Ten Best Christmas Movie Characters

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Classic Christmas move characters include James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life, Alastair Sim in Scrooge, Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street, Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story, Bing Crosby in White Christmas, Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Con

The venerable Christmas movie is a longstanding tradition in Hollywood. The first holiday movie came in 1897 via the American Mutoscope Company's Night Before Christmas, an early, primitive silent effort set in an old country home where a mother and her young children hang their stockings over a huge fireplace in anticipation from a visit by St. Nick.

Here are ten classic Christmas movie characters and the actors who played them on the silver screen. We begin in Bedford Falls, New York...

James Stewart as George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life (RKO, 1946)

James Stewart, making his first film in five years following his service with the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, plays George Bailey. One Christmas Eve, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan comes up $8,000 short, leading to a personal crisis for George, Bedford Falls' leading citizen. George's guardian angel-in-training Clarence (Henry Travers) shows up, giving the desperate, suicidal George a glimpse as to what life would be like in Bedford Falls had he, George, never been born. It's a Wonderful Life, which actually lost money during its initial release due to an inflated budget of over $3 million, is a slice of pure "Capracorn," with Stewart earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. "Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!" a jubilant George announces, racing through town near the end of the film.

Promotional still: James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge (United Artists, 1951)

Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol has been filmed numerous times through the years, both for the movies and television. In 1951, Alistair Sim delivered one of Hollywood's finest screen performances ever as the miserly Scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Scrooge's first encounter with the spirit of Jacob Marley (Michael Horden), his old business partner, is chilling, setting the spooky, supernatural stage for the entire picture. "Old Scrooge, played by Britain's distinguished and vastly beloved Alastair Sim, is precisely the dour and crabbed creature that he is in the memorable tale," opined Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (11/29/51).

Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, Miracle on 34th Street (20th Century-Fox, 1947)

Edmund Gwen plays Kris Kringle, a bearded, grandfatherly type who actually believes he's Santa Claus. Hired by Macy's as their department store Santa, Kris later runs into trouble with the mental health authorities, with lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) defending him in court. Gwen is a treasure as the irascible Mr. Kringle, earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his marvelous performance. "For the past 50 years or so I've been getting more and more worried about Christmas. Seems we're all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle," Gwenn's Kringle tells a skeptical Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara).

Lobby card set: Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker, A Christmas Story (MGM, 1983)

Based on the 1966 short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by American humorist Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story features Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker. Set in the early 1940s, all Ralphie wants for Christmas is "a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Lightning-Loader Range Model Air Rifle with a Shockproof High Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial set right in the stock." Despite the usual caution from adults – "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," warns the department store Santa (Jeff Gillen) – Ralpie continues his quest to snare "the Holy Grail of Christmas Presents." Watch a fed-up Ralphie take on bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) in one of Hollywood's all-time kid fights.

Mini lobby card: Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story (1983)

Bing Crosby as Bob Wallace, White Christmas (Paramount, 1954)

Bing Crosby plays entertainer Bob Wallace in this Irving Berlin holiday spectacular. Along with fellow performers Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen), Bing and company head to a Vermont ski lodge for the holidays. The resort is owned by Bob and Phil's old commanding general (Dean Jagger), and has fallen on hard times due to lack of snow. Der Bingle has never been better in a musical, delivering with his cohorts a number of memorable tunes, including "Snow," "The Old Man," "What Can You Do with a General?", "Gee! I Wish I Was Back in the Army" and of course the monster holiday hit "White Christmas."

Barbara Stanwyck as Elizabeth Lane, Christmas in Connecticut (Warner Bros., 1945)

Barbara Stanwyck gives a memorable performance as Elizabeth Lane, a magazine writer who paints a flattering picture of her "ideal" Connecticut home life in her columns. The trouble is Elizabeth is unmarried, lives alone in an apartment in New York City and garners her famous recipes from her chef friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall), leading to problems when publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) wants Elizabeth to host sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays. That leads to a mad dash to create the illusion of Miss Lane's domestic bliss, with Elizabeth using friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) as her husband, borrowing a neighbor's baby and setting up shop at Sloan's Connecticut farm.

One sheet movie poster: Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Henry F. Potter, It's a Wonderful Life (RKO, 1946)

Lionel Barrymore plays one of the meanest villains ever to grace a holiday picture. He's Mr. Henry F. Potter, the richest, most powerful man in the county who views tiny Bedford Falls as his personal fiefdom. Potter wants to own everything – whether by hook or crook – with only the struggling Bailey Bros. Building and Loan standing in his way. Old Man Potter is at his meanest when a desperate George Bailey (James Stewart), whose business is missing $8,000, comes to him for help. "Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me 'a warped, frustrated, old man!' What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds. Nothin' but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You're worth more dead than alive!" The evil Mr. Potter never did get his comeuppance in the movie, but in a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit the good citizens of Bedford Falls storm Potter's abode, meting out their own brand of justice with a vengeful George Bailey (Dana Carvey) leading the vigilantes.

Lobby card: Lionel Barrymore as Henry F. Potter, seated, with James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Bob Hope as Sidney Melbourne, The Lemon Drop Kid (Paramount, 1951)

Bob Hope stars as Sidney Melbourne – a.k.a. "The Lemon Drop Kid" – in this charming remake of the original 1934 film. The Kid is a Florida racetrack tout who gives a bum tip to Stella (Andrea King), the girlfriend of mobster Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Moose now figures that the Kid owes him $10,000, but grudgingly gives him until Christmas – only 23 days away – to come up with the dough. The Kid returns to snowy New York where he embarks on various schemes to raise the cash, which includes the opening of the fraudulent Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls. This may well be one of Bob "Mr. USO" Hope's finest roles, with Marilyn Maxwell ably playing his dumb blonde gal pal Brainey Baxter. The holiday favorite "Silver Bells" made its debut in this picture.

Cary Grant as Dudley, The Bishop's Wife (RKO, 1947)

RKO once again employed the Christmas angel theme in 1947, one year after the release of It's a Wonderful Life. Suave, sophisticated Cary Gant plays Dudley, the heavenly messenger who assists Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) in the building of a new church. Dudley also engages the bishop's wife Julia (Loretta Young), who is feeling lonely and unappreciated during the holiday season. "Smoothly and with artful invention he [director Henry Koster] has induced Mr. Grant to give one of his most fluent and beguiling performances as the angel, 'Dudley,' who fixes things," reported Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (12/10/47).

One sheet movie poster style A: Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven in The Bishop's Wife (1947)

Jim Carrey as the Grinch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Universal, 2000)  

Jim Carrey brings his unique talents to this $123 million holiday production, playing the evil Grinch in yet another screen version of the classic Dr. Seuss story. Carrey, all decked out in costume and elaborate green-tinted makeup, plays the role with vigor and manic expertise as the evildoer who tries to hijack Christmas. "Blast this Christmas music. It's joyful and triumphant," Carey's the Grinch remarks in one scene. Well, maybe the Grinch isn't all bad, after all?

Ten-Plus More Memorable Christmas Movie Characters

  • Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, The Santa Clause (1994) 
  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge, The Bishop's Wife (1947)
  • Bill Murray as Frank Cross, Scrooged (1988)
  • Darren McGavin as Mr. Parker a.k.a. The Old Man, A Christmas Story (1983)
  • John Call as Santa Claus, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
  • Harry Carey Sr. as George Melton, C. Aubrey Smith as Allan Chadwick and Charles Winninger as Michael O'Brien, Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
  • Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol (1938)
  • Bing Crosby as Jim Hardy and Fred Astaire as Ted Hanover, Holiday Inn (1942)
  • George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol (1984)

Lobby card: John Call as Santa Claus in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Image Credits

  • All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas
  • Top image: Lobby card: James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

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William J. Felchner

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