A few movie classics to keep from the curmudgeons
How I dread this time of year. You can’t turn around without hearing some jackass bitch about how much he hates It’s a Wonderful Life. I see: He can’t get enough of “I am your father, Luke,” but Zuzu’s petals once a year is too much to bear. This killjoy will proceed to rip the rest of the canon, too: A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, the several versions of A Christmas Carol (although there’s really only one, isn’t there?).
It makes me nostalgic for the days (yes, there was such a time) when I had It’s a Wonderful Life to myself, when the only other people who knew about it had my own last name. Well, whenever the curmudgeons take the fun out of the standard Christmas classics, I turn to a personal list they don’t know about. In chronological order, here are a few:
Remember the Night (1940) When shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck’s case is postponed till January, nice-guy D.A. Fred MacMurray stands her bail and takes her home to Indiana for the holidays, where folks think she’s his new sweetheart. The script by the great Preston Sturges is more plausible than the synopsis sounds, and Stanwyck and MacMurray already show the sexy chemistry that would play to more sinister effect in Double Indemnity (1944). Piquant wit and folksy heart, finely mixed. It’s not on DVD yet, but it may turn up on Turner Classic Movies. (There’s also a Lux Radio Theatre recording available from RadioSpirits.com.)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Budapest store clerks James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan squabble on the job, not knowing that they’re secret pen-pals in a lonely hearts club. Sound familiar? Don’t judge it by the stale 1998 remake You’ve Got Mail—this classic from director Ernst Lubitsch is not only a holiday treat, but also one of the great romantic comedies, its sparkle undimmed after 67 years. As a bonus, Frank Morgan (a.k.a. the Wizard of Oz) is unexpectedly poignant as the shop’s cuckolded owner.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, pictured) War-weary Americans nostalgic for a simpler time made this 1904 period piece a big hit, although Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (her finest moment after “Over the Rainbow”) didn’t become a holiday standard until 10 years later. This one covers two holidays: Christmas and (with little Margaret O’Brien) a spooky, old-fashioned Halloween. Today the movie is farther in the past than 1904 was then, but it’s still a nostalgic tribute to a “simpler” time: 1944.
Since You Went Away (1944) Producer David O. Selznick’s idealized portrait of the World War II home front is almost as epic as Gone With the Wind. At the time, it suffered by comparison with William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, but today Miniver is barely watchable; this one still works as an homage to the American family, thanks to fine acting by stalwart mom Claudette Colbert and daughters Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple.
Good Sam (1948) Incurable good Samaritan Gary Cooper’s generosity drives patient wife Ann Sheridan to distraction, but all comes right on a snowy Christmas Eve. Similarities to It’s a Wonderful Life (not yet forgotten and waiting to be rediscovered) were probably intentional.
Desk Set (1957) Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn strike sparks when he shows up to computerize her TV network research department—and to rankle her current beau, Gig Young. Kate seems more like Gig’s maiden aunt than his girlfriend, but it only serves to prove that she really belongs with Spence. This one features one of those gigantic office parties so beloved of 1950s movies.
Well, that’s a few of them; I guess my secret’s out now. Just don’t come around in 2037 moaning about how you’re sick and tired of Remember the Night. I won’t want to hear it.