Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Winter Wonderland" by Doris Day

One of my favourite songs of this time of year is "Winter Wonderland." Although often played during the holidays in truth it is simply a love song set at winter. For all practical purposes it could be performed any time during the winter, right up into March. I have several version s that I like, but Doris Day's rendition would number among my favourites.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Golden Age of Christmas Movies?

Chances are very good that if someone is asked what  his or her favourite Christmas movie is, he or she will respond with It's a Wonderful Life (1946). And if he or she does not respond with It's a Wonderful Life, then he or she might reply with Miracle on 34th Street (1947). If he or she does not respond with one of those two movies, it might well be with A Christmas Story (1983), Love Actually (2003), The Apartment (1960),  A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge, 1951), Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecitcut (1944), The Bishop's Wife (1947), or Holiday Affair (1949). Aside from A Christmas Story, Love Actually, The Apartment, and A Christmas Carol (1951) all of these films have one thing in common--they were all made in the Forties.

Certainly there were Christmas movies made before the Forties. If one does a keyword search on IMDB for "Christmas," the earliest films listed are all from 1897. The Thirties certainly produced their share of Christmas movies, including the first talkie version of A Christmas Carol (Scrooge starring Seymour Hicks in  1935), the first talkie version of Three Godfathers (1936), the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol (1938), Holiday (1938), and Remember the Night (1940). That having been said, not only does it seem as if the bulk of the most highly regarded Christmas classics were released in the Forties, but that more holiday films were released in that decade than most.

What is more, it would seem that the bulk of Christmas movies released in the Forties were in the latter part of the decade. Certainly some of the best known Yuletide movies were released in the early part of the decade. Meet John Doe was released in 1941, while Holiday Inn and The Man Who Came to Dinner were both released in 1942, but it seems as if the last six years of the decade were a boom time for holiday movies. Indeed, the years 1946 and 1947 may well have been the best years ever for holiday movies. Nineteen forty six would see only one major feature film related to the holiday released, but it is regarded by many as the greatest Christmas movie of all time: It's a Wonderful Life. Both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart would regard the film as their favourite, and over the years it would become the favourite Christmas movie of millions. While 1946 would have only one major holiday themed release, 1947 would be a boom year for holiday movies. What is more, it would see the release of what may be the only Christmas film to rival It's a Wonderful Life for the title of "greatest holiday film of all time:" Miracle on 34th Street. The same year The Bishop's Wife would also be released, a film that has been regarded as a holiday classic for years. Also in 1947 both Christmas Eve and It Happened on Fifth Avenue were released.

No other year of the Forties would quite equal 1947, although the final years of the decade would continue to see Christmas movies released. 3 Godfathers was released in 1948, while Mr. Soft TouchCome to the Stable, and Holiday Affair were released in 1949. By 1950 the cycle towards Christmas movies appeared to have run its course. The Great Rupert was the only significant movie dealing with the holidays released that year. It would appear that 1951 may have been the end of the cycle, with both The Lemon Drop Kid and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol released that year. The Fifties would see more than their fair share of Christmas movies, but hardly in the numbers of the late Forties and none with as prestigious as It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.

What may be as remarkable as the number of Christmas movies released in the Forties may well have been the sheer variety of those made. Today when we think of Christmas movies we might be inclined to think of comedies, or at least movies with a good mix of comedy and drama (the classics It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are examples of this), but there were also straight comedies (The Cheaters and Christmas in Connecticut from 1945, and  It Happened on Fifth Avenue from 1947), a film noir (Christmas Holiday from 1944), a Western (3 Godfathers from 1948), and dramas (Come to the Stable from 1949).  While It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are the best known Christmas movies of the Forties (perhaps of all time), not every Christmas movie was made in their mould.

Of course, the pertinent question may be, "Why did the Forties, particularly the late Forties, produce so many Christmas movies?"  It seems to me that it is no coincidence that there was an upswing in holiday films following the end of World War II. In fact, the post-war years would see a boom in Christmas in general.. Such classic songs as Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945)," "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) (1946)," "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) (1947)," "Sleigh Ride (1948)", and "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas (1951)" were all released during the era. It was during this period that decorating one's home with Christmas lights became common place. The Sixties would see a number of classic television specials made, including Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

As to why there was a boom in Christmas in the years following World War II, it was perhaps rooted in the war itself. World War II was an extended conflict, with soldiers gone for years. When the war ended and the soldiers returned home, they quite naturally wanted Christmases like those they remembered when they were young. Having been denied a normal, family Christmas for many years, soldiers returning from the war cannot really be blamed if they went a bit overboard with the holiday, nor can various industries (including the motion picture industry) be blamed if they were happy to oblige them. Indeed, it seems significant that at least three of the holiday films made in the Forties (Christmas in Connecticut, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and It's a Wonderful Life) featured soldiers returning from the war (indeed, it was central to the plots of Christmas in Connecticut and It Happened on Fifth Avenue), while at least one of them Holiday Affair) dealt with a war widow.

Regardless, it would appear that the Forties produced more Christmas movies than most decades and a greater percentage of  holiday classics than other decades. Christmas movies were made before the Forties and Christmas movies have been made since, but no decade has ever matched the Forties in the quantity and the quality of its offerings.

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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Forgottten Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol has not only seen several film versions, but several television adaptations as well. A few of these television versions of the classic tale, such as the 1984 adaptation starring George C. Scott, have become annual events on cable television channels. Among these adaptations was an animated version produced by Air Programs International (API for short), an animation studio from Australia. It was produced in 1969 and first aired in the United States on CBS on 13 December 1970.  It would air annually on American television for well over a decade.

API established itself as an animation studio with the television series Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table. Produced in 1966, it became the first Australian animated series to be successfully syndicated worldwide. It was in the late Sixties that API embarked on the project for which they may be best remembered, a series of animated television specials based on literary classics called Family Classic Tales.  From 1969 to 1984 API regularly produced specials in the series, based on such classic books and stories as Treasure Island, The Prince and the Pauper, and From the Earth to the Moon. The very first special in the series was their adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

API's version of A Christmas Carol was produced and first aired on Australian television in 1969. It was directed by legendary animator Zoran Janjic. Zoran Janjic began his career at Zagreb Film, the well known Croatian animation studio. In 1960 he emigrated to Australia and he went to work for API. At API Mr. Janjic directed Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table. He also served as a background artist on episodes of the 1966 animated version of The Lone Ranger, an American series produced by Format Films which aired on CBS Saturday mornings from 1966 to 1968. After he directed A Christmas Carol, he would go onto direct other entries in Family Classic Tales. In the Seventies he became the head of Hanna-Barbera's Australian division, and he served as a producer on such Hanna-Barbera series as The New Scooby Doo Movies and Wait Until Your Father Gets Home. In the Eighties he started his own company, Zap Productions, which produced animation for commercials in Australia.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol also featured impressive voice talent. Ron Haddrick was the voice of Scrooge. The actor had appeared in television adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest, and he also appeared in such Australian series The Stranger and The Hunter. He would go onto appear in the shows The Lost Islands and Home and Away, as well as the movie Quigley Down Under (1980).  Bruce Montague played the voice of the ghost of Bob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well as various incidental voices. He appeared on the TV show Crane and guest starred on The Saint and The Baron. He went onto appear on the shows The Link Men, Fair Ground!, and Butterflies, as well as such movies as Sextet (1976) and George and Mildred (1980).  John Llewellyn provided the voice of Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past. He had appeared in the films The Vanquished and Long John Silver, as well as the TV shows Consider Your Verdict and Hunter. He would go onto appear on the shows Division 4, Homicide, and Juliet Bravo.

Given the talent involved in API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, it should be no surprise that it holds up well today, particularly for television animation. While not on the level of a feature film, it is still well ahead of the limited animation of the average American, Saturday morning cartoon of the Sixties. Zoran Janjic did a very good job of directing the television special, with his use of light and shadow being particularly impressive at times. Perhaps the best part of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol may be its backgrounds. These are not the sparse backgrounds of Saturday morning cartoons or even animated television specials of the era, but lavish backgrounds the evoke Victorian London quite well. Running only around fifty minutes, API's version of A Christmas Carol does omit portions of the novel, but for the most part it is very faithful to the novel, down to using dialogue straight from Charles Dickens.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as well as the rest of Family Classic Tales would make their way to the United States. Jack Thinnes, Media Director at Sive Advertising in Cincinnati, Ohio saw a two minute demo of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol. This led him to think that a series of animated special that adapted literary classics might be suitable for his client, toy manufacturer Kenner. The result was Famous Classic Tales, which aired on CBS on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as well as the early evening on weekdays, usually around holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 4th of July. Famous Classic Tales ran on CBS throughout the Seventies and into the early Eighties. The very first entry in the Australian Family Classic Tales and the American Famous Classic Tales (very nearly Family Classic Tales under a different name), A Christmas Carol, proved to have a bit of longevity on American television.  It ran for 15 years on CBS. After the run on CBS, Famous Classic Tales were syndicated to stations across the United States, so that API's A Christmas Carol would have a long run after leaving the broadcast network.

API's version of A Christmas Carol is rarely seen today. Although a somewhat poor copy can be found on YouTube, it is not currently available on DVD. In some respects this is sad. API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol was well done and in some respects more faithful to the original novel than the feature film versions. Regardless, I rather suspect that most Americans who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties have fond memories of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol and, in fact, it may have served as their introduction to the Charles Dickens classic. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"I Want You For Christmas" by Cheap Trick

Legendary power pop band Cheap Trick has reworked their classic "I Want You to Want Me" as a holiday tune, "I Want You For Christmas." The song's video debuted on VH1 Classic as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the charity album A Very Special Christmas. It also appears on the album A Very Special Christmas 25th Anniversary. The video can be viewed at VH1, at VEVO's website and on VEVO's YouTube channel.

Having been a fan of Cheap Trick nearly as long as I have been alive, I can assuage any doubts anyone might have that the band may have watered down the classic "I Want You to Want Me." The song's power chords are in tact and its new lyrics fit the song perfectly. In fact, "I Want You for Christmas" may be my favourite version of the song. Anyhow, without further ado, here is ""I Want You For Christmas."