Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas and Classic Film

The Yuletide has many customs which people in the English speaking world observe. Some, such as the Yule log and decorating houses with greenery, may go back before Northern Europe was converted to Christianity. Other, such as eggnog and Christmas crackers, are of more recent vintage. Among the most recent customs associated with the Yuletide is the annual viewing of movies with holiday themes.

For many families the watching of Yuletide movies is as much a part of the holidays as trimming a Christmas tree or decking the house out in lights. Many of the movies which have become holiday favourites are of rather recent vintage, including A Christmas Story and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Many more were made decades ago. Indeed, the holidays may be the only time that some people actually watch classic films.

I believe that there is a very good reason for this. While there has probably never been a time when Hollywood did not turn out at least one or two Christmas oriented movies a year, I believe that the Golden Age for Christmas movies started around 1941 and continued until around 1951. Indeed, it seems as if the number of movies considered essential viewing during the holidays were made during this period: Holiday Inn, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol were all made during this period.

Strangely enough, this cycle towards holiday movies did not begin in November or December as one might have expected it to. If I were to pick an point where this cycle started, it would have been on May 3, 1941. It was on that date that the movie Meet John Doe was released. Fittingly, Meet John Doe was directed by Frank Capra, the man who would many years later be responsible for the most famous holiday movie of them all, It's a Wonderful Life.  Meet John Doe centred on a man in dire need of money (Gary Cooper) who agrees to impersonate an individual who was created by  a reporter (Barbara Stanwyck). Not surprisingly, Meet John Doe has a great deal in common with It's a Wonderful Life. While both films are ultimately uplifting, both films are also very dark and even pessimistic at times. Indeed, suicide attempts play a role in the plots of both movies. Both also have climaxes that take place on Christmas Eve. Sadly, while It's a Wonderful Life is rightfully famous, Meet John Doe is known only to film buffs.

Today the release date of Meet John Doe, May 3, 1941, might seem odd. After all, it would seem as if most movies which touch upon the holidays should be released in November or December, as most holiday movies are today. Here two things must be considered. First, many movies considered Yuletide films today were not initially intended as such. Meet John Doe is one example, its focus primarily being upon John Doe and the movement he inspired, not necessarily the holiday. Another example is Holiday Inn. The classic musical takes place in a space of a year, although it begins and ends at Christmastime. It should not seem so surprising, then, that it was released on August 4, 1942. The number of Fortiesfilms now associated with the holidays that were released at other times is surprising: Christmas Holiday (June 7, 1944), Christmas in Connecticut (August 11, 1945), Miracle on 34th Street (May 2, 1947), and The Lemon Drop Kid (March 1, 1950).

Meet John Doe would not create a rush towards Yuletide movies, although two of the best known Christmas movies would be released in 1942 (neither during the holidays). The Man Who Came to Dinner was released on January 1, 1942, which many even then would have considered the end of the Christmas season during which the movie takes place. The movie centred on irascible radio personality Sheridan Whiteside becoming stranded at an Ohio couple's house after he slips on their walk and injures his hip. Naturally, Whiteside proceeds to turn their lives upside down. The second holiday movie released that year was Holiday Inn. Although now associated with the Yuletide season, Holiday Inn was released in August. This makes more sense when one stops to think that the movie is actually set over the space of year, with sequences dedicated to almost every holiday on the American calendar.

Nineteen forty four would see the release of two more movies. One is the largely forgotten film noir Christmas Holiday, a bleak movie with Deanna Durbin in her first film. The other movie released that year was the classic musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Like Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis takes place over the course of a several months.Like Holiday Inn, its classic takes place at Christmas. Unlike Holiday Inn, Meet Me with St. Louis was released in time with the holidays, on November 28, 1944.  It introduced the holiday standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," performed by Judy Garland.

The cycle towards Christmas movies would kick into high gear in 1945, with three films released that year. Oddly enough, two of them were not released at Yuletide. The Cheaters was a sophisticated comedy released by Republic on July 15, 1945. It featured a couple plotting to steal an inheritance, only to have their plans hindered by a has been actor they take in as an act of Christmas charity. Christmas in Connecticut, regarded by many today as one of the essential Christmas classics, was released on August 11, 1945. The film centred on Forties version of Martha Stewart (played by Barbara Stanwyck), who actually doesn't know how to cook or do housework. Unfortunately, she finds herself in the position of having to cook for Christmas. The movie is easily one of the funniest Christmas films ever released, and Barbara Stanwyck gives her best performance. Strangely enough, the only "Christmas" film released at the Yuletide was the one which had the least to do with the holiday. The Bells of St. Mary's centred on a priest and a nun who try to save their school from being shut down. The only sequence in the film which actually touches on the holidays is the portrayal of a Christmas pageant. It was released on December 6, 1945.

While 1945 saw three different Yuletide movies released, 1946 only saw one significant holiday movie released. That having been said, that film is now considered by many to be the Yuletide movie. Contrary to popular belief, It's a Wonderful Life  was not a colossal flop on its first release; however, it was a major box office disappointment. It's a Wonderful Life cost $3.7 million to make, a high price tag for a movie at the time, particularly an independent. At the box office it ultimately earned only $3.3 million. The film did not even break even. Many today are a bit puzzled as to why what is now considered by many to be the greatest Yuletide movie of all time did not perform better at the box office. One reason that has been put forth by many is that It's a Wonderful Life  is in many ways a very dark, very bleak film. Indeed, it is George's thoughts of suicide that lead directly up to its climax. Following World War II audiences were generally in the mood for much lighter fare. It may well have been that It's a Wonderful Life was simply too dark and too grim for audiences at the time. Another reason that It's a Wonderful Life may have performed poorly at the box office is the timing of its release. While the movie premiered in New York City on December 20, it did not go into wide release until January 7, 1947. By this time most Americans probably were not in the mood for a Christmas movie. While it is only the film's climax that is set at the Yuletide, its climax occupies a good part of the film and tends to be its most memorable sequence. It's a Wonderful Life was then a Yuletide film released a few weeks too late for the holiday.

Of course, the theory that It's a Wonderful Life was simply released at the wrong time may hold no weight given when that other perennial Yuletide favourite was released. Miracle on 34th Street was released on May 2, 1947, about as far from the Christmas season as one could get. This was done at the insistence of Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that more people went to the cinema in the summer, so this would be the best time for the film to be released. 20th Century Fox then struck upon a novel promotional plan in which no reference was made to the fact that Miracle on 34th Street was a Yuletide movie was made or even details of the plot were revealed. Amazingly enough, the film became a hit. Not only did it do a brisk business in the summer of 1947, but it continued to do well right up into the holiday season. For quite some time it was probably the most popular Yuletide movie, until being overtaken by It's a Wonderful Life.

Nineteen forty seven would prove to be a good year for holiday movies. It was on October 31, 1947 that the now largely forgotten dramedy Christmas Eve was released. The film starred Ann Harding as a woman who must find her three, long lost adopted sons to save her fortune from a scheming nephew. It was on December 9 that The Bishop's Wife was released, a film which has become one of the most popular of Yuletide movies. The film was actually a result of the success of RKO's The Bells of St. Mary's. Because of that movie's success, Samuel Goldwyn decided that an inspirational film with a Christmas backdrop would be a sure fire hit. He then optioned the novel The Bishop's Wife by Robert Nathan (author of Portrait of Jennie). Given the failure of the similar fantasy It's a Wonderful Life, there were those who questioned Goldwyn's judgement, but  he moved forward regardless. Worse yet, The Bishop's Wife would prove to be a troubled production, with infighting between Cary Grant and Loretta Young and last minute rewrites. Surprisingly, The Bishop's Wife premiered December 9, 1947 to overall sterling reviews. What is more the film did very well at the box office.It would also pick up five Oscar nominations. It has remained aChristmas favourite ever since.

The cycle towards holiday films appears to have peaked from the period from 1945 to 1947. It was during this period that such classics as Christmas in Connecticut, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife all being released during this time. The cycle was hardly over, however, as it would last a few more years. Indeed, 1948 would produce one of the most interesting Yuletide films of all time, John Ford's 3 Godfathers.  The movie was based on Peter Kyne's novelette of the same title, and had already been filmed in 1916, 1929 (by Ford himself, under the title Marked Men), and 1936. Aruguably, Ford's 1948 version would be the quintessential version. Starring John Wayne, the film is essentially a retelling of the story of The Three Wise Men set in the Old West.

It would be 1949 that would see the release of one of the better remembered Yuletide films. Holiday Affair was a romantic comedy set during the holidays, released by RKO. The film featured a young Janet Leigh as a widower who finds herself torn between two men--reliable but somewhat dull Wendell Corey and starry eyed dreamer Robert Mitchum (in one of this few comedic roles). Not only is the film exceedingly funny (especially a scene with Harry Morgan in a an early film appearance), but it is one of the few romantic comedies in which both rivals for the ladies' hand are genuinely nice guys! Sadly, it bombed at the box office. Part of this may be due to the fact that it went into wide release on December 24, Christmas Eve, so that it could not take advantage of the whole holiday season. Until Holiday Affair, Robert Mitchum had primarily starred in gritty films noir, not exactly an actor who comes to mind as a romantic comedic lead (although he is great in thre role). Worse yet, it was only in 1948 that Mitchum was arrested for possession of marijuana, an absolutely scandalous charge at the time. Regardless, Holiday Affair has become something of a cult film through repeated showings on television.

Nineteen fifty saw the release of another unique holiday movie. The Great Rupert starred Jimmy Durante and Terry Moore It was produced by George Pal and centred around a dancing squirrel who helps two poor families .The stop motion animated squirrel was extremely realistic for the time, so much so that many asked Pal where he had gotten a trained squirrel! Of course, here it must be pointed out that George Pal was the man behind the stop motion Puppetoon shorts. Strangely enough, despite its holiday theme, The Great Rupert was released on March 1, 1950 (reportedly, it had been shot in 1948). The film is historic as George Pal's first feature film. Sadly, it has been largely forgotten today. Indeed, it was later released under the less imaginative title A Christmas Wish.

It would be in 1951 that another well known holiday film would be released in March. The Lemon Drop Kid, starring Bob Hope, was released on March 8, 1951. The film was based on the story by Damon Runyan, previously released in 1934. In the film Hope played The Lemon Drop Kid, a New York con man who must make $10,000 by Christmas Eve or face the wrath of gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Although released in March, The Lemon Drop Kid is blatantly a holiday film. Not only is it set during the Yuletide, but it introduced the holiday standard "Silver Bells."

It was later in the year that a film that has come to be regarded as a Christmas classic was released. Titled Scrooge and released on October 31, 1951 in the United Kingdom, it was titled A Christmas Carol for United States audiences and released on November 28 of that year. It has become regarded as perhaps the best adaptation of Dickens' tale. Scrooge or A Christmas Carol received favourable reviews and did moderately well at the box office, but it would ultimately be repeated showings on television that would lead to it being regarded not only as a Yuletide classic, but the best version of A Christmas Carol ever filmed. Indeed, for many Alastair Sim is the man who best portrayed Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Arguably, the cycle towards Yuletide films ended in 1951. The studios did continue to churn out holiday movies (White Christmas was released in 1954, while We're No Angels was released in 1955); however, the fact remains that the studios did not produce holiday movies in the quantities they had in the post-war years, nor did they produce nearly as many classics. Indeed, it is notable that in many polls of favourite Christmas films, at least two and sometimes more movies date back to the period from 1942 to 1951. For example in a recent Marist poll, It's a Wonderful Life ranked #1 as American's favourite Yuletide film, while Miracle on 34th Street ranked #3. If the poll had been a top ten instead of a top five, even more films from the period may have ranked.

Of course, the question remains as to why the period from 1942 to 1951 produced so many Yuletide movies and so many of them classics. After all, at no point in its history has Hollywood probably gone without producing at least one Christmas themed movie a year. At the same time it seems curious that while many holiday films are forgotten in a few years (who remembers the 1985 film Santa Claus the Movie?), the period from 1942 to 1951 produced many films that are remembered to this day. The reason that so many Yuletide classics were produced during this period may quite simply be World War II. While the war was underway there can be no doubt that many sought comfort in the sort of Christmas they had before the war. It is for this reason that movies like Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St. Louis were probably produced. After the war, there can be little doubt that soldiers returning home wanted a return to normalcy, including the kind of Yuletide they remembered from their childhoods. It must be pointed out that the post war years not only saw a boom in Christmas movies, but in Christmas, period. Several classic Christmas songs were released during the era, including "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," "Sleigh Ride," and many others. The sale of Christmas lights soared in sales. It is then little wonder that so many Christmas movies were released during this period.

Indeed, that World War II may have triggered the Christmas boom may be reflected in the fact that the war plays a role in the plots of some of the films.The war plays a role in the plots of Christmas in Connecticut, Christmas Eve, and It's a Wonderful Life. World War II is at least acknowledged in some of the other films. It is in times of trouble that people often turn to that which is familiar and comfortable for reassurance. Christmas could well be the holiday that is most familiar and most comfortable for many Americans.

The importance of the period from around 1941 to 1951 to film history and the history of Christmas as celebrated in the United States can be seen in two films released less than a year apart. References to It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are prolific in Anglo-American pop culture, so much so that they can probably never be reliably counted. Both films have been remade and parodied a number of times. While other films from the cycle have not been referenced in pop culture nearly as many times, nor remade or parodied as many times, they too have had a significant impact on pop culture. Indeed, the best selling single of all time came from Holiday Inn.

Beyond their impact on pop culture, however, the holiday films from 1941 to 1951 could have another, greater impact. As I mentioned earlier, these Yuletide classics are among the only classic films many people watch on a regular basis. After all, every years these films fill television screens, shown on everything from local stations to cable stations to broadcast networks. For many people It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or Holiday Inn may well be their first introduction to classic film. While many, perhaps most people, might not move onto other classic films, there are perhaps many who do. These Yuletide classics then serve as a means of creating more classic film buffs. While I cannot say that it was It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street that turned me into a classic film fan, they were among the earliest classic films I saw.

It would seem that the films from the cycle towards holiday movies in the Forties then serve more than one purpose. At their most basic level, they serve as a form of continuity from one Christmas to the next, a reminder of Yuletides past. In this way they bring together families and help encourage the spirit of the holiday. On another level they also serve to introduce people who might never have watched a classic film to do so. While many might not become classic film fans, there are perhaps many who do. Regardless, it would seem that no other period has ever produced as many classic Yuletide films as the years between 1941 and 1951.

1 comment:

Millie said...

Utterly fascinating post! I had no idea so many Christmas films were actually released in summer. And, wow, this was just really interesting and informative!