For some A Christmas Carol, (Alistair Sim’s version please) is the definitive Christmas film. For others It’s A Wonderful Life holds the honor of best film to watch during the holidays. “Marry Christmas Bedford Falls! Marry Christmas, Mr. Potter!” James Stewart bellows returning from a parallel, yet horrible, reality to face charges for bank fraud in “the real world,” whatever the hell that is. Both have the Christmas spirit for sure. But for me the films to watch at Christmas all star Barbara Stanwyck.
First there is the not very well known Remember the Night (left). Fred MacMurray and Stanwyck star in Preston Sturges’ screenplay. (No, they don’t plot the murder of her husband, though Stanwyck does play a shoplifter.) In the interest of transparency I should mention it’s a romance, the protagonists meet cute, overcome obstacles, fall in love, observe traditional male and female roles (and I mean traditional for 1940) and live in an America that may have only existed in the mind of Preston Sturges and his contemporaries in Black and White Hollywood, USA. Oh yeah, transparency. I should reveal that in the singular nature of my love life, I'm not extraordinary nor remarkable. I’m single and stand alone. And my proclivity to indulge in sentimental notions around Christmas makes my opinion not only biased but most likely hooey, as they used to say in 1940.
As hokey as some of the sentiment is, and as obvious as the plot line of a shoplifter bailed out and brought home to Wabash, Indiana by a prosecutor for a heartwarming Christmas is, the film knocks me for a loop every time. The key and the heart of the film is Stanwyck. MacMurray’s family is seen through her eyes, and their homespun values melt her cynicism in moments that pierce what passes for my veneer of sophistication. Perhaps the fact that I’m approaching the age of fifty-five and have little to show from my love life but a collection of snapshots, cards and memories that linger but do not nourish should disqualify me in the holiday movie round up. Or could it be that that same status should make me Chairman of the Christmas movie board? For the purposes of this blog let’s hope it’s the latter. The two other films to look for are Christmas in Connecticut and Meet John Doe. Though the latter is not set at Christmas its climax takes place on Christmas Eve and that’s close enough for me. In Christmas in Connecticut (right) Stanwyck plays a columnist that has created a fantasy world of a farm in the country, a loving husband and a handle on domestic details that surpasses anything Martha Stewart ever cooked up. When asked to take in a wounded Vet for Christmas by her publisher she attempts to con them both but ends up falling for the Vet, played by Dennis Morgan. The look in her eyes as she gives herself over to her longing is spectacular. But her speech at the end of Meet John Doe, a wonderful Frank Capra film, where she begs Gary Cooper not to jump from roof of the City Hall, is the topper of them all. She’s suckered Gary Cooper into playing ‘John Doe’ so that her ruse of writing a John Doe column for a powerful paper won’t be uncovered. Cooper plays along at first but when he realizes he’s been a stooge for a power hungry Nazi-like bad guy, Edward Arnold, he tries to reveal the scam but is thwarted in his attempt to do so. Abandoned by all those he’s touched across the country he decides to keep John Doe’s promise to throw himself from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest man’s inhumanity to man. What he doesn’t know is that Stanwyck, Arnold and his cronies, and some loyal supporters are there waiting for him. Sick with the flu, and desperate to stop the suicide Stanwyck throws herself into his arms and begs him not do to it. The depth of her plea is staggering and when she calls him “Darling” I fall to pieces every time. In short: If Barbara Stanwyck’s character from any of these films walked into my life I’d sweep her off her Black and White feet and never give the bright and shiny world a second glance. I’ll be home and alone for Christmas this year but Barbara Stanwyck, with a little help from her friends, will give me hope. And that’s gift enough for me. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.