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Some Trivia About Our Holiday Traditions December 22, 2010

Posted by Dev in Musings.
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Many people consider It’s A Wonderful Life to be the definitive Christmas movie but I never saw it until I was in my thirties. Anyone that tells you they watched it “every year” while growing up was either born after 1970 or pulling your leg. It’s A Wonderful Life has only achieved its lauded status in the past two decades, almost fifty years after it was originally released. When the movie first came out, it wasn’t exactly a flop—it was nominated for five Academy Awards and received a glowing review in Time magazine—but it was not a critically acclaimed success at the time. It didn’t win a single Academy Award—those all went to The Best Years of Our Lives.

A clerical error in the fifties meant that It’s A Wonderful Life went out of copyright in 1974. Suddenly, television stations that had been required to pay royalties for every presentation could show it for free. That’s the reason that suddenly everyone would start seeing Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed every time they flipped on the tube during the holiday season. Small television stations such as WNEW in New York had a field day for about eighteen years and an entire generation of people grew up thinking “This is the holiday movie that reigns supreme.”

The copyright holders took the case to court and eventually received their rights back in 1992. Since then, showings are limited and accorded a respect that a movie that shows up on any number of “Best Films of All Time” lists deserves. Even so, it hasn’t nudged out the film that holds the place of honor in my heart for best Christmas movie. That would be Holiday

Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire was released, bizarrely, in August 1942. We all know it as the movie where White Christmas was sung for the first time—although that wasn’t supposed to be the hit song from the film. That honor was supposed to go to Be Careful, It’s My Heart, the song that Bing sings to his girlfriend, Linda, on Valentine’s Day (while she’s dancing with Fred and leaping through paper hearts). However, in the deep depths of World War II, White Christmas touched a nerve. It went on to win the Academy Award for best original song and become the most popular song of all time—an honor it still holds.

The version that you hear today on the radio, or if you own your own copy, is likely not the 1942 version recorded in 18 minutes for the film. Bing re-recorded it in 1947 as the original masters wore out from so many pressings and re-pressings. Yes, the song was that popular.

Growing up, it was a holiday tradition for my friend Cathy and I to watch Holiday Inn and the 1954 remake, White Christmas. When I moved to Maine in 1980, I was delighted to discover that Dana Hershey, host of The Movie Loft on Channel 38, WSBK (from Boston) loved Holiday Inn as much as me and granted it a showing of honor on Christmas Eve. Imagine my amazement when I watched it that year and discovered that for all my life, I had watched it with an entire scene censored out!

If you recall the story, it follows the travails of showman Jim Hardy who owns an inn in Connecticut that is open on “holidays only.” Each scene is a holiday, with a song and dance routine and music by Irving Berlin. For Lincoln’s Birthday, Jim decides Linda needs to wear blackface and they sing what would be considered by today’s standards, a somewhat racially offensive song. Well, I guess by the standards of the 1960s in New York, too since I never saw the scene! It is actually pivotal to the movie as Jim and Linda get engaged (sort of) right before he starts putting the make-up on her. Without that scene, I never quite understood how the romance was progressing. It was nice to finally have that mystery cleared up!

A few more bits of trivia:

  • In the New Year’s Eve drunk scene, Fred Astaire was really drunk. He was drinking bourbon before each take and the seventh take was used in the movie.
  • The firecracker scene for July 4th (one of my favorites) required three days of rehearsal and two days to film. Fred’s shoes from that scene were auctioned off for $116,000 of war bonds.
  • The set of the movie was re-used fourteen years later to film White Christmas.
  • The scene at the end where they pull back and show the actual set and cameras was innovative and original—that had never before been done.
  • And last, but not least, the chain of Holiday Inn motels, founded in 1952 by Kemmons Wilson, were named after the movie.


Another must-see for our family has always been A Charlie Brown Christmas. Released in 1965 it broke new ground in many ways: it was animated with an adult-sounding jazz track; it used child actors to voice the characters, not adults imitating children; and it did not include a laugh track, a staple of shows during that time. The biblical references—Linus’s speech during the rehearsal of the Christmas play—was controversial but Charles Schulz was adamant that it be included. “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?” he said.

None of the actors were credited in the show although who they are is documented and known. Kathy Steinberg, who voiced Sally, couldn’t even read, and had to be fed her lines word-by-word. That’s the reason her big line, “All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share,” sounds the way it does.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been shown every year since its debut in 1965. Is it the longest running Christmas special? No, that honor would go to Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer which was released in 1964.

One other bit of trivia: A Charlie Brown Christmas sounded the death knell for the aluminum Christmas tree market. Lucy tells Charlie Brown to go buy a nice aluminum tree, “Maybe painted pink.” At the tree lot, Linus knocks on a tree and comments, “This really brings Christmas close to a person,” and Charlie Brown replies, “Fantastic.” Up until that time, aluminum trees, first manufactured in 1958, had been quite popular. After the show, sales dropped dramatically and they ceased being made in 1967. Out of curiosity, I priced a few on eBay. A brand-new, still in the box vintage tree can be yours for $500, if you’re the lucky bidder. Hmmm….


And last, a little bit of music trivia. As I noted above, White Christmas is from Holiday Inn and was reprised in White Christmas. Some favorites from various musicals include:

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Meet Me in St. Louis

We Need a Little Christmas – Mame

Then we get to the slightly more obscure:

Turkey Lurkey Time – Promises, Promises

Hard Candy ChristmasThe Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

And last, but not least…

Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher from Billy Elliott, which I somehow doubt will be showing up on anybody’s “Best of Christmas” compilation CD, even if it was written by Sir Elton John!