Beyond the most popular classic Christmas movies, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas,” there are countless less-famous older movies with equally heartwarming holiday stories (not limited to Christmas) that fulfill our longing for family and our nostalgia for times gone by. “On Moonlight Bay” from 1951 and its sequel, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” from 1953, are charming family films that feature great holiday scenes—including Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Although made in the 1950s, these two Warner Bros. movies are set in World War I-era America, in the idyllic Midwestern town of Milburn, Indiana. Both are musicals, but they feature famous songs of the set period rather than original ’50s compositions.
The stories, which are loosely based on Booth Tarkington’s collection of “Penrod” sketches, focus on the Winfield family. In the films, the family consists of father George (Leon Ames), mother Alice (Rosemary DeCamp), their 17-year-old daughter Marjorie (Doris Day), and their mischievous 12-year-old son Wesley (Billy Gray).
The household also includes their sarcastic maid, Stella (Mary Wickes). And there are Wesley’s pets: Max the dog and, in the second film, Gregory the turkey. The other lead character is Marjorie’s beau, William Sherman (Gordon MacRae).
The Story in ‘On Moonlight Bay’
Although “On Moonlight Bay” focuses on Marjorie and her romance, it also introduces us to the Winfield family as they are moving into a new neighborhood, much to the chagrin of everyone except Mr. Winfield. Although Alice thinks that her husband just wants to be closer to the bank where he is vice president, he insists that his motive is to surround his children with young people from the right background. He is particularly interested in his eligible daughter’s finding a husband, but she just wants to play baseball.
After Wesley reluctantly befriends the troublemaker who lives across the street (Jeffrey Stevens), a chance accident leads Marjorie to meet his older brother, college student William. Bill, as he prefers being called, invites Marjorie on a date, inspiring her to be feminine for the first time. As they begin going steady, Marjorie gives up baseball for good. Meanwhile, Wesley’s mischief continues stirring up trouble for his family and, sometimes, the whole community.
Much of this story takes place during the holiday season. It features scenes around Halloween and then Christmas. After Bill has returned to college, we see Wesley making mischief in his schoolroom, which is accented with charming, old-fashioned Halloween decorations. Bored during class, he compares the appearance of his teacher (Ellen Corby) to the jack-o’-lantern and witch on the walls.
One of the film’s climactic scenes takes place on Christmas Eve. The peaceful evening descends into chaos when one of Wesley’s tall tales brings Bill bursting in, unannounced, having come to rescue Marjorie and Mrs. Winfield from Mr. Winfield, who has been rumored to be a “drunken beast.”
When Wesley realizes that his teacher has repeated his dramatic, silent-film-inspired excuse for falling asleep in school, he flees the house. Before Mr. Winfield can give the young rascal a taste of his razor strap, the Winfields hear angelic voices. Wesley has joined the little Christmas carolers after all, happily donning Marjorie’s old petticoat, remade into an angel costume which he hated earlier.
This winter scene concludes with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae singing a charming but obscure Christmas song, “Christmas Story” by Pauline Walsh. Like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this song made its debut in “On Moonlight Bay.” However, it failed to achieve the same fame. It was the only original song featured in either “On Moonlight Bay” or “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.”
The Story in ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’
“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” depicts the further adventures of the Winfield family and the other friendly folks of Milburn. Featuring the same great cast and characters, this story resumes a little over a year after the last one ended. Bill is just returning home from the war, so the Winfields hear wedding bells for him and Marjorie.
Little do they know that the matrimony-shy soldier, who had finally decided to marry Marjorie by the end of the last movie, is getting cold feet again. His stint in the Army has convinced him to establish a career before marrying, but he fears that his fiancée and future in-laws won’t understand.
Thankfully, Mr. Winfield has a simple solution: He sets Bill up with a job at his bank. However, Marjorie is soon the one shying away from the altar when a family crisis arises. Wesley, Marjorie, and Stella mistake dialogue from a play for a love letter from their father to French actress Renee LaRue (Maria Palmer), and they suspect the worst. As Mr. and Mrs. Winfield’s 25th wedding anniversary draws near, the children and faithful housekeeper scheme to rekindle the couple’s romance before it’s too late.
This movie is one of few that feature Thanksgiving. The holiday figures prominently in the plot from the opening. This time, Stella, as narrator, sets the scene by speaking directly to the audience and reacquainting us with the familiar characters. As opening narrator, she introduces us to a new member of the Winfield family: Wesley’s pet turkey, Gregory. It’s not long before we realize the bird’s purpose in life.
Like the other families in Milburn, the Winfields got a turkey a year earlier, with the intention of fattening it up for the holiday meal. Wesley even selected this particular bird because it had the biggest drumsticks. However, during the year, Gregory has become Wesley’s beloved pet. The boy is furious when his father mentions the bird’s fate on Thanksgiving Eve and decides to swap Gregory for another unfortunate turkey. Later, Mr. Winfield invites the bank’s president (Howard Wendell) and his family to share the Winfields’ Thanksgiving meal after the president’s turkey mysteriously disappears.
While there are dozens of Christmas movies, few films depict the wonderful, uniquely American holiday that begins the season. This movie, however, is a wonderful reminder of its old-fashioned pleasures. It shows a truly joyous family celebration, complete with everyone pitching in and singing in the kitchen while preparing the meal.
After the turkey incident, a charming winter scene begins. Snow covers the ground, and the Winfields prepare for a romantic ice-skating party to commemorate Mr. and Mrs. Winfield’s wedding anniversary. The frozen pond, historic skating clothes, and horse-drawn sleigh are straight out of a Christmas postcard.
Homespun Charm for the Holidays
These movies serve up heaping helpings of homespun charm. The wholesome pictures of family life are more appealing now than ever before. Films made and set in the 1950s are now very nostalgic, but “On Moonlight Bay” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” were charmingly reminiscent when first released, since they were set almost 40 years earlier.
Both of these films are great choices as introductions to classic films. Since the filmmakers assumed that many wouldn’t remember or know a lot about World War I, the script doesn’t take knowledge of events for granted. Thus, people who’ve had limited previous experience with old movies can enjoy this wholesome entertainment without any confusion, and perhaps learn something about American history at the same time.
At your next holiday get-together with friends and family, why not suggest one of these movies to create a festive spirit? Some may find such fare overly sentimental, but calling old-fashioned romanticism sappy is nothing new. Bill begins “On Moonlight Bay” as a freethinking college student who calls romantic songs silly and doesn’t believe in marriage. However, once he falls for Marjorie, he quickly abandons his radical ideas for the traditional values of home, marriage, and family. In the same way, these movies make traditional family life look appealing enough to convince even the most devoted cynic. This holiday season, I invite you to join the Winfields in lovely Milburn, Indiana, USA, for a taste of traditional Americana.
Tiffany Brannan is a 20-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history/vintage beauty copywriter, film reviewer, fashion historian, travel writer, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.