Watching Christmas movies is a whole tradition in itself. Every family has its mainstays, whether it’s a cartoon classic from the past or a more modern take on holiday cheer.
Learn some of the great stories behind the stories, so you can view your old favorites with fresh eyes. (And upset everyone with your newly acquired information.)
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a comforting holiday classic now, but some of the people involved in its production thought it would bomb audiences. The 1965 movie was created as a TV special with the financial backing of Coca-Cola, but was put together in just a matter of weeks to meet broadcast demands.
Many of the distinctive aspects of the film, such as the simple animation and unique jazz music by pianist Vince Guaraldi, were a little strange at the time. Director Bill Melendez reportedly stated, “I think we ruined Charlie Brown.”
Lo, all those fears were in vain. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was an instant hit, and all the things the producers worried about making it so weird were the things that made it likable.
1954’s White Christmas is full of behind-the-scenes lore, especially when it comes to the music. Most notable is the fact that Vera Ellen, who played Judy Hynes, never did any vocals of her own. (Her dancing, however, was a different story.) Singer Trudy Stephens provided the voice of Judy.
All of the songs on “White Christmas” were written by Irving Berlin, the legendary songwriter who has written hundreds of hit songs, including “God Bless America.” “White Christmas” is one of his best-known tunes, originally performed in the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn.”
The song “Snow,” sung by the “White Christmas” quartet as they headed to Vermont, was originally called “Free,” written for a musical called “Call Me Madam.” It had a completely different set of words, which Berlin changed to fit the film’s holiday feel.
Do you know the Latin “Sousa?” The term describes the powerful collection of made-up words used by author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. For the 1966 animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the producers wanted the musical feel of a Christmas special, but didn’t want to include elements that seemed out of sync with Seuss’ fantasy world.
Thus, Whoville’s Christmas songs were written in Susie’s style. Viewers even wrote in after the special broadcast asking for subtitles. Unfortunately, “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores” doesn’t actually mean anything. Trimming the tree with “copper balls and whofoo fluff?” Just use your imagination.
Stop motion animation is an art form made with great skill and a lot of patience. The animators who created “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1993 used nearly 400 hand-sculpted heads to bring Jack Skellington to life. In a behind-the-scenes special about the film, the animators explain that each sound and facial expression of Jack requires a different head that can explode in and out of the character’s puppet body. With this kind of hard work, it’s no wonder the movie took three years to complete!
Rudolph may have been a cute little reindeer boy in the 1964 TV special, but he’s brought to life by Canadian voice actor Billy May Richards. Most of the voice actors for this stop-motion classic were actually Canadian because it was cheaper to record the special in Canada. However, in the film’s original credits, Richards is referred to as Billy Richards.
This was not accidental – she was deliberately credited in this way in order to hide her gender. She once said that children wouldn’t believe it when her grandchildren told them she did Rudolph’s voice – but she could prove it by making the voice on the spot.
By all accounts, Michael Caine had a great time working as one of the lonely humans in 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” However, being a giant among puppets comes with some challenges. The lower part of the sets consists of a series of pits to make way for the puppeteers. This meant that Kane and his fellow humans had to walk on planks on top of puppeteers, sort of like an advanced version of “the floor is lava”. (The floor is people, perhaps.)
The set designers also used forced perspective to keep everything proportional – a common trick also used in many theme parks. It also included a cute nod to Caine: One of the signs on the street set said “Micklewhite’s,” which is Caine’s real last name.
Not all movie magic is high-tech. In the 1940s, when It’s a Wonderful Life was made, film crews typically used cornflakes coated as icing. Although it’s melt-proof, it was also… a little crunchy. The film’s director, Frank Capra, decided to try something a little quieter, and settled on a blend meant for his winter scenes: ivory soap flakes, chopped snow, and fumite, a compound used in fire extinguishers. According to the It’s a Wonderful Life museum, if you pay close attention to the scene with Clarence and George in the river, you can see some soap suds pops floating by.
Delight your ears while watching the 1983 comedy “Trading Places”. The classical music heard in the opening scene, and throughout the film, is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Christmas movies and classical music go together like milk and biscuits, (“Ode to Joy” and “Die Hard,” anyone?) but Elmer Bernstein, who scored the movie, was especially smart to add this particular piece.
“The Marriage of Figaro” is a tale of insane misunderstandings, as a servant tries to get the best of him from his arrogant, wealthy employer – similar to how Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy of “Trading Places” exact their revenge on two scheming executives.
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