There are few film genres more critically derided than the Christmas movie, a byword for slushy sentiment, crass commercialism and banal family entertainment. And yet the holiday season has inspired some of the most acclaimed and universally adored screen classics of the past 70 years. There have been many turkeys, without doubt, but the finest festive films are like gifts that keep on giving. Like Christmas pudding, the best yuletide films have character to counteract the sweetness. Once upon a time, we enjoyed scaring ourselves with chilly ghost stories and festive murder mysteries. Nowadays, we are more likely to laugh at bleak comedies about feuding families and bickering couples - which perhaps reveals more about the true meaning of Christmas in the 21st century than many of us like to admit. The key blueprint for countless festive movies remains A Christmas Carol, the cautionary moral fable that Charles Dickens first published in 1840s London to help pay off his crippling debts. This may explain why the story's grotesque protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is a miserly financier alienated from his colleagues and neighbours. Scrooge may know the price of everything and the value of nothing, but Dickens still allows him some memorable lines: "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart." Fantastic.
In most of the 20-plus film versions of this Dickensian classic, Scrooge makes an overnight transformation from bitter misanthrope to big-hearted benefactor. But some screen interpretations have tried to give him more depth and complexity. Widely regarded as one of the best is Brian Desmond-Hurst's 1951 film Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, starring Alistair Sim as the curmudgeonly anti-hero. Desmond-Hurst spends longer on flashbacks to Scrooge's past than most adaptations, with George Cole playing Sim's younger self, an earnest soul slowly turned sour by a cruel world.
More recent variations on the story, perhaps reflecting more cynical times, have displayed a little more sympathy for the old devil. In Scrooged (1988), Bill Murray's sarcastic television producer is a far more compelling rogue before his conversion to festive goodwill. In The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Michael Caine's Victorian villain has a cheeky twinkle in his eye and all the best lines. Likewise, Nicolas Cage's lonely millionaire banker in the supernatural comedy The Family Man (2000), forced to choose between his high-flying career and the more fulfilling but less glamorous life he left behind a decade ago.
This same ambivalence is also evident in the two screen adaptations of Doctor Seuss's much-loved children's book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In both the dazzling 1966 cartoon version and the 2000 live-action remake starring Jim Carrey, the Scrooge-like creature of the title is a charismatic anarchist repelled by the slushy sentimentality of the holiday season. For some modern viewers, this kind of gleeful non-PC attitude might seem like a perfectly sane response to the enforced jollity and consumer overload of Christmas.
From Dickens to Disney, festive films are almost as old as cinema itself. At least four adaptations of Clement Moor's classic 19th-century poem The Night Before Christmas were made between 1905 and 1933, mostly as silent or animated shorts. But the real boom in yuletide movies began during the Second World War and immediately afterwards, striking an emotional chord with homesick US servicemen and fatherless families back home.
Christmas in July (1940), Holiday Inn (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Christmas Eve (1947), Christmas Holiday (1944), Home for Christmas (1949) and even that cheesy old favourite White Christmas (1954) established the model for nostalgic celebrations of old-fashioned family values. All were free of the cynicism and black humour that would later come to define the genre. But the most beloved and enduring Christmas movie of this era is Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Which is perhaps surprising, because Capra's festive favourite is an unusually bleak and harrowing affair. It stars James Stewart as a troubled small-town businessman who misplaces a bank loan, abandons his family, gets beaten up, crashes his car and almost commits suicide. Only the sage advice of a benign guardian angel, played by Henry Travers, can persuade Stewart's desperate hero that the world would be a poorer place without him.
It's a Wonderful Life contains all the classic ingredients of festive cinema: folksy wisdom, supernatural intervention and a redemptive ending that reaffirms community values. Once again, the ghost of Dickens is never far away. Ironically, this wintry fairy tale was mostly shot during a blazing summer heatwave in Southern California - Stewart can actually be seen sweating in several scenes. Capra's production team even had to invent an award-winning fake snow made from chemical foam, which became the Hollywood standard for decades afterwards.
It may be significant that It's a Wonderful Life was not a commercial success on release, and only became a poll-topping favourite some years later. In 1947, with delicious irony, a secret FBI report on Communist infiltration in Hollywood even dismissed this all-American classic as left-wing propaganda due to its cynical depiction of greedy bankers. And yet this heartwarming celebration of humanity over commerce is one reason the film continues to inspire new fans 60 years later. It certainly feels acutely topical again today, thanks to the current global financial crisis.
Released a year after Capra's classic, George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street is another much-loved Christmas milestone containing a similar plea for idealism over commercialism. Natalie Wood plays a cherubic young girl who persists in her innocent belief that a department-store Santa Claus is the real thing - and, as Seaton's magical film suggests, maybe he is. An inferior 1993 remake, starring Richard Attenborough, swapped wry subtlety for syrupy sentiment. But the message of faith over reason was essentially the same.
Surprisingly, stories depicting Father Christmas as a character remain a relative rarity in the festive film archives. The commercial failure of the leaden Dudley Moore blockbuster Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) might explain Hollywood's reluctance to tackle such corny subject matter. But more recent films including Tim Allen's Santa Clause trilogy, Will Ferrell's Elf (2003) and the Vince Vaughn comedy Fred Claus (2007) have managed to balance childlike innocence with more adult-friendly humour. All became huge box-office hits.
Since the 1980s, seasonal movies have begun putting a more cynical, postmodern slant on old-fashioned festive cheer. In Trading Places (1983), Dan Aykroyd's ruined banker suffers a gun-toting breakdown while dressed as Santa Claus. And the terrific feel-bad comedy Bad Santa (2003) stars Billy Bob Thornton as a foul-mouthed safe cracker who plans his crimes while moonlighting as a department-store Father Christmas.
For contemporary filmmakers, Christmas jollity often serves as an ironic counterpoint to crime, violence and general bad behaviour. Bruce Willis foils terrorist attacks in the first two Die Hard movies. Macaulay Culkin battles bungling yuletide burglars with surprisingly sadistic savagery in the Home Alone comedies. And the Ben Affleck thriller Reindeer Games (2000) opens with five dead Santas lying in the snow, the victims of a botched robbery.
In another nod to Dickens, yuletide films also have a long tradition of ghostly horror stories. "The supernatural has always been part of Christmas," the author Blake Morrison wrote in The Guardian recently. "It's an acknowledgement of the alien threat beyond the cosy hearth." Comic horror is the most popular format for this festive subgenre. Both the original Black Christmas (1974) and its 2006 remake are pulpy serial-killer thrillers made with a hefty shot of gallows humour. In Gremlins (1984), an army of hilariously unhinged alien creatures destroys a snowy small town over the holiday season. Tim Burton's splendidly creepy animated musical The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) also takes a gleefully irreverent axe to cosy festive clichés. In Burton's nocturnal netherworld, the holiday season is more Franz Kafka than Frank Capra.
Here in the real world, the Christmas holidays often bring more everyday horrors, from money problems to bitter family arguments. Which helps explain the current dominant trend in yuletide cinema: dysfunctional comedies centred around hellishly unpleasant family gatherings. Films like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), Jingle All the Way (1996), Christmas With the Kranks (2004), Surviving Christmas (2004), The Family Stone (2005) and Deck the Halls (2006) all present the festive holiday as one long fight between feuding relatives, greedy children and hostile neighbours. These movies invariably end on an upbeat resolution, of course, but the grim first act often feels more truthful. Bah, humbug!
However many hypocritical festive fables that highly paid studio executives make about the evils of money, the true meaning of Christmas in Tinseltown has always been commerce. But audiences have become much more wary of blatant manipulation in recent years, balking at slushy romantic comedies with winter-wonderland settings. Both Love Actually (2003) and The Holiday (2006) did disappointing business, even though each featured a galaxy of stars and bucketloads of festive sparkle.
With such a narrow potential window for theatrical release, yuletide movies present Hollywood with a marketing challenge. Ironically, there is a long tradition of studios dumping their lamest fare during the holiday season, when families may be looking for unchallenging entertainment, and critical media coverage will be scarce. In fact, the established formula for Christmas box-office success is to release festive films around Thanksgiving weekend in November, a major celebration for most American families, allowing them to build over the six-week holiday period. A prime example of this was Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), which still holds the record as the biggest-grossing yuletide movie ever.
The Grinch was both a critical and commercial hit, but quality has never been an essential ingredient for festive screen success. This year's two main seasonal contenders both follow the current vogue for dysfunctional family comedies. In Four Christmases, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play a young couple who grudgingly agree to visit all of their estranged parents after their winter beach holiday is cancelled. In Nothing Like the Holidays, a large family of Latino Americans gather in Chicago to laugh, cry and argue.
The plots may be similar, but the first film is full of lowbrow slapstick, the latter a bittersweet and semi-serious ensemble piece. So guess which one cleaned up at the box office? During their respective opening weekends, Four Christmases raked in almost 10 times the receipts earned by Nothing Like the Holidays, and already ranks among the top 10 most profitable festive films ever. No studio ever went broke making dumb formula comedies with groaningly predictable upbeat endings.
So is there still room for old-fashioned feel-good family films at Christmas? Some would argue modern audiences are just too knowing and sceptical, but rare exceptions still buck this trend. In the cutting-edge animated feature The Polar Express (2004), Tom Hanks and the director Robert Zemeckis scored a huge hit with a defiantly traditional yarn about a young boy's wavering faith in Santa Claus.
Next winter, Zemeckis plans to release another digitally animated yuletide classic. Yes, you guessed it - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It seems the darkest, deepest festive stories just never date.