It's a wonderful life, don't you know … packed with miracles on 34th Street, bishop's wives, white Christmases, holiday inns, polar expresses and Christmas stories.
But some years, you just need to give the old seasonal war horses a rest and try something new and every bit as wonderful.
Never mind that the something new is about to turn 75.
Among dedicated cinephiles, 1940's “Remember the Night” has long been a best-kept secret… best-kept and secretive because the movie was so bloody hard to get at: rarely, if ever, shown on TV; and, until a couple years ago, missing in action on home video.
Plus, it is, as its receding release year cries out, that most foreboding of cinema forms for today's sensibilities, an Old Movie.
Happily, all of that has begun to change as its rekindled reputation grows: It airs at 7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 4) on Turner Classic Movies, where it has become something of a welcome, and refreshingly non-played-out, holiday staple in recent years.
More importantly, for those lacking TCM access, it is now easily available on home video via a DVD edition issued two years ago, and, best of all, a brand new, highly recommended Blu-ray upgrade, where the polished black-and-white cinematography now positively shimmers good vibrations (tip: online vendors are your best bet in this era of brick-and-mortar austerity).
Why it's taken so long for this easily embraceable movie to catch on is anyone's guess: It was written by one of Hollywood's most esteemed creative talents, Preston Sturges, of "The Lady Eve" and "Sullivan's Travels" fame; and it is directed by the equally gifted Paramount Pictures mainstay, Mitchell Leisen ("Midnight," "Easy Living").
The above-the-title stars are Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, just several years away from their legendary stand-off in "Double Indemnity" (the anti-"Remember the Night").
And, to generate a little "It's a Wonderful Life" vibe for those who feel they need it, eternally matronly character actress Beulah Bondi warms up for her role as George Bailey's mom by playing MacMurray's mater, whose boy DID get out of his Indiana hometown and headed to New York City, where he's now a rising assistant D.A. named John Sargent.
The time is Christmas Eve in a country still noticeably free of active war involvement. So it's still possible to observe the holiday without those strings attached, as they most surely are in, say, 1942's "Holiday Inn" or 1945's Stanwyck-starring "Christmas in Connecticut" or even embedded in the hardened emotions of the post-war "Wonderful Life."
Preparing to head home to Indiana for Christmas, John is saddled at the last minute with the case of a shoplifter named Lee Leander, played by Stanwyck at her tough-cookie best (that is, tough on the outside, not so much in the middle).
John postpones the trial until after New year's, meaning Lee, devoid of bond money, will spend holidays behind bars. To assuage his guilt, he posts her bond and even offers to transport Lee to her mother's place, which is en route to his own Indiana home.
The trip to Lee's broke-back home is a disaster, motivating John to invite her to continue on with him to his rural farmstead for the holidays, alongside his far more loved, and loving, ones: widowed mom (Bondi), unmarried Aunt Emma (Elizabeth Patterson, wonderful) and carefree farmhand Willie (Sterling Holloway, the once and future voice of Winnie the Pooh, stealing every scene).
Thus begins a very special journey to several destinations, both literal and figurative, that manages to register soundly on multiple movie genre wavelengths: screwball comedy, romantic comedy, heartfelt drama, holiday heart-warmer, redemptive fable.
Despite the shifting tone and one unfortunate concession to period stereotypes (Fred "Snowflake" Toones as MacMurray's black valet), the pitch is practically perfect.
It's abetted by deftly gauged performances from one and all, beautifully orchestrated ensemble interaction, lovely (if studio-bound) attention to seasonal detail and a subtly accumulating emotional weight that never feels manipulated for an easy payoff.
So do you and yours a favor this season and get better acquainted with this very special gift from one of the most glowing quarters of Hollywood's golden age.