goose liver dinner in exchange for his cooperation.
“Road to Utopia” (1946): This wonderfully surreal entry in the Road Pictures finds Alaska-based Bob Hope and Bing Crosby crossing paths with a sled-driving Santa Claus. I won’t give away the specifics of the scene for the benefit of those who’ve never seen the film – but I know those who are familiar with it will happily recall the great sight gag that wraps the segment.
“Wee Wee Monsieur” (1938): The Three Stooges are members of the French Foreign Legion who rescue their commander from Arabian kidnappers by disguising themselves as Santa Claus, complete with a sled and a reindeer. This bizarre strategy would be repeated by the knockabout trio a decade later in “Malice in the Palace” – and, mercifully, the Stooges didn’t stop to dwell on presenting a Trinity-style aspect to Santa Claus’ standing as a godlike figure to children and children-at-heart.