There is no definitive list of the best or most popular Christmas movies of all time. The American Film Institute, perhaps the closest we have to a semi-official judge of top American films in various genres, has not yet created an AFI list of the best Christmas movies. Instead, I put together a list based on several top Christmas movie lists by well-known film critics. The five Christmas movies I have selected appear on just about all these critics’ lists. They have one other feature in common, somewhat ironically: they all have very strong Jewish connections.
In reverse order, here is my list of the five most Jewish popular Christmas movies of all-time, with some information on each film’s Jewish connections. In creating this list, I factored in quality, general popularity, and number of Jewish connections. No doubt, there is some mediocre made-for-TV Christmas movie out there that has a Jewish director, writer(s) and a heavily Jewish cast. But such a film, obviously, does not meet all my criteria.
Jewish connections: Director Mark Sandrich, writer Elmer Rice, songwriter Irving Berlin, star Fred Astaire.
Holiday Inn stars Fred Astaire (1899-1987) and Bing Crosby (1903-1977) as a pair of top New York nightclub performers. Crosby gets disillusioned with showbiz and decides to buy a farm. Life on the farm proves difficult and Crosby hits on a scheme to turn the farmhouse into an inn, with a special gimmick: it will only be open on holidays and the inn’s guests will be treated to a musical show with a theme appropriate to the particular holiday. This gimmick also allows the movie to have a succession of musical scenes featuring a holiday song. (By the way, the film’s name was the inspiration for the famous Holiday Inn hotel chain).
The movie’s songs were all written by the great Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin (1988-1989), profiled in my article about Jewish songwriters of famous Christmas songs.
The studio believed that the Valentine’s Day song in Holiday Inn would be the movie’s most popular. However, a song that Irving Berlin pulled out of his trunk, as it were, was the big hit: “White Christmas.” Berlin had originally written it for the 1935 Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical, Top Hat, but Top Hat director Mark Sandrich vetoed its inclusion. Berlin suggested using “White Christmas” for Holiday Inn and this time Sandrich agreed to use it.
“White Christmas” was not the centerpiece of a big Holiday Inn production number. Rather, the plot had it that the inn was snowed in for Christmas and was devoid of guests. So, Crosby simply sat at the piano and crooned “White Christmas” to his love interest. The song probably would have become a monster hit however it was first presented. But the tune works particularly well in this film because Crosby’s simple presentation dovetails perfectly with the homeyness of “White Christmas.”
Berlin is also credited with the idea for Holiday Inn. Rice, who was Jewish, is credited with the film’s adaptation–turning Berlin’s idea into a film treatment. The actual screenplay was written by Claude Binyon, who I don’t believe was Jewish.
Rice (1892-1967) was born Elmer L. Reizenstein in England. He came to the States as a young man and trained as an attorney. He was a quite famous playwright in the 1920s and 1930s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Street Scene (1929).
Bing Crosby was a devout Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry. Astaire, on the other hand, has always had a murky paternal ancestry.
Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Nebraska. His mother was of German Lutheran background. His father was an Austrian immigrant who apparently was born Jewish. The best evidence is that Astaire’s paternal grandparents were originally from Prague, now part of the Czech Republic, but a city under the rule of Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. They were German-speaking Jews who moved to Austria proper in the mid-19th century and became Catholics. Fred’s father was baptized a Catholic as a boy.
One can reasonably surmise that the Austerlitz family accepted Christianity because baptism opened up tremendous potential career and social opportunities denied to unconverted Jews by law or custom. Tens of thousands of Austro-Hungarian Jews converted away from Judaism in the 19th and early 20th centuries for these reasons.
In any event, Astaire became an Episcopalian in 1912 and was a practicing member of this Protestant denomination the rest of his life.
Sandrich (1900-1945), the film’s director, was born Mark Rex Goldstein in New York City. His father, Jacob Goldstein, was a European-born rabbi. His mother, Klara, was an Austrian Jewish immigrant. Rabbi Goldstein moved from synagogue to synagogue in the greater New York area during Mark’s early years. In 1921, he became the rabbi of a dynamic new synagogue in New Brunswick, N.J., where he stayed for most of the rest of his life. Mark’s parents were progressive and he grew up in a culturally liberal and cultured home.
In 1918, Sandrich went to Columbia University in New York to study engineering. In 1922, he visited Hollywood and spent some time with his first cousin, silent screen star Carmel Myers (the daughter of Klara’s brother). While visiting a film set, Mark used his engineering background to figure out how to advise a director trying to set up a shot. The advice worked and Sandrich fell accidentally, as it were, into the film biz. He did have some previous amateur experience as the director of local New Jersey musical revues.
Not long after he began in Hollywood, Mark anglicized his last name to Sandrich. It was a variation of his father’s family original last name, Sandreich, which for some reason his father had dropped in favor of Goldstein.
After directing shorts, Sandrich had a hit with his first feature, the Astaire/Rogers 1934 musical, Gay Divorcee. The next year he directed Top Hat, considered the best musical the duo ever did. He went on to direct three other very good musicals starring Astaire and Rogers, as well as a bunch of successful comedies. He was at the top of his game and very well-respected when he died of sudden heart failure in 1945.
Sandrich’s sister, under the stage name Ruth Harriet Louise, became MGM’s top portrait photographer in 1925, although she was then only 22. Highly respected like her brother, she also died tragically young, in childbirth, in 1940.
Sandrich’s sons, Mark Sandrich, Jr. and Jay Sandrich, went on to successful careers as TV directors. Jay is the more famous and was the principal director of The Cosby Show.
Like Mark Sandrich, Carmel Myers was the daughter of a rabbi. She remained a practicing Jew while achieving silent film stardom. She came into the film business around the same time as the actress many call the queen of the silent movies, Mary Pickford. They became life-long friends. Pickford writes in her autobiography that their friendship was tested when Pickford, in the late 1930s, told Myers that Jews were partially responsible for their persecution by Hitler. Myers was aghast, but simply replied, “You must remember that before we are Jews and Gentiles, we are all human beings.” Pickford immediately realized how insensitive her remark was and apologized. She was so remorseful that she became a major benefactor of a Los Angeles Jewish Senior Citizen home.
Jewish connections: Characters: Mr. Macy (Mr. Strauss) and Mr. Gimbel (1947 version); Acress: Mara Wilson (1994 version), special mention: Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle (1994 version)
I always loved the original Miracle on the 34th Street and it is the one on all the critics’ lists of best Christmas movies. But, the 1994 film version has its charms, too.
Edmund Gwenn hugs Natalie Wood in a publicity photo from Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
In the 1940s, when the original film takes place, the two great department store chains in the greater New York area were Gimbel’s and Macy’s. Both had branches in many cities across the country, but Macy’s network of stores was not nearly as extensive as it is today. Gimbel’s, sadly, folded in 1987.
As the original movie begins, Doris Walker, a divorced mother of a 9-year-old daughter, is working for Macy’s as an events coordinator. Hiring someone to play Santa for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is among her duties. As the parade is about to begin, an old man who looks remarkably like Santa Claus tells Doris that the actor she hired to play Santa in the parade is drunk. Walker hires the old man to play Santa in the parade. He does well, so she hires him as Macy’s in-store Santa–the one whom children will come up to and tell their Christmas wishes to.
The old man, who calls himself Kris Kringle, takes it upon himself to send parents to other stores, including Gimbel’s, if Macy’s doesn’t have exactly what they want. This policy is a big public relations hit and Macy’s comes out looking like a caring store. Counter to common sense, the Macy’s chain makes more money because of it. Gimbel’s quickly follows Macy’s lead and steers customers to the store that has the best value on what they want.
Mr. Macy is a character in the film. The screenwriters chose to ignore that there has been no Mr. Macy in charge of Macy’s since 1875. It was the Jewish Strauss brothers, Isidor and Nathan, who bought the small Macy’s Manhattan dry goods store in 1893, and moved it in 1902 to 34th Street (Herald Square). They were the ones who turned Macy’s into a great department store and began the process of turning it into a great chain. I think I was 10 when my mother told me that Mr. Macy, in the film, should have been Mr. Strauss. She was right. In 1947 the Strauss family still owned a controlling interest in Macy’s. (It has changed hands many times since.)
Mr. Gimbel is also a character in the film. There is a notable scene in which he and Mr. Macy are shaking hands and congratulating each other on their Christmas spirit. The Gimbel in charge of Gimbel’s in 1947 was Bernard Gimbel, the grandson of Adam Gimbel, a German Jewish immigrant who founded a small store in Milwaukee in the late 19th century. His son, Isaac Gimbel, aided by his six brothers, created the Gimbel Brothers chain and added a New York store in 1910. Bernard Gimbel died in 1967 at 81, and the family sold the stores in 1973.
When I was about 20, it occurred to me that it would have been nice if the Jewish background of the kindly department store heads was mentioned. But, in the 1940s, things were just not done that way in American films. In real life, the Strauss family were great philanthropists and Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida are famous for having given up their spots in a Titantic lifeboat so younger people would have a chance to survive.
As for the rest of the plot, well, Kris Kringle really thinks he is Santa Claus. This creates multiple problems for Doris Walker. She is a soured-on-life skeptic who has taught her daughter not to believe in fairy tales like Santa Claus. Then, Kringle gets into a dispute with the store psychologist. He starts court proceedings to have Kringle put in a mental institution. Ms. Walker’s neighbor, a nice young lawyer who is sweet on her, defends Kringle and manages to get a judge to declare him sane and to be, in fact, Santa Claus. Among those testifying for Kris is the mythical Mr. Macy. He takes the stand and declares that he believes Kris Kringle to be Santa Claus.
At the end of the film, Ms. Walker believes in Kris, as does her young daughter, Susan.
The 1994 version of the movie is similar to the original. In the original a very cute Natalie Wood, then just 9, played Susan Walker. In the 1994 version, Susan is played by actress Mara Wilson, then 7. Wilson, a talented child actress, is best known for her co-starring roles in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda.
Wilson’s father is not Jewish and her mother is Jewish. She was raised in her mother’s faith. Mara was asked in an interview around the time Miracle came out whether she believed in Santa Claus. Her reply made me laugh, because only a child would be this honest while promoting a Christmas movie. Wilson said, “No, I don’t. We’re Jewish.”
Sir Richard Attenborough does a fine job as Kris Kringle in the re-make. The veteran English actor and Oscar-winning director of Gandhi recently wrote his autobiography, which has just come out in Britain. In this heartwarming recent article in the London Times, Attenborough talks about how his Christian parents took in two German Jewish refugee girls in the late 1930s. Attenborough and his brother, the famous biologist David Attenborough, came to consider these girls their sisters.
Jewish connections: Songwriter Irving Berlin, director Michael Curtiz, screenwriters Norman Panama, Norman Krasna and Melvin Frank and co-star Danny Kaye.
Berlin wrote all the songs in the White Christmas, just as he had those in Holiday Inn.
Originally, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire were going to star in the film, as they had in Holiday Inn. However, Astaire passed after reading the script, which is pretty schmaltzy. Almost every Christmas movie is geared towards pulling on our heart strings, but some do it very deftly. White Christmas is quite obvious in the way it appeals to our emotions.
As the film opens, it is Christmas Eve 1944. Crosby and Kaye are soldiers in Europe. World War II is still raging. Crosby’s character, Bob, was a top Broadway entertainer before the war and he is putting on a Christmas show for the troops. Phil (Kaye), an aspiring entertainer, helps him. At the end of the show, General Waverly, their much-beloved commander, takes leave of his troops. Shortly thereafter Phil saves Bob’s life and Bob is guilted into making Phil his post-war musical partner.
After the war the team of Phil and Bob is a big hit in nightclubs and other venues. They meet and start dating the beautiful sisters of an old army acquaintance. The sisters, played by Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney, do a musical act.
Bob and Phil then find out that General Waverly is in big financial trouble. He has retired from the army and sunk all his money into a Vermont hotel and ski resort. It is December, and it is a dry winter with little snow.
Bob and Phil decide to move their whole stage show to the inn but manage not to let the General know it is a charitable act. They coax tons of veterans to come to the hotel for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, they put on their big stage show and we get the movie’s big pay-off: Kaye, Crosby, Vera Ellen and Clooney sing “White Christmas.” After the song concludes, real snow begins to fall.
It is a tribute to the musical talent of the performers and the skill of Curtiz, the director, that the film works as well as it does despite being way too schmaltzy.
Curtiz (1886-1962), who was Jewish, was born in Hungary as Michael Kertesz Kaminer. He worked in the Hungarian theater and cinema until 1919 and then moved to Austria. An Austrian film he made on a biblical theme got the eye of Jack Warner, the Jewish founder of Warner Brothers. Jack invited Curtiz to come to the States in 1926. Curtiz made his first American film in 1928 and anglicized his name.
In the ’30s and ’40s, Curtiz was one of the top directors in world cinema. He could work in virtually any genre and turn out great, or at least pretty good, movies.
Curtiz was brash, he was a womanizer, he offended many actors (although some liked him), and he never quite mastered English. But he made some great flicks. In the ’30s, he directed all the great Errol Flynn adventure films starting with Captain Blood and including Robin Hood. In 1942, he won the best director Oscar for Casablanca. Also in the ’40s, he directed the multiple Oscar winners Mildred Pierce and Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Curtiz was not a political activist, and I believe he was completely secular as an adult. However, he did make big contributions to European refugee relief in the ’30s and ’40s. Sadly, a good portion of his immediate family died at Auschwitz, including his sister and her family.
The film’s three screenwriters were all Jewish and all three had decades-long Hollywood careers in which they wrote and, here and there, actually directed a lot of good, if not great films.
Panama (1914-2003) and Frank (1913-1988) were boyhood friends in Chicago and formed a screenwriting partnership that lasted over 30 years. They had a nice touch for light comedy and wrote some of the best Bob Hope and Danny Kaye comedies.
Krasna (1919-1984) wrote in a variety of genres, and won a best screenplay Oscar for an early film, 1943’s Princess O’Rourke, about a European princess who seeks refuge in the United States during World War II.
White Christmas was not any of these writers’ best movie, but they were assigned to write a serviceable script that highlighted the music and the stars.
By the mid-’50s, Kaye (1913-1987) was a big film comedy star and a household name. Born David Daniel Kaminsky in Brooklyn, he came from a poor immigrant Eastern European Jewish family. He was out dancing on the streets for a few coins before he was 13. He never graduated high school but got his early entertainment education working at Jewish resorts in the Catskills.
In the early ’40s, some of Kaye’s clever musical stage routines caught the eye of Hollywood, and he was signed to make movies. He agreed to lighten his hair to seem a bit more WASP-y but refused to have a nose job.
Kaye is so famous you can find his biography all over the Internet. But online biographies sometimes fail to make clear that Kaye’s spirit of public service was unusual in its time. There was a time when celebrities did a benefit now and again, but few devoted themselves heart and soul to a charity and built it from the ground-up.
Kaye was one of the first to make that sort of charitable commitment. In the ’50s, he became the public face of the then-struggling UNICEF, the United Nations Children Fund. He devoted tens of thousands of hours to UNICEF over the course of his lifetime. When UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, Kaye was so identified with the organization that he was asked to accept the Prize on behalf of UNICEF.
Jewish connections: Director Jon Favreau, screenwriter David Berenbaum, actors Ed Asner, James Caan.
In 2003, Naomi Pfefferman, a first rate staffwriter for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, covered the film’s Jewish connections and elicited interesting points on Jews working on Christmas films from Berenbaum, Favreau and Asner. Her article also contains nutshell biographies on Favreau and Berenbaum, mostly in their own words. Favreau discusses his interfaith background in some detail.
Elf was, as Pffefferman put it, a “sleeper hit,” earning close to $200 million, even though it had a modest production budget. It has entered the canon of the best Christmas films and invariably appeared as one of the top five critics’ selections.
Will Farrell plays Buddy, a human orphan child whom Santa (Asner) accidentally takes back to the North Pole. He is raised by Santa’s elves and believes himself to be an elf. However, when Buddy is a young adult, his elf father tells him he is a human. Buddy travels to New York City to meet his human father, Walter Hobbs (Caan). Hobbs had previously not known about Buddy’s existence. Hobbs is a grouch and Buddy is determined to turn him into a caring human being.
At one point in the film, Buddy wanders into a department store and sees their Christmas display. He is taken for an employee and re-makes the display in a fabulous way. In a nice tip of the hat to Miracle on 34th Street, the department store is named Gimbels.
Just a few words on Caan, who was not interviewed by the Jewish Journal.
Caan, now 68, was born in the Bronx, the son of German Jewish immigrants. His father was a kosher meat dealer and butcher. Caan is his original name. Caan is a common Dutch variant of Cohen and he probably had a Dutch Jewish ancestor. Still best known for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Caan has had an up-and-down career, complicated by a longstanding drug problem that he finally overcame. Not a practicing Jew as an adult, Caan nonetheless has done some work for Jewish charities.
When I started writing this article, I thought I’d include It’s A Wonderful Life, generally ranked as the top Christmas movie of all-time. I thought the screenwriters, the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, were Jewish. I assumed this because in the ’50s they wrote the Broadway play, The Diary of Anne Frank. However, you learn something every day, and I found out that neither of them was Jewish.
There is an interesting Jewish actor, however, in a minor role in Wonderful Life. His name is Charles Lane (1905-2007) and he plays a nasty rent collector. This role was typical of Lane’s astonishingly long acting career (he made his first film in 1931, his last in 1995). Lane virtually always played nasty guys in smallish character roles. Older readers of this article may remember him best for his recurring role as a mean railroad company executive on the ’60s sitcom, Petticoat Junction. He also appeared as–you guessed it–a nasty fellow on a bunch of episodes of I Love Lucy.
In real life, Lane, whom I interviewed about four years ago, was a sweet fellow and a good family man. In the ’30s, he was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild and was honored on the occasion of his 100th birthday at the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards.
Lane was born Charles Levinson in San Francisco. His parents were connected, by marriage or blood, to all the famous German Jewish pioneer families of San Francisco, including the family of Levi Strauss, of blue jeans fame.
His father, who was born in Virginia City, Nev., in the 1860s, was doing well as the head of the Fireman’s Fund insurance company when the great San Francisco earthquake hit in April 1906. As fire swept towards their San Francisco home, Charles’ parents bundled him up and fled, with their other three sons, to a waiting boat. The boat took them to his mother’s family’s ranch in suburban Marin County. (The ranch was later donated to the City of San Rafael and is now Gerstle Park. Gerstle was Charles’ mother’s maiden name.)
San Francisco was virtually destroyed by the earthquake and fire. Many insurance companies simply declared bankruptcy because there was no way they could pay off all the San Francisco claims and stay in business. Most declared bankruptcy without paying off a single claim.
As you might recall, in It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart‘s character (George Bailey) faces a similar problem when the Great Depression causes a panic run on the banks. Bailey owns a small building and loan company. Working class people bought shares in the company and their share money was used to fund mortgages for other working class families.
When the panic begins, and the town’s regular bank closes, all the shareholders besiege Bailey and demand that he pay off their shares in cash. Bailey manages to reason with them and gets almost all of them to calm down and cash in just enough shares to have some pocket money until the regular bank re-opens. He is thus able to stay in business and continue to offer mortgages to working class families.
Well, Charles Lane’s father, J. B. Levinson, did something similar. He refused to declare the Fireman’s Fund bankrupt. He said he was willing to pay off earthquake claims until the company was out of money. He knew, however, the Fund did not have enough cash reserves to pay off all the massive earthquake claims in full. No insurance company did.
He offered claimants a deal: they could be paid off on in cash a pro-rata basis, or take part of their claim money in cash and part in company stock. If they did the latter, the Fireman’s Fund could survive.
Most claimants trusted Levinson and took the cash and stock deal. The Fireman’s Fund survived. It recovered quickly and was instrumental in the re-building of San Francisco. Capital for new buildings flowed in because the Fund was there to insure these new buildings.
The Fund’s stock soared in value within a few years after the earthquake. Every insurance claimant who took the stock and cash deal did very well. Most who took the deal actually realized more money than the value of their original claim.
J. B. Levinson’s idea has been copied by many other companies facing similar problems. But he pioneered it. So, when you next watch It’s a Wonderful Life, look for Charles Lane–the son of a real life George Bailey.