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Early Gifts for Movie-Lovers

Much as I love Home Alone and It’s a Wonderful Life, I’m steering my sleigh toward under-the-radar holiday films for Webb readers this December.

Here are seven:

Cash on Demand (1961) – This swift, real-time drama does not at first seem like a holiday film — though it does take place on a snowy Dec. 23 and, perhaps more significant, it loosely adapts Dickens’s classic redemption story A Christmas Carol. In this case, the cinematic Scrooge is a cold-hearted British banker who finds himself the target of a plot to snatch nearly 100,000 pounds from his vaults. Made on a modest budget by Hammer studio (best known for horror), this 80-minute set-piece nets claustrophobic tension through first-rate performances, highlighted by Peter Cushing in the lead. Available free on YouTube.

A Christmas Carol (1999) – Dickens’s beloved 1843 story has been adapted literally hundreds of times, generating stage shows, operas, radio broadcasts, graphic novels and book sequels — along with dozens of TV and film versions starring everyone from Michael Caine and Albert Finney to Fred Flintstone, Jim Carrey and Mr. Magoo. This lesser-known iteration allowed Patrick Stewart to adapt his successful one-man stage show for TNT. The 24-year-old computer graphics look a bit cheesy; but it’s amazingly faithful to Dickens, even managing to incorporate the famous “dead as a doornail” idiom from the book’s narrator. It also boasts solid performances, especially from veteran character actor Richard E. Grant as Bob Cratchit.

The Holiday (2006) – From crowd-pleasing writer-director Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, the delightful 1998 Parent Trap) comes the story of two spurned women on different continents who decide to swap houses around Christmas — and wind up falling happily in love. With a cast to die for: Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Rufus Sewell, Ed Norton and Eli Wallach. Laugh-out-loud funny, this winsome rom-com also features scenes that really pack a wallop — especially one inside a tent. But it’s not for kids!

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) – 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 actual residents pretend to be homeless as well). Though the Yuletide element comes up only at the end, Fifth does feature the appealing seasonal tune “That’s What Christmas Means to Me,” plus two other holiday connections: The story was originally optioned by director Frank Capra, who went on to helm It’s a Wonderful Life instead. Likewise, Fifth was Oscar-nominated for best screenplay — losing to that same year’s Miracle on 34th Street.

Joyeux Noel (2005) – Most folks know of the famed “Christmas truce” during World War I — when troops from both sides not only observed a ceasefire but even crossed trenches to exchange greetings, food, carols, sports and in some cases, prisoners. Perhaps fewer are aware of this wonderful French film which, to some degree, fictionalizes the episode — though the Reich did in fact send a leading Berlin tenor to the front lines to sing for the troops, generating applause from French soldiers as well as Germans. Christmas viewers should be advised that Noel does not shy away from the ugliness of war; but that only makes its message of peace all the more poignant.

Klaus (2019) – “Original” is a good catch-phrase for this charming, clever and beautifully 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!

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. (Actually, this is the first of many holiday entries in that popular children’s series.) Set in turn-of-the-century England, Star has regulars Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber staging an ill-advised Christmas play — 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.

Merry Christmas to all … and to all, a good movie night!