Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Movie Miracles

Many of the movies we now regard as holiday classics were also hits at the box office. Miracle on 34th Street (1946) and The Bishop's Wife both did respectable business. Both movies have also proven to have lasting power, remaining among the favourite Yuletide movies of all time. While Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife met with immediate success, however, that was not true of every movie now considered a Christmas classic. In fact, a few of them bombed at the box office and took literally years to become highly regarded among holiday movies.

Contrary to popular belief, It's a Wonderful Life does not number among the holiday films that bombed at the box office only to become dearly loved classics. In fact, It's a Wonderful Life actually made more money than the contemporaneous Yuletide movie Miracle on 34th Street. Miracle on 34th Street made $3,150,000 at the box office, while It's a Wonderful Life made $3,300,000. Why is Miracle on 34th Street regarded as a hit, then, when It's a Wonderful Life is regarded as a flop? The simple reason is that It's a Wonderful Life had a fairly large budget at the time. In some respects it was the equivalent of a modern day Hollywood blockbuster. Because of its huge budget and despite the fact that it made more money than many films in 1947, It's a Wonderful Life actually lost $525,000 at the box office! While It a Wonderful Life actually had more ticket sales than its contemporaries, then, it also failed to make a profit!

While It's a Wonderful Life was not quite the flop at the box office many believe it to be, the classic version of A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge) starring Alastair Sim did bomb in the United States, although it proved to be popular in its native Britain. While today it may be the most highly regarded adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic, when it was first released in the United States it received decidedly mixed reviews. At the time Variety said of A Christmas Carol (1951), "There's certainly no Yuletide cheer to be found in this latest interpretation of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic." They even attacked Alastair Sim's performance (now regarded as the best performance of Scrooge ever), claiming that the actor "...stalks through the footage like a tank-town Hamlet." On the other hand, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times gave the film a positive review. Mr. Crowther clearly thought it captured the spirit of the novella better than other film adaptations, stating, "To the credit of Mr. Hurst's production, not to its disfavour, let it be said that it does not conceal Dickens' intimations of human meanness with an artificial gloss."

As history has shown, Bosley Crowther was proven right in his estimation of the film, but its initial box office in the United States showed no sign that it would be considered a Christmas classic here, let alone the quintessential film version of A Christmas Carol. In fact, the film had been set to be shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, but the theatre's management cancelled the engagement with the idea that the film was too depressing. When the film did premiere in the United States, it was on Halloween 1951 at The Guild Theatre in New York City. Unfortunately, it would not remain in American theatres for long and its box office take was very small. Although now widely regarded as the best version of A Christmas Carol, it would take years for it to achieve that status. In fact, in the decades following the release of the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, most Americans might well have named MGM's 1938 adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella as their favourite.

What saved A Christmas Carol (1951) was the same thing that saved many of the films now regarded as holiday classics, but that had bombed at the box office:  the medium of television. While most recent films would take years to make their television debut on American television, as a movie that had bombed at the American box office, it was not long before A Christmas Carol (1951) made its way to the small screen. A Christmas Carol (1951) made its television debut on WOR-TV in New York City in 1954. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties A Christmas Carol (1951) would pop up during the holiday season on local television stations throughout the United States. In the Seventies A Christmas Carol (1951) local PBS stations began showing it. Slowly, as more and more Americans saw it, A Christmas Carol (1951) would become regarded as a holiday classic. Eventually it became regarded as the quintessential version of Charles Dickens' novella.

Like A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair (1949) proved a box office disappointment, but has become regarded as a Yuletide classic. On the surface Holiday Affair would have seemed poised to become a box office smash. The film was produced and directed by Don Hartman, who had written the screenplays for several of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's "Road to.." movies. It starred Janet Leigh, who was on loan from MGM to RKO, Wendell Corey, and Robert Mitchum. It was also a light romantic comedy with a holiday theme, a film that would seemingly appeal to audiences. Not only was Holiday Affair produced and directed by a Hollywood veteran who had written some of the best comedies of the Forties, not only were its stars appealing and popular, but it also received largely good reviews. Released at Thanksgiving in 1949, it would have seemed poised to become one of the box office hits of the year. Sadly, it did not. In fact, the movie utterly bombed at the box office. In the end, Holiday Affair lost $300,000 at the box office.

As in the case of A Christmas Carol (1951), it would be television that would see Holiday Affair elevated from box office bomb to holiday classic. In the Fifties and particularly the Sixties television stations in the Untied States started showing Holiday Affair every year during the holiday season. By the Eighties it was among the usual holiday faire aired during the Yuletide, alongside Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, and others. If there was a turning point for the film when it was destined to become a holiday classic, it was perhaps when Turner Classic Movies began airing the film yearly in the Nineties. Over time the movie that had been bombed at the box office came to be regarded as a holiday classic.

In his New York Times review of A Christmas Carol (1951), Bosley Crowther predicted it should prove to be popular during the Christmas season. There is no doubt many critics probably thought the same of Holiday Affair. The same was not necessarily true of a more recent film that is now regarded as a holiday classic. A Christmas Story (1983) was directed by someone no one would have ever expected to direct a holiday classic. Bob Clark was not particularly known for producing quality entertainment, having directed such movies as Black Christmas (1974) and the notorious Porkys (1982). While critics may have raked Bob Clark's previous movies over the coals, A Christmas Story received somewhat mixed reviews.

Regardless of its reviews, A Christmas Story was not a box office smash by any means. Released 20 November 1983, by 8 January 1984 it had only made $16,743,818 (about $37,214,556 today). While this might seem rather meagre, the film did make a profit, having only been made for only about 4,000,000 in Canadian dollars. Still, having made only $16,743,818 by 8 January 1984 and having largely vanished from theatres even before Christmas Day 1983, I rather suspect many at the time expected the film to simply disappear. Instead, it didn't. While A Christmas Carol (1951) and Holiday Affair would be rescued by local television stations, A Christmas Story would be saved by another source: premium cable channel HBO. A Christmas Story aired on HBO in 1985, allowing to it to develop an audience in a way that it never did at theatres. In fact, it proved popular enough on HBO that superstations WGN and WTBS started airing the film during the holiday season in the late Eighties. In 1988 the then young Fox broadcast network aired it on the night after Thanksgiving. By the end of the Eighties A Christmas Story had a huge following who regarded it as a holiday favourite. With the Turner Broadcasting System's acquisition of the pre-1986 MGM library, Turner also acquired A Christmas Story. Since then it has aired TNT, TBS, and Turner Classic Movies. In 1997 TNT would begin airing A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight, starting on Christmas Eve and ending on Christmas Day.  With repeated showing on television, A Christmas Story is one of the very few films made in the past fifty years to rise to the ranks of holiday classics.

By now it should be obvious that repeated airings on television are what rescued these films from obscurity and allowed them to become regarded as classics. In fact, the cynical among us might argue that it we are mistaking familiarity for quality and that they might not be classics at all. I would have to disagree with that assessment. The simple fact is that it seems as if certain films that bombed at the box office became regarded as classic after repeated airings on television while others did not. While the Preston Sturges film Remember the Night (1940) is well regarded by classic film buffs and has been shown on television many times, one would be hard pressed to find a member of the general public who knows it, let alone considers it a holiday classic. 3 Godfathers (1948) has been shown repeatedly on television, but I rather suspect few beyond classic film buffs and Western fans are familiar with it.

Of course, it can be pointed out that each of these films are good films, but it would seem that is not the only reason they were elevated to the level of holiday classics while others were not. Both of my examples above, Remember the Night and 3 Godfathers, are good films, yet they have not achieve the status that A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair, or A Christmas Story have.  I then think these films have certain qualities that make them stand out from the rest.

Some of these qualities are probably unique to those films. What set A Christmas Carol (1951) apart from the earlier 1938, MGM version, as well as many of the versions, is that it did not shy away from many of the grimmer aspects of Charles Dickens' novel. Like the novel it is as much a ghost story as a Christmas story, one in which the ghosts and spirits can be truly frightening. Once more like the novel  A Christmas Carol (1951) also gives us glimpses into the extreme poverty of Victorian London, an aspect to which many versions of the novel merely give lip service. Like A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair is to some degree rooted in the reality of its times. Janet Leigh's character is a war widow who must watch her spending to make ends meet. The film also gives us a glimpse of an America we barely remember, where huge department stores dotted the landscape and where Christmas was a particularly singular event. Like Holiday Affair, A Christmas Story also gives us a look at America as it was. It is a world where department stores were still common and where those department stores created extravagant Christmas displays. It is also a world where people still bought real evergreens at lots rather than simply buying artificial trees at the local WalMart or Costco.

Beyond these qualities unique to these films, there is perhaps a more nebulous quality that they all share. Quite simply, it could be that they capture the Christmas spirit better than many films. Each of these films make fairly good use of the trappings of the holiday. A Christmas Carol (1951) featured "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in its title sequence and carollers singing an anachronistic "Silent Night (the English translation used today came about in 1853)," as well as family gatherings and a plenty of snow. Holiday Affair featured such things as trimming a Christmas tree and a family Christmas dinner. A Christmas Story pretty much portrays the life of a boy in the weeks before Christmas and his quest to insure he gets an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for the holiday. Because of this it not only features very well known Christmas songs (everything from "Jingle Bells" to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"), but such customs familiar to Americans of the mid-20th Century as looking at the Christmas display at the department store,  trimming the Christmas tree, watching the Christmas parade, and going to see Santa at the department store. Other films also contain some of these elements, but it seems possible that they simply do not do them as well A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair, or A Christmas Story.

Regardless, each film has come to be regarded as a holiday classic, those films guaranteed to be aired every Yuletide. They have outlasted more recent films and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. I suppose they are proof that a film need not be a huge box office hit to be remembered and eventually regarded as a classic.

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