CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST upon us, which means mulled wine, carols, mince pies, family squabbling, crackers, silly paper crowns and arguments about what to put on the telly. In the midst of all this joyous chaos, it’s nice to be able to sit back and enjoy a Christmas movie. Nothing guarantees peace on Earth quite like a holiday classic.
But what exactly counts as a Christmas movie?
That’s sure to start a big family argument of its own. Does the film have to be set at Christmas? Does it have to tackle suitably Christmassy themes? Is it enough to watch a film that was released at Christmas? Or it might be a bit easier than all that. It could simply be a film associated with the holiday as fixture on the television schedule.
Ask ten different people, and you’ll get ten different answers. For example, does the Yuletide setting of this year’s Iron Man 3 a future Christmas classic, despite being released in April? (It helps that the movie’s release happened to conveniently ensure it will be a Christmas Day premiere on Sky Movies. Although it’ll always be second to the underrated Batman Returns when it comes to festive superhero hijinks.)
The role of television
More traditional individuals among us will point to true holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz as perennial festive family favourites. Not entirely coincidentally, Sky have scheduled the screening of the prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful for a channel premiere on 20 December.
Indeed, it seems like television plays a large role in determining what we deem to be “Christmas movies.” The history of television as a mass medium was perfectly timed for it to shape and define movie-viewing for the baby boomer generation. It’s interesting to note that cinema attendance peaked in 1946, before beginning a decline that (broadly speaking) continues to the present day.
The advent of home media really changed the media game. As television (and later video) became more prevalent, why would families pay to go to the cinema when they could get entertainment for free at home? The entire family could sit around the set together, without having to organise to leave the house or pay for tickets. There was no need to purchase snacks or even to observe cinema etiquette.
In the United States, television ownership exploded during the fifties. Something similar happened in the United Kingdom. The Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was the first television event in British history. In 1954, the Television Act allowed for the establishment of commercial British channels.
So, by the end of the fifties, television had changed the way that people consumed media, and – as a result – it shaped the perceptions of an entire generation. The Wizard of Oz was released in cinemas in August, 1939. Its initial theatrical release was not a major commercial success – earning $3m against a budget of $2.8m. So, how did The Wizard of Oz become such a holiday classic?
A cinematic re-release in 1949 helped boost the film’s box office substantially, earning an extra $1.5m in revenue. However, The Wizard of Oz went on to become something of a fixture of Christmas broadcast schedules. It was first broadcast on television in November 1956. However, the link with Christmas was firmly established by subsequent broadcasts.
The Wizard of Oz wasn’t broadcast again until 1959, but it was broadcast between Thanksgiving and Christmas between 1959 and 1962. It’s worth noting that The Wizard of Oz was one of the rare colour broadcasts for CBS at the time, and so it must have seemed especially exotic to television audiences.
(It undoubtedly helps that The Wizard of Oz hits on a few of the big themes associated with Christmas movies. Returning home and reuniting families is perhaps the most universal of Christmas movie themes, tying together Christmas films as disparate and diverse as Die Hard and The Wizard of Oz and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)
It’s a Wonderful Life has more of an obvious claim as a Christmas movie, being set and released at Christmas and playing to the spiritual themes associated with the holiday. (Frank Capra himself has argued that he made it “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”) And yet it plays out a story similar to The Wizard of Oz.
The film was far from a financial success on theatrical release, posting losses of half-a-million dollars at the box office. Television rehabilitated It’s a Wonderful Life with a string of airings in the late 1970s. Capra himself confessed to being astounded by how its presence in television schedules had turned it into a true holiday classic.
(Indeed, the success of the film on seventies television is probably what has prompted such a fascination with colourising it, with no less than three attempts made. Far from remaining faithful to the film’s roots as a piece of forties cinema, there seems to be a sense that it should be treated as a piece of seventies television; the troubling assumption that colour is its rightful state.)
Of course, everybody has their own holiday favourites, and the beauty of Christmas films is the diversity on offer. Tim Burton’s “Christmas outsider” trilogy offers a suitable counterpoint to all that festive cheer. Bad Santa is subversive fun. Elf demonstrates that we’ve not lost the capacity to make an earnest and moving Christmas story. There is something for everybody, depending on your own tastes and preferences.