The Christmas Movie You Know and One You Probably Don’t
I love to unearth Christmas movies, music and books that, for one reason or another, have disappeared from public consciousness.
In the mid 1970’s I remember stumbling onto a film being shown on the UHF channel 45 out of Baltimore (WBFF). It starred Jimmy Stewart and seemed to be about a man living in a small town who is thwarted from fulfilling his dreams of moving away. Christmas comes and everything goes wrong for the poor man. He winds up on a bridge during a snow storm, ready to end his life. He wishes he’d never been born. Then a guardian angel shows up and grants him that wish: he’s never been born. And that’s how I discovered It’s A Wonderful Life.
No one I knew had ever heard of it.
Keep in mind that this was long before videotape and the internet and streaming.
Every Christmas thereafter, I scoured the TV guide, hoping it would be broadcast again. I looked for books about Frank Capra, the director, and Jimmy Stewart. The movie got brief mentions – a footnote - having been overshadowed by greater successes.
I became so obsessed that, a few years later, I found the means to contact the director Frank Capra. I phoned him to talk about the movie. He was delighted. We talked for two hours.
What I didn’t know then was that It’s A Wonderful Life, forgotten and neglected, had fallen into the public domain. Anyone with a print of the movie could broadcast it without paying a fee. So it showed up on local and UHF channels. (This movie is one of the rare cases of a work that went into the public domain but was put back into copyright. But that’s another story for another time.)
I finally got the bright idea to check my local library. They had a 35mm print of the movie. I checked it out, borrowed a projector, and showed it to anyone who’d watch it with me. I wish I’d kept it, though the overdue fines would have cost me a fortune.
When videotape finally arrived, It’s A Wonderful Life was my second purchase. My first purchase, by the way, was the 1951 Alistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. I bought both on the “superior format” of Betamax. Then VHS. Then Laserdisc. Then DVD. Then Blu-Ray. Next will be 4k UHD (just released).
It was gratifying to me when the film went from obscurity to become one of the most popular Christmas movies of all time. I’d like to think I had something to do with that, at least for my immediate family and friends.
My wife and I stumbled onto another little-known Christmas film which doesn’t have the broad appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life but is a must-watch for us every Christmas.
It’s called Remember the Night (1940, Universal Studios).
The story is set right before Christmas and is centered around a streetwise woman (Barbara Stanwyk) who is arrested as a petty thief. In court, the district attorney (Fred MacMurray) outwits her lawyer, insuring that she’s stuck in jail over the holidays. He later feels guilty about his decision and bails her out. She exploits his good-natured effort and demands that he find her accommodation, since she’s out on the street again. He winds up inviting her to drive with him from New York to his hometown in Indiana. From there, what began as a situation comedy of the Cary Grant/Jean Arthur sort, turns into a deeper exploration of the two characters. It also captures, in moving ways, a small-town family enjoying a small-town Christmas. There are no religious themes to speak of, yet it is full of heart. A single moment – when the gathered family sings A Perfect Day – always brings us to tears.
Its lack of success is due, in part, to the unconventional writing of Preston Sturges, who became best known for The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve and many classics. Sturges wasn’t content to write a typical romantic comedy, which might have fared better at the box office had he followed the formula. Instead, he took a particular delight in defying the formulas. He establishes stereotypes and then breaks them apart with a truer humanity.
The performances lift the movie beyond any flaws in the scripting. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and the surrounding ensemble play true and honest with the characters. Why Stanwyck didn’t get an Oscar nod for the “porch scene” (you’ll know it when you see) remains a mystery.
There is a lot for modern film-makers to learn from older films like Remember the Night. Situations – even absurd ones – can become solid stories if they remember the old adage: the best stories are about humanity. When all is said and done, at any time of year, that’s what we really care about.