Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas recounts the journey that led Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) to write his famous novel A Christmas Carol. Struggling with career doubts and economic pressures, Dickens saw the new book project as a quick way to redeem both his ambition and pocketbook. But in wrestling with his story and its unruly characters, Dickens undergoes a plight not unlike his famous creation, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Dickens finds himself not simply composing a Christmas story, but living one as well, discovering through the process of writing a newfound gratitude for his friends, family, and life and a renewed belief in the power of giving to those in need. The actor Simon Callow, who is also a Dickens scholar, explains how the film, by using fantasy and realism to illustrate Dickens’ profound transformation, “is cinematically and narratively inventive in the same way that A Christmas Carol is narratively inventive.” The spectacular success of Dickens’ volume has led to many more Christmas stories over the years, tales that attempt to capture the magic of the season and our joyful embrace of the Yuletide spirit. As The Man Who Invented Christmas joins the fine tradition of Christmas movies by recounting the story of how Dickens’ novel established the custom, we recall some of our own favorite holiday films.
In many ways the history of how Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life became a holiday classic defines the magic of the season as much as the story it tells. The film’s history began in 1938, when copywriter and part-time historian Philip Van Doren Stern woke from a fevered dream with the shadow of an idea. Over the next few years, he transformed that into a 4,000-word tale called “The Greatest Gift,” a short story that he turned into a holiday present when he could not find a publisher. Printing up 200 copies, he sent his creation out into the world as Christmas cards, with one finding its way magically into the hands of Cary Grant’s agent who took it to RKO Pictures. A few years later Frank Capra bought the scenario for his new company, Liberty Films. It would be both Capra’s and star James Stewart’s first movie after many years of war service, a film that both infused with a fragile belief in peace on earth. But its post-war promise never materialized as the haunting tale of George Bailey (Stewart) learning how much his life matters to others stalled at the box office. Nominated for five Academy Award, it didn’t win any. A few years later, its prestige went from bad to worse when Ayn Rand and other anti-communist ideologues singled out the heartfelt tale of caring for others as anti-American. In its hefty FBI file, the film is accused of being “written by Communist sympathizers,” “attempting to instigate class warfare,” and “demonizing bankers.” But just as its fate seemed as sealed as Bailey’s was atop that snowy bridge, shifting economic and technological forces saved it. By the 1970s, the fact that the film had fallen into the public domain made it a favorite for TV stations looking for free content to run during the holidays. Within a few years, It’s a Wonderful Life was played every December, quickly becoming a centerpiece of family life and a holiday tradition. In 2006, it topped the AFI’s list of America’s Most Inspiring Movies.
Miracle on 34th Street inspired a confidence in its creators that is matched only by the unshakable belief of the film’s young heroine (Natalie Wood) that a Macy’s store Santa (Edmund Gwenn) is the real deal. Valentine Davis, who was inspired to write the story while online at a big department store one Christmas, knew immediately his tale would make a hit film. Writer/director George Seaton agreed, immediately coming up with a workable screenplay. 20th Century Fox Studios’ Darryl F. Zanuck rushed the project through, endorsing the story as “excellent, fresh, exciting and delightful.” Fox cast John Payne as the lawyer defending Kris Kringle, the beleaguered store Santa, and Maureen O’Hara as the Macy’s executive whose daughter stands by Santa to very end. Angry at being forced back from Ireland to make the movie, O’Hara changed her tune once she’d read the script. “It was warm, charming, and sentimental, but more than anything, it captured the spirit of Christmas,” O’Hara writes in her autobiography Tis Herself. “I knew the movie was going to be a hit.” The studio was so certain of the film’s success that they didn’t even get permission upfront from Macy’s or Gimbels, even though both stores are heavily featured in the film. After seeing the film, both companies not only approved, but set up big promotional tie-ins. Wanting to get his movie out as soon as possible, Zanuck made the unprecedented decision to release this Christmas story in June. The movie proved not only a summer hit, but continued to have a box-office success all the way into the holiday season. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it won three—Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Davies), and Best Writing, Screenplay (Seaton). The power of this charming story continued long after its release, going onto be remade several times for TV and cinema, as well as be adapted into a stage play and musical.
Although Michael Curtiz’s hit holiday film White Christmas was release in 1954, nearly a decade after World War II ended, the film’s success, and even its plot, is rooted in that conflict. Bing Crosby first sang the sentimental Christmas carol on the radio in 1941––just weeks after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. While Irving Berlin’s popular song was featured in the 1942 film Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, it really took off when it was added to the Armed Forces Radio playlist, poignantly permitting thousands of soldiers to dream of their own snow-covered homes during the holidays. The song “White Christmas” became so popular that it reigned as the best single of all time for decades (until Elton John’s Princess Diana’s elegy “Candle in the Wind” replaced it). After the war, Paramount wanted to capitalize on the song’s popularity by pushing forward White Christmas, a film that would unite Crosby and Astaire to tell a story about two World War II veterans coming together to help out their old commanding officer. But casting proved difficult. Astaire didn’t like the script, and the studio’s second choice, Donald O’Connor, became sick before he could join the production. Paramount settled on Danny Kaye to avoid losing any more time or money. Rounding out the cast with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, the film, shot with Paramount’s new high-resolution VistaVision process, became a brightly wrapped Christmas gift for audiences. Not only was the film a smash, becoming the top grosser of 1954, but Berlin won an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song—oddly not for “White Christmas,” but for “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” “White Christmas” won twelve years earlier for Holiday Inn.
A Christmas Story, about nine-year-old Ralphie’s (Peter Billingsley) quest to find a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree, became the most unlikely of holiday favorites. Director Bob Clark first imagined the film in 1968 listening to the radio while driving about Miami with his girlfriend. Clark was riveted by Jean Shepherd reading his tale “Flick’s Tongue”—one of the stories from his novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash which became the basis for A Christmas Story’s screenplay. But it would take 16 years, and the unexpected success of Clark’s teen sexploitation films Porky’s and Porky’s 2: The Next Day, before he was in a position to get the modest budget he needed for his Christmas project. To keep creative control, Jones insisted on a low budget, which meant he had to turn down Jack Nicholson for the part that eventually went to Darren McGavin. Shot in Cleveland, Clark took advantage of the city’s rough-hewn look and enthusiastic locals to bring to life depression-era Indiana. Although the film did well when it was released in November, it didn’t do well enough to stay in theaters through Christmas, a fate which could have swept this offbeat holiday tale into the dustbin of history. But after being bought by HBO, the film quickly became a TV favorite. In 1997, TNT hosted a 24-hour marathon of the film, a tradition that continued even after TBS took over the event in 2004. The film became a cult favorite, with the Cleveland house that doubled for Ralphie’s home in the film becoming a popular tourist attraction, selling a range of film-related merchandise including the infamous leg lamp. In 2000, the story was adapted into Broadway musical. For many, A Christmas Story’s enduring power comes from the special way it balances its sentimentality and irreverence, creating a story that, as Gary Sussman writes in Moviefone, “shows the way a child actually experiences the holiday, as an occasion marked by both awe and greed.”
Love Actually’s writer/director Richard Curtis never intended to make a holiday film. Inspired by the multi-character episodic narratives of Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino, Curtis had started developing a film exploring the many splendored nature of love. But as he started weaving together his film’s various narrative threads he decided to set his stories during the holidays. “I love Christmas movies so I thought I’ll make a Christmas movie,” Curtis explained to VH1 News. “It didn’t occur to me that it might be one of those Christmas movies where people actually watch it again and again.” With a massive cast, including Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth and more, Curtis strings his ten tales of love, desire, heartbreak and infatuation around the central theme of the holiday season, filled with drunken parties, gift giving, seasonal songs, and even the crush of travelers at Heathrow Airport. For some, the film’s Christmas sprit lays not just with its decorative background, but also with the generosity of his storytelling. “Slathered in eye-candy icing and set mostly in London at Christmas, [the film] serves sundry slices of love—sad, sweet and silly—in all of their messy, often surprising, glory,” extols USA Today. In any case, the film that never set out to be a Christmas movie topped Radio Times’ 2016 poll of Britain’s favorite holiday movie.
If Jon Favreau’s modern holiday comedy Elf feels as comfortable as an old Christmas sweater, it was engineered that way. In the film, Buddy (Will Ferrell) leaves Santa (Ed Asner) and his family of other elves after learning he has a human father (James Caan), a cranky children’s book editor, in New York City. Originally the script that David Berenbaum pitched in 1993 to Jim Carrey had a much different tone. “It was much darker,” Favreau told Rolling Stone. “For a year, I rewrote the script…The character became a bit more innocent, and the world became more of a pastiche of the Rankin/Bass films.” To ground his holiday world in the flavor of another time, Favreau got permission to reuse imagery and characters from those 60s TV classics, like the stop-motion animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The iconic Burl Ives snowman character became Leon the Snowman. Buddy’s costume was modeled after what elves wore in that 1964 TV special. But there were other allusions as well. Santa’s outfit was inspired by 1950s Coke commercials. Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the classic A Christmas Story, has a cameo as an elf. Even the department store Gimbels, which features heavily in Miracle on 34th Street, was recreated for the film. "We put in any sort of cultural touchstone that would make this film feel familiar," Favreau told IGN. For special effects, Favreau went old school, using forced perspectives and manipulated sets (rather the CGI) to create the size difference between Ferrell and the other elves. Wildly successful at the box office, Elf flew in the face of other more cynical holiday stories—Bad Santa also came out that same year—by having its fruitcake and eating it too. As The New York Times’ A. O. Scott suggests, “The movie succeeds because it at once restrains its sticky, gooey good cheer and wildly overdoes it.”