What Brought These Christmas Movies to Life?
By: Christina Griffin
Christmas movies are a staple of December (or even earlier if you really don’t want to watch one of the two Thanksgiving movies). Sure, you’ve heard of them and laughed along to the funny scenes. But how did they even end on the screen in the first place? How bad did that stunt hurt, filmed in New York or Vancouver (when in doubt, go to Vancouver)? Is that real snow? What connects them all, from the forties to the aughts?
Now, there is the very first Christmas film, simply named Santa Claus. Directed by George Albert Smith and released in September 1898, it was very sophisticated for the era, all packed in under two minutes.
The movie starts with a classic set-up: two children being put to bed on Christmas Eve, excitedly waiting for Santa Claus. The light turns off while the bed is still viewable. Then, a shot of Santa Claus on the roof appears on top of the shot of the bed in the room, the first time overlaying shots have ever happened. Santa Claus walks around on the roof, goes down the chimney, and appears in the room. He comes down holding a Christmas tree, not sure how that’s his job, fills the stockings, and vanishes as quickly as he came. The kids wake up and are delighted to see Santa come into their room last night.
The Technological Feat of an Overlaid Shot in the Short
Speaking of Santa, one of the most iconic classic Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street. Directed by George Seaton and released on June 11th, 1947, it tells the story of a man (Edmund Gwenn) hired at a Macy’s store who claims to be the real Santa Claus. He’s challenged by the daughter of Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the Macy employee who hired the man, Susan (Natalie Wood), who doesn’t believe in Santa.
The idea came when screenwriter Valentine Davies was in a very crowded department store buying his wife a gift. He started to wonder what Santa would think about all this commercialism. The film was worked on for a year and approved by a studio before there was even a title attached. 20th Century Fox considered it a low-budget film, just a little movie about Santa. Maureen O’Hara was contracted to Fox and had been visiting her mother in Ireland, whom she hadn’t seen for years due to WW2, and was called back to New York to film. She was very furious until she read the script, and she thought it was a very beautiful story. Natalie Wood was cast as the young Susan. She was also juggling three other films at the time, each with a different accent. The director got caught in the middle of a Macy's and Gimbel feud (Gimbel was a department store, like Macy’s or JCPenney). In order to use the names of the companies in the film, there had to be approval from both, which could only come when the whole movie was finished. If either company objected, massive reshooting would be needed.
The director was determined to film the parade scene during the actual Macy’s Day Thanksgiving parade that year. The whole crew had to go out into the busy streets of Manhattan with an unfinished script. The studio didn’t want to pay for that, so Seaton said he would because he needed a realistic scene. Scenes had to be done quickly and one takes since the parade wasn’t going to stop for them to reshoot. At peak Christmas shopping season, Macy’s New York City department store had to deal with a massive film crew of over a hundred people. Since the scenes were shot at night, O’Hara and Wood had the chance to mess around and explore the store, trying on various outfits.
Still from the Macy’s Day Parade Scene
Obviously, Gimbel and Macy’s approved of the movie. You may have noticed that the movie was released in the summer. An eager executive wanted the film to come out in June since more people went to the movies and there was a greater chance of box office success. Fox was hesitant about promoting a Christmas movie in the summer and tried to conceal the plot as best they could. The posters mostly showed O’Hara and John Payne, who played Santa’s lawyer, with Gwenn hidden. On the other hand, Santa was just referred to as the “man behind the miracle." There was even a trailer made to make fun of the vague marketing, with different people contradicting each other on what the movie was about, never showing a scene from the film, obviously.
Original Poster Minimizing Santa's Role
The studio didn’t need to worry, though; the movie was a smash hit. Back in those days, movies would run for a week or two, then disappear. Miracle on 34th Street ran for six months, all the way up to Christmas. Three Academy Awards were given to the film, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Old Santa. Gwenn said on stage, “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus." The movie had been remade a few times—two TV movies and one big-budget remake in 1994, directed by John Hughes (the first version I saw of this). Maureen O’Hara said they were all flops, and she’s glad.
Fast forward to a movie that shows Santa in a less positive light. A Christmas Story was released on November 18th, 1983, directed by Bob Clark. It stars Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin. The film is set in the 1940s and tells the tale of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a young boy who only wants a red BB gun for Christmas, though no one else thinks it’s a good idea, always saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out." Jean Shepard was a radio personality who told semi-autobiographical tales. One night, the director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, was driving to pick up a date when he heard Shepard on the radio telling the story of a boy who dared to lick a pole, and his tongue stuck immediately to it. Clark drove around the block and was 45 minutes late to his date just to hear the ending. The movie took 12 years to get produced; MGM only agreed after Clark directed the successful comedy Porky’s. He gave up his salary and spent 150k of his own money to make the movie. Jean Shepard had co-written the film but was a nuisance on set by going behind Clark’s back and was kicked off. He still contributed by playing the narrator and having a cameo as an old man scolding Ralphie for cutting the line to see Santa.
8,000 kids auditioned for the role of Ralphie. Peter Billingsley was the first boy to audition. He had success acting in commercials in New York City. Clark thought he was perfect but didn’t want to be obvious. In the end, they cast him and told him he was the first choice. Toronto was used for the inside scenes and Cleveland for the outside scenes. Cleveland helped out the small movie by leaving up Christmas decorations long past December. But the town didn’t help in one crucial way: there was no snow. It was obtained by shipping snow from ski resorts hundreds of miles away. They also improvised with potato flakes, vinyl particles for falling snow, and the foam that firefighters use, such as in the scene where Ralphie runs from his bully. In a scene where Ralphie imagines himself as a cowboy defending his family with his BB gun, he spits out tobacco juice a few times. That was very real tobacco juice, which caused Billingsley to get sick for an hour. He was given crushed-up raisins after that.
Ralph in His Cowboy Suit
Two things may come to mind when people think of A Christmas Story: the pole and the lamp. In the first one, Ralphie and his friends are outside at recess when one of his friends, Flick, is triple-dogged and dared to lick the pole. He can’t turn that down and licks it, immediately getting stuck. The bell rings, and all the kids rush inside, leaving him there until he’s eventually saved by firefighters. The trick was achieved by creating a tiny hole in a plastic pole that sucked in air. All the kids on set loved it and tried it themselves.
Flick's Tongue Stuck to the Pole
In the second one, Ralphie’s father, “Old Man” (Darren McGavin), wins a prize from a newspaper contest. He opens the massive box and finds a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg with fishnet stockings on. Neither Billingsley nor Ian Petrella, who played Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy, were allowed to see the lamp until that scene. Their reactions in the film were completely real and authentic.
The acclaimed film critic Robert Ebert stated in his review, “My guess is either nobody will go to see it, or millions of people will go to see it.” He wasn’t wrong; it wasn’t a hit, but it had the luck of coming out right when video cassettes became popular. It was displayed in stores since it was the most recent Christmas movie. MGM’s debt is, ironically, what solidified its legacy. The studio sold its library to Ted Turner, founder of networks like CNN, TBs, and TNT. A Christmas Story ended up on Turner’s SuperStation channel, and he thought it was the type of movie to run for years to come. When the station merged with Time Warner, it ran on a 24-hour loop from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, which it still does on TBS today.
There are many live-action movies, but what about the animated ones? Well, many wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Good Ol Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown Christmas is an animated television special (it still counts as a movie; I don’t want to hear it), directed by Bill Melendez and released on December 9, 1965, starring Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, and Tracy Stratford. It’s the story of a boy named Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins), who has been getting sad around the holidays and is suggested by his friend Lucy (Tracy Stratford) to put on a Christmas play at the school. The story is based on the Peanuts comic created by Charles Schulz. The comic was massively popular and first animated in a 1959 Ford commercial. Schulz allowed this after seeing animator Bill Melendez’s ability to replicate the comic’s style. A documentary about the history of the Peanuts was proposed by producer Lee Mendelson, which contained a few minutes of animation. No one bought the documentary, and it was never aired. However, the advertising firm McCann-Erickson was reminded of it after seeing Peanuts on the cover of Time magazine; they also happened to represent Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi was on. Pepsi had increased its television advertising budget by 30 percent and teamed up with Disney for It’s a Small World at the World’s Fair in New York, both in 1964. The ball was in Coca-Cola's court. An Erickson executive asked Mendelson if he could do a Peanuts Christmas special. He said yes, not that Schluz had any idea. Schulz reportedly said, “What’s that?” to which Mendelson replied, “It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow."
First animated Segment of the Peanuts characters
CBS didn’t want the special at first. The president, James Aubry, didn’t like anything that interrupted viewers' expectations for programming. Cartoons were for Saturday mornings. He wasn’t completely baseless; CBS became a popular network under him. Then, due to disputes between executives, he was fired, and Charlie Brown Christmas was greenlit. The crew had six months to make it, and CBS was very inexperienced with specials. I hope that didn’t cause any problems. An ad agency executive had checked in halfway through the production, and it wasn’t looking good. He promised not to report back to the agency so the movie could get made. Schulz had some problems with the network, which didn’t like jazz in a cartoon or the use of untrained child actors instead of adults. Even his own production team had some clashing ideas; Mendelson wanted a laugh track, and Schluz walked out of the room. Mendelson and Melendez didn’t like the scene where Linus (Christopher Shea) recited the Bible verses about the angels informing the shepherds about the birth of Jesus Christ in order to show Christmas was more than commercialism. This was because nothing from the Bible had been animated before; they didn’t think it would fit. Later, he admitted that’s what made the movie great. A screening was held three weeks before the special was set to be aired. Nothing fit; they were worried they had all ruined Charlie Brown. They could somewhat fix the actor’s strange speaking patterns by accompanying them with music, but CBS was disappointed. The special had to be aired since it was on the schedule.
Linus Recites the Bible Verses
Half of all American television viewers tuned in, or about 15 million households. Time magazine said it was a special “that bears repeating." The special won two television awards: an Emmy and a Peabody. Its success led to CBS green-lighting other specials a few years later, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman.
What about a movie about the great values of child neglect and excessive self-defense? Home Alone was released on November 16th, 1990, directed by Chris Columbus and starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. On a hectic Christmas morning, a family goes to the airport and forgets their 10-year-old son Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) at home, who then has to defend the house against burglars using various booby traps. Uncle Buck was a movie that John Hughes produced that Macaulay Culkin had a role in. Hughes liked the kid and decided to cast him in the movie he wrote, Home Alone. Warner Brothers gave the movie a small $10 million budget since there was no bankable star. They found the right house to be the McAllister’s, but it was too small to shoot in. They had set up production offices in an abandoned school. The set for the house’s interior was built in the school’s gym.
The movie was almost shut down when it went over budget. A memo was sent saying nothing more could be cut. Warner Bros. shut down the movie; however, Hughes predicted this might happen and told the president and vice president of Fox about the movie, and they agreed to finance it if Warner Bros. backed out. They found a legal loophole to just deliver the script to Fox for it to be "found." Either way, production didn’t stop, and the movie kept on being made.
And, of course, there was no snow. Potato flakes were used, though they started to get rotten. They kept waiting for snow in order to film the coming home scene, and eventually, a ton of snow came down. That wasn’t the only problem; Joe Pesci, who played Harry, one of the burglars, hated getting to set at 7 a.m.; he liked to play nine rounds of golf in the mornings. After threatening someone, the call time was moved. One actor didn’t get as much leeway. John Candy had a cameo as the polka band leader Gus Polinski, who helps Kevin’s mom (Catherine O’Hara) get home. He was available for one day, which ended up being a 23-hour shoot. Candy was paid 414 dollars, less than the pizza delivery man since it was a favor to Hughes. He was allowed to improvise all his lines; he was the only actor who could.
Gus Polinski Helps Kate McCallister Get Back to Chicago
Of course, this is nothing compared to the stuntmen. All the stunts were done with zero padding. Launching into the air and falling on your back is called "Home Alone” in the industry. They also needed a composer since the original one dropped out. Columbus suggested John Williams as a joke. They then managed to send the movie to him, and he agreed to it.
The movie came out around Thanksgiving. Home Alone was predicted to earn 8 million dollars on opening weekend, but instead earned 17 million, grossing 285 million overall.
The pinnacle of 2000s Christmas movies is Elf. Released on November 7th, 2003, and directed by Jon Favreau. The movie tells the story of Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrel), a human raised in the North Pole who believes he is an elf. He finds out his real father (James Caan) lives in New York City and goes out to find him. The screenwriter David Berenbaum had moved to Los Angeles and thought the heat took away from the magic of Christmas. He watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a nostalgic movie for him and thought about turning Rudolph into a human. He had a contract with a studio to make the movie, but they wanted Chris Farley to play Buddy the Elf, and Berenbaum couldn’t see that at all and waited until the contract expired, then found another studio. A man named Jon Berg offered to be his manager, saying he could get Will Ferrel to play the lead. He played basketball with Ferrel’s agent and managed to get the script passed up to him. Studios passed on the movie, not considering Ferrel a good choice for the lead. He was known for SNL but hadn’t been in any successful movies. Eventually, New Line Cinema took on the film.
They filmed in Manhattan but only had 13 days. All the extras in the scenes were real people walking around, such as when Buddy goes up to a man dressed in red and calls him Santa. They went to Vancouver (obviously) to shoot the North Pole scenes in a giant hockey rink since there weren’t many big sound stages around. Favreau didn’t want any special effects in those scenes; everything was done practically, mostly with forced perspective. Such as when Buddy sits on Papa Elf’s (Bob Newhart) lap. What’s really happening is a kid’s legs going through the chair, and Newhart is sitting ten feet away. This took awhile, and camera operators would have to set up all the shots the night before after all other filming was done.
(Another Example of Forced Perspective Where Everyone is Further Away Than They Appear
Remember how Berenbaum was inspired by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? The legal department thought it was a little too much and was scared of being sued by Rankin and Bass, the creators of that movie. They started hounding people on the set, asking where they got costume ideas from and such. A blue suit was attempted for Buddy, but if they had to go with that, the movie had to be reshot. Some legal negotiation was done, and the movie was allowed to proceed unbothered. Wasn’t the last problem, of course; during a test screen, the ending where everyone gathers together and sings to give Santa some Christmas cheer to power his sleigh was cut. This was because Will Ferrel had just been in a movie called Old School, which was very popular. The studio wanted to re-edit the movie to make it like a regular comedy to appeal to that audience. Favreau managed to stop the studio and restore the original ending.
Its Heart and Christmas Cheer is What Makes Elf so Memorable
The movie was very successful, and don’t worry, Robert Egbert was in a Christmassy spirit, giving it three out of four stars. It has been ranked among the greatest Christmas movies and is certainly one of the best of the 21st century.
No matter how far apart these movies may seem and their varying depictions of Santa Claus, they all have a few things in common. New York City, for one, is often filmed on a soundstage very far away. The desire to tackle the commercialism of Christmas and make everyone remember how it's about family and hope, of course, while making boatloads of money, but all the better to spread some cheer. And as always, Robert Egbert was there, except Miracle on 34th Street, for obvious reasons. While they all may be a bit cliche, they’re all unique in their approaches, which makes them all the best in their genre.
1. Vanity Fair
2. Smithsonian Magazine
3. New York Magazine
4. Youtube: AMC Backstory - Miracle on 34th Street
5. The Movies That Made Us: Episodes 2 and 16