10 Christmas Films Made Over 100 Years Ago (That You Can Watch for Free)

christmas_accidentThe Christmas season gives us permission to delight in the past. 

We sings old songs and zestfully revive the traditions of bygone years. Even the most black-and-white-phobic individuals in our midst might resist the urge to change the channel when a holiday-themed classic movie comes on TV.

But how many of us celebrate by revisiting the earliest Christmas films, over 100 years old?

I invite you to join me for a very YouTube Yuletide by checking out these 10 historical treasures. Not only do they radiate nostalgia and (for the most part) good cheer, but they also bear witness to the rapid development of cinema during its first two decades of existence.

Please note that many of these films have no musical score. I recommend putting on your favorite Christmas CD (you know, provided it’s not holiday death metal or anything like that) while you watch.

Santa Claus – George Albert Smith – 1898


Just three years after the Lumière brothers shot their first movies, Santa Claus made his screen debut in this vignette by the innovative British filmmaker George Albert Smith.

Smith explored cinema’s ability to represent points-of-view and show spatial relations. More important, he used these techniques to recreate experiences, play on viewers’ emotions, and tell stories.

In Santa Claus, the magic of Christmas (combined with movie magic) prompts a vision of St. Nick arriving on a rooftop and climbing into the chimney. Although the film takes place in the bedroom of two small children, we see Santa through a kind of enchanted bubble: a clever double exposure. Then the bubble disappears as Santa enters through the fireplace in an early example of a match-on-action, showing the rough continuity of time and space.

Not bad for a film that lasts little longer than a minute!

Rêve de Noël – Georges Méliès – 1900


Savor some Belle Époque celluloid whimsy as only Méliès could do it. On Christmas Eve, a child dreams of Santa’s merry workshop, which seems to house a surprising number of 1900s Parisian music hall dancers… Meanwhile, the world at large prepares for the holiday in snowy streets, cheerful churches, and opulent feasting halls.

Comparatively low on early special effects or editing tricks, this film simply sets a jolly mood. With its eccentric Elizabethan-meets-19th-century set design and its gaggle of snow fairies dancing, Rêve de Noel is like a stack of Victorian Christmas postcards coming to life. Bask in the visual equivalent of hot buttered rum.

Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost – Walter R. Booth – 1901


Only part of the first movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol survives. Fortunately, there’s enough left to appreciate this ambitious film and imagine what the whole would’ve been like.

Walter R. Booth managed to condense all major plot points down to a few minutes. Even more impressive, he recreated the story’s supernatural elements by using practically the entire arsenal of cinematic language available in 1901. And, banging his head against those limitations, Booth invented the wipe transition.

Best remembered for his playful, special effects-loaded short films, Booth began as a porcelain painter and dabbled in magic. You can see how Booth applied his expertise from those fields to Scrooge. The miniature painter’s attention to detail reveals itself in the set decoration with touches like the “God Bless Us Every One” sign in the Crachit home. Meanwhile, Booth the illusionist gives us see-though spirits, superimposed glimpses of the past, and a dizzying flight through time and space.

Bonus film: watch this later, more elaborate adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1910), a Thomas Edison production directed by J. Searle Dawley.

The Little Match Seller – James Williamson – 1902


In case you’re overdosing on joy, it’s time for Hans Christian Andersen’s tear-jerking tale of child labor and hypothermic hallucinations!

Once again, the supernatural overtones of a popular Christmas story gave an early filmmaker the chance to experiment with special effects and integrate them into a dramatic context. Williamson uses double exposures to portray the little match girl’s visions of warmth as well as her ascent into heaven.

Like Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost, this adaptation blurs the line between the era’s “trick films” (and what Gunning called the cinema of attraction) and emerging narrative cinema.

The Parish Priest’s Christmas – Alice Guy – 1906


Shining with simple faith, this moving work by Alice Guy, the world’s first woman director, captures a more pious side of Christmas.

A local priest attempts to buy a statue to complete the crèche, or Nativity scene, in his church. Unfortunately, the priest and his humble flock lack the funds to purchase even the smallest stand-in for baby Jesus. But lo! At mass, beautiful angels appear and reward the congregation’s devotion by bestowing an effigy of Jesus to fill the cradle.

In The Parish Priest’s Christmas, Alice Guy deploys special effects for maximum dramatic impact. The film’s deliberate pace and the naturalistic interactions between characters draw the audience into the priest’s dilemma. This realistic atmosphere makes the heavenly vision at the end (achieved through hidden cuts) even more striking and poignant.

A Trap for Santa Claus – D.W. Griffith – 1909


Dad’s drunk, unemployed, and arguing with mom. Now it feels like Christmas! Anticipating the bleakness of the Pottersville scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life, this socially-conscious Biograph film reminds us that Christmas doesn’t exist for those in dire poverty.

A despairing father abandons his indigent wife and children. On the verge of starvation, his wife inherits a small fortune and moves into a lavish home in time for Christmas Eve. When her children set a trap to catch Santa Claus, little do they know that they’ll end up bringing their father—now turned a burglar—back into their lives. All we need is a Santa suit and the family reunion will be complete…

D.W. Griffith had only been directing films for about a year when he made this short holiday melodrama, which might be why it stands out as particularly, well, melodramatic. The acting harkens back to the 19th century stage, but please don’t judge all silent movies (or Griffith’s) based on this one.

The Night Before Christmas – Edwin S. Porter – 1905


Edwin S. Porter, a pioneer of narrative logic in cinema and director of The Great Train Robbery (1903), evokes the snowbound wonder of Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved poem. And, as in The Great Train Robbery, Porter ends the film with a fourth-wall-breaking shot (not unusual in early movies) as Santa Claus acknowledges the spectators and wishes them a merry Christmas.

My favorite entry on this list, The Night Before Christmas involved a herd of apparently real reindeer, as well as an adorable model version to show their “flight” from the North Pole. You can see the whole iconography of Christmas as we know it today—the jolly red suit, the list that Santa’s checking twice, and the magical sleigh. Intertitles with verses lifted straight from Moore’s poem contribute to the film’s charm.

A Christmas Accident – Harold M. Shaw – 1912


In the time-honored tradition of nasty-people-redeemed-by-holiday-zeal stories comes this short but sweet movie from Edison Studios. Eschewing miracles and special effects, A Christmas Accident provides a tantalizing glimpse into the holiday celebrations of ordinary, working-class people shortly after the turn of the century.

Prosperous, crotchety old coot Mr. Gilton and his long-suffering wife live right next door to the harmonious Bilton family. After months of enduring their neighbor’s bad temper, the Biltons are settling down for their modest Christmas Eve festivities.

“Santa Claus is poor this year,” says Mr. Bilton, explaining to his children why they’re not getting a turkey. But what to their wondering eyes should appear? Why, Mr. Gilton, blown by a snowstorm right into their home—with a turkey under his arm. Do I smell reconciliation… and stuffing?

The Insects’ ChristmasVladislav Starevich – 1913


Vladislav Starevich. Now there’s a name even film geeks don’t mention much—but they should. This enthusiastic amateur entomologist produced some of the most creative and elaborate early examples of stop-motion animation.

In his surreal works, anthropomorphic insects often move around in a world like our own. They go to the movies, conduct secret love affairs, and, yes, even celebrate Christmas. Heartwarming or horrifying? I’ll let you be the judge.

Bonus film: for more unusual holiday entertainment courtesy of our friend Vladislav, watch his live-action film The Night Before Christmas (1913), based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, not the quaint poem by Clement Clarke Moore.

The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus – Charles M. Seay – 1914


In 1914, comical amateur sleuth Octavius bumbled through a series of short one-reel films produced by Thomas Edison. In the final series installment, our hapless hero shows up at a party to dress as Santa for his friend’s children. Needless to say, holiday mayhem ensues.

No sooner does Octavius don the bushy white beard and red suit then he gets conked on the noggin by a burglar. Dressed up in a different Santa suit, the villain steals the children’s gifts from under the tree and flees with Octavius in hot pursuit.

Of course, all this improbable exposition merely serves as an excuse to show two men in Santa costumes chasing after each other and brawling. Fortunately, as the intertitles tell us, “Octavius never fails.” The detective ends up returning the Christmas presents and gets to canoodle behind a curtain with a pretty girl while some weirdly voyeuristic children watch. (And a merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Edison…)

Though clearly filmed on a set, this movie tenderly documents the customs of a middle class Christmas on the brink of WWI. Plus, it started the Santa suit mix-up plot device that seasonal comedies have been recycling ever since.

Have a very cinephile Christmas, everyone!

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Blue Blood: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

postRevenge is a beautiful thing. Or so Western Civilization would on the whole suggest.

If there is only one evergreen subject in entertainment for the past, oh, thousand or so years, it’s the pursuit of vengeance, from The Bible to The Oresteia to The Spanish Tragedy to… well, I’d know if I ever went to the movies these days.

I’ve been wronged. I’m hurting. I plan. I kill. Happy ending optional. Why do audiences never tire of this pattern?

Fortunately, I shan’t essay the burning question at length, though I surmise that we prefer to identify ourselves as victims (not victimizers) when we fantasize about eliminating our enemies. I will likewise note that hundreds, probably thousands, of successful plays, films, and television shows have cribbed this paradigm. Some have been insightful. Most have been bloody. Nearly all of them have been as dark as Hamlet’s pantaloons.

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Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is far too well-bred for any of that. Airy, genteel, and soothing as tea in a summerhouse, this witty foray into Edwardian vengeance illustrates the truth of Thomas De Quicey’s argument in  “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:

People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. 

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The puckish style of this black comedy from Ealing Studios would seem at odds with the Golgotha ambiance that we tend to associate with acts of revenge. Yet, far from declawing the horror of murder, this little movie, cherished as quaint and so veddy British, deserves praise for its pervasively tense and acidic comedy. It manages to sustain its satirical tone—but never falls into out-and-out parody—over two hours of joyful wickedness.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. The plot, such as it is, does not require much explanation. Our sociopathic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (a lethally seductive Dennis Price) was raised by his disgraced aristocratic mother—exiled by her family for marrying an Italian opera singer—who taught her son to dream of reclaiming his birthright.

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Once grown, Mazzini does exactly that, variously dispatching the relatives, the D’Ascoynes, who stand between him and the Duchy of Chalfont. Alec Guinness, equipped with his spirit gum, kit of mustaches, and genius for mimicry, gives life to each of these stodgy eccentrics.

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The plot structure does not differ greatly from your average slasher film, in which, one by one, victims are bumped off in far-fetched and occasionally humorous ways. The film performs a delicate high-wire act between absurdity and genuine drama in a frilly parallel universe where, for instance, a pot of caviar might be loaded with explosives and a hot air balloon bearing a militant suffragette might hover precariously over London.

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Yet, I would argue that Kind Hearts and Coronets is so unreal and refined that it paradoxically achieves one of the most calculated and disturbing portrayals of violence ever captured on film. Virtually every encounter we have with celluloid gore and viscera leaves us that much more jaded, inoculated by aesthetic violence against the real thing. And the closer the illusion comes to the real thing, the more the real thing has been betrayed.

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By contrast, Kind Hearts and Coronets refines murder into an artful hobby, as fussy and picturesque as a doily on a parlor grand piano, to reveal how a killer can dissociate himself from the moral ramifications of his actions. We recognize how easily a ruthless mind can turn human lives into secondary concerns and seek refuge in “the alibi of art,” in the words of Roger Shattuck.

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After all, the vast majority of the film takes place inside Louis Mazzini’s head, as he puts pen to paper and writes his memoirs on the eve of his execution. Director Hamer and cinematographer Roger Slocombe endow almost each frame of the movie with the compositional harmony and attention to detail of a quintessential period lithograph or sketch. This gracious, elliptical carnage represents not necessarily what happened, but rather how Louis chooses to portray his succession of killings.

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That Renoir-esque boat, carrying two lovers, gliding past the camera towards a watery grave. That funny cloud of smoke coming over the garden wall which announces to Louis—and to the audience—that Henry D’Ascoyne has developed his last picture. That flurry of harp notes as Lady Agatha falls to earth from her balloon. All of these artistic touches romanticize Louis’s crimes, widening the gap between the beauty of what we see and the ugliness of revenge.

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Plus, much of the film’s hilarity comes from the fact that Louis has to kill off not merely a half-dozen different people, but rather half-dozen people played by the same actor. As much as Guinness invests each of these portraits with a specific set of uncannily apt foibles, it’s still the same guy. We know this. That’s why we laugh. As eight D’Ascoynes die, we realize that there’s just one person behind it all. This comic effect, however, exposes another feature of Louis’s derangement: by his own admission, he has dehumanized his victims. They do not appear to him as individuals, but as embodiments of the family that wronged him, as different variations on the same target. In this light, the decision to have Guinness play eight roles seems a lot less like a gimmick and a good deal more like an astute psychological statement.

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Indeed, Robert Hamer couches several important visual clues in the film’s opening that suggest the extent to which the humor and elegance of the murders are products of Louis’s warped intelligence and perceptions.

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The beginning shots of the film, as a paunchy executioner approaches the prison doors and waddles with a warden to catch a glimpse of his “client” who will be hanged by a silken rope tomorrow. These shots, with their stark lighting and sparse mise-en-scene stand out from the light-dappled beauty and eye-catching richness of the rest of the film, the parts controlled by Louis’s recollections.

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The executioner’s (and our) first peek at the mysterious murderer comes through a peep hole into his cell. There’s Louis Mazzini, sitting calmly at his desk, framed like a picture by a circular window. Then something strange happens—a jump cut without warning to a tight shot of the back of Louis’s head, straightening up, as though he intuited that he’s being watched.

Now, the first shot of Louis is a pretty clear point-of-view shot, but what are we to make of that second one, that puts us practically on top of Louis? In the cell with him? It might be a gruesome joke, a close shot of Louis’s neck, soon to be bound by a noose. I suspect that there’s more to it, though: an intimation of how the viewer will progressively enter Louis’s world and come to root for a multiple murderer.

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Louis’s edifice of rationalizations lulls us into interpreting his life story as just that—a story, an adventure, a personal narrative. Even his imminent death for a crime he didn’t commit fails to shake us out of our intoxication with his vision of lyrical revenge. Only at the last moment of the film do we fully comprehend that we were listening to a confession. The unresolvable cliffhanger conclusion snaps us back to reality. Louis took the lives of six of his kin, and a few bystanders to boot, with absolutely no compunction. Those are the bare facts, as anyone who discovered that manuscript would read them. Our anxiety on Louis’s behalf confronts us with our complicity in his crimes.

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Nowadays, a sympathetic multiple murderer may fail to shock our blunted moral sensibilities (au contraire, it actually seems to be the key ingredient for a hit television show). However, in 1949, let us remember, a hero as villainous as Louis would not have been common onscreen, despite his distinguished literary antecedents, particularly in England due to the strength of censorship.

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Our voyage through the sunny consciousness of a psychopath proves so enchanting largely because of Dennis Price’s astonishing charm. Price, an underrated actor if ever there was one, grew up in an upper class family and invests Louis with an almost supernatural poise. He need only blink his impossibly long eyelashes at the audience and we know exactly what dastardly ironic thoughts are circulating in that superior brain of his. Consider the sly glance Louis barely avoids giving the camera when his employer, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, pulls out the family tree and proceeds to give him a lesson—when Louis could draw the whole thing from memory. In this movie, Price’s face is like a Paganini caprice played on a Stradivarius: dazzlingly, diabolically complex.

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In his own way, Louis Mazzini is a true aristocrat, more of a D’Ascoyne than all of the other D’Ascoynes put together. Traditional noblemen were not cuddly people. Today’s royals may warm our hearts with their stiffly magnanimous little waves and conspicuous displays of largesse, but the axe-wielding chieftains who won these privileges for them would hardly recognize their descendants. Kind Hearts and Coronets playfully hints at this discrepancy between past and present aristos in the scene where the Duke gives Louis a tour through the antique instruments of war that line the walls of Chalfont. Louis can hardly lift one grisly iron broadsword.

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The founders of great families acquired their power through unimaginable brutality or sickening crimes against their own flesh and blood. The film’s alternate title “Noblesse Oblige,” a phrase that encapsulates the duties and burdens of nobility, not only refers to Louis’s blue-blooded mien, but also obliquely alludes to the barbaric duties of this perfect gentleman.

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