Check the original poster 20th Century Fox used to promote its 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. It shows Maureen O’Hara and her leading man, John Payne, dominating the foreground while Edmund Gwenn’s Santa is relegated to the back, the far back. In fact, you can hardly make him out. Studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck wanted his seasonal film released in May. His argument was that more people went to the theatres in the summer, not the winter, and he was right. The numbers were proof positive. As a result, all indications of Christmas were immediately removed from the poster. Miracle on 34th Street was considered a summer movie; the Christmas theme in the promotional hype was rarely mentioned.
If you look at the broad yuletide spectrum of Hollywood and the big screen Christmas movie, you’ll see a pattern. There’s a handful of classics from the forties and fifties, but it’s for the smallest of hands. You know the films. They’re shown every year on syndicated TV lead by the perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life, but here’s something interesting. On its initial release, the Frank Capra directed classic struggled to find an audience. Reviews were less than stellar. One industry insider even reports that in 1947 the FBI became interested when it was asserted that the film was really Communist propaganda; it made the banker, Mr. Potter, the villain of the story.
Here’s a fast track through the decades. During the sixties, you can look as much as you want, but in truth, there’s no real Hollywood seasonal movie interest to be found; the studios basically gave up the ghost of Christmas to TV where comedy specials, variety shows, Rudolph and A Charlie Brown Christmas reigned. Even during the seventies, when it came to holiday entertainment, if it was a movie you were watching it was generally designed for the small screen, not the big. But there was a definite breakthrough during the eighties. (We’ll get to that in more detail in just a moment). The nineties brought a steady stream of big screen holiday features to lure audiences away from the TV, even if, generally speaking, quality usually remained absent. Then came the new millennium and Hollywood finally seemed to get a handle.
Does Christmas = Christmas Movie?
Before we get to the specifics and a few recommendations, what would you say is the rule that constitutes a film to be a genuine Christmas movie? Just because its setting is Christmas doesn’t mean that it’s a seasonal movie. We all know that Die Hard takes place at Christmas, but be honest, when you first came out of the theatre during its original run did you really walk back to the car with the thought of sugar plums dancing in your head? If the film hadn’t closed with Vaughn Monroe singing “Let it Snow!” over the end credits you’d have forgotten there was ever a Christmas tree in the Nakatomi building in the first place.
And, please, don’t call Brazil a Christmas movie, either. We all know there are Christmas decorations in the offices, but, seriously, what kind of Grinch would gather the family around a cozy TV screen on Christmas Eve with everyone full of good cheer and hungry for more and then pop Brazil in the DVD player?
Here are the rules, and they’re simple. 1) Taking place at Christmas is certainly important, granted, but not always required. After all, guess what time of year Christmas in July took place. The main aspect is 2) it has to be Christmas themed. The 1970 musical Scrooge naturally qualifies, so does Disney’s One Magic Christmas. Even the obscure and hard to find Holiday in Handcuffs qualifies, though anyone who considers themselves a fan of film and would intentionally subject themselves to that has to be smoking something stronger than just a seasonal cigar.