Some of the best (and worst) Christmas movies were set in Pennsylvania, filmed in Pennsylvania, starred Pennsylvanians, or were produced by Pennsylvanians.
Some of the best (and worst) Christmas movies of our time have connections to our great state.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (classic) and “Jack Frost” (kinda crap) star famous Pennsylvanians Jimmy Stewart and Michael Keaton, respectively.
All of your favorite Rankin and Bass productions—”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” (all classics)—were made in part by a man who was born in Philadelphia (Bass). And “Die Hard” and “Elf” were written by Pennsylvanians.
“Happiest Season” was filmed in Pittsburgh and Grove City, and “Rocky,” and “Trading Places” were filmed in Philadelphia. “Trapped in Paradise” is set in Paradise, Lancaster County, but was filmed in Canada, and a key scene in “Home Alone” is set in Scranton, but was filmed elsewhere. And “Pottersville” was filmed in upstate New York, but it feels a lot like it was filmed in Pennsylvania.
Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, Netflix, Hulu, and the major networks have made hundreds of other Christmas movies, and we bet some of those have Pennsylvania connections, too. But we didn’t have time to research hundreds of Christmas movies, so we went with the most popular ones we could think of and the ones that got big theatrical releases.
Take a look at our list.
Can you think of any we missed? Let us know and we’ll add them.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, a 38-year-old man who has given up his dream of leaving his small hometown of Bedford Falls and traveling the world. Instead, he lives a traditional life in Bedford Falls, where he works at a bank, and has a wife and four children. Just days before Christmas, things go awry at work, and George decides he’s “worth more dead than alive” and attempts to kill himself. George’s guardian angel, Clarence, saves him and shows him what life would be like for others in Bedford Falls if George had never been born.
The movie opened to mixed reviews 74 years ago, and didn’t make enough at the box office to break even on production costs. But now it airs on television every year and has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
This classic is safe to watch with your whole family.
All of Your Rankin & Bass Favorites (1960s, 1970s, 1980s)
For three decades, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass produced stop-motion films that have become many Americans’ favorites.
Rankin, who lived in New York City his whole life, and Bass, who was born in Philadelphia, met in the Big Apple in the 1940s. They formed Rankin/Bass Productions and worked with Japanese animators to bring stories like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” and “The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus” to television.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been telecast every year since Rankin and Bass produced it in 1964, which makes it the longest running Christmas TV special of all time, according to the Television Academy Foundation.
My favorite Rankin and Bass film (and second-favorite Christmas movie of all time) has always been “The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus.” This weird and wonderful film is based on a novella of the same name by L. Frank Baum (the man who wrote “The Wizard of Oz”). It imagines that a nymph finds a young baby in the forest, names him Claus, and raises him with the help of other mythical woodland creatures and wild animals (including a lioness who lives in the forest for unexplained reasons). As the boy grows up, he develops concern for mankind (who the mythical creatures tell him to avoid), and eventually works to bring joy to poor little girls and boys by making toys for them. The story is a bit dark (there are evil mythical creatures who live in the desert and don’t want children to be happy) and the music is rich and a little ominous at times. It’s the kind of story you’d get if you told a German opera composer to tell a Christmas story.
I was surprised to learn that Associate Editor Patrick Abdalla also loves “The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus.” (Most people I know haven’t even heard of it.)
“For a kid in a strict, Catholic house, that pagan [stuff] was an acid trip,” Pat said.
Pat said he also really liked “The Year Without a Santa Claus” because of the Heat Miser.
It turned out that was Content Producer Ashley Adams’ favorite Rankin and Bass film.
“I remember watching it when I was little and thinking it was cool that Mrs. Claus took charge…and that maybe if a woman took charge of everything, [stuff] might actually get done,” she said.
Any of these, even the weird ones, are safe and fun to watch with your whole family.
“Trading Places” (1983)
Eddie Murphy (“Coming to America,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” and just about anything else you thought was funny in the 1980s) plays Billy Ray Valentine, a homeless grifter, who switches places with snobby commodities trader Louis Winthorpe III (played by Dan Aykroyd, “Ghostbusters”). The switch is engineered by WASPy, racist commodities brokerage firm owners Randolph Duke (played by Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (played by Don Ameche); Randolph bets Mortimer that Valentine can be just as successful as Winthorpe with the right surroundings and encouragement, and Winthorpe would resort to robbing people if he lost his job, home, fiancée, and friends.
The Duke brothers arrange to bail Valentine out of jail, and have Winthorpe arrested and humiliated. Valentine succeeds as a commodities trader. Winthorpe turns to crime, dressing as a scruffy Santa to crash the Duke & Duke holiday party, steal food, and attempt to frame Valentine for stealing and dealing drugs. Valentine later encounters another Santa (played by Mike Strug, who was a newscaster in Philadelphia at the time).
After the Duke brothers settle their bet, Valentine and Winthorpe team up.
The movie was filmed in various places in Philadelphia, including City Hall, 30th Street Station, Independence National Historical Park, Community College of Philadelphia, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Italian Market, Rittenhouse Square, and various private residences.
Critics praised the movie, which has an 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It remains popular in the US and internationally (one Italian television station airs it every year on Christmas Eve).
You might not want to watch this with kids in the room. Several female characters appear topless or almost nude, several characters use the N-word (several times), and Dan Aykroyd wears blackface makeup in one scene.
“Die Hard” (1988)
One reader informed us that one of the screenwriters of this popular Christmas movie, Steven E. de Souza, is from Philadelphia.
De Souza, who is also credited with writing “48 Hours” and “The Running Man,” is one of the few screenwriters whose movies have earned more than $2 billion at the box office.
The reader reminded us that the secondary villain in “Die Hard” has [almost] the same name as a former governor of Pennsylvania, though we don’t know if de Souza and fellow screenwriter Jeb Stuart did that on purpose.
As New York police officer John McClane (played by Bruce Willis, in his most famous role) works to rescue his wife, Holly (played by Bonnie Bedelia) after she and the other employees of Nakatomi Corp. were taken hostage during the company Christmas party, TV reporter Richard “Dick” Thornburg (played by William Atherton, “Ghostbusters”) covers the story. He goes to Holly McClane’s home, and blackmails her maid into letting him interview the McClane children. That interview helps terrorist Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman, “Love Actually” and the “Harry Potter” movies) identify John after he discovers a McClane family portrait, and Gruber takes Holly hostage.
Thornburg’s name is only one letter off from Dick Thornburgh, a Republican who was governor of Pennsylvania when filming started on “Die Hard.”
Thornburgh was the first Republican elected to serve two terms as governor of Pennsylvania. He was widely recognized for implementing welfare reforms, taking steps to spur economic development and reduce the state’s unemployment rate, consolidating state colleges under the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, and overseeing emergency response to the partial meltdown of the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island. During his leadership, the number of people incarcerated in state prisons increased dramatically.
You might not want to watch this movie with kids in the room, as there is some foul language and a lot of violence.
“Home Alone” (1990)
Macaulay Culkin stars as Kevin McCallister (his most famous role), a little boy who is accidentally left at home alone when his family goes on a trip to Paris. He has a great time, ordering pizza and watching movies, until two burglars (played by Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci) attempt to break in.
While Kevin is battling the burglars with booby trips, his mom (played by Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek,” “Beetlejuice”) flies home from Paris. Pennsylvania is an important stop on the way.
At a small airport, Mrs. McCallister talks with a ticket agent about getting a flight to Chicago. “I have been awake for almost 60 hours. I’m tired and I’m dirty. I have been from Chicago to Paris to Dallas to… where the hell am I?”
“Scranton,” the ticket agent answers.
“I am trying to get home to my 8-year-old son,” she says, going off on the ticket agent.
She ultimately catches a ride with a polka band led by Gus Polinski (played by John Candy), and they drive across the state on their way to Chicago.
The movie was the highest-grossing live-action comedy ever for 21 years, until it was overtaken by “The Hangover Part II.” The movie has a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
While it’s a bit violent, this is safe and fun to watch with your whole family.
“Trapped in Paradise” (1994)
Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz, and Dana Carvey, play brothers Bill, Dave, and Alvin Firpo. Around Christmas time, Dave and Alvin get paroled and released into Bill’s custody. They head to Paradise, Pennsylvania, to do a favor for a fellow inmate, and decide to rob the local bank when they see it’s light on security.
The brothers try to leave Paradise, but every time they do, they get lost, or crash their car, or run into some kind of trouble. A local townsperson always saves them and takes them back into town.
There is a real Paradise, in Lancaster County, but the movie was filmed in Toronto and five other towns in Ontario, Canada.
The movie has a 10% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics’ consensus is that it’s “loaded with talent but borderline unwatchable.”
Do you really want to watch this?
“Jack Frost” (1998)
Michael Keaton (“Batman”) stars as Jack Frost, a musician who spends more time away from home than in it as he tries to make it big. He dies in a car crash a couple days before Christmas and comes back to life as a snowman a year later. In snowman form, Jack gets a second chance to spend time with his wife Gabby (played by Kelly Preston, “Twins,” “Jerry Maguire”) and his son Charlie. He pelts Charlie’s bullies with snowballs in the kind of large-scale snowball battle many kids dream of, teaches his son some hockey moves, and makes bad jokes about frozen body parts.
Keaton, a native of Heritage Valley Kennedy, which is just outside of Pittsburgh, said he signed on for the movie because he “thought it had a nice message,” and he had never been in a nice family holiday movie and thought it would be good to be in one.
I thought it was kind of sweet.
This is safe to watch with the whole family.
Philadelphia native David Berenbaum wrote this family Christmas movie, which launched the movie careers of star Will Ferrell (“Saturday Night Live” and “Zoolander”) and director Jon Favreau (who also directed “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2”).
Berenbaum said in Netflix’s “The Holiday Movies That Made Us” docuseries that he loved watching Christmas movies as a Jewish kid in Philadelphia. When he moved to Los Angeles to try to start his screenwriting career, he said, he missed the seasons.
“LA threw me for a loop. During Christmas time, it was just hot and weird,” he said. “So to make myself feel more like it was home, I would rent all these Christmas movies.”
Rewatching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” inspired Berenbaum to write “Elf.”
The movie, which was made to feel like “Rudolph” in its sets and costumes, follows Buddy (played by Will Ferrell), a human who was raised by Santa’s elves at the North Pole. When Buddy grows up and realizes that he’s human, he leaves the North Pole and heads to New York City to find his biological father, Walter (played by James Caan, “The Godfather” and “Misery”). The manager at a department store mistakes Buddy for an employee and puts him to work in the store’s Santa Land, where Buddy meets Jovie (played by Zooey Deschanel, “New Girl” and “500 Days of Summer”). Buddy reconnects with Walter, defends his half-brother Michael from bullies, falls in love with Jovie, helps Santa fix his sleigh, and spreads Christmas cheer along the way.
This movie is safe and fun to watch with the whole family.
“Happiest Season” (2020)
Kristen Stewart (“Panic Room,” “Twilight”) plays Abby, and Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire,” “Terminator: Dark Fate”) plays Abby’s girlfriend Harper. As they’re on their way to visit Harper’s family for Christmas, Harper tells Abby that her parents don’t know she’s a lesbian. Harper’s parents think Abby and Harper are just roommates, and Abby is coming home with Harper because she’s an orphan with nowhere else to go for the holidays. Mary Steenburgen (“Elf”) and Victor Garber play Harper’s parents.
The movie is being touted as one of the first queer romantic holiday movies. It was filmed in Grove City, which is home to one of the most conservative colleges in the country, and Pittsburgh earlier this year.
Honorable Mention: “Rocky” (1976)
Most people don’t think of “Rocky” as a Christmas movie. But the movie, which was filmed all over Philadelphia and follows the training of a young boxer (played by Sylvester Stallone), has a key Christmas scene.
The movie was the highest-grossing film of 1976, and has spawned several sequels. It has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
This is safe to watch with your whole family.
Rocky and his girlfriend, Adrian (played by Talia Shire), sit in her living room and talk about Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s best friend, Paulie (played by Burt Young), as Christmas music plays in the background. Paulie keeps asking Rocky for a job, Rocky says, but he doesn’t know anything about fighting. Paulie walks into the room in the middle of the conversation, carrying a wreath around his arm, and yells at Rocky to get out of the house. When Adrian tells Paulie not to speak to Rocky that way, Paulie grabs a baseball bat, threatens Rocky, and starts breaking things in the living room.
Honorable Mention: “Pottersville” (2017)
When I saw “Pottersville” three years ago, I was convinced that the titular town is somewhere in Pennsylvania.
The name makes me think of Pottstown, Pottsville, and Potter County. The struggling small town with its independent businesses reminds me of every town I’ve covered that has had meetings about downtown revitalization, or the towns that have struggled since their local coal mines closed. There are Utz chips (made in Hanover!) everywhere. The characters talk a little like northern Pennsylvanians. And the characters look out for each other much the same way folks in small towns across PA look out for each other.
And the plot is exactly the kind of crazy thing you wouldn’t be surprised to see in some parts of the state. (Ashley said she could think of at least one person she knew who would do it.)
Michael Shannon (“Knives Out,” “Boardwalk Empire”) plays Maynard Greiger, the owner of the local general store, who goes home early one day for a romantic dinner with his wife (played by Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” fame) and finds her fooling around with another man (the town sheriff, played by Ron Perlman) while they’re both wearing furry animal suits. Maynard’s wife tells him they should take some time apart. Maynard attempts to drown his sorrows, and drunkenly puts on a gorilla suit and runs through town late at night. The next day, everyone is buzzing about a Bigfoot sighting. The town comes alive with television and tourist activity.
Alas, I googled it, and “Pottersville” has no obvious connection to Pennsylvania. It was filmed in upstate New York, and none of the stars are from Pennsylvania. But it gives such strong PA vibes that I had to include it in this list.
You might not want to watch this with your kids, unless you feel comfortable explaining certain fetishes to them.