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Good Christmas Movies (1980-90): Dreams of Falling Snow and Flying Reindeers

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David Appleford itcherThe eighties was the decade when Hollywood’s attitude to the Christmas movie changed. It didn’t necessarily change its output or the way films were distributed, but it proved one thing: despite its belief that no one would really go to see a Christmas movie on the big screen at holiday time – an odd attitude, I realize, but one that was prevalent back then – the eighties saw a turnaround, and it was all because of one film. ~ David Appleford

Your Fabulous Christmas Movies Decade Bonanza: Discover the 80s!

That film was ‘A Christmas Story’. Surprisingly, even though the 1983 family comedy is considered an American landmark, it has never exported well. You may see the DVD cover on store shelves or perhaps you’ll notice that the film is listed as something to stream or download online, but outside of America, most are either unaware of its history, or worse, have never seen it. It’s on the list.

Because American audiences suddenly flocked to ‘A Christmas Story’ and even demanded it return to theatres once distributors pulled it off screens, other Christmas-themed films began to emerge with more regularity. It would take another decade for the genre to get into full, theatrical swing, but the eighties continued to produce several yuletide-themed movies that are still popular today. If it wasn’t for ‘A Christmas Story,’ Hollywood may never have given the greenlight to Bill Murray in ‘Scrooged,’ or the TV movie of George C. Scott in yet another version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (find some great similar movies right here).  

The following Christmas suggestions mix the eighties cinema film and the TV movie together. The quality differs, but like it says on the holiday chocolate box, there’s truly something for everyone’s taste.


Must-See Christmas Movie Recommendations:

5 – ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ (Peter H. Hunt, 1984)

It may have the title of an 1849 poem that went on to become a Christmas carol, but the film has nothing to do with those famous lyrics. It’s about a retired cop called Mike, played by veteran actor Mickey Rooney, who suffers a fatal heart attack while putting up the Christmas lights.

The cop was from New York but had moved to California where the snow tends to be in short supply. As a result, his Californian grandson, having never left the state, had only heard about snow. While in heaven, the cop makes a deal with an archangel to let him go back to California, pick up his grandson and take him to see Christmas in the snow back in New York for just one week, something the cop had always promised the boy he would do.

When the film was first shown on TV it was hugely popular and developed quite a following, particularly by fans of Mickey Rooney, yet it’s proved to be a difficult find. If you can lay your hands on a copy, do so.  

It’s sentimental, sure, but there’s also a lot of good humor, plus it’s includes an early performance from Annie Potts as a TV reporter who is about to lose her faith in Christmas until she meets the retired cop and his grandson. And any chance for movie buffs to see Mickey Rooney again in a lead is always worth the time.

4 – ‘Prancer’ (John D. Hancock, 1989)

I don’t think all of this is necessary, he’s probably used to being around people…

Its low budget look and the fact that it had no ‘A’ list names in the cast never stopped American audiences from going to the theatre to see the magical tale of a little girl who believes that the reindeer she’s secretly looking after is really Santa’s Prancer.

The charm of the film belongs to young Rebecca Harrell who played the eight year-old Jessica, a little girl who loves Christmas so much she even plays seasonal music all year round. There’s an element of realism to ‘Prancer’ that many considered a downer, particularly when no-nonsense dad (Sam Elliot) points out just how hard life on the farm is going to be for the family if things don’t pick up.  

But don’t let depressive, down-beat themes from dad spoil the fun. Even though special effects are at a minimum, the themes of a magical Christmas are there with an ending that is both inspirational and uplifting. And you can’t fail to be charmed by the little girl.

Quick footnote: There was a sequel called ‘Prancer Returns,’ but if you find it, leave it on the shelf. Stick with the 1989 original. The budget for the first might have been less than the sequel but it’s a much better movie.

3 – ‘The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story’ (Delbert Mann, 1983)

For this one you’ll need the tissues nearby. Lee Remick plays Janet Broderick, a woman whose stress level reaches its maximum when everything goes wrong, including a family business failure plus the loss of her mother.

With everything around her falling apart, Janet falls into a deep sleep and dreams of earlier, more comforting days of Christmas when the family business was thriving and mum (Angela Lansbury) was still alive. As you might suspect with a film that centers on a dream during the holidays, Janet will learn what is important and what Christmas is all about.  

This American TV film was so popular when it was first aired in ’83 that it became something of a broadcasting tradition. CBS played it every year for the following five years, but it has since tailed off in popularity and today it tends to be a difficult find. But the hunt will be worth it.  

It was based on a short story called ‘The Silent Stars Go By’ by Bess Streeter Aldrich and adapted for TV by Earl Hamner, Jr. When you realize that Hamner was the creator of both ‘The Waltons’ and the sentimental ‘The Homecoming,’ you probably already know where you stand with ‘The Gift of Love.’  

Film critics sang its praises claiming the film was a joy and how it will touch your heart. Get those hankies ready.

2 – ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’ (George Schaefer, 1983)

Imogene, we’re going to do this play the way it has always been done…

If you’re looking for an antidote to tears and sentimentality, this is the one. Based on a novel by Barbara Robinson, the story revolves around a group of six troublesome children who have a habit of doing everything wrong.  

These kids shoplift, drink wine and smoke cigarettes. They’re delinquents. In Australia, the book was re-named, “The Worst Kids in the World.” After being told there are free snacks at church, they make their first attendance and find themselves cast in something they’ve never done or even heard of before – the Sunday school Christmas play.

TV’s Hot Lips Houlihan, Loretta Swit, plays the mother who allows the six troublesome kids into her home, while Fairuza Balk plays her all-observing daughter who breaks that fourth wall by turning to the camera throughout and commenting on the action.  

Like the popular book, the film is both touching and funny. When one of the kids asks the name of the play they’re about to do, sister Gladys states that it’s a Christmas Pageant but that it should really be called ‘The Revenge at Bethlehem’.

1 – ‘A Christmas Story’ (Bob Clark, 1983)

I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!

Author and humorist Jean Shepherd wrote a book full of short stories and Christmas memories. It was called ‘In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.’ From that series of anecdotes, film director Bob Clark took the profits he made from his successful ‘Porky’s’ movie and made ‘A Christmas Story,’ the nostalgic 40’s tale of a young boy and his desire for a special toy rifle at Christmas.

Released in November of ‘83, by the time Christmas came, the film was already gone, yet audiences loved it so much, they demanded it back. Hollywood was stunned. Maybe there was a market for Christmas movies at Christmas time after all.

In America, the story of the boy and his family in pre-war Indiana is still so popular it has inspired both a play and a Broadway musical that continues to tour the country. And if that wasn’t enough, since 1997, cable television has run marathons of the film with continuous back to back showings starting at 8pm on Christmas Eve and running into Christmas Day.  

However, outside of the States, the film is hardly known other than by hardcore Christmas movie aficionados. If you want to see the movie that changed Hollywood’s mind about Christmas, see ‘A Christmas Story.’ It may not reflect your life or even your childhood, but when you reflect back on Decembers of the past, the way it’s depicted here is how you would want to remember it.


Which Christmas Movies Will You Watch This Year?

Here’s a quick tip for travelers. If you’re the kind that enjoys visiting locations of films and you happen to be touring America, specifically Cleveland, consider doing this. Be safe and check listings before you head out, but at one time you could visit the house where the fictional family in ‘A Christmas Story’ lived.  

The house used for exterior shots went up for auction on eBay for $150,000. A man called Brian Jones bought it and then spent a further $500,000 making it look as it did in the film, both inside and out. He also bought the house next door and turned it into a gift shop and museum for the film.  

Hollywood may have been slower in seeing the financial potential for Christmas than the entrepreneurial Mr. Jones but by the time the nineties arrived, all of that would change.


At you can browse through the holiday movies by decades and discover lovely Christmas gems that will surely get you in the Christmas spirit!


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