As Thanksgiving has passed us by, it is officially the holiday season, and that means TCM will be bursting at the seams with Christmas flicks in the upcoming month. The usual suspects (A Christmas Carol … yawn) abound on the schedule, but I want to direct your attention to a couple of particular gems that, though you may not have seen them or even heard of them yet, are well worth your time.
These two films feature one of my favorite actresses of all time, the lovely and clever Barbara Stanwyck, playing opposite two of her more effective male co-stars, Dennis Morgan and Fred MacMurray. Stanwyck, who began her career in Hollywood playing the vampish man-stealer in naughty (by 1930s standards, anyway) pre-Code films such as Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933), had graduated to leading-lady status in the latter part of the decade following an Oscar-nominated performance as the self-sacrificing titular mother in the 1937 melodrama Stella Dallas (Stanwyck lost the Academy Award to Luise Rainer, nominated for The Good Earth). But as the 1940s loomed, Stanwyck began to make broader strides into comedy, a genre that clicked with her natural quick wit and comic timing.
Indeed, in 1940 Stanwyck deftly straddles the line between drollery and pathos in Remember the Night, a comedy-drama written by future director Preston Sturges (for whom Stanwyck would make a splash the following year in the sharp screwball comedy The Lady Eve). Playing straight man to Stanwyck’s wily shoplifter is MacMurray, in the first of his four pairings with the actress (the most notable of which is likely 1944’s Double Indemnity, in which both play against type as conniving adulterers determined to kill Stanwyck’s husband for the insurance money). Also notable in a supporting role in the cast is Sterling Holloway, a prolific character actor who would become known in later years for his voiceover work in Disney films such as Bambi (as the adult version of the skunk, Flower), Alice in Wonderland (as one of my particular favorites, the Cheshire Cat), The Jungle Book (as the snake, Kaa), and as the original voice of the silly old bear himself, Winnie the Pooh.
The film revolves around a young woman, Lee Leander (Stanwyck), who comes before the New York district court just before Christmas, accused of shoplifting. D.A. MacMurray delays her case until after the holidays, thinking it will give him a better shot at a conviction, but in a fit of remorse, he bails Lee out of jail and takes her home with him to Indiana for Christmas. Through a series of farcical mishaps involving cows, fire, and heavy snowfall, the two fall in love, and Lee finds a typically sentimental holiday redemption in her relationship with the young, upright attorney.
Though this sentimentalism becomes a bit heavy in the film’s final moments, it befits the Christmas setting, and Sturges’ witty script and the performances of the two stars keep the movie on track and prevent the characters from completely drowning in schmaltzy tepidity.
This little gem is finally getting a new DVD treatment, which is being released today exclusively as a part of Turner Classic Movies’ Vault Collection (check out the other titles available through the Vault–they’ve released some really amazing rare films over the past year!). Remember the Night will also be showing on TCM on December 6th at 2PM, and again on Christmas Eve at 8PM. Make sure you tune in; you definitely don’t want to miss this classic holiday treat.
Nor do you want to miss 1945’s wonderful Christmas in Connecticut, a more screwball take on the holiday season. This film features supporting turns by two of my favorite character actors of all time, Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall. Some may disagree with terming Greenstreet as a “character” actor, considering his (literally) larger-than-life persona on the screen. Greenstreet, however, was far from a typical leading man; he did not make his screen debut until his appearance as the “Fat Man” Kaspar Guttman in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, at which time he was a robust 61 years old! In his very short career (Greenstreet would die only 13 years after his film debut), the actor only appeared in 24 films. Yet, what films they were–among them, the aforementioned Falcon, Casablanca, and Passage to Marseille all paired Greenstreet with, arguably, the greatest film actor in history, Humphrey Bogart, and Greenstreet’s portrayals of wily criminals often outshone Bogart’s nuanced tough-guy persona on the screen. Greenstreet’s supporting roles in these films were the essence of what makes a good character actor: he embodied his characters, putting that melodious English accent and genuine bonhomie to solid use and drawing the audience to even the most reprehensible of figures.
Like Greenstreet, “Cuddles” Sakall also created a niche for himself in Hollywood, impressive considering his sometimes indiscernible accent. But that was most assuredly part of his charm. His “hunky dunky” attitude and warm, open smile populated many notable films of the 1940s, including Casablanca (though he shared no scenes with his future Connecticut co-star Greenstreet), The Devil and Miss Jones, Ball of Fire (another gem starring Stanwyck), and Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the fifteen years between his American debut in 1940’s It’s a Date until his death in 1955, Sakall appeared in over 40 Hollywood films, making his mark in every one.
In the film, Stanwyck plays Elizabeth Lane, a writer who poses as a Connecticut farmwife in her monthly magazine column, though in real life she has very little aptitude for the domestic duties she espouses (particularly cooking). Stanwyck’s publisher (Greenstreet) sends Jefferson Jones (Morgan), a young sailor who had recently been rescued from his sunken ship, to Elizabeth’s “farm” for a Christmas visit, and decides to join them at the last minute. In order to keep her job, Elizabeth agrees to marry an old friend and use his farm as the backdrop for the visit. But borrowed babies, a wayward cow, a runaway sleigh, and a budding romance with the sailor continually get in the way of her upcoming nuptials …
The screwball comedy in Christmas in Connecticut flies fast and furious, aided by a well-paced script by romantic comedy veterans Lionel Houser and Adele Commandini (from an original story by Aileen Hamilton). The ensemble cast works really well together, resulting in a truly warm and familial sense of camaraderie that shines through the screen.
Christmas in Connecticut has been available on DVD for several years now (and is currently selling for an extremely low price of $5.79 on Amazon.com–go buy it!). I own this edition and, while it lacks any insightful extras, it’s still a wonderful transfer of the film–no noticeable glitches or scratches in the film itself, and the sound is wonderful. Plus, this is the original black and white–no icky, unnecessary colorization of this amazing little film!
TCM will be showing Christmas in Connecticut three times this month: December 6th at 12PM; December 17th at 8PM; and Christmas Day at 12:15PM. This is one you’ll want to watch with the whole family, so gather ’round!
I hope you enjoy both of these wonderful holiday films. And now that I’ve had my say, tell me: what are YOUR favorite little-known holiday delights? Post your comments below, and let us know what makes those films so special!