At this stage of my life, I'm down to about four Christmas shows and movies. I still enjoy A Charlie Brown Christmas despite the heavy-handed Christianity, and the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack has become a holiday staple. I wouldn't miss Holiday Inn for the world, one of only two films featuring both Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. (Astaire must be the only actor who could make Der Bingle seem tentative and clumsy.) Great Irving Berlin songs and a witty script expertly disguise the miniscule plot, and the finale is surely the best closing of any Christmas film ever. Then there's Remember the Night, a pre-war confection baked to near perfection by Preston Sturges' script, Fred MacMurray's preternatural cool, and Barbara Stanwyck's bustle and energy. It also features this jewel of a moment, in which Sterling Holloway sings "The End of a Perfect Day:"
Sentimental hogwash, Mr. Potter might call it, but after all this is a sentimental time of year.
The last can't-miss holiday program is the Dragnet Christmas show, first filmed in 1953 and later to somewhat better effect in 1967, with a much more square and worried Joe Friday replacing his soft-spoken counterpart of fourteen years earlier. Anyway, Friday and Gannon are working the day watch out of Robbery on Christmas Eve when a Catholic priest calls them with bad news: Someone has stolen a statue of the baby Jesus from his church's Nativity display. The statue has little monetary value, but it's the only baby Jesus that the parishioners have known for over thirty years, and the priest would like it back. Friday and Gannon warn the priest that they don't have much time, but that they'll do what they can.
For the rest of the show, they interview the usual eccentrics, persuade their captain ("skipper") to let them stay on the case ("Since when does the price determine a case," or something like that), arrest a suspect who turns out to be innocent, and finally return empty-handed to the priest. At that moment, a little boy, one of the "devout Mexicans" who attend the mission church, enters the church pulling a wagon with the statue in it. It seems that he had prayed all year for a red wagon for Christmas, and when he got one, he took the statue for a ride. Why did he get the wagon on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas day? Watch the show to find out.
The charm of the show lies in its hearkening back to an earlier day when Mass was said daily -- including twice in the morning -- and when down-and-outers could live quietly in a seedy hotel instead of under a bridge. And when price didn't necessarily determine a case. There's also some good hard-boiled writing:
"I'm sorry to get you out here on a holiday.""We cash our checks, Father.""I hope he's not in trouble.""So do we."He looked like a man who had had his troubles at bargain basement rates.
Then there's the great laugh-if-you-must closing line, not at all hard-boiled:
"These people are poor.""Are they, Father?"
You can watch the 1967 version here. Most of the 1953 version is below; one scene appears to be missing. Notice that much of the cast appears in both renderings, including the priest, who reminds one a bit of a Latin lover in the initial account. The '53 show also features Billy Chapin, who later appeared as the older brother in The Night of the Hunter. Barry Williams, who portrayed Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch, had the part in 1967.