Monday, December 18, 2017

two rude questions about "christmas" movies

First Question:

When did "A Christmas Story" become "an iconic film"?  I guess I could ask the same about the equally lacking "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" which has also experienced that elevated status. I remember both films as being eminently forgettable and actually quite disposable.

But "A Christmas Story," released in 1983, comes immediately to mind because of the Fox channel's recent staging of the film's 2012 stage musical adaptation - an event that had been preceded by endless media coverage and promotions in which the word - yes - "iconic" was invoked.

I recall when that word was reserved for something of the stature of "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Vertigo," but "A Christmas Story"? Really?

Directed by Canada's Bob Clark from the Jean Shepherd novel, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," the nostalgic movie was one of those works that is only a modest success theatrically but is discovered - and takes on a new life - in another medium. In this case, it was repeat showings on the cable channel TBS (or is it TNT?), becoming something of a television cult movie. Some people couldn't get enough. I don't get it.

When the musical version opened on Broadway, it was with little fanfare and was presented only as a "limited engagement."  It snagged a Tony nomination as best musical after it closed but didn't win. And it didn't matter because the show, like the film, would find its success far away from the usual limelight - this time, in regional theaters in the middle of the country. Again, people - the good denizens of the hinterlands - couldn't get enough of it.

But why? I got my answer when I caught a production number on a telecast - most likely The Tony Awards of 2013 - that involved a chorus of little boys brandishing toy rifles and singing about the glory of guns.

Wow. A right-wing musical. The material's appeal as both a film and a stage musical, which had evaded me, suddenly made sense.

I tried watching Fox's telecast - I'm a movie-musical  freak, after all - but couldn't take it. After about an hour, I switched over to Turner Classic's screening of Albert Brooks' "Real Life." Much better. Instant relief.

"A Christmas Story Live!," as it is urgently titled, takes the flimsy plot of the movie and stuffs it with overbearing. mediocre songs. Nothing's worse than an unctuous child actor with a trained singing voice and most the songs were sung by unctuous child actors with trained singing voices.

Everything they trilled sounded like "Tomorrow" from "Annie."

As advertised (and as the new title implies), "A Christmas Story" was played and aired "live," although it didn't feel or look "live" at all.

Dead would be more like it.

Second Question:

When did "The Sound of Music" officially become a Christmas movie? It has nothing to do with Christmas. There's not even one throwaway holiday scene in it. And yet, it's become ABC's annual holiday showing, with the network scheduling it in a whopping four-hour - 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. - slot.

It wasn't that long ago when ABC (which seemingly has lifetime TV rights to the film) routinely butchered the three-hour movie (actually, two-hour-and-54-minutes) to fit into a three-hour time slot that included at least a half-hour (probably more) of commercial breaks. Of course, this was before someone upgraded the film from merely iconic to sacrosanct.

How the film, which had a rather inauspicious start, became iconic/sacrosanct is interesting. When "The Sound of Music" opened on Broadway in 1959, its composers Rodger and Hammerstein were winding down and clearly needed one last big fat hit before they called it quits.

Their ploy was to slavishly reboot a previous hit, "The King and I." If you look closely, you'll notice that "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" are the same show. But R&H shamelessly went a step further with a surefire formula that few people could resist - Nuns, Nazis and kids.

Despite at best respectable reviews (Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times was "disappointed that it succumbed to the clichés of operetta"), the show was an audience hit and somehow won the Tony for best musical of the season (besting "Fiorello" and "Gypsy"). Fox purchased the film rights and turned the property over to director Robert Wise (fresh off "West Side Story"), writer Ernest Lehman and music consultant Saul Chaplin. They Disney-fied the material, giving it a big - nay, an elephantine - contour.

Three of the show's better songs were dropped, replaced by a couple non-entities written by the complicit Richard Rodgers. (Oscar Hammerstein, long gone by now, had no say in the matter.) Like the play, the film opened to less than enthusiastic reviews, a few downright scathing.

Bosley Crowther, of The New York Times, devoted his initial review and a subsequent Sunday column to complaining about the corniness of the film and its pervasive mawkishness. Not good. Pauline Kael was famously fired by McCall's when she called the film "The Sound of Mucous." Kael referred to “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat. We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” Fired? She deserved a bonus.

By the way, Kael's catchy retitle of the film, "The Sound of Mucous," has also been attributed to the film's embarrassed star, Christopher Plummer, although in recent years, he has exhibited only the highest regard for the movie whenever it celebrates an anniversary of its release.

Not surprisingly, despite the carping by what the filmmakers called elitist critics, the film managed to snag a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture - and actually won (!).  Of course, this was an era when roadshow musicals dominated the Oscars, often triumphing - "Gigi,""West Side Story," "My Fair Lady," "Oliver!" and "Funny Girl."

Even "Doctor Dolittle."

Yes, times have changed. And so has The N.Y. Times, whose capsule for the movie in its TV listng doesn't quote, or even reflect, Crowther's opinion of it - ★ Recommended Film: "Splendid all around, from scenery to score."

And before it took on the status of beloved film (and then iconic film and finally sacrosanct film), it also became a joke among moviegoers, to the detriment of star Julie Andrews' career. After making "Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie," she was abandoned by her audience. Her other collaboration with Wise, "Star!," was a huge financial and critical flop (despite being excellent) and she experienced a period when she was considered persona non grata among audiences and box-office poison for studios ("The Tamarind Seed" and "Darling Lili").

In the late 1960s-early '70s, both she and "The Sound of Music" were decidedly uncool.

Andrews had a good supporting role in husband Blake Edwards' "10" in 1979, but she really didn't bounce back until "Victor/Victoria" (also by Edwards) in 1982, 15 years after "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

At the time, it was called "The 'Sound of Music' Curse." No one remembers any of this now. And "curse" is one word that would never be attributed to the film these days. No, the word would now definitely be "sacrosanct."

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu and ... Merry Christmas!

Note in Passing: The stage versions of "The Sound of Music" and "A Christmas Story" share a common fact. Both played the Lunt-Fontanne Theater when they opened on Broadway. Fifty-five years apart.

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(from top)

~Robert Wise directing (from Left) Angela Cartwright, Duane Chase and Charmian Carr in "The Sound of Music," while make-up artists attend to the young stars; Carr looks none-too-happy as she seemingly glares at Wise.
 ~photography: Twentieth Century Fox 1965©

Peter Billingsley with his Red Ryder B.B. gun in the film of "A Christmas Story"
 ~photography: MGM 1983©


mike schlesinger said...

I'm okay with "A Christmas Story" being called iconic. From B.O. flop to beloved institution is a rare leap, and it clearly has struck a chord with people to warrant the 24-hour treatment. Further, it consolidated the idea of eating Chinese at Christmas (even though the family isn't Jewish), and managed to be both sentimental and a bit cynical at the same time--no easy feat. Considering how many Christmas movies are drenched in schmaltz, ACS is, to my mind, a refreshing blast of sanity (plus it does a swell job of recreating the period on what was not a substantial budget).

Now what I want to know is, how does a picture that's essentially film noir and has nothing to do with the holiday except for the fact that the final scene takes place on Christmas Eve become some kind of Christmas-movie apex? You know the one I mean.

joe baltake said...

Mike! Wow. Actually, double wow.

First, re your take on "A Christmas Story," you've humbled me and make we want to reconsider the film. (I think.) Anyway, an especially good argument on the movie's behalf.

And, yes, why the hell is "It's a Wonderful Life" (that's the title, right?) considered a Christmas film? It's more dark than light, which also hardly qualifies it as a "feel-good" movie. In a word, Oy!


Tish said...

Yes, I remember when ABC made wholesale cuts for its telecast of "The Sound of Music" and it always involved the music, prompting a friend to call it "The Sound of Nothing." It played the cut version several years in a row before showing it uncut.

Paul Margulies said...

A few memories or thoughts or brain farts...

Sound of Music played for something like 125 weeks as a "roadshow" engagement in Philadelphia (even after it had gone to wide release).

Along with Sound of Mucous, I remember one of the songs being called "Climb Mary Martin" amongst the broadway crowd and "Joe, a Deer" being sung by the crowd at a semi-gay piano bar in the Village.

If "A Christmas Story" became a hit "right-wing" musical in the hinterlands, just remember that those are the same people who voted for the current occupant of the White House, so there's no accounting for taste.

CBS, for years, played "Wizard of Oz" as an annual "Christmas movie" and like SoM has absolutely no reference to Christmas in the movie. "It's a Wonderful Life" has a plot line around Christmas, at least.

As for trimming movies for time-slots, the worst examples that I can remember in my life was Channel Six in Philadelphia. As the joke goes, they could turn "My Fair Lady" back into Pygmalion to fit their late night movie slots. I do remember they ran "Robin and the Seven Hoods" and actually cut out Sinatra's "My Kind of Town" number.

Happy Whatever Day!

Paul Margulies

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Paul!

Yes, with musicals, the songs are always the first to go. Which makes no sense at all, given that songs are what make a musical a musical.

As for "It's a Wonderful Life," as Mike Schlesinger has pointed out, only the final scene - about two minutes at most - is devoted to Christmas. The rest of the film has nothing to do with the holiday.


Marvin said...

Most enjoyable but I must confess that I have always liked THE SOUND OF MUSIC - and always DESPISED A Christmas Story.

k.s. said...

The Sound of Music is a Christmas movie??? What? No one told me!

Charlotte said...

"Nuns, Nazis & kids." I love it, Joe!

Bill from Philly said...

Joe, are you saying that "Dr. Doolittle" was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar????

joe baltake said...

Yes, Bill.

mike schlesinger said...

I think the reason that pictures like OZ and SOUND play during the holidays is that the networks cling to the notion that families will gather around the set to watch a classic film intended for everybody young and old. That made sense in the era of Ed Sullivan, but now it's a dated notion. Nevertheless, people must still watch, otherwise they wouldn't keep running them.

Re dropping musical numbers: Occasionally the best numbers get cut because they don't involve the leads. I saw MY SISTER EILEEN several times on TV, but the first time I saw it in a theatre, I was gobsmacked by the challenge dance in the alley by Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall, which had always been cut. Ditto the big tap number by Vera-Ellen and John Braschia in WHITE CHRISTMAS and even "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" from KISS ME, KATE.

Bill: Yes, astounding as it may seem in the year of BONNIE & CLYDE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE GRADUATE, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE was indeed nominated for Best Picture. Even more horrifying, "Talk to the Animals" won Best Song, while "In The Heat of the Night" wasn't even nominated!

joe baltake said...

Yes, Mike, the TV stations on this side of the world also routinely cut the great Fosse-Rall competition number from "My Sister Eileen."

BTW, back in 2012, I devoted a full month to great dance numbers from movie musicals, starting off with that number from "Eileen." Here's the link:


Can’t believe the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” edit.


Near-Genius Nephew said...

"Nuns, Nazis & Kids"--wasn't that the never-filmed sequel to "Planes, Trains & Automobiles"?? :-)

Happy holidays--anyway!

Don Malcolm