Saturday, December 23, 2023

A Brief History of the Artificial Christmas Tree

Artificial Christmas trees have been around for decades. What is more, many Americans prefer using artificial Christmas trees to the real thing. A recent article by CNN stated that this year 77% of Americans who will display a Christmas tree this year will choose an artificial one rather than a real tree, according to a survey by the American Christmas Tree Association. People may continue to debate the merits of real trees over artificial ones, but one thing is certain. Artificial Christmas trees are here to stay.

The earliest artificial Christmas trees were feather Christmas trees. They originated in Germany in the 1880s and 1890s. when deforestation was becoming a problem. These feather trees were made with goose feathers that would be dyed green and then attached to branches made of wire. The wire branches were then attached to a dole, that would serve as the trunk of the "tree." The feather Christmas tree would be brought to the United States by German immigrants. They proved popular for a time, to the point that by the 1920s feather Christmas tree could be ordered from the Sears Roebuck Catalog and were even sold at department stores. Feather Christmas tress varied in size from two inches to thirty inches high. The feather trees sold by Sears sometimes included hand-blown glass ornaments and still later lights. Today many feather Christmas trees are valuable antiques.

The popularity of feather Christmas trees would fade over time, perhaps because they did not look exactly like real trees. They would become popular again in the Fifties for a time and then once more in the Eighties. Of course, it was in the Fifties that that saw the emergence of another sort of artificial tree. It is frequently claimed that a company called the Addis Brush Company introduced the "brush tree" in the 1930s. It appears that this is not true. According to research conducted by the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, there never was an Addis Brush Company in the United States, and hence no patents for artificial Christmas trees were ever assigned to them. There is a company called Addis Housewares in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1870, Addis Housewares is credited with introducing the first modern toothbrush and or much fof their history manufactured other brushes as well. Correspondence between the Hagley Museum and Addis Housewares indicated that the company did not make artificial Christmas trees in the 1930s. In fact, they would not make artificial trees until the 1970s and then only for a brief time. What is more, they were sold under the name of a subsidiary, not Addis.

It would appear that the credit for the earliest brush Christmas trees should instead go to American Brush Company. American Brush Company would founded in 1910 in Portland, Oregon. The company manufactured  paint brushes and janitorial supplies. It was in the 1950s that American Brush Company began making brushes for something other than painting or cleaning. According to an article in The New York Times, in the late Fifties there was a rather odd fad in design whereby " designers were using millions of small multicoloured brushes, which when assembled in department store windows, looked, in his words, 'like miniature pastel waves'." Of course, like most fads, this eventually came to an end.

It was then that American Brush Company decided to change the machines used to make these brushes to make artificial Christmas trees instead. Their original artificial Christmas trees were made of PVC and did not look much like real trees. This, combined with the late Fifties/early Sixties fad for aluminium Christmas trees, meant that American Brush Company did not sell many of their early artificial Christmas trees. A senior machinist named Si Spiegel, was sent to close the factory that made artificial Christmas trees, but instead reported back that American Brush Company could make money with the product. As a result, one of his bosses gave Si Spiegel his own division, American Tree and Wreath, which would manufacture artificial Christmas trees and wreathes. Here it must be noted that Si Spiegel is an altogether remarkable man. He was a B-17 pilot with 849th Bomb Squadron of the 490th Bomb Group during World War II. At one point he and his crew crashed in Poland, then occupied by the Soviets, and had to make a daring escape. Si Spiegel is Jewish, so he never celebrated Christmas.

Regardless, he wanted to improve the artificial trees that American Brush Company was making, even bringing in real trees so that American Brush could make their trees look more realistic. Eventually he succeeded in making artificial Christmas trees that looked much more like the real thing. By the mid-Seventies they were making 800,000 trees a year. Of course, since then the artificial Christmas tree has become much more popular.

Of course, the Christmas trees made of PVC were not the only artificial Christmas trees to emerge in the 1950s. It was in 1955 that Modern Coatings, Inc. received a patent for an aluminium Christmas tree.  Their trees were expensive, costing $80 in the mid-Fifties, which would be $920 now. In 1958 the toys sales manager of Aluminum Specialty Company, Tom Gannon, saw one of the aluminium trees made by Modern Coatings in a Ben Franklin Store in Chicago. Aluminum Specialty made pots, pans, and toys. They were already making aluminum Christmas ornaments. Tom Gannon then bought the tree and returned to the headquarters of Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Using the Modern Coatings tree that Tom Gannon had bought, the engineers at Aluminum Specialty were able to figure out how to make an aluminum tree that was much cheaper. In fact, it would cost less that $12. Introduced at the American Toy Fair in March 1959, Aluminum Specialty's tree proved to bet a hit. By 1964 they were making about $150,00 aluminium Christmas trees. Unfortunately, the popularity of the aluminium Christmas tree would prove to be short-lived, largely because of a classic Christmas TV special. To large degree A Charlie Brown Christmas was a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, and in the special the aluminium Christmas tree was used as a symbol of that commercialization. Rather than get an aluminium tree, Charlie Brown chooses to get a rather scraggly real tree. Sales for aluminium Christmas trees dropped precipitously after A Charlie Brown Christmas had aired. The heyday of the aluminium Christmas tree was over by 1967. Once viewed as a symbol of commercialism and the epitome of bad taste, aluminium Christmas trees would come to be regarded by some with nostalgia.

Since the 1950s artificial Christmas trees have continued to evolve. The first patent for a fibre-optic tree was filed in 1973 by Albert V. Sadaca and Bernard Paulfus. Despite this, fibre optic trees would not become popular until the Naughts. It was in the early 1990s that Boto Company, then the largest manufacturer of artificial Christmas trees, began making pre-lit Christmas trees, which were sold at Target stores.

There are concerns about the environmental impact of Christmas trees made of PVC, and there is still debates on whether real trees are superior to artificial ones. Regardless, artificial Christmas trees have become a part of the American landscape during the holiday season, and they don't seem likely to disappear any time soon.

Friday, December 22, 2023

The 20th Anniversary of Love Actually (2003)

For the most part the big name classic Christmas movies emerged from Hollywood. Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and yet others are all American. One of the major exceptions is Scrooge (1951), also known as A Christmas Carol (1951), starring Alastair Sim, which was produced by George Minter in the United Kingdom. Another exception is Love Actually (2003). Since its release it has very nearly attained classic status, if it already hasn't. Whether it can be considered a classic or not, it has become for many one of their favourite Christmas movies. It premiered on November 6 2003 in New York City, making this its 20th year.

Love Actually (2003) begins six weeks before Christmas and runs through the entire holiday season. With the exception of one subplot that takes place in part in France and Portugal and another that partially takes place in the United States, the movie is set in London. Love Actually involves ten different, interconnected stories. It is often termed a romantic comedy, which is not quite accurate given it addresses not only romantic love, but friendship, love of family, and so on. Among the stories are washed up rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) trying to make a comeback with a Christmas themed cover of The Troggs' "Love is All Around ("Christmas is All Around")"; the recently elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Hugh Grant) and the mutual attraction between him and a member of his household staff, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon); schoolboy Sam's (Thomas Sangster) crush on a classmate (Olive Olson) and his stepfather Daniel's (Liam Neeson) effort to help him win her heart; Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and his crush on his best friend's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) new bride (Keira Knightley); American expatriate Sarah (Laura Linney) and her brother Michael (Michael Fitzgerald), who is institutionalized with a mental disorder; and so on.

Love Actually marked the first time that Richard Curtis directed a feature film. He had co-created the classic television series Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson and written the screenplays for the hit movies Four Wedding and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). Love Actually emerged from two different ideas for films. One would have centred on the newly elected prime minister who falls in love with one of his household staff. The other focused on a British author writing at a French cottage who falls for his housekeeper. Both of these plots would become stories in Love Actually. Richard Curtis gave up on both ideas as separate films, because, as he said in a Vulture article,  "... they are just turning out to be a shape I know." He then decided to write a film about love and what it means. He drew inspiration from Robert Altman, whose films often dealt with multiple stories, as well as Woody Allen for the same reason, and the films Pulp Fiction (1994) and Smoke (1995), to write a movie with multiple stories about love. Initially, Love Actually was not set during the holiday season, but Richard Curtis loved Christmas movies and so he decided that he would make it a Christmas movie. At the time he had no idea that it would become one of those Christmas movies that people watch over and over again.

Originally Love Actually included fourteen different storylines. This would have made the film too long, so four of them were cut (two of which had been filmed). One short storyline involved a poster in the office of Harry (Alan Rickman) of two women in Africa. The storyline would have had the two women talking about their daughters' love lives. Another story involved Harry and Karen's (Emma Thompson) son getting into trouble at school, after which we learn the headmistress of his school is taking care of her terminally ill partner. One scene that Richard Curtis regretted cutting involved Karen addressing the death of the wife of her friend Daniel.

The casting of Love Actually was fairly straightforward and involved many actors with whom Richard Curtis had worked with in film and television before. He wanted Hugh Grant as the prime minister and Emma Thompson as his sister Karen from the very beginning. Richard Curtis had worked with Hugh Grant on Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary. The part of Natalie was written specifically for Martin McCutcheon, and the character was even initially called "Martine." Richard Curtis had two actors in mind for ageing rock star Billy Mack, but he couldn't make up his mind which one to ask. He finally asked casting director Mary Selway to find someone he would never have thought to ask, and so Bill Nighy was cast in the role. Of course, Richard Curtis had co-created Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson, who plays an annoying department store clerk in Love Actually, and the two had also worked together on everything from Mr. Bean to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Central to Love Actually is its soundtrack, which features classic songs and covers of classic songs, everything from Otis Redding's version of "White Christmas" to The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." All important to the movie is Billy Mack's Christmas themed cover of The Troggs' "Love is All Around," retitled "Christmas is All Around." "Christmas is All Around" serves as a leitmotif in Love Actually, popping in the movie from time to time. It was Wet Wet Wet's cover of "Love is All Around" that would lead to the creation of "Christmas is All Around" for Love Actually. Richard Curtis had written the screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which Wet Wet Wet's version is featured prominently. For Love Actually, which he directed and wrote the screenplay for, Mr Curtis thought it would be funny to start the film by making the audience listen to essentially the same song again. Of course, since "Love is All Around" was changed into a Christmas song, some of the lyrics were altered. For instance, the lines "So if you really love me/Come on and let it show" were changed to "So if you really love Christmas/Come on and let it snow".

As mentioned earlier, most of the film is set in London, and it made use of some well-known landmarks in the city. Among these were Trafalgar Square; Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street in Mayfair, Westminster; Lambeth Bridge, the Tate Modern art gallery, Selfridge's department store, Heathrow Airport, and more. The interiors of what is 10 Downing Street in Love Actually were filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, where classic movies from The Third Man (1949) to Superman (1978) had been filmed. Other film locations included Marseille, France; Vidauban, France; and Aix-En-Provence, France.

An unfinished version of Love Actually was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7 2003. Love Actually then premiered in New York City on November 6 2003. It went into limited release in the United States on November 7 2003 and then into wide release on November 14 2003 in the United States. It premiered in London on November 16 2003 and went into wide release in the Untied Kingdom on November 21 2023. Love Actually received mixed reviews from critics. Love Actually received a largely positive review from Roger Ebert, who gave the movie three and a half stars and noted, "The movie's only flaw is also a virtue: It's jammed with characters, stories, warmth, and laughs, until at times Curtis seems to be working from a checklist of obligatory movie love situations and doesn't want to leave anything out." Writing for the BBC, Nev Pierce said of the film, "warm, bittersweet and hilarious, this is lovely, actually. Prepare to be smitten." A. O. Scott in The New York Times was largely hostile to the movie, saying, " is more like a record label's greatest-hits compilation or a very special sitcom clip-reel show than an actual movie." Peter Travers in The Rolling Stone gave Love Actually only two stars out of four.

While critics were mixed about Love Actually, audiences seemed to love the film. It made $244.9 million at the box office world-wide. The movie had come to be regarded as a holiday classic as early as 2013, with Emma Green writing an article titled "I Will Not Be Ashamed of Loving Love Actually" for the December 10 2013 issue of The Atlantic. A CNN story from 2016 asked, "Is Love Actually a new Christmas classic?"

The continued popularity of Love Actually would lead to a sequel of sorts in the form of a short television promotional film for Red Nose Day entitled "Red Nose Day Actually." The short was written and directed by Richard Curtis, with most of the original cast returning. The short aired in the United Kingdom on March 24 2017 and in the United States on May 24 2017.

For its 20th anniversary this year, Love Actually was re-released to theatres in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands,  United States, Canada, Austria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and South Korea. This theatrical re-release also included a new 10-minute introduction. It was also re-released to home video in a 4K restoration world-wide.

 Love Actually has proven to have considerable longevity. For many it has become a part of their Christmas movie-watching tradition, alongside such classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. In the United States it can be found on multiple cable channels every December. It is also available on multiple streaming services. Love Actually will probably always have its share of detractors, but it will also probably always have its loyal fans who will watch it every holiday season.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

The 55th Birthday of My Dearest Vanessa Marquez

Today my dearest friend Vanessa Marquez would have turned 55. Vanessa and I were in nearly constant contact for years, through social media, phone calls, and text messages. With Vanessa I felt that I could be myself. I told her things I would never tell anyone else, and she confided in me as well. I worried about her when she was sick and she worried about me. In the end, Vanessa meant more to me than anyone else save for my father and my siblings. It is for that reason that December 21 is a bittersweet day. On the one hand, it is a day for me to celebrate as it marks the anniversary of the birth of the one person I love more than any other. On the other hand, as I cannot wish her, "Happy birthday," as I once did, it serves as a reminder that Vanessa Marquez is no longer with us.

Of course, Vanessa Marquez was not only my most beloved friend, she was also a talented actress. She made her film debut in the classic Stand and Deliver (1988), and it was a most impressive debut. She had a recurring role on Wiseguy, and was a regular in the first season of the sketch comedy show Culture Clash. She appeared in such movies as Twenty Bucks (1993) and Father Hood (1993), and guest starred on such shows as Seinfeld, Nurses, and Melrose Place. Aside from Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988), her most famous role may have been Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER. She appeared in 27 episodes of the hit show in its first three seasons.

While Vanessa displayed a good deal of talent throughout her career, she was also something of a trailblazer with regards to Latinas in Hollywood. When Vanessa's career began in the Eighties, Latinas, particularly Chicanas like Vanessa, were rarely seen in film and on television. When they were, they were often stereotypes. As late as the Eighties and Nineties,the highly sexualized, hot-tempered Latina stereotype was still commonly seen in movies and on television shows. Starting with Ana in Stand and Deliver (1988), Vanessa Marquez broke with that stereotype in the roles she played in films and on television. As her friend Edward E. Haynes, a production designer on the TV series Culture Clash, said of her, "In the world where there was such little representation for people of colour, she always represented the strong, educated, and centred Latina character." What is more, Vanessa possessed considerable talent. In a recent article in the San Antonio Current,  her Stand and Deliver (1988) co-star Daniel Villarreal said of Vanessa, "The first time I met Vanessa during the casting of Stand and Deliver, I knew the movie couldn't be made without her," and "She was a special human being. She was vulnerable but very powerful."

Certainly Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988) was an example of the "strong, educated, and centred Latina character" that Vanessa Marquez would play, and her very first at that. Ana was the timid and soft-spoken, but scholarly daughter of a restaurateur who excels at mathematics and wants to go to medical school. Despite this, her father wants her to go to work in his restaurant, just as her siblings do.  He even insists that she drop out of her classes so she can work in the restaurant. That Ana returns to her math class shows that she apparently did stand up to her father and insisted on getting an education. The character of Ana broke with previous portrayals of Latinas on screen. She was not a Mexican spitfire or chola. She was instead a quiet, intelligent student who wanted to make a better life for herself.

What makes Vanessa's performance as Ana all the more impressive is that, as mentioned above, this was her very first professional acting job. She had never appeared on screen before, not even on television or in commercials. Making this all the more impressive is that Ana was the only one of Jaime Escalante's students in the movie based on an actual person. While the other students in Stand and Deliver (1988) were composites of the various students Jaime Escalante had taught through the years, Ana was based on Leticia Rodriguez, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant El Farolito. The major difference between Ana Delgado and Leticia Rodriguez is that while Ana wanted to major in medicine, Leticia Rodriguez became an electrical engineer for Honeywell Corp.

Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER was another intelligent, strong Latina character that Vanessa played. While Wendy usually appeared in humorous subplots on the show, there was no doubt that she was both intelligent and competent. She corrected Dr. Lewis in the episode Luck of the Draw when the doctor tells her to give her patient 350 milligrams of dopamine, telling Dr. Lewis, "I think you mean micrograms." In the episode "House of Cards" it is Wendy who figures out that a drug addict needs a central line, stating, "He hasn't any veins left," and goes to get Dr. Lewis to perform the procedure. In addition to being very intelligent, Wendy was also compassionate, and there are several instances throughout the first three seasons in which Wendy comforts patients and shows concern for her co-workers. While Wendy does have a temper (she yelled at desk clerk Jerry more than once), like Ana in Stand and Deliver (1988) she was a far cry from the stereotypical Latinas who had appeared in movies and on television before the Eighties.

While Vanessa played a nurse on ER, in the BET television movie Fire & Ice (2001) she played Wanda Hernandez, a security technician at a firm owned by Holly Aimes (Lark Voorhies) and Pam Moore (Tempestt Bledsoe). While to a degree Wanda serves as comic relief (and possibly eye candy as well) in Fire & Ice, there is no doubt that she is both intelligent and competent at her job. She is also a bit of a romantic, and along with Pam roots for the lead characters of Holly and Michael Williams (Kadeem Hardison) to get together. As recently as the Sixties and Seventies, it would have been unthinkable in a movie or TV show that a technician at a security firm would be a Latina (or that a security firm would be owned by two Black women, for that matter). Fire & Ice (2001) was certainly a mark of how far television had come with regards to diversity.

Vanessa Marquez played a variety of roles on Culture Clash, some of which were intelligent Latinas. Notably in a parody of the game show Jeopardy, she played an exceptionally smart contestant. She also played a poet who recites a rather uncomfortable (at least for men) poem about castration. In the episode "The One After the Earthquake" of the TV show Nurses, she played Angelica, a high school senior who wants to become a nurse. Fittingly enough, her next role would be Wendy Goldman on ER. On Wiseguy she played Conseulo "Connie Burns," the scholarly niece of lead character Michael Santana (Steven Bauer). Her time in the Seinfeld episode "The Cheever Letters" is brief, but she played the receptionist at the Cuban diplomatic mission at the United Nations, a position of some responsibility.

Of course, Vanessa played other roles beyond intelligent, scholarly Latinas. Even then she gave remarkable performances and the characters were not stereotypes. In the television movie Locked Up: A Mother's Rage she played Yo-Yo, a pregnant prison inmate convicted of killing her boyfriend when in all probability it was self-defence. Vanessa was remarkable in the role, particularly given she had never been pregnant nor was she ever in jail. In Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1992) she played a pharmacy clerk. In Twenty Bucks (1993), she played one of her best roles, that of teenager Melanie. In the movie Melanie's under-aged boyfriend wants to get wine for their dinner. To this ends she flirts with two guys in an attempt to get them to buy them the wine. In each of these cases Vanessa's characters were not stereotypes, and she played all of them well.

So far I have only covered Vanessa's career on film and in television. Vanessa also acted on stage, where she also played characters who defied stereotypes. She played multiple roles in Jose Rivera's play Street of the Sun, and she so impressed the playwright that he named a character for her in his play Sonnets for an Old Century. In the play August 29 Vanessa played the militant Lucy. Vanessa also appeared in such plays as Demon Wine, Women and Wallace, Anna in the Tropics, and yet others.

In playing Latina characters that were not stereotypes, Vanessa Marquez would have an impact. During her lifetime Vanessa received letters from people who had gone into mathematics or the sciences because they had been inspired by the character of Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988). I have to think that there may have been individuals who became nurses all because they saw Vanessa as Wendy Goldman on ER. Her performances on television, in movies and on stage certainly inspired people. Since her death I have heard from various people who were touched by one or more of her performances. In a time when Latinas, particularly Chicanas, were rarely seen on television or in films and, when they were seen were generally stereotypes, Vanessa Marquez was playing intelligent, strong-willed, well-developed Latina characters. In this respect, she was something of a pioneer.

Of course, for me Vanessa was not simply a well-known, talented, and pioneering actress, but the one person who meant more to me than anyone else. Vanessa was intelligent, warm, sweet, loving, and beautiful, and she possessed a great sense of humour. She certainly had her problems, but I could never have found a better friend than her. On this day, her birthday, then, I find myself missing her more than usual. Vanessa Marquez was very special, both as an actress and simply as a human being.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

TCM Remembers 2023

Yesterday Turner Classic Movies came out with their 2023 edition of TCM Remembers. As usual, it is bittersweet to watch. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see so many honoured in an in memorial reel. On the other hand, it is a reminder of how many we have lost in the past year. One certainly cannot watch without a few tears unless one simply isn't human.

For me the tears started early, once they hit Cindy Williams. She starred in the classic Laverne & Shirley and appeared in one of my favourite movies, American Graffiti (1973). I happen to know she was an absolutely wonderful person as well. We also lost many of my other favourites this year, including Alan Arkin, Richard Roundtree, David McCallum, George Maharis, Tony Bennett, Jim Brown, Norman Lear, Shirley Ann Field, Raquel Welch, Harry Belafonte, and so many others. My only objection to this year's TCM Remembers is the inclusion of Kenneth Anger. The less said about him the better.

The 2023 edition of TCM Remembers is the second one to include someone I know. Author, film historian, and documentarian Cari Beauchamp was an acquaintance rather than a friend, but she was a close friend and even a mentor to many of my close friends. She was not only one of the best film historians of all time, but a remarkable human being as well. As to the first time someone I knew was included in TCM Remembers, that was 2018 when my beloved Vanessa Marquez was included

Anyway, for those who haven't seen it, here is this year's TCM Remembers.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The 30th Anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Years ago my friend Brian and I decided that there was only one movie that could be watched at both Halloween and Christmas. That movie was the stop-motion animation film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). The movie was produced and created by Tim Burton, and directed by Henry Selick. While most of the movie is set at Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas deals with the mythology of both movies, making it perfect viewing in both the months of October and December. It is perhaps for that reason that since its release it has become regarded as a classic. The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered on October 9 1993 at the New York Film Festival.

In The Nightmare Before Christmas, each holiday has its own world that can be entered through a doorway in a tree. In the case of Halloween, that world is Halloween Town, the leader of which is Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King While the residents of Halloween Town love Jack, he is bored with doing the same thing year in and year out, and wants to try something new. It is while he is wandering through the woods that he stumbles upon the tree with the entrance to Christmas Town. Jack finds himself fascinated by Christmas Town and decides to take over the holiday of Christmas that year. Unfortunately, Jack and the citizens of Halloween Town don't quite grasp how to celebrate Christmas.

The origins of The Nightmare Before Christmas go back to Tim Burton's childhood. Tim Burton was lonely as a child growing up in Burbank, California. For that reason holidays were a special time for him. As he said in an October 10 1993 Los Angeles Times article, "Anytime there was Christmas or Halloween, you’d go to Thrifty’s and buy stuff and it was great. It gave you some sort of texture all of a sudden that wasn’t there before."

It was after Tim Burton had finished the stop-motion animation short "Vincent" in 1982 and he was still working at Walt Disney Feature Animation that he wrote a poem entitled "The Nightmare Before Christmas." The poem drew inspiration from his favourite animated Christmas television special from his childhood, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as other classic Christmas TV specials, and the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Tim Burton's plan at the time was to adapt the poem as television special with narration by Vincent Price. Tim Burton created storyboards for his planned television special, and with designer and sculptor Rick Heinrichs sculpted character models. Unfortunately, Disney deemed the project "too weird" and shelved it.

Fortunately, Tim Burton's career took off in the late Eighties and early Nineties, seeing success with the films Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). And Tim Burton never forgot about his "Nightmare Before Christmas" project. Tim Burton made some inquiries about "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and learned that Disney still owned it. Fortunately, with Mr. Burton's success, the studio was now interested in the project.

One major hurdle Tim Burton had to overcome was that he did have other commitments. Indeed, at that point he was working on the sequel to Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992). He was also concerned that Disney would not give him the creative freedom he wanted. A solution was found in the form of a former co-worker at Disney. Henry Selick. Mr. Selick had worked in various capacities on the films Pete's Dragon (1977), Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). He had also directed the stop-motion and watercolour animated short "Seepage" (1982), as well Pilsbury commercials, MTV channel ID spots, and work on MTV's show Liquid Television. Henry Selick was signed as the director of the feature film The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The screenplay for The Nightmare Before Christmas would not be created without some difficulties. Tim Burton approached author and screenwriter Michael McDowell, who had co-written the screenplay for Mr. Burton's movie Beetlejuice. Ultimately, Tim Burton and Michael McDowell would have creative differences. It was then that Tim Burton decided that The Nightmare Before Christmas should be a musical. For the lyrics and music he went to Danny Elfman, who had scored Tim Burton's movies Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman (1989). Tim Burton and Danny Elfman created a rough storyline for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Eventually Caroline Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for Tim Burton's film Edward Scissorhands, wrote the screenplay for the movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas began filming in July 1991 and ultimately took over three years to complete. The animation crew for the movie consisted of 120 animators. The crew had to construct 227 puppets for the film. The puppet for Jack Skellington himself had around 400 heads, so that nearly any emotion could be expressed. A total of 109,440 frames were taken for The Nightmare Before Christmas. In animating The Nightmare Before Christmas, a great deal was owed to stop-motion animators Ladislas Starevich, George Pal, and Ray Harryhausen. Inspiration was also taken from such illustrators as Charles Addams,  Étienne Delessert, Edward Gorey, Gahan Wilson, and yet others. For the look of Halloween Town, the filmmakers drew upon German Expressionism, namely The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The look of Christmas Town was inspired by the work of Dr. Seuss, who wrote and illustrated the Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. In contrast to Halloween Town and Christmas Town, the real world was plainer and simpler.

Danny Elfman provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington, but it turned out that his speaking voice was not quite up to his singing. Chris Sarandon was then cast as Jack's speaking voice. Sally, the rag doll and Jack's love interest, was voiced by Catharine O'Hara, who had worked with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice. Glenn Shadix, who had also appeared in Beetlejuice, voiced the Mayor of Halloween Town. Paul Reubens, Pee-Wee Herman himself, played Lock, one of the trick-or-treaters who is a henchman of the villain Oogie Boogie. Joe Ranft, a fellow veteran of Disney, voiced Igor, Dr. Finkelstein's assistant. As to bogeyman Oogie Boogie and mad scientist Dr. Finklestein, they were voice by singer Ken Page and William Hickey respectively. Ken Page was a veteran of Broadway and was the original Lion in The Wiz. William Hickey had a career going back to the Fifties and had appeared in such films as Prizzi's Honor (1985) and The Name of the Rose (1986). He was well-known for his raspy voice.

Originally it was planned that The Nightmare Before Christmas would be released under Walt Disney Feature Animation. The studio eventually decided the movie would be too "dark and scary for kids," and so it was released under Touchstone Pictures instead. It was marketed as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered on the opening day of the New York Film Festival. It went into limited release on October 13 1993 and on October 29 1993 it went into wide release.

The Nightmare Before Christmas received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film a thumbs up and wrote, "One of the many pleasures of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is that there is not a single recognizable landscape within it. Everything looks strange and haunting. Even Santa Claus would be difficult to recognize without his red-and-white uniform."  Todd McCarthy in Variety also gave the film a good review, noting,"If it were a normal holiday animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas would be an entertaining, amusing, darker-than-usual offering indicating that Disney was willing to deviate slightly from its tried-and-true family-fare formula. But the dazzling techniques employed here create a striking look that's never been seen in such a sustained form, making this a unique curio that will appeal to kids and film enthusiasts alike." The Nightmare Before Christmas was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Effects, Visual Effects.

The Nightmare Before Christmas did modestly well at the box office, earning $50 million in the United States when it was first released. With a budget of $24 million, this meant that it made a modest profit. It has since made more money through re-releases in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2020, and 2023. Of course, it has also made money through home video. It was first released by Touchstone Home Video on VHS on September 30 1994. It was released on DVD on December 2 1997. A special edition DVD was released October 3 2000. Since then it has been released on various other home media, including 4K Blu-ray on August 22 2023 in anticipation of its thirtieth anniversary.

Of course, the popularity of The Nightmare Before Christmas has meant there has been a good deal of merchandise made ever since its initial release. There have been collectable card games, video games, action figures, and other toys and games. A pop-up book was published upon the movie's release in 1993. There has since been another pop up book, calendars, a novelization, comic books, and even a cookbook. As might be expected, both Halloween and Christmas decorations inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas have been manufactured.

The Nightmare Before Christmas became a cult film not long after its initial release. It has since gone on to become regarded as a classic. In 2008 it was ranked at no. 1 on Rotten Tomatoes' "Top 25 Best Christmas Movies" list. In 2020 USA Today placed The Nightmare Before Christmas at no. 4 on its list of the "25 Best Christmas Movies of All Time." This year Buzzfeed included it at no. 22 in their list of "The 50 Best Christmas Movies Ever, Ranked." Variety also included it in its list of "The 45 Best Christmas Movies of All Time." Confirming its status as a classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas was inducted into the the National Film Registry this year for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

As to why The Nightmare Before Christmas has remained so popular through the years, much of it goes back to what my friend Brian and I agreed upon years ago: it is the one movie one can watch at either Halloween or Christmas. This makes The Nightmare Before Christmas utterly unique. It is also why the film appeals to kids and film enthusiasts alike, as Todd McCarthy pointed out in his 1993 review in Variety. Indeed, I know many horror movie fans who do not particularly care for typical holiday fare, but they love The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Of course, much of the appeal of The Nightmare Before Christmas goes well beyond the fact that it is both a Halloween and a Christmas movie. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review from 1993, there " not a single recognizable landscape within it." While one can see the influences from everyone from Charles Addams to Dr. Seuss in its production design, it looks different from any other film before or since.

Another reason that The Nightmare Before Christmas is so highly regarded is its stop-motion animation. At the time of its release, most people were probably only knew stop-motion animation from the many Rankin/Bass holiday specials or Ray Harryhausen movies. While showing viewers that stop-motion animation could be used for more than television specials or visual effects in live-action movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas also introduced many innovations to stop-motion animation. Among these the three-dimensional sets that were lit the same way that live-action movies are. The film was shot much as a live-action movie would be, with the same sort of camera angles used in live-action. The camera in The Nightmare Before Christmas also moves much as it would in live-action movies. Even the puppets in The Nightmare Before Christmas were more detailed than those used in previous stop-motion projects. While The Nightmare Before Christmas owes a good deal to George Pal, Ray Harryhausen, and Rankin/Bass, the film took stop-motion animation further than anything before it. Director Henry Selick was responsible for much of the film's revolutionary stop-motion animation. A veteran of stop-motion animation, he would later direct such stop-motion animated films as James and the Giant Peach (1996) and Coraline (2009).

Ultimately, what makes The Nightmare Before Christmas so beloved is that it has a compelling story with well-developed characters. If the film had been nothing more than a technical wonder, it would not have become a cult film and then a classic. The characters of Jack Skellington, Sally, Doctor Finklestein, and Oogie Boogie may well seem more real to most viewers than many characters in live-action movies. It is because of its story and its characters that The Nightmare Before Christmas has a life all its own.

The Nightmare Before Christmas proved to be a popular film from its initial release. Its popularity has only grown in the years since, to the point that it would become regarded as a classic. I have no doubt that people will still be watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, on both Halloween and Christmas, for many years to come.

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Hershey's Kisses "Christmas Bells" Commercial

One of the most popular commercials of all time is only sixteen seconds in length. The Hershey's Kisses commercial "Christmas Bells" debuted in 1989 and has run every holiday ever since. The commercial is extremely simple. It opens with six Hershey's kisses in green wrappers, four Hershey's kisses in red wrappers, and a single Hershey's kiss in a silver wrapper. The Hershey's kisses then play "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" as if they were Christmas bells. It ends with the last Hershey Kiss in a red wrapper to play a note releasing an exhausted, "Whew!" "Christmas Bells" is the longest running commercial in the history of Hershey's, having run over 30 years now.

The origins of "Christmas Bells" go back to Hershey's Kisses brand manager in 1989, John Dunn. At the time he was working on a marketing campaign for the product called the "whimsy campaign" with advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. The stop-motion animation for the spot was provided by Colossal Pictures. "Christmas Bells" was directed by Carl Willat. He had provide additional opticals for the movie Return to Oz (1985) and would later provide animation for the feature film Across the Universe (2007).  Carl Willat and Gordon Clark executed the stop-motion animation for the commercial.

For the most part "Christmas Bells" would change very little over the years. In 2012 the commercial was redone with CGI and a new recording of the audio. On November 30 2020 a new commercial was introduced that ended with a little girl removing the red Hershey's kiss to play the final note from the frame to use in baking with her father. While the original "Christmas Bells" had aired earlier in the month, the new commercial was met with immediate backlash on such social media services as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. Because of the backlash Hershey's had to announce that they would air both commercials. The original "Christmas Bells" has aired ever since.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The 40th Anniversary of A Christmas Story (1983)

The most popular Christmas movies seem to come primarily from the Forties. It was during that decade that Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and yet other Christmas classics were released. An exception to this rule is A Christmas Story (1983). Released on November 18 1983 in the United States and Canada, the film received mixed reviews and performed modestly at the box office. Fortunately, A Christmas Story (1983) would be saved from obscurity by television. It began airing in 1985 on such premium channels as HBO, Showtime, and the Movie Channel. It first aired on the cable channel WTBS (now TBS) in December 1987 and was also syndicated to local stations that same month. The popularity of A Christmas Story (1983) grew through repeated screenings on television, to the point that now it is regarded as a beloved Christmas classic.

For those who have never seen A Christmas Story, the movie centres on nine-year old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a boy residing in the fictional small town of Hohman, Indiana in 1940. Ralphie wants nothing more for Christmas than an official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock. In addition to Ralphie trying to figure out how to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, the movie is composed of other vignettes as well, including Ralphie and his friends Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R. D. Robb) constantly being tormented by the bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), Ralphie's Old Man (Darren McGavin) winning a "major award" and the conflict it creates with Ralphie's mother (Melinda Dillon), the Old Man's conflicts with the neighbours' dogs, and a few others.

A Christmas Story drew inspiration from the anecdotes of Jean Shepherd, primarily in his 1966 book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, but also in part from his 1971 book Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters and his radio show. A Christmas Story was not the first time Jean Shepherd's work had been adapted to another medium. In 1976 the TV movie The Phantom of the Open Hearth, based on In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, aired on the PBS anthology series Visions. It was set in the late 1940s/early 1950s and featured a teenaged Ralph Parker. It was followed in 1982 by The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, which aired on the PBS anthology series American Playhouse. Even after A Christmas Story, PBS would continue to air TV movies based on Jean Shepherd's works: The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski on American Playhouse in 1985 and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss on American Playhouse in 1988.

While A Christmas Story was primarily based on In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, it would be Jean Shepherd's radio show that would lead to the film. It was in 1968 that Bob Clark was living in Miami. He was on his way to pick up a date when he heard Jean Shepherd on his car radio telling the story "Flick's Tongue." It was then that he decided to adapt Jean Shepherd's stories as a movie.  "Flick's Tongue" would be familiar to anyone who has seen A Christmas Story, as it is the tale of how Schwartz dared Flick to stick his tongue to a flagpole. It would be years before Bob Clark could actually make a movie based on Jean Shepherd's work. It was only after the success of the critically reviled comedy Porky's (1981) that MGM agreed to go ahead with A Christmas Story. The studio gave Bob Clark $4.4 million to make the movie, a meagre sum even at that time.

The screenplay was written by Jean Shepherd himself, Bob Clark, and Leigh Brown. While Jean Shepherd had written the source material for A Christmas Story and co-wrote the screenplay, he and director Bob Clark did not always get along. Jean Shepherd acted as a bit of back seat driver where Bob Clark was concerned, constantly keeping watch on the director and making suggestions. He would even make suggestions to the actors, leading Bob Clark to yell at him to stay away from the actors. Having to stay under budget and on schedule, and concerned that Jean Shepherd's interference could jeopardize both, Bob Clark eventually banned the author from the set. Regardless, Jean Shepherd narrated the film as the adult Ralph Parker. He also has a cameo in the film as a man standing in the line to see Santa Claus at Higbee's department store.

To cast the all important role of Ralphie, Bob Clark auditioned 8000 boys. The role ultimately went to 12-year old Peter Billingsley. Peter Billingsley was already a veteran actor. He had appeared in many television commercials in the Seventies, including playing Messy Marvin in a series of ads for Hershey's. He had guest starred on the TV show Little House on the Prairie and appeared in the movies as Honky Tonk Freeway (1981) and Paternity (1981). For the role of the Old Man, Bob Clark initially considered Jack Nicholson, but the role ultimately went to Darren McGavin. At the time Mr. McGavin was best known for playing Mike Hammer in the Fifties series Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and Carl Kolchak in the Seventies series Kolchak:The Night Stalker.

Melinda Dillon was cast as Ralphie's mother based on her role as Jillian Guiler in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). She later played Teresa Perrone in Absence of Malice (1981). She had been nominated for an Oscar for both movies.

Of course, among the stars of A Christmas Story is the fictional city of Hohman, Indiana. Hohman is based on Jean Shepherd's hometown of Hammond, Indiana, which had a population of 70,183 in 1940. The name "Hohman" is taken from the name of a major street in Hammond. In addition, many of the places in Hohman are taken from actual places in Hammond. Cleveland Street, where Ralphie lives in Hohman, is the street on which Jean Shepherd grew up in Hammond. There is an actual Warren G. Harding Elementary School in Hammond. In A Christmas Story there are also references to Lake Michigan and nearby Griffith, Indiana, an actual town near Hammond.

To create the fictional city of Hammond, scouts were sent to 20 different cities. Ultimately, Hohman would emerge from a combination of three different cities. The bulk of what is supposed to be Hohman in the movie is actually Cleveland, Ohio. Ralphie's house on Cleveland Street is actually on W. 11th Street in Cleveland. Downtown Hohman, where the Christmas parade in A Christmas Story takes place, is the Public Square in downtown Cleveland. As to Higbee's, it was an actual store situated on the Public Square in Cleveland. A Christmas Story utilized both the exterior and interior of Higbee's. The opening scene in which Ralphie views the Red Ryder BB gun in the store window was filmed at Higbee's, while Ralphie's visit to see Santa was filmed inside the store. Of course, here it must be pointed out that Higbee's stores were only found in northeast Ohio, while the film is set in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana. The actual department store located in the hometown of Jean Shepherd (who wrote the stories upon which A Christmas Story) was Goldblatt's, a chain with stores in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Higbee's stores would continue to operate until 1992, when they were bought out by Dillards and the stores, including the Higbee's store in Cleveland, were rebranded as Dillard's.

While much of A Christmas Story was shot in Cleveland, other scenes were shot elsewhere. The schoolyard of Warren G. Harding Elementary, where the famous flagpole scene took place, is actually Victoria School in St. Catharines, Ontario. Two scenes were shot in Toronto, Ontario. The bridge on which the Old Man's car has a flat is the Cherry Street Bridge in Toronto, while the Chop Suey place in the movie is located on Gerrard Street East in Toronto. Other scenes shot in Toronto included Sears Street in Toronto (down which the bullies chase Ralphie, Flick, and Schwartz), 232 Queen Street W (where the Christmas tree lot was located), and 64 Sears Street (where Ralphie finally has it out with Scut Farkas), among others.

One problem that the production faced is that while it was cold that winter in Ohio, there was no snow. Snow had to be shipped in from ski resorts that were often over a hundred miles away. When the weather was even too warm for that, artificial snow was made from potato flakes and for set dressing they used shredded vinyl. In yet other scenes firefighting foam was used. A Christmas Story was filmed from January 14 1983 to March 24 1983. To help with the filming of the movie, the City of Cleveland actually kept their Christmas decorations up longer than they usually would.

A question that many fans of A Christmas Story had for years is, "What year does the movie take place?" On the commentary for the DVD, director Bob Clark stated that he and Jean Shepherd wanted the movie to be "...amorphously late-'30s, early-'40s." For that reason a specific year is never mentioned. Characters from The Wizard of Oz (1939) appear both at the Christmas parade and in Higbee's, so that A Christmas Story could be set no earlier than December 1939. There is no mention of World War II, so it has to be set earlier than December 1941. A calender dated 1939 appears in the Parker family's kitchen, which would seem to make it clear the movie takes place in 1939. The sequel A Christmas Story Christmas states that the events of A Christmas Story took place in 1940. I suppose it is up to individual fans if they want to regard that as canonical or not.

As mentioned earlier, A Christmas Story was released on November 18 1983. The film actually did fairly well early in its release. It ranked no. 3 at the box office for its first weekend in release, no. 1 at the box office for its second weekend in release, and no. 6 in its third weekend in release. Unfortunately, A Christmas Story ultimately proved not to have legs. By Christmas 1983 it was only still playing at around 100 theatres nationwide. In the end it earned $19.2 million at the box office. With a budge of $2.2 million, this made it a modest success.

As to the critics' reaction to the movie, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, the reviews were mixed. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times gave A Christmas Story a good review, noting, "Visits to Santa Claus are more or less standard in works of this genre, but this movie has the best visit to Santa I've ever seen." Roger Ebert's fellow critic at The Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel also liked A Christmas Story, writing "A Christmas Story is a delightful motion picture that is doomed to box office failure. On their TV show At the Movies, both Siskel and Ebert gave A Christmas Story a "thumbs up." Other critics weren't so receptive to the movie. Kevin Thomas in The Los Angeles Times wrote, "Don't expect much Christmas spirit to be oozing out of A Christmas Story." In a 1984 review in Cinema Canada, John Harkness wrote, 'A Christmas Story is no doubt meant to evoke the lovely sort of Christmas films that were so popular in the late '30s and early '40s, films like Meet Me in St. Louis and Miracle on 34th Street, but it fails to approximate any of them."

While some critics in 1983 and 1984 were not too fond of A Christmas Story, its popularity would grow with audiences over the years. MGM/UA Home Video released A Christmas Story on VHS and BetaMax in 1984. In December 1985 it began airing on the premium channels HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel. The event that may have contributed the most to the enduring popularity of A Christmas Story may have the acquisition of the MGM library (including A Christmas Story) in 1986. In 1987 A Christmas Story made its debut on Ted Turner's SuperStation WTBS (now TBS), where it would become a holiday tradition. By 1995 the movie was aired six times between TBS and TNT. It as in 1997 that TNT began "24 Hours of A Christmas Story,' in which the movie was shown non-stop between  8:00 PM Eastern on Christmas Eve and 8:00 PM Eastern on Christmas Day. At the same time, TBS and TNT continued to show A Christmas Story several times earlier in December.

The success of A Christmas Story would lead to both sequels and adaptations to other media. The first sequel was It Runs in the Family (1984), later re-titled My Summer Story for home video and television. While It Runs in the Family was directed by Bob Clark, the only cast members from the original film are Jean Shepherd as the narrator and Tedde Moore as Ralphie's teacher Miss Shields. The film received mixed reviews and failed at the box office.

In 2012 a direct-to-video sequel A Christmas Story 2 was released. Although it was billed as an "official"sequel to A Christmas Story, it was not based on the works of Jean Shepherd, nor did any of the original cast or crew work on the film. It received mostly negative reviews. Last year a third sequel was released on HBO Max. A Christmas Story Christmas was produced and narrated by Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the original film. It was directed by animator Clay Kaytis, who had also directed the live action film The Christmas Chronicles (2018). He co-wrote the script with Nick Schenk, who had written the Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino (2008). In addition to Peter Billingsley, A Christmas Story Christmas saw the return of several members of the original cast, including Scott Schwartz as Flick, R.D. Robb as Schwartz, and Zack Ward as Scut Farkus. Because Melinda Dillon was in failing health, Julie Haggerty played Ralph's mom. Darren McGavin as the Old Man is scene in photos and archival footage, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Reviews for A Christmas Story Christmas were largely positive.

A Christmas Story has also been adapted to the stage. In 2000 Philip Grecian wrote a stage play based on the movie. In November 2012  A Christmas Story: The Musical opened on Broadway. and ran until December 30 of that year. A television version of the musical, A Christmas Story Live!, aired on Fox in 2017.

A Christmas Story was only a modest success at the box office. Had it not been for home video and repeated airings on television, it might well have been forgotten. As to why the movie ultimately proved to be successful, it is because it was unlike any Christmas movie before it. The film does capture the Christmas spirit quite well. It is a movie that is largely sentimental and reassuring. At the same time, however, A Christmas Story is a bit darker than previous holiday movies. Both Ralphie and Randy are just a little bit scared of the Old Man. Ralphie, Flick, and Schwartz live in fear of Scut Barkus and his crony Grover Dill (Yano Anaya). The commercialism of the holiday (rampant even in 1940) is acknowledged, but not treated negatively as it is in everything from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ultimately, the reason for the success of A Christmas Story may be that it captures family life in the mid-20th Century at Christmas so well. Christmas as experienced by many children in the United States did not change terribly much from the 1930s to the 1980s. If A Christmas Story remains popular, it may be because it reminds many people of the Christmases they experienced in their own childhoods.