In my pre-mommy life, I taught college undergraduates for more than 10 years. It didn’t take me long to learn the verity of my father’s long-ago observation: Education is the only thing in life people buy but then hope they don’t get their money’s worth. Sure enough, notwithstanding the proportionate 100-plus dollars paid in tuition for one class, students would flee campus a day or two early whenever a holiday approached.
But it didn’t take me long to game the students’ system. A few tweaks of the syllabus and voila—an examination fell on the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving break. A little scurrying on my part to grade the tests allowed me to review the exam during our scheduled Wednesday class. The more dedicated (or desperate) students inevitably came to class to learn their grades and review the material. If hordes of students missed the session, there was no need for me to waste time re-explaining the material after Thanksgiving break; they could come to office hours to ask questions about the test.
After reviewing the exam, I would send students off with a “homework” assignment: watch a movie from “the list” with your family or friends over the Thanksgiving break. (My list also included some alcohol-free fun “townie” activities for students to do in their mostly unexplored college town—a not-so-subtle attempt to improve Friday attendance and assure they weren’t further gypping themselves.) The list waxed and waned over the years, as I discovered new favorites and discarded others—like “The Quiet Man,” or “The Princess Bride”—that have since become commonly known or cult classics. My last iteration follows:
1. ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang’
“The Apple Dumpling Gang” is probably one of the least known old-school Disney movies. Filled with silliness and slapstick that I still remember from my youth, the movie tells the tale of three orphaned children who go from being “unwanted” to sought after by an entire Old West town, once they strike it rich in their recently-deceased father’s gold mine.
The children eventually find loving parents in the unlikely matching of a card shark and a dusty young coach driver. Don Knotts adds to the humor as the better half of a bumbling duo of bandits trying to steal the gold. And as my seven-year-old fan of “Mayberry” quipped while laughing at their hijinks: “It’s funny because Barney’s the smart one in the ‘Apple Dumpling Gang.’”
The movie is good family fun for those whose brood includes younger ones spanning the five- to eight-year-old age range. Older kids and parents, though, will enjoy watching the giggles of the younger set.
2. ‘Swiss Family Robinson’
Another Disney classic brings to life the daydream of many a child: being shipwrecked on a desert island. A battle with a pirate crew, replete with a tiger traps and coconut bombs, adds to the swashbuckling fun. And if desert islands and pirates weren’t enough, the most spectacular tree house EVER takes shape over the course of their time on the island. (I’ve already made clear to family and friends that in my dotting-hood, I want that tree house to live out my remaining days.)
The most memorable scene, though, takes place on the family’s day off from building, when they undertake a cross-country race (PETA TRIGGER WARNING) on an ostrich, zebra, and a baby elephant. It’s another good family movie for those with younger ones, but also enjoyable for ‘tweens.
3. ‘The Railway Children’
There have been several adaptations of E. Nesbitt’s classic “The Railway Children” which, if you have never read, I highly recommend for family story time. Follow the reading with a showing of the 1990 English Television movie version, staring Jemima Rooper as Bobbie. The movie brings to life, with the same excitement and emotion of the book, the story of three formerly well-off children and their mother who are forced to sell their prized possessions and move to the English countryside after their father mysterious must “go away for a while.”
While mother writes all day in the hopes of earning some money by which to survive, adventures abound for the children as they prevent a train crash, rescue a boy with a broken leg, save a baby from a burning boat, and befriend the town and the train’s “old gentleman,” lovingly played by Richard Attenborough. That last friendship proves providential when, through his efforts, the old gentleman succeeds in reuniting Father with the family.
The only thing that could make “The Railway Children” more enjoyable would be more screen time for Father, played by Foyle’s War’s Michael Kitchen. While appropriate for families with young children, the plot is most engaging for ‘tweens and older.
4. ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’
Based on the real-life story of Gladys Aylward, played by Ingrid Bergman, this movie tells the story of Aylward’s time as a Chinese missionary in the years leading up to World War II. The movie opens with Aylward’s rejection by a mission society as “not qualified” to travel to China and spread the Good News. Undeterred, Bergman’s character works as a maid to earn enough money to pay her own way.
Once there, Aylward joins forces with an older missionary, and after the latter’s death, overcomes many challenges to become a respected and honored missionary. Her greatest challenge comes later, when the Japanese overrun her Chinese province and Aylward must flee with a hundred orphans in her charge. The closing scene brings Aylward together again with the mission society in one of several tear-inducing scenes. A must-see movie appropriate for ‘tweens and older.
5. ‘The Song of Bernadette’
This 1943 film tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes. Jennifer Jones stars as the young Bernadette who, over the course of six months in 1858, has 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Jones’ beauty, coupled with lighting effects and camera work, convince the audience that she is truly seeing our Blessed Mother.)
Skeptical at first, local church leaders come to believe Bernadette following several miraculous cures visited upon those who touch the water springing from the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette. But jealousy also erupts, and not until her painful death do others recognize the true holiness of Saint Bernadette. This beautiful movie is appropriate for all and a special treat for Catholics.
6. ‘Sergeant York’
Gary Cooper stars in this lesser-known war movie based on the real-life story of Alvin Cullum York, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient. The movie opens, though, in rural Kentucky to a drunken Alvin seeking out trouble. In typical Hollywood fashion, a good woman reforms the rogue, but when he is swindled out of the land he wants to buy, only God can save him. And He does.
But then World War I intervenes, again interfering with York’s plans. While a “war” movie, this probably fits the romantic comedy genre better, but for those with high school or college-age sons, I’d stick with “war.”
7. ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’
This classic film from 1946 won seven Oscars, including for Best Picture. The movie follows three servicemen returning home following the end of World War II. After sharing a plane ride stateside, the men find themselves facing vastly different circumstances, each challenging in its own right.
A pilot returns home to his war bride only to discover that the uniform and the frivolity that preceded his send-off was the only basis of their relationship, and it cannot withstand the change brought on by the seriousness of war and the difficulty of day-to-day married life. Conversely, an older banker finds the challenge in returning to the norm he left years before: the young children he left behind have grown up in his absence and no longer need his parental guidance in the same way. He and his devoted wife, played by Myrna Loy, also find themselves at a loss after the long separation.
Most touching, though, was the portrayal by real-life veteran and double-amputee Harold John Russell, who comes home to his “swell girl,” only to discover he needs to adjust to his loss more than she does. A touching portrayal of love, loss, fidelity, and friendship. Appropriate for ‘tweens and up, but of most interest to teenagers and older.
Yes, you’ve heard of “Psycho.” Yes, you’ve seen the shower scene. But did you know the movie begins miles away with a sordid—for the time period—love affair and embezzlement? Have you ever watched the entire movie uninterrupted? That’s how Hitchcock wanted it: he required movie theaters to turn away late-arrivers. The shower seen haunts. Bates’ closing psychosis disturbs. (Now more properly understood as him “identifying” as a 70-year-old woman?) But the movie is so much more and is a display of Hitchcock’s pure genius.
As a documentary on the film explained, Hitchcock wanted the audience to relate to Bates. And lest you have any doubt that he succeeded, ask yourself: Did you exhale a sigh of relief when the car sank? And why? Of course, nearly any Hitchcock film will do, but why not see the classic everyone knows but few have seen? College-age students and above would enjoy, although if your family gathering includes single young women living alone, choose something lighter.
This thriller, with a sci-fi twist, I hesitate to include because it doesn’t qualify as a great movie. But for some unknown reason, like “Return to Me” (see below), it is entertaining and pulls you back for repeat viewing. Frequency stars Jim Caviezel as Police Detective John Sullivan, and Dennis Quaid as his fireman father, Frank. The movie opens with Caviezel and Andre Braugher toasting Frank on the anniversary of his death during a warehouse blaze.
Later that night, Caviezel comes across an old ham radio and by virtue of an aurora borealis (a disturbance of the atmosphere), is able to cross the time-space-continuum. Present-day Caviezel communicates with his father Quaid in the past. Caviezel and Quaid continue their chats with unanticipated results.
Other than the over-the-top “stupid-action film” finale, the movie is fast-paced and enjoyable, even for those who do not normally care for science fiction. However, the violence is rather explicit so I would keep this film for families with adult children, and especially those college students whom you can’t rope in for family time except with an action film.
10. ‘Return to Me’
This bittersweet romantic comedy beckons you every few months when a lazy Saturday hits. The movie opens with parallel introductions to two families: Gracie, her grandfather, and their close-knit group of friends; and Bob (David Duchovny) and Elizabeth Rueland (Joely Richardson), a happily married young couple.
While Gracie, played by Minnie Driver, waits hospital-bound for a heart-transplant, tragedy strikes the couple and their paths cross for the first time. Nearly a year later, Gracie and Bob’s paths cross again and they fall in love. The predictable plot finds support in the ensemble cast that includes Gracie’s grandfather, Carroll O’Connor, and his crew of similarly-situated, poker-playing characters, brought to life by Robert Loggia, William Bronger, and Eddie Jones. Bonnie Hunt, Jim Belushi and their growing family add to the fun as Gracie’s friends.
For anyone who decried the premature cancelling of “Life With Bonnie,” you’ll enjoy the comedic camaraderie of many of the same characters. “Return to Me” showcases some inside-Rome Catholic humor and fun Chicago scenery—perfect for the young college student getting ready to intern in the Windy City.
11. ‘Roman Holiday’
Most. Handsome. Man. Ever. Gregory Peck stars as a reporter assigned to cover the young and beautiful Princess Anne, played by the exquisite Audrey Hepburn. Suffering from exhaustion, her personal doctor sedates Princess Anne, but following a series of mishaps she finds herself on the streets of Rome. Mistaken for an intoxicated commoner, Peck’s character, along with his photographer friend, played by Eddie Albert, rescue the unrecognized Princess Anne from police.
After enjoying a good night’s sleep, Princess Anne takes full advantage of her momentary anonymity to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of Rome, as well as the frivolity denied a person of her stature. “Roman Holiday” is the perfect holiday movie for families with your daughters, high school and older.
Wishing you and your families a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.