Saturday, December 23, 2017

Animated Christmas Television Specials of the Seventies

When the average American thinks of Christmas television specials, he or she will most likely think of something that was made in the Sixties. Admittedly the most successful animated holiday specials were made during that decade. Indeed, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), and Frosty the Snowman (1969) are the only animated Christmas specials to have aired annually without interruption on network television since their debut. While the Sixties produced by far the most successful animated Christmas television specials of all time, the Seventies actually produced more of them. Surprisingly, it would be towards the end of the Seventies that would see the most animated Christmas specials debut.

Perhaps fittingly, the first Christmas television special of the decade was based on a classic, namely Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol. This animated version of A Christmas Carol was directed by Richard Williams with Chuck Jones as executive producer. It premiered on ABC on December 21 1971. The 1971 animated version of A Christmas Carol is notable for utilising two actors from the classic A Christmas Carol (1951), also known as Scrooge. Quite simply, Alastair Sim provided the voice of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Michael Horden provided the voice of Marley's Ghost. It is also notable for having been subsequently released theatrically, which led to it winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for 1972. There were some in the industry who were unhappy that a short originally made for television had won an Oscar, and as a result the criteria for shorts were changed so that no short originally aired on television would qualify.

Chuck Jones would also have a hand in the second animated Christmas special to air in the Seventies. He directed A Very Merry Cricket, which was a sequel to the 1973 television special based on the popular children's book The Cricket in Times Square. It debuted on December 14 1973 on ABC.

The second animated special to air in 1973 would see some success. The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas premiered on NBC on December 17 1973. It featured a fairly big name cast, with Tom Smothers as Ted E. Bear (the bear of the title), Barbara Felton as Patti Bear, Arte Johnson as Professor Werner von Bear, and Casey Kasem as the narrator. It proved successful enough to air annually into the Eighties. A stuffed toy of Ted E. Bear would even be sold in stores in the early Eighties, and a Halloween sequel, The Great Bear Scare, aired in syndication in October 1983. 

The 1974 holiday season would see no less than three holiday animated specials debut, two of them from the studio best known for their holiday specials. The first of the three was Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, a cel animated special based on the famous letter written by a young girl named Virginia to the editor of The New York Sun in 1897.  The special was directed by Bill Melendez, best known for the many Peanuts specials, and featured Jim Backus and Louis Nye among its voice talent. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special.

The next holiday animated special to debut in 1974 was from Rankin/Bass, who had produced the classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman in the Sixties. This special would not see the success of those three. Today 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is largely forgotten. A half hour special done in cel animation, the special actually owed very little the classic poem of the same name. Instead the plot centred around a small town which finds itself boycotted by Santa after a mouse writes him a nasty letter. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas would not see the repeated airings of other Rankin/Bass specials.  It premiered on CBS on December 8 1974.

The third animated holiday special to premiere in 1974 was also from Rankin/Bass, and over the years has developed a rather large cult following. The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley and more featured Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus (he had also voiced Santa in Rankin/Bass's 1970 special Santa Claus is Comin' to Town). The special's plot centred around a sick and disenchanted Santa, who considers calling off his usual Yuletide trip around the world. It premiered on December 10 1974 on ABC. While The Year Without a Santa Claus would not become an annual tradition the way that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman did, over the years it has proven to be one of Rankin/Bass's most popular specials, largely because of the Miser Brothers (Dick Shawn as Snow Miser and George S. Irving as Heat Miser). In 2006 NBC aired a live action remake of the special that was considerably different from the original. For the past many years it has aired on ABC Family (now Freeform), which shows it multiple times during the holiday season.

The first and only one of two animated specials to debut in 1975 is now largely forgotten. The Tiny Tree was produced DePatie-Freleng, and was part of the irregularly scheduled series Bell System Family Theatre. The special involved some rather big names. Buddy Ebsen, Paul Winchell, Allan Melvin, and Janet Waldo numbered among the cast. The songs in the special were composed by none other than Johnny Marks, the writer of the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". It premiered on NBC on December 14 1975 and ran into the Eighties, although it has not been seen much since.

The second new animated holiday special of 1975 was another Rankin/Bass production. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was not the story of Jesus's birth, the title referring instead to a Christmas pageant put on by children in the special. it premiered on December 19 1975 on NBC, but would later find a home on CBS for several years.

The 1976 holiday season would see the debut of no less than three Rankin/Bass holiday specials. Unfortunately, all three of them were sequels to previous specials. The first was Frosty's Winter Wonderland, which debuted on December 2 1976 on ABC. Made in cel animation like the original, the plot introduced the character of Jack Frost as well as a wife for Frosty. As the title indicates, it included the song "Winter Wonderland."

Rudolph's Shiny New Year was the second to debut, on December 10 1976 on ABC. The special centred upon Rudolph seeking out the next Baby New Year before midnight on New Year's Eve. Rudolph was the only character from the original to appear in this sequel. Even more curious is the fact that, while Rudolph was portrayed as an adult reindeer at the end of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in Rudolph's Shiny New Year he is once more portrayed as a youngster. Rudolph's Shiny New Year would not become the Yuletide tradition which the original was.

The final Rankin/Bass sequel to premiere in 1976 was The Little Drummer Boy Book II. Although not quite highly regarded as the original, it is perhaps regarded more highly than the other sequels which Rankin/Bass made. The special included characters from the original and, furthermore, the characters looked as they did in the original. Like The Little Drummer Boy, The Little Drummer Boy Book II was based on a song, in this case "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." It premiered on NBC ond December 13 1976. Sadly, it would not be repeated every year for literally years as other Rankin/Bass specials have been.

It should come as no surprise that the only  new animated special to air in 1977 was from Rankin/Bass. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey has largely been forgotten today. It was made in the stop-motion process called Animgaic for which Rankin/Bass was known. It centred around Nestor, a donkey who winds up in the stable in which Jesus is born. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey first aired on December 3 1977 on ABC. Although now highly regarded by some Rankin/Bass fans, it did not become an annual Yuletide tradition.

The 1978 holiday season would see several new animated specials debut. It also saw the beginning of a trend that would last into the Eighties, whereby animated Christmas specials would be based on popular characters from well-established franchises. To a degree this was nothing new. The very first animated Christmas special was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, which featured the popular star of animated theatrical shorts, Mr. Magoo. A Charlie Brown Christmas used the characters from the popular Peanuts comic strip. That having been said, starting in 1978 there was an absolute rush to create animated Christmas specials starring already established characters from various franchises, to the point that sometimes the majority of new animated holiday specials starred characters from comic strips, children's books, and so on.

In fact,the first animated special to premiere in 1978 was an example of this trend. Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper starred the popular children's book characters as they try to thwart a wolf who wants to take over Santa's workshop. The special was written and directed by animation legend Chuck Jones, and featured the voice talents of June Foray, Daws Butler, and Les Tremayne. It premiered on CBS on November 30 1978.

The second animated special to debut in 1978 also featured a well established character. The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas featured the well-known star of theatrical shorts and the opening credits of the Pink Panther movies. The special featured the Pink Panther as being homeless and wandering around a large city during the holidays. It premiered on December 7 1978 on ABC.

The third new animated special of 1978 was one of the most unique Rankin/Bass productions ever made. In December 1956 the anthology series The Alcoa Hour aired a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol entitled "The Stingiest Man in Town", featuring songs with lyrics by Janice Torre and music by Fred Spielman. Rankin/Bass made a cel-animated adaption of this episode of The Alcoa Hour, retaining the title The Stingiest Man in Town. The hour long special featured some well known voice talent, including Walter Matthau as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Theodore Bikel as Marley's Ghost, Robert Morse as a young Scrooge, Dennis Day as Scrooge's nephew Fred, and Paul Frees as the voices of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. The special premiered on ABC on December 23 1978. Despite being some of Rankin/Bass's best work, it would not become an annual tradition the way that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman did.

Nineteen seventy nine would see the trend towards using characters from established franchises in animated Christmas specials continue. As the title suggests, The Little Rascals Christmas Special used characters from the classic "Our Gang" theatrical shorts of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties. With the exception of Darla Hood (who played a mother in special), it used none of the actors who actually appeared in the "Our Gang" shorts. The Little Rascals Christmas Special premiered on NBC on December 3 1979.

Also premiering on December 3 1979 on NBC was The Berenstain Bears' Christmas Tree. Based on the popular "Berenstain Bears" children's books, the special centred on the Berenstain Bears getting their Christmas tree. The special had originated with the authors of the books, Stan and Jan Berenstain, themselves, who first pitched their idea for a holiday special in November 1978.

The next new animated special of 1979 was yet another special produced by Rankin/Bass. Titled Jack Frost, it centred on the character of Jack Frost, who had appeared previously in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and the theatrical feature film Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (which itself would later be aired regularly on television). Jack Frost gave the character centre stage. Shot in Animagic, the plot centred around Jack Frost falling in love with a mortal woman. It first aired on December 13 1979 on NBC.

The final new animated special of 1979 was A Family Circus Christmas, based on the comic strip The Family Circus. It had been preceded by another animated special based on the comic strip, A Special Valentine with the Family Circus, in 1978. It premiered on NBC on December 18 1979.

The decade of the Eighties would close with the cycle towards holiday animated specials featuring well-established characters well underway. Both of the new animated specials that debuted that year used already established characters. The first was a Rankin/Bass production, Pinocchio's Christmas. . The first television series the company had ever produced was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, so with the special Pinocchio's Christmas they were not only using a well-known character, but one they had used before. The special involved the puppet's efforts to earn money for present for Gepetto. Pinocchio's Christmas first aired on December 13 1980 on ABC.

The final new holiday special to debut in the decade used a famous fairy tale character. A Snow White Christmas had absolutely no connection to the classic Disney movie. Instead the special was something of a sequel to the original fairy tale itself. It was produced by Filmation, well-known for their Saturday morning cartoons of the Sixties and Seventies. It premiered on December 19 1980 on CBS.

None of the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies would match the classics of the Sixties (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman) in lasting popularity. In fact, perhaps the only animated holiday special of the Seventies that would have any real lasting power was Rankin/Bass's The Year Without a Santa Claus. That most of the animated holiday specials of the Seventies would not see the lasting success of the classic of the Sixties had very little to do with the quality of the specials themselves. While some of the Seventies Christmas animated specials were poorly made, there were others that stand up quite well today. This was certainly true of Richard Williams's 1971 adaption of A Christmas Carol, Rankin/Bass's A Year Without Santa Claus, and Rankin/Bass's The Stingiest Man in Town.

Instead the lack of lasting power on the part of most of the Seventies Yuletide animated specials was most likely due to other factors. Among these was the fact that in the Seventies there were just so many of them. Not only were new specials in competition with the classics from the Sixties, but also with the many other holiday specials that were debuting during any given season. By the end of the Seventies there would seem to have been an outright glut of animated holiday specials on network television, so there should be little wonder that many fell by the wayside.

Another reason that the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies did not last may have been that later in the decade the production companies and networks began to rely more on established properties than original material. Even Rankin/Bass produced sequels to their earlier specials. Sadly, the sequels generally did not match the originals in terms of quality.

Yet another factor in most of the Seventies animated Christmas specials not lasting is the fact that in the Eighties animated holiday specials began to lose favour with the networks. While the Eighties began with many being produced each year, as the decade progressed there would be fewer and fewer new animated holiday specials being made each year. To make matters worse, some of the well-established, once extremely popular, holiday specials began to fall by the wayside. Such once popular Christmas specials as Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, and Santa Claus is Comin' to town ceased airing regularly on the networks in the Eighties and the Nineties. While many of these specials would later return to the networks, many of the specials produced in the Seventies did not.

Regardless, while the most successful animated Christmas specials emerged in the Sixties, it would seem that the Seventies actually produced many more of them. And for all that many have been forgotten, there are others that are still fondly remembered to this day. Although little is heard about it today, given it success I am guessing many have fond memories of The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas. As to The Year Without a Santa Claus, it long ago became well enough established in American pop culture that most Gen Xers probably know who the Miser Brothers are. While most of the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies would not see the success of the classics from the Sixties, many of them remain fondly remembered to this day.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas Movies of 1947

Arguably the Forties were the Golden Age of Christmas movies. Many of the holiday films released during the decade are now counted among the greatest ever made. Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) were all released during the decade. The peak of this cycle towards Christmas movies may well have been 1947. Not only were several holiday films released during that year, but among them were movies considered among the best ever made.

Indeed, a Christmas movie was in theatres even as the year began, for some the Christmas movie. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) premiered in New York City on December 21 1946. It would premiere in other cities over the coming days and on January 7 1947 it was released across the country. As odd as it might seem now, It's a Wonderful Life was not originally meant to be released during the holiday season. Originally its distributor, RKO, had planned to release it on January 30 1947. Its premiere was moved forward when Technicolor could not produce enough prints of Sinbad the Sailor, which was meant to be RKO's big holiday release.

If it seems odd that RKO had planned to release It's a Wonderful Life in late January, it certainly was not unusual with regards to movies with holiday themes to be released at other times of the year during the Forties. This was certainly the case with most of the Christmas movies released during the Forties. Only two would be released any time close to the holiday season.

Indeed, the first movie with the holidays as a backdrop would be released on January 23 1947. Of course, it wasn't a typical Christmas movie by any stretch of the imagination. Lady in the Lake starred Robert Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe, who finds himself involved in a murder investigation (as might be expected). Raymond Chandler's original novel, The Lady in the Lake, was actually set during the summer, but the setting was changed in the movie to Christmastime.

A much more traditional Christmas movie would be released only a little after Easter in 1947. Even though it is now regarded as one of the holiday movies by many, It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released on April 19 1947. It was the first film released by Allied Artists, a division formed by Monogram Pictures in order to make big budget films. Today a holiday movie released in spring might not do that well, but It Happened on Fifth Avenue actually did fairly well at the box office. It would also prove popular on television until around 1990, when for some reason it disappeared for nearly twenty years. In 2009 Turner Classic Movies started showing it and since then It Happened on Fifth Avenue has become a favourite of many.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not the only Christmas movie released in the spring of 1947. In fact, the most famous Christmas movie of 1947 (and possibly the most famous movie of all time, short of It's a Wonderful Life) was released on June 4 1947. Miracle on 34th Street often tops polls of favourite holiday movies, and is still considered among the greatest holiday movies ever made. As to why it was released on June 4, that was the doing of 20th Century Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck. He was so impressed with the film that he thought it would be better if it was released during the summer movie season, when he assumed more people would be in theatres. As it turned out, Mr. Zanuck's instincts turned out to be right. The film did well at the box office and was still playing in theatres when the holidays did roll around.

At least in the United Kingdom, yet another Christmas movie would be released in the summer. Of course, given the movie is set in Australia, technically it was set in the summer, although if it was December. The Rank Organisation formed Children's Entertainment Films to make children's movies to be shown in theatres in the United Kingdom. Among these films was Bush Christmas. The movie centres on five children's efforts to retrieve a horse belonging to one of their fathers that has been stolen. While the film was released in the summer in the UK, it was released closer to the holidays in both the United States and Australia. It was released on November 25 1947 in the U.S. and on December 19 1947 in Australia. As might be expected, it proved to be a huge success in Australia.

The remaining Christmas movies of 1947 would premiere closer to the holidays. Christmas Eve was released on Halloween of 1947, October 31. The movie is a black comedy centred on a wealthy eccentric's nephew who wants to have her declared incompetent so he can get control of her riches, but includes three other, interconnected plot lines as well. Unfortunately, Christmas Eve did not do particularly well at the box office, making only around $1 million.

The final Christmas movie of 1947 would be one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time. The Bishop's Wife premiered on December 9 1947 in New York City. It opened in Boston, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California on December 25. It went into wide released on February 16 1948. The Bishop's Wife did very well at the box office and was still being run in theatres into the Fifties. Today it is one of the films that approach It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in terms of popularity.

The cycle towards Christmas movies would continue into the early Fifties, although arguably 1947 marked its peak. With one holiday film still in theatres as the year opened and six more debuting throughout the year, 1947 saw more holiday films than most years of the cycle. What is more, some of the films released during the year (It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife) are now regarded as numbering among the greatest of holiday classics. There would never be another year that produced quite so many classic Christmas movies.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

70 Years of The Bishop's Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife (1947) numbers among the best loved Christmas movies of all time. In fact, it often tops polls of individuals' favourite holiday films, alongside such heavyweights as It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The movie just turned 70 years old this month, having premiered on December 9 1947 in New York City. Surprisingly for a film now considered a classic, The Bishop's Wife's path to the big screen was not a smooth one.

For those of you who have never seen it, The Bishop's Wife featured David Niven as a bishop, Henry Brougham, who is having trouble getting funds to build a new cathedral. In answer to a prayer for guidance, the angel Dudley (played by Cary Grant) arrives. While Henry is obsessed with getting the new cathedral funded, however, Dudley insists on helping Henry with his life in general, as well as the lives of those around him. Among these people is Henry's beautiful wife Julia (played by Loretta Young), who became quite fond of Dudley (never realising that he is an angel), as well as his old friend Professor Wutheridge (played by Monty Woolley).

The Bishop's Wife was based on the 1928 novel of the same name by Robert Nathan. Primarily known for his fantasy fiction, Robert Nathan's most famous novel was probably Portrait of Jennie, which would be adapted as the highly successful film Portrait of Jennie (1948). Reportedly Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to The Bishop's Wife for $200,000, with an eye to it being his next big film.

To adapt the novel as a screenplay, Samuel Goldwyn hired Leonardo Bercovici, who had previously wrote the screenplays for such films as Racket Busters (1938) and The Lost Moment (1947). Mr. Goldwyn was not satisfied with Mr. Bercovici's work, feeling that it lacked the whimsy of the novel. To help with the project, Samuel Goldwyn looked to director and screenwriter William Wyler, who had worked with the producer on several films, including Dodsworth (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). William Wyler turned Samuel Goldwyn down, and instead joined Frank Capra's new production company, Liberty Films. To direct The Bishop's Wife Samuel Goldwyn then brought in director William A. Seiter, who had begun his career as a stunt double and bit player at Keystone and went on to direct such films as Sons of the Desert (1933), Roberta (1935), and Room Service (1938).

Even casting The Bishop's Wife would not always go smoothly. According to news in The Hollywood Reporter at the time, David Niven was to play the angel Dudley, while Cary Grant was to play Bishop Henry Brougham. Obviously this changed. According to the biography David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon by Michael Munn, Cary Grant decided that he was better suited for the role of the angel Dudley. David Niven was not happy that he would not be playing the bishop, but Cary Grant was the bigger star and so the two of them switched roles. The roles of Dudley and the bishop would not be the only ones that would be recast. Initially Teresa Wright, now best known for her roles in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), was cast in the title role of the bishop's wife, Julia. She remained in the role for as long as William A. Seither remained the director, which would not be long.

Quite simply, the film had only been shooting for about a week when Samuel A. Goldwyn decided he was unhappy with William A. Seiter's direction and fired him as director. At about the same time, Samuel Goldwyn then hired screenwriter and playwright Robert E. Sherwood to rework the script. Mr. Sherwood already had a sterling record as a screenwriter, having written such films as Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Rebecca, to improve the script. He had already worked with Samuel Goldwyn, having written the screenplays for such films as The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) and Mr. Goldwyn's big hit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It was also at this time that Samuel A. Goldwyn decided that the sets for the bishop's residence had to be redone, and so the sets were entirely rebuilt. In all, both the delay in shooting and building new sets cost Samuel Goldwyn around $700,000 to $800, 000.

The delay would result in changes to the cast, with various supporting actors having to leave the production because of prior commitments. Among these was Elsa Lancaster, who played the Broughams' housekeeper, Mathilda. She was replaced by Edit Angold. Fortunately, the delay was long enough that Miss Lancaster was able to complete her other commitment and return to The Bishop's Wife to play Mathilda. The biggest change in the cast would be with regards to the leading lady. During the delay Teresa Wright learned that she was pregnant and would not be able to appear in The Bishop's Wife. She was replaced by Loretta Young, who was already one of the biggest names in the business. Of course, The Bishop's Wife would also have a new director. Henry Koster had directed such films as Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) and It Started with Eve (1941).

Even with a new director, shooting on The Bishop's Wife would not always go smoothly. Cary Grant and Loretta Young had previously worked together on Born to Be Bad (1934) and gotten along well, but they did not always get along well on The Bishop's Wife. An example of this was one scene in which they were to be shot in profile and both actors insisted that his or her left side was his or her best side. Henry Koster eventually had to alter the scene in such away that would please both Cary Grant and Loretta Young. As to David Niven, shooting on The Bishop's Wife began not long after his wife, Primmie, had died from a fall that fractured her skull at the home of Mr. Niven's friend Tyrone Power. David Niven, then usually happy and cheerful, was then still in mourning while the film was being shot.

The film's problems would continue once it was previewed for audiences. At previews for The Bishop's Wife, audience's reactions to the movie were generally middling. Samuel Goldwyn then looked to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as to how to improve The Bishop's Wife. The two of them identified a few scenes and that should be reworked. They spent an entire weekend writing and the sequences were reshot that Monday. Samuel Goldwyn offered them $25,000 for their work, but given California's tax code at the time, they decided they would rather not be paid at all.

The Bishop's Wife premiered in New York City on December 9 1947. It opened in Boston, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California on Christmas Day, December 25 1947. It opened across the United States on February 16 1948. Early in its run The Bishop's Wife did not do particularly well at the box office. Research showed that audiences apparently thought the film was a religious movie. To improve the box office take, then, in some markets posters and advertisements for The Bishop's Wife were changed to read Cary and The Bishop's Wife.  By adding Cary Grant's name to the title in promotional material, the box office was increased by 25% in some markets.

Ultimately, The Bishop's Wife would do fairly well at the box office, grossing $3,527,000. That having been said, I have not been able to determine if The Bishop's Wife actually made any money in its initial run as I was unable to find out what its budget was. That having been said, knowing what kind of money the delay  and building new sets cost Samuel Goldwyn (not to mention how much he paid for the novel's rights), I have to wonder if it made any money at all in its original run. Of course, The Bishop's Wife would still be shown in theatres into the Fifties, so that it probably made a tidy sum after its original run, even considering all the money that had spent to make it.

Regardless, The Bishop's Wife received generally good notices from critics. It also received several Oscar nominations, including nominations for Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and Best Picture. It won the Academy Award for Best Sound for sound director Gordon Sawyer.

The Bishop's Wife would be adapted as a radio play several times. The Screen Guild Theatre aired a radio adaption of the movie on March 1 1948 with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven reprising their roles from the film. Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film three different times, the first being on December 19 1949 and the last on March 1 1955.

It was in the mid-Sixties that The Bishop's Wife began airing regularly on local television stations. If anything broadcasts of the film would increase in the Seventies, so that by the Eighties it was something of a holiday tradition for many television stations around the United States. While counted among the major classic Yuletide movies, interestingly enough TV stations sometimes showed The Bishop's Wife at other times of year than the holidays. Even in the Eighties it was sometimes shown at such odd times as February, March, and even September!

The continued popularity of The Bishop's Wife would lead to a remake in 1996. The Preacher's Wife  was directed by Penny Marshall and was released on December 13 1996.  The film received moderately positive reviews and made $48 million at the box office.

Of course, for many no remake could ever replace the original. It would appear that the various difficulties it took to make The Bishop's Wife were well worth. Playing in theatres well after its first run, the film would later become standard holiday fare on television. It has since become regarded as one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, to the point that it is often ranked alongside It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in popularity. The Bishop's Wife may not have been a particularly easy film for Samuel Goldwyn to make, but it remains one of his best known.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Pictorial Tribute to Audrey Totter on Her 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that Audrey Totter was born in Joliet, Illinois. Fans of films noir are familiar with Miss Totter, who appeared in some of the best known movies of the genre, usually, but not always, as a femme fatale. In the Fifties she began a career in television that continued into the Eighties.

Audrey Totter began acting while still young, appearing in various school plays while in high school. After graduating from high school she worked in radio on such soap operas as Painted Dreams, Ma Perkins, and Bright Horizon. She acted in both Chicago and New York City before moving to Los Angeles, where she signed a seven year contract with MGM. She made her film debut in Main Street After Dark in 1945.

 
Miss Totter's second film was Dangerous Partners (1945), in which she was the second highest billed actress. She played the singer Lili Roegan. Above is a publicity shot from the film.

Following Dangerous Partners, Audrey Totter played bit parts in various movies. She had a small, but very significant role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). It was with Lady in the Lake (1947) that she was received top billing as an actress for the first time. She played a publishing executive who hires Philip Marlowe to locate her boss's wife.

Following Lady in the Lake, Audrey Totter would appear in several more films noirs. While she was best known for her "bad girl" roles in noir, she was not a femme fatale in every single movie in which she appeared., A perfect example of this is one of her best known films noirs, High Wall (1947). She played psychiatrist Dr. Ann Lorrison. Here she is pictured with Robert Taylor.

Miss Totter also played a sympathetic role in the boxing film noir The Set-Up (1949). She played Julie, the wife of boxer Bill "Stoker" Thompson. Here she is with star Robert Ryan.

While Audrey Totter did play sympathetic roles, it must be admitted she may be best known for her bad girls. In Tension (1949), she played one of the worst of her bad girls. Miss Totter's character in the film, Claire Quimby, is as selfish and self-serving as they come.

With film noir no longer in fashion, Audrey Totter was eventually released from her contract with MGM. The movies in which she appeared in the Fifties were not of the same quality as the classic films noirs she had made. She increasingly began appearing on television. Over the years she guest starred on such shows as Four Star Playhouse, Wagon Train, The Red Skelton Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Virginian. During the 1958-1959 season she was a regular on the single season Western Cimarron City. Here she is in a photo from the set of that show, along with Hank Mann, Snub Pollard, and Matthew McCue, who played bit parts on the show.

In addition to Cimarron City, Audrey Totter had a recurring role on Dr. Kildare and was one of the leads on the sitcom Our Man Higgins. In the Seventies she was a regular on the show Medical Centre. Here she is is as head nurse Wilcox from that show. During this time she also guest starred on such shows as Hawaii Five-O and Police Story. Her last work was a guest appearance on Murder, She Wrote.

Audrey Totter died on December 12 2013, not long before her 96th birthday. She left behind a legacy of fine performances and remains one of the actresses best known in film noir. Born only a few days before Christmas, she was truly a present to movie lovers everywhere.



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Miracle on 34th Street Turned 70

Of all things, this past spring saw the 70th anniversary of one of the most iconic Christmas movies. As hard as it might be to believe now, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was released on June 4 1947. Despite its holiday theme, the movie turned out to be a true summer blockbuster, doing brisk business clear into the Christmas season.

For those few of you who have never seen Miracle on 34th Street, it centres on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn) who believes he is the one and only Santa Claus. When Kris is hired as Santa Claus for Macy's department store, he creates complications for Macy's event director Doris Walker (played by Maureen O'Hara) and her neighbour, lawyer Fred Gailey (played by John Payne).

Miracle on 34th Street originated with a story by writer Valentine Davies. It was while Mr. Davies was standing in line in a department store during the holidays that he realised that Christmas had become overly commercialised. It was this thought that inspired Mr. Davies to come up with the idea that would become Miracle on 34th Street. Mr. Davies took his idea to director and screenwriter George Seaton, who then wrote a screenplay based on Mr. Davies' story, initially titled The Big Heart.

20th Century Fox was so enamoured of the script that they wanted to begin work on the film right away. One hurdle faced by the film is that real life department stores Macy's and Gimbels play a large role in its plot. In order to release the film at all, 20th Century Fox would have to get permission from both companies to use their names. The studio chose to go forward with shooting the movie without Macy's or Gimbels's permission, although it made both stores aware that it was being produced. Ultimately the two department stores would have to give their approval only after they had seen the film. This was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, because large parts of the film would have to be reshot if either store withheld their approval. Fortunately, both Macy's and Gimbels gave the film their blessing.

The fact that 20th Century Fox wanted to get the movie out quickly also meant disrupting its lead actress's plans. For the entirety of World War II, Maureen O'Hara had to remain in the United States, unable to return to her native land of Ireland. She was in Ireland when she got the call from 20th Century Fox to return to the United States immediately to begin work on The Big Heart. Miss O'Hara was not happy at having to cut her visit to her homeland short to shoot a movie about Santa Claus. Her anger subsided when, upon returning to the States, she read its script. She already knew the studio had a hit on its hands.

Maureen O'Hara was not only happy with the script but with the cast with whom she would be working as well: John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood. John Payne had previously appeared with Miss O'Hara in Sentimental Journey (1946). He would be playing her love interest, attorney Fred Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street. Edmund Gwenn, already a legendary English actor, would be playing Kris Kringle. Natalie Wood was a child actress on the rise, having already appeared in a few films. At the time that Miracle on 34th Street was being shot, she was also shooting The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Natalie Wood played Maureen O'Hara's character's daughter in Miracle on 34th Street.

Of course, much of the reason 20th Century Fox was in a rush to begin shooting on Miracle on 34th Street was to take advantage of shooting on location in New York City at the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that November. Macy's had given the studio permission to shoot during the parade with the understanding that the parade would not be delayed in order to permit shooting. Director George Seaton then shot as much as he could and as swiftly as he could at the parade.

Not only were scenes from the parade shot on location, but so too were scenes shot inside the actual Macy's store at Herald Square in New York City. Shooting was done that December inside the store at night so as not to disrupt the day to day operations of Macy's. Much of the rest of the film was also shot on location in Ne York City. In the opening scenes Kris walked down Madison Avenue. Also in the opening he looks in a store window that belonged to an actual store at 19 East 61st Street. A house at 24 Derby Road served as a house that Natalie Wood's character, Susan, had wished for. Other scenes were shot at 20th Century Fox's Stage 3 in Los Angeles, California.

The film finished shooting in March 1947. It was subsequently screened for both Macy's and Gimbels, both of who gave their approval. The film also had a new name. In the United States it would not be released as The Big Heart, but instead as Miracle on 34th Street. As to 20th Century Fox, they were impressed with the film. In fact, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was so impressed with the film that he thought it was too good to hold back for the holiday season. Thinking that more people went to the cinema in the summer, he decided that Miracle on 34th Street would be released on June 4 1947 in the United States. The British would have to wait until closer to the holiday season for the film. Retaining its original title of The Big Heart there (presumably Brits would not know where 34th Street was), it was released on December 12 there.

Of course, while Darryl F. Zanuck had faith in Miracle on 34th Street, that did not mean that 20th Century Fox didn't take precautions to hide the fact that this film released during the summer movie season was actually a Christmas movie. The trailers very artfully avoided revealing what Miracle on 34th Street was about, while still enticing movie goers to watch the film. The posters centred on Maureen O'Hara and John Payne, with no hint that Edmund Gwenn was essentially playing Santa Claus (in the posters he just looked like a kindly old man). Both the trailers and the posters are notable in that make they absolutely no reference to Christmas.

Fortunately, 20th Century Fox's shrewd publicity campaign paid off. Miracle on 34th Street, one of the quintessential Christmas films, proved to be a huge hit in the summer of 1947. In fact, it was still playing in theatres when the holiday season of 1947 rolled around. Not only was the movie a hit with audiences, but critics as well. Miracle on 34th Street received generally favourable reviews. It also did well at the Academy Awards. It won the Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Edmund Gwenn; Best Writing, Original Story for Valentine Davies; and Best Writing, Screenplay for George Seaton. It was nominated for Best Picture, as was fellow Christmas classic The Bishop's Wife, but both lost to Gentleman's Agreement.

Amazingly enough for a beloved classic that was also a smash hit upon its initial release, Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times. The first remake was a television episode of the anthology television series The 20th Century Fox Hour. The 20th Century Fox aired abbreviated versions of films released by the studio. Its December 14 1955 was an adaption of Miracle on 34th Street with Thomas Mitchell, best known as Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life, as Kris Kringle. It would later be show under title "Meet Mr. Kringle". In 1959 there was another television adaption, with Ed Wynn playing Kris Kringle. Miracle on 34th Street was again remade as a television movie that aired in 1973. This time Sebastian Cabot, best known as Mr. French on the sitcom Family Affair, played Kris. It was in 1994 that a big budget remake of Miracle on 34th Street was released. Macy's refused to allow its name to be used in the film, with Macy's spokesman Laura Melillo stating, "We feel the original stands on its own and could not be improved upon." Macy's place in the film was taken by a fictional store called "Cole's". It was perhaps just as well that Macy's denied use of its name (or its parade for that matter), as the remake would receive dismal reviews, with but a few exceptions. For myself, I think the only redeeming things about the movie are Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough and Mara Wilson.

In addition to television and film remakes, Miracle on 34th Street has been adapted to other media as well.  In 1947 Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film as a radio play with the original cast. Lux Radio Theatre did another radio version in 1948, although without Natalie Wood. Screen Directors Playhouse also did two radio adaptions, with Edmund Gwenn appearing as Kris Kringle in both. In 1963 it was adapted was adapted as the Broadway musical Here's Love by Meredith Wilson.

Over seventy years since it was first released, Miracle on 34th Street continues to be one of the most popular holiday films ever made. To this day Miracle on 34th Street continues to top polls of favourite Christmas movies, at times beating even It's a Wonderful Life. Despite being remade several times, there can be no doubt that audiences will still be watching the original 70 years from now.

Monday, December 18, 2017

70 Years of It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

1947 was a bit of a banner year for Christmas movies. In fact, two films often counted among the greatest holiday films ever made, Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife, were released that year, while another, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was still in theatres as the year began. Among the most notable Yuletide movies released in 1947 was It Happened on Fifth Avenue. The film has long had a cult following and, if it does not have the reputation that Miracle on 34th Street or The Bishop's Wife do, it may soon be counted among the very best of the Christmas classics.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue centres on Aloyisius T. McKeever (played by Victor Moore), a hobo who makes his home in the mansion of the second richest man in the world while the millionaire is wintering in Virginia. There he remains until its wealthy owner returns in March. In the film McKeever's usual occupancy of the mansion is complicated by the arrival of a young, newly homeless veteran (Jim Bullock, played by Don DeFore) and eventually others as well.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was based on the story "The Fifth Avenue Story" by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani. The story was bought by Frank Capra in the summer of 1945 with the intention of it being the first film released by Liberty Films, newly formed by Frank Capra and Samuel J. Briskin. As things turned out, another Christmas classic would become the first and only one of two films released by Liberty Films, It's a Wonderful Life (the other movie released by Liberty Films was Frank Capra's 1948 movie State of the Union). RKO head Charles Koerner suggested to Frank Capra that he read "The Greatest Gift," a story by Philip Van Doren Stern optioned by RKO that the studio had been unsuccessful in developing into a script. After reading the story, Frank Capra bought it from RKO with the intent of developing it as the first film to be released by Liberty Films. As to "The Fifth Avenue Story", Frank Capra sold its rights to Monogram Pictures.

In the Forties Monogram Pictures was best known for producing low budget, z-grade feature films and serials, but they wanted to expand into A-pictures. To this end they created a new unit, Allied Artists, to make movies with bigger budgets. It Happened on Fifth Avenue then became the first film released by Allied Artists. It Happened on Fifth Avenue cost around $1,200,000 to make, a good deal more than the average film produced by Monogram.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who had directed such films as the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Topper Returns (1941), and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). Although an accomplished director, he was not necessarily the easiest man to work with. In her autobiography, I Ain't Down Yet: The Autobiography of My Little Margie, Gale Storm told how Roy Del Ruth would make Victor Moore do retake after retake, without ever telling the elderly actor what Mr. Del Ruth thought he had done wrong. He also would not allow Gale Storm to sing her own songs, despite the fact that she was a trained singer and had already starred in several musicals. She asked him to watch some of her musicals and he refused. She asked him to listen to her sing and he refused. Roy Del Ruth apparently believed that actors should act, dancers should dance, and singer should sing, and there should never be any overlap among them. Ultimately, Gale Storm's voice was dubbed by someone else, a fact obvious to anyone who has seen her musicals.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue  was shot from August 5 to around mid-October 1946. This would have given the film enough time for a release during the holidays, but for whatever reason it was released in the United States on April 19 1947. The film received generally positive reviews. Surprisingly enough given that it was not released during the holidays (or in the winter at all), it did relatively well at the box office. It Happened on Fifth Avenue was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story (it lost to another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street). A song from the film, "That's What Christmas Means to Me," would even be a minor hit for Eddie Fisher in 1952.

In 1954 It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released to television as part of a package of Allied Artists and Monogram films. It proved popular on television, with TV stations often showing it during the Christmas season from the Fifties to the Eighties. Over the years It Happened on Fifth Avenue even developed a cult following. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared from television screens around 1990, and it would remain unseen for nearly twenty years. It was in 2008 that Warner Home Video released It Happened on Fifth Avenue on DVD. In 2009 Turner Classic Movies began airing the film each holiday season, often multiple times.

While It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared for nearly two decades, through repeated airings on TCM, as well as other cables channels, it is once more taking its place among the upper echelon of classic holiday films. It is even available on multiple streaming services. With new viewers rediscovering the film each year, it seems likely that one day it might well be as popular as those other classic holiday films released in 1947, Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How TCM Saved Christmas Movies

There are those Christmas movies that seem to have been perennially popular since the advent of television. Indeed, it would seem likely that the vast majority of Americans have seen It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and The Bishop's Wife (1947) at least once on the small screen, if not many more times. Other holiday films have also proven popular on television through the years, such as A Christmas Carol (1938), Holiday Inn (1942),  Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Holiday Affair (1949). Even when a film bombed at the box office (such as Holiday Affair), it sometimes proved popular on television. That having been said, there are also those Yuletide movies that fell into obscurity. Perhaps they were popular television fare in the Fifties and Sixties, and simply fell by the wayside as time passed, or perhaps they never were big hits on television to begin with. Many of these films would eventually prove popular on television due to a single channel, Turner Classic Movies.

While it is still not particularly popular, one of the films that TCM has brought to a new audience is a 1935 adaptation of A Christmas Carol entitled Scrooge. In fact, Scrooge (1935) was the first sound adaption of the novella. It starred Seymour Hicks in the title role. Mr. Hicks first played Scrooge on stage in 1901. He eventually played the role on stage literally thousands of time, and even played the role in a 1913 silent version of the novella. While Scrooge (1935) may not have the following of many other Christmas films, it is a film that was seen infrequently on television until TCM started showing it a few years ago.

While Scrooge (1935) may not have a legion of fans, Remember the Night (1940) most certainly does. Directed by Mitchell Leisen with a screenplay by Preston Sturges, the film stars Barbara Stanwyck as a jewel thief and Fred MacMurray  as the District Attorney who winds up spending the holidays with her. Remember the Night was well received and did reasonably well at the box office, but for whatever reason it was not shown on television frequently from the Fifties to the Seventies, at least not as frequently as other holiday classics. This changed in a large part due to American Movie Classics (now simply AMC), which started showing it regularly in the Nineties. Turner Classic Movies also began showing it regularly, so that now it ranks in the upper echelon of Christmas movies with regards to popularity.

Another Yuletide movie that was seen infrequently on the small screen was I'll Be Seeing You (1944). I'll Be Seeing You starred Ginger Rogers as prisoner on a ten day leave who befriends a solider suffering from shell shock played by Joseph Cotten. I'll Be Seeing You was a big hit at the box office, so that it should come as no surprise that it was popular on television in the Fifties and Sixties. Unfortunately, in the Seventies it gradually began disappearing from the small screen. Fortunately, TCM began showing it on a regular basis, so that the film has found a new audience.

Another film that was once frequently seen on television, but eventually disappeared from the small screen, is It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1946). It Happened on Fifth Avenue stars Victor Moore as a bum who moves into a millionaire's mansion each winter while the millionaire is away. Aired regularly on local stations from the Fifties to the Eighties, it gradually started disappearing from programming schedules until it was very rarely seen in the Nineties. Fortunately, TCM rescued the film from obscurity. The channel began airing regularly each holiday season several years ago. As a result It Happened on Fifth Avenue now approaches the big name holiday films (It Happened One Night, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife) in popularity.

As to why some Christmas movies fell by the wayside, even those that had once been popular, the explanation for that is due to two factors. The first was due to changes to network affiliates' schedules. From the Fifties to the Eighties, network affiliates had a good deal of time in which to air their own programming, whether that was classic movies or syndicated reruns of TV shows or something else entirely. In the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, it was not unusual for network affiliates to air movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. This changed in the Eighties when more and more network broadcasts of sports began to take over weekend afternoons. This naturally meant that network affiliates had less time in which they could air movies. This also meant that they would air fewer movies. The end result is that network affiliates then stuck by the absolutely most popular films, such as It's a Wonderful Life (then mistakenly believed to be in the public domain), Miracle on 34th Street, and so on, while many other films disappeared from the small screen.

The second fact is the dramatic decrease in independent stations beginning in the Eighties. Independent stations were television stations that were unaffiliated with a network. This essentially meant they could air what they wanted, when they wanted. Naturally the independent stations showed a lot of movies. For example, there were periods when KPLR in St. Louis aired a movie every night of the week, as well as movies on weekend afternoons. During the holiday season, it was not unusual for independent stations to show a tonne of Christmas movies. It was in 1986 that the Fox network was launched. It was followed by the now defunct UPN and WB in 1995. The launch of new networks naturally meant that many independent stations ceased to be independent as they became affiliates of one network or another. It also meant that they had less time to show movies. Many Christmas movies that had once been popular on television then began to disappear entirely.

Fortunately, it would be cable television that would come to the rescue. Launched in 1984, AMC took up some of the slack by airing many of the classic holiday movies no longer seen on local TV stations. Launched in 1994, Turner Classic Movies would take up even more of the slack. With access to the pre-1986 MGM library and the Warner Bros. library, as well as many of the films released by United Artists and RKO, TCM was able to air many movies without having to pay any sort of fee. Quite naturally, then, TCM gave exposure to many films that had not been seen regularly in years.

Of course, this is one of the many wonderful things about TCM. The channel has given exposure to hundreds of classic films (not just Christmas movies) that might well be languishing in film vaults otherwise. The widespread popularity of the channel has helped once popular films to become popular once again. Indeed, it is fully possible that many of the holiday films "rediscovered" by TCM might well become as popular as the big names one day.