Someone once said that the holiday season is the "ultimate sense memory," and that is so true. We all carry inside of us our collective Christmases and Hanukkahs -- the sight of twinkling lights and glowing candles, the sound of caroling and chanted prayers, the smell of pine trees and freshly fried latkes -- and it all comes rushing back to us every December.
The holiday season also triggers wonderful memories of our favorite classic Yuletide movies and TV specials. And often after the big family feast -- when the turkey's tryptophan starts kicking in -- doesn't someone always retire to the den and find one on the tube?
And what great old shows there are to watch. No matter how many times you see Charles Schulz's fetching animated special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), it's hard not to have your heart go out to poor Charlie as he and the Peanuts gang try to decorate their sad, little tree (though, thankfully, Linus always reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas by the end). And speaking of tinsel-trimmed cartoons, is there anyone who can't sing at least two songs from Dr. Seuss' sweet-and-sassy 1966 musical adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas ("You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch!"). That's a holiday keeper.
Christmas on TV doesn't live by cartoons alone. As a pushover for any kind of comedy, I always enjoy rerunning those memorable movies that put laughter under the tree -- from Tim Allen's guy-meets-Kringle romp, The Santa Clause (1994), to the side-splitting Elf (2003), starring Will Ferrell as the irrepressibly impish (and downright hilarious) overgrown Santa's Helper.
But at the top of my viewing list every December is that classic trio of black-and-white gems that have come to symbolize the magic of the holidays: Miracle on 34th Street (1948), Scrooge (1951) and It's a Wonderful Life (1945). Sixty-four years later, Miracle still has the power to enchant; and I never grow tired of watching nine-year-old Natalie Wood as Susan, the little girl who so thoroughly wants to believe in Santa Claus. And for all the remakes of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, my money is still on the '51 version, with Alastair Sim's perfectly terrifying spin as the miserly Scrooge (a performance made all the more remarkable by his miraculous transformation in the end).
As for Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, it's more than just a holiday movie. Its strength is in its timeless message. And in 1977, my producing partners and I thought it would be great to retell this story and reverse the genders -- with me in the Jimmy Stewart role and Wayne Rogers in the Donna Reed part. I'll admit, we were a little anxious about recreating an already perfect film, but to our delight (and relief!), It Happened One Christmas was received warmly -- and I even got to work with the iconic Orson Wells, who played the malevolent Mr. Potter.
But the greatest reward in doing the film was the gift it gave all of us: the reminder that everyone is "the richest man in town" because everyone's life matters. And not just on Christmas.
So in the spirit of the season, here's a slide show of our favorite holiday chestnuts. There's a reason we keep watching them again and again -- they're just that good.
Happy viewing -- and happy sense memories!