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.

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