The Ghost of Christmas Past
In Charles Dicken’s classic tale of yuletide fiction, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: Past, Present and Yet to Come. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him of what Christmases were like before he became obsessed with amassing more and more wealth. While the Ghost only shows Scrooge events from his own life, in this modern age we are able to share Christmas happenings in many, many fictional characters’ (and, occasionally, real people’s) lives. Hallmark floods their channel with a plethora of such tales, mostly not worth even one watch. However, certain classics have become so dear to my heart that I try to watch them every year. In that Christmas light, I will give a brief critique of a few of these movies that have stood the test of time. I will not give you a synopsis since I hope you have seen them already or will be inspired to do so and a synopsis would spoil them for you. They are in random order. Just as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, they appear at a time of their own choosing. But they may not be your favorites. If you would like to disagree with me or add your own, feel free to make a comment. I will post it unless it goes against the spirit of Christmas.
I. It’s a Wonderful Life
History: This movie has become so ubiquitous for the Christmas season that it is shown in different languages (French and Spanish) in the Home Alone series. While not a box-office smash when it was released in 1946 (26th out of 400 in 1947 and losing RKO $525,000), it did edge out another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street. Although nominated for six Academy Awards, it only won for Technical Achievement for its snow. However, it was television that made Wonderful Life famous. Although it started being shown in the 1950′s, it was when National Telefilm Associates (who ended up with the film’s ownership) let the copyright lapse in 1974 that it become the most-shown holiday film. Every podunk station and nationals like TBS flooded the airwaves with it. VHS tape makers did the same. The movie was in serious danger of dying from overexposure. In 1993, Republic Pictures regained control by way of owning the film rights to the short story upon which the script was based. Now it is only shown twice a year on NBC.
1. The film is based on a short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern that he couldn’t sell. In 1943, he sent it as an extended Christmas card to 200 friends and, in 1945, self-published it.
2. The snow used in the film was made with such elements as sugar and soap flakes. Previously, cornflakes were used which necessitated the sound track to be made afterwords because of the crunching cereal when the actors walked on them.
3. Although cop Bert and cabdriver Ernie have the same name as two Muppet pals, Sesame Street writer Jerry Juhl claims it was pure coincidence.
4. The scene where the dance floor opened to a swimming pool and everybody takes a dip came about when Capra found out that the gym at Beverly Hills High had that pool under the floor and added it. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Little Rascals was Donna Reed’s disgruntled suitor who pulled the floor away.
5. Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey, was also in another Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife.
6. In 1947, an FBI report stated that the film’s portrayal of Mr. Potter as an evil banker was anti-capitalistic and “this was a common trick used by the communists.” Yet, the film makes the small businessmen heroes who work hard to get ahead, so it is definitely not communistic.
7. There is a sequel scheduled to be released in 2015. Sequels made to follow stand-alone films and books are notoriously bad.
My take: The plot is a bit schmaltzy and predictable, but it does have a strong message that everyone is important and has an impact in the world, knowingly or unknowingly. And, because of the excellent cast and some pretty good lines, it works. I mean, James Stewart, Donna Reed, Ward Bond, and Lionel Barrymore? Wow. The minor characters like Bert the cop, Ernie the cab driver, and forgetful Uncle Billy (Scarlet’s dad from Gone with the Wind) top it off. I must mention that, technically, Clarence was a ghost rather than an angel. But how would it sound to say, “Every time a bell rings a ghost gets his wings?” It is not my favorite, but definitely deserves to be considered a classic. It’s the epitome of a “warm and fuzzy” Christmas movie. It also has a fascinating history and tons of trivia.
II. Miracle on 34th Street
History: Film writer Valentine Davies wrote the story, which he also converted into a novella. Unlike so many Christmas movies that are filmed in summer for release in winter, Miracle was released in May because studio-head Darryl Zanuck felt more people went to movies in the summer than in the winter. Because of that, Santa’s role was downplayed in the pre-release promos. Although It’s a Wonderful Life took a one-place higher standing in box-office by one, Miracle took three Oscars: Edmund Gwenn as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Valentine Davies for Best Original Story and Best Writing, Screenplay. Not bad for a Christmas movie. Although Maureen O’Hara and John Payne are listed as the stars of the show, it is really Edmund Gwenn’s. No wonder he won the Oscar. Perhaps the real miracle was to get the arch-competitors Macy’s and Gimble’s to agree to let their names (and the Macy’s store) be used in the movie.
1. The parade footage is real, from the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Ed Gwenn really was the Santa in the parade and addressed the crowds afterwards in front of Macy’s.
2. The scene where Ed Gwenn speaks Dutch to a war-refugee little girl came about when the director found out that he spoke that language. The little girl also spoke Dutch, but with an American accent.
3. Ed Gwenn gained 30 pounds for the role so that he would have “a round little belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.” When he went up for his Oscar, he quipped, “Now I know there is a Santa Claus!”
4. 8-year-old Natalie Wood actually believed Ed Gwenn was Santa Claus until the wrap party.
5. There are great cameos by character actors Thelma Ritter as a harried mother and Jack Albertson as a mail sorter.
My take: Okay, I love Santa. I believed in Santa as a kid. Ed Gwenn was the perfect Santa, both in looks and in attitude. Sure, the plot is unrealistic, especially in some of the courtroom scenes, but the whole movie is masterfully played by the actors. Again, what a cast! Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Ed Gwenn, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, Gene Lockhart and the inimitable William Frawley. As the political boss who cares about nothing but getting his boy (Judge Harper) re-elected, Frawley steals several scenes. When he says to the judge, “I don’t care what you do with old whisker puss, but if you go back in there and rule that there’s no Santa Claus, you better start looking for that chicken farm right now,” it is the height of expediency. To him, it’s only about how the unions and businesses will react if Santa is declared a phony. Right or wrong, truth or lies, none of that matters. All that matters is staying in power. And that sure hasn’t changed. But in the end, truth, justice and Santa Claus win out. However, unlike most movies with Santa, the watcher is left to decide if Kris is really THE Santa Claus. While the plot may have a couple of holes, it hangs together pretty well. This is the best Santa Claus movie ever made, bar none. I love it and watch it annually.
III. The Bishop’s Wife
History: This film was actually filmed twice. The first time had Cary Grant as the bishop (obviously an Episcopal one, since he’s married) and David Niven as the angel under the direction of William Seiter. Preview audiences hated it. Samuel Goldwyn fired Seiter and brought in Henry Koster as director. The first thing he did was swap Grant’s and Niven’s roles. Grant liked changing from a frumpy bishop to a dapper angel. Teresa Wright was originally the bishop’s wife, but Loretta Young replaced her in the new version. It probably had something to do with the fact that Teresa had become pregnant, which was not in the script. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett did some uncredited rewriting to improve the script. It was released in 1947, a good year for Christmas movies. Although nominated for 5 Academy Awards, it only won for Best Sound.
1. Karolyn Grimes, the bishop’s daughter Debbie, also played Zuzu, George Bailey’s daughter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Busy year for her.
2. Bobby Anderson, the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, played the leader of one of the snowball-throwing teams.
3. At the time of the re-filming, almost a million bucks had already been spent.
4. U.S. Champion ice skater Eugene Turner was Grant’s stand-in for the pond scene. An ice pond/rink was actually built on the set.
5. Cary Grant and Loretta Young did not get along. He was a perfectionist and she was not. Grant halted production at one point so that windows could be properly “frosted” for winter weather.
6. Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Hamilton) also played Henry Higgin’s mother in the movie My Fair Lady.
7. An inferior and boring remake was made in 1996 named The Preacher’s Wife.
My take: There is no other Christmas movie quite like it. It is well written and, although heads toward the expected happy holiday ending, has some interesting twists along the way. Having Dudley (Grant) fall in love with Julia (Young) and have her reject him is one of them. A great cast (which is true of all of these selections) includes Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper and Elsa Lancaster. Some of the throw-away scenes are classic in and of themselves. When the bishop (Niven) visits rich, domineering donor Mrs. Hamilton and gets stuck by the seat of his pants to a recently-varnished chair, he paces impatiently while awaiting a fresh pair of trousers while the chair is literally hanging on behind him. She offers him a seat. He sits down on his attached chair and says, “Thank you, I already have one.” And neither of them crack a smile. In the end, as Dudley watches all the mortals who no longer know him walk into church, there is a poignancy. He is the eternal wanderer, an immortal without a home. There are a few scenes that are overplayed and Loretta Young seems overly naive to not recognize angel Cary Grant’s attraction to her, but the movie is still great. Taken as a whole, it is a favorite of mine.
IV. Holiday Inn
History: While not exactly a Christmas movie (it’s about an inn that is open on holidays), it does start and finish on Christmas. Well, almost. The denouement is on New Year’s Eve. Irving Berlin’s music is the glue for this romp through the holidays and there is a song for most of them, supposedly written by innkeeper Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby). Berlin’s “Easter Parade” had been in a previous movie, but he wrote the rest of them for this movie. It was started before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and finished afterwards, hence the patriotic clips shown during Jim’s song on the 4th of July. The black-face routine for the song “Abraham” for Lincoln’s Birthday has become controversial and has been edited out in some versions. The song “Careful with my Heart” was expected to be the big hit, but “White Christmas” shot to the top of the charts. Interestingly enough, Cosby’s lackluster reaction to the song when he first heard it was, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
1. When Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) stumbles into Jim’s Holiday Inn after being jilted on New Year’s Eve, Astaire actually had two drinks of bourbon before the first take. He had another one before each following take. The seventh (last) take was used in the film.
2. Marjorie Reynolds never made it big on the big screen, but did land the role of William Bendix’s wife in The Life of Riley on TV.
3. When Reynolds was dunked in a creek for the scene where she was riding in a car on the way to the inn, the director told her to dry off in Crosby’s dressing room, the only heated one. Crosby unexpectedly arrived and ordered the shivering Reynolds out.
4. Reynolds danced very well, but Martha Mears was her voice for the singing.
5. The concept of a holiday inn, the set and the song “White Christmas” were used in 1954 for the movie White Christmas. Crosby returned in it, but Astaire opted out after reading the script. Danny Kaye replaced him for that dog.
6. “White Christmas” was the all-time best selling single until 1997, when Elton John’s tribute to Princess Di, “Good-bye, England’s Rose” overtook it.
7. The Holiday Inn motel chain was named after this movie when it was founded in 1952.
My take: The plot is simplistic and predictable, but it’s an enjoyable movie. The singing, the dancing and the sheer fun of it carry the day. There is light-hearted dialogue and the delightful Marjorie Reynolds is a joy to behold, dubbed singing or not. The cast has stars, talented then-unknowns and great character actors: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers and Irving Bacon are all great in their parts. Astaire’s solo dance number, “Say it with Firecrackers,” goes head-to-head with Bing’s “White Christmas” for best-of-show. It’s a sit-back-and-relax show that entertains rather than gives an adrenalin rush.
V. A Christmas Carol
There have been so many films, cartoons, etc., made of this classic Christmas tale that I will devote my next post to this one alone.