Though it’s arguably the most American holiday this side of Independence Day, Thanksgiving often gets short shrift from popular culture. Even one of America’s most visible Thanksgiving traditions—the Macy’s parade—builds to the upstaging appearance of Santa Claus. It’s no wonder, then, that so many lists of the best Thanksgiving movies fudge the definition to include films that are really about the season as a whole (Holiday Inn) or even directly Christmas-centric (Miracle on 34th Street is not a Thanksgiving movie, list-makers!)
This year, Eli Roth has moved the needle on that, however mildly, with the first wide-release Thanksgiving horror movie in ages, titled—with admirable directness—Thanksgiving. But the truth is, there were already plenty of low-rent Thanksgiving slashers for horror fans to peruse. It’s a lot harder to find Thanksgiving movies that address the holiday as more than a hooky gimmick – and even harder for those movies to endure the way their Christmas counterparts have. (There’s a decent crop of minor yet delightful Christmas-set rom-coms from the 1940s, for example – essentially more sophisticated versions of today’s Hallmark-marathon programmers, featuring actual movie stars – but far fewer revolving around the presumably less romantic Turkey Day.) With this in mind, we’ve done the hard work of assembling seven decades’ worth of genuinely good Thanksgiving-themed movies, offering a tour through the holiday’s joys and trials starting from the middle of the 20th century.
Thanksgiving pictures, even the comedies, tend to be less ebullient than their Christmas counterparts, focusing as they do on bittersweet reunions, fraught homecomings, complicated family dynamics, and the ongoing question of whether our rituals sustain us or remind us of what we’ve lost in the spaces between them. The good news is plentiful, though: These movies aren’t quite so overplayed, many of them are semi-hidden gems, and there’s few enough to marathon them all before the big day. Here are thirteen key titles, arranged chronologically.
The Very Thought of You (1944)
The few Thanksgiving-themed movies you can dig up from the first few decades of American cinema tend to use the holiday more incidentally—or, as in this romantic drama, as a respite from bigger, thornier issues. Here, a shift in assignment allows a couple of World War II soldiers (Dennis Morgan and Dane Clark) to take a holiday weekend break in Pasadena before shipping back out for more training and another tour of duty. While there, David Stewart (Morgan) reconnects with old crush Janet Wheeler (Eleanor Parker) – much to her family’s dismay, in part because they’ve seen how Janet’s sister steps out on her own overseas soldier beau. Director Delmer Daves uses the limited time frame of a Thanksgiving weekend as a stand-in for the precious little time these soldiers have to conduct their personal business, and this early on, the movies were already subverting images of familial togetherness: the movie’s tense dinner scene is actually on the night before Thanksgiving, while Janet is so besotted with David that she winds up missing her family’s day-of gathering entirely. Later, the reappearance of Janet’s brother-in-law addresses includes his reassessment of Americana: “You know those advertisements that show pictures of guys in uniform coming back to what they left? They don’t show what home really means. To some guys maybe it is apple pie, the smell of home cooking, the corner drugstore… but to lots of others it’s their girl.” Are these characters subsisting on brief flashes of happiness that they know from the start have a time limit, or is life actually lived in those little unexpected bursts? The Very Thought of You may prioritize domestic melodrama and reconciliation over really grappling with these questions – and that still doesn’t keep it from providing unusual insight before the credits roll. This one isn’t currently available to stream legally, but keep an eye on Turner Classic Movies, which keeps it in occasional circulation.