Christmas classics to stream — and where to find them

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click to enlarge Thomas Mitchell, Donna Reed, and James Stewart star in "It's a Wonderful Life." Photo credit: RKO Pictures
Thomas Mitchell, Donna Reed, and James Stewart star in "It's a Wonderful Life." Photo credit: RKO Pictures

Nine Christmas Classics to Stream in 2021

The streamers have jumped into the holiday movie sweepstakes that was once the domain of the Hallmark original movie. Now you can find new iterations of them on Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock and elsewhere, while the holiday romances of Christmases past are all over Amazon Prime and Hulu as well as many ad-supported free streaming services.


With so many generic titles filling up the menu pages, it's difficult to sort through all the modern Christmas comedies, Hallmark holiday romances and Netflix originals to find the classics of yesteryear.


Here's our guide to finding nine Hollywood Christmas classics, from the obvious to the unexpected, available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and HBO Max.


Merry Christmas.

"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) - They say that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. I think the same thing goes for this film every time you watch it. At once one of the most life-affirming pictures of all time and a nightmare of small town America gone bad. In the history of film noir no character suffers a worse fate than Jimmy Stewart – just look into those tortured, terrified eyes at the end of his nightmare. Yet he so passionately embraces life in that final scene that I can’t help but tear up. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame and Henry Travers co-star in Frank Capra's greatest film, which was a flop on it original release but is now considered THE Christmas classic. (Amazon Prime Video)

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) is a warm, engaging modern fairy tale that manages to be both a slick Hollywood artifact and a quirky character based comic drama. Edmund Gwenn is particularly fine as the bearded old man hired by Macy’s for their department store Santa who thinks he’s the real St. Nick. John Payne is the sincere young lawyer who defends him in court when the state of New York tries to have him committed, and cute little Natalie Wood is sweet and genuine as the skeptical prodigy who wants to believe in Santa Claus more than anything. (HBO Max)


"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944) - The ultimate in Hollywood Americana, Vincent Minelli’s first Technicolor film is a masterful musical that turned Judy Garland into a true leading lady. A celebration of old fashioned values in song, dance and family melodrama in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, the glowingly nostalgic tale follows a year in the life of a family. It's not so much a Yuletide movie as a film for all seasons, but it does contain the immortal "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in one of the most bittersweet Christmas scenes of all time. (HBO Max)


"White Christmas" (1954), starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as song and dance men who throw a fundraiser to save a failing Vermont country inn, co-stars Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, features plenty of musical numbers and of course features Irving Berlin's iconic Christmas ballad. This 1954 holiday classic is corny, sentimental, funny, colorful and pure Hollywood hokum, and it charmed its way to become the biggest hit of its year. There are better musicals, but this is a beloved classic and a slice of Hollywood innocence. (Netflix)


"The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) - James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan argue by day but unknowingly woo one another as pen pals during the holiday season in Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful romantic comedy. Stewart plays his irony with a soft, sentimental touch here and creates a community of fellow employees with just as much sensitivity, especially Frank Morgan as their fatherly boss, who hides the pain of his private life with a generous and comforting exterior. One of the great romantic comedies from Stewart, the master of dry wit. (HBO Max)


"Holiday Affair" (1949) – Widowed mom Janet Leigh is wooed by stable nice guy Wendell Corey when unpredictable dreamer Robert Mitchum drops into her life at Christmas. Mitchum was the bad boy of the movies in the 1940s, but he's all charm here with just of hint of insolence, a guy looking for his place in the world and realizing it might just be with this young beauty and her son. It's not as well known as other Hollywood Christmas romances, but thanks to annual screenings on Turner Classic Movies it's become a new holiday classic. (HBO Max)

"A Christmas Story" (1983, PG) – I triple dog dare you not to smile while watching Bob Clark’s adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s novel “'In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” It wasn’t a hit when it was first released, but Clark tapped into nostalgia and childhood remembrance so well that it has since become one of the best loved Christmas movies of all time via video and TV. Peter Billingsley is the boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas ("You’ll put your eye out, kid!") but the film belongs to his growling, frenzied, lovably gruff father (Darren McGavin) and to Jean Shephard himself, the novelist and radio raconteur who narrates the tale. The eternally underrated Melinda Dillon is perfect as the doting mother. (HBO Max)


"The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993) – The playfully macabre humor of Tim Burton is deftly brought to life through the old-school magic of stop-motion animation by director Henry Selick. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, is a childlike ghoul who stumbles upon the joy of Christmas Town and decides to fill Santa's shoes with his own twisted (but endearingly well-meaning) take on gift giving. Selick turns Burton's original story and fanciful sketches into fully realized characters and walks that fine line between comedy and horror while maintaining the sense of wonder instilled by the pumpkin-headed Halloween king. The mischievous little helpers of Santa Skellington aren't evil, they just have an innocently devilish sense of fun. Danny Elfman pens the ten original songs and provides Jack's singing voice. (Disney+)

"Elf" (2003, PG) – Will Ferrell is at his most endearingly childlike playing a human orphan raised as an elf in Santa’s workshop in Jon Favreau's modern holiday classic. The eager, excitable innocent is an ungainly giant in a land of happy smiling little people until he leaves his North Pole home of sugar plum diets and phony snow to find his biological father (James Caan as a cynical publisher on Santa’s naughty list) in New York City. With his innocent sense of wonder warming the film, it genuinely embraces its message of holiday cheer and still has fun goofing with it. Bob Newhart is a perfect deadpan counterpart to Ferrell's manic outbursts and joyous exclamations and Zooey Deschanel is a sweet department store elf charmed by Buddy's guileless enthusiasm. (HBO Max and Starz)


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. His reviews of streaming movies and TV can be found at https://streamondemandathome.com.


Copyright © 2021 by Sean Axmaker


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