Click the image above to see my compilation of “Happy New Year” greetings from nine different classic films on YouTube. They aren’t just holiday films (two are better known as classic gangster films), but a New Year’s Eve is a pivotal or climactic scene in each picture.
First is Little Caesar (1931), one of the earliest gangster films with a lengthy tracking shot into a New Year’s Eve party.
Next is It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), a more traditional and upbeat holiday film, with Victor Moore wishing everyone a Happy New Year as the clock strikes midnight.
Then another classic gangster film, The Roaring Twenties (1939) with Humphrey Bogart wishing Jimmy Cagney a sarcastic holiday greeting in the film’s climactic scene.
And So They Were Married (1936) features a happy drunk and an incarcerated Melvyn Douglas saying Happy New Year.
Holiday Inn (1942) has both stars, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, saying Happy New Year in quite different fashions.
After the Thin Man (1936) has the great William Powell planting a long kiss on a surprised fellow reveler.
In Bachelor Mother (1939), Ginger Rogers and David Niven exchange a silent “Happy New Year” followed by an extended kiss in the middle of Times Square.
We’re in New York again for The Apartment (1960) with Fred MacMurray and Shirley MacLaine back in their usual booth at the Chinese restaurant just before the film’s closing scene (my favorite of all New Year’s Eve film finales).
Fred MacMurray plays a much more sympathetic character in the last clip — Remember the Night (1940) — and a pivotal kiss with Barbara Stanwyck. NOTE: Due to a copyright claim, YouTube has forced me to remove this clip from my video.
In compiling these clips, I realized how few classic films actually have their climaxes set on New Year’s Eve, compared to the number that close with Christmas Eve scenes. (The Christmas Eve climaxes include, of course, all of the version of A Christmas Carol, two by Frank Capra — It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, White Christmas, The Shop Around the Corner, The Bishop’s Wife, and many more. More frequently New Year’s Eve is a time when the film plot pivots.
I count seven classics that have pivotal scenes set on December 31. In Holiday Inn Fred Astaire arrives drunk at the inn and first dances with his new partner, the plot twist that propels the rest of the picture. Some of the pivots are murders, but more frequently they are extended kisses that lead to recognitions of love. Little Caesar has a pivotal murder at the end of a New Year’s Eve party. Another murder occurs on New Year’s Eve in After the Thin Man. The pivotal kisses start in Holiday with Katharine Hepburn realizing she loves Cary Grant but allowing only a cheek kiss. Remember the Night has an extended kiss that leads Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck to realize they are in love. Bachelor Mother has a similar recognition kiss between Ginger Rogers and David Niven.
I count just five climactic New Year’s Day scenes in classic movies (before 1961), but except for And So They Were Married, which ends in a jail scene and Melvyn Douglas and Mary Astor reuniting, and The Roaring Twenties, which ends with the killing of Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, none of the climaxes includes the words “Happy New Year,” so I didn’t include them in my clip compilation. Holiday Affair ends with Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum finally recognizing their love and coming together silently on the train leaving New York City on New Year’s Eve.
My two favorite extended New Year’s Eve climaxes both feature characters running through the streets of Manhattan after realizing they are in love. Shirley MacLaine runs to Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, and Billy Crystal runs to Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. Crystal and Ryan exchange a final grand kiss and some wonderful dialogue. Interestingly, MacLaine and Lemmon don’t kiss, but the final line (“Shut up and deal”) is in some ways the most endearing final line of all these films.