Watching Christmas movies is a tradition in its own right. Every family has its mainstays, whether it’s an animated classic from yesteryear or a more modern take on holiday cheer.
Get to know some of the fascinating stories behind the stories, so you can watch your old favorites with fresh eyes. (And disturb everyone with your newly acquired anecdotes.)
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is now a cozy holiday classic, but some of those involved in its production thought it would bombard audiences. The 1965 film was created as a television special with financial support from Coca-Cola, but was put together in just a few weeks to meet broadcast demands.
Several iconic aspects of the film, like the simple animation and pianist Vince Guaraldi’s unique jazz score, were a little odd for the time. Director Bill Melendez even reportedly said, “I think we ruined Charlie Brown.”
Lo, all that worry was for nothing. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was an instant hit, and all the things the producers worried about making it too weird were the things that made it beloved.
The 1954 film “White Christmas” is full of behind-the-scenes lore, especially when it comes to music. Best known is the fact that Vera-Ellen, who played Judy Haynes, did not sing herself. (Her dancing, however, was a different story.) Singer Trudy Stevens provided Judy’s voice.
All of the songs on “White Christmas” were written by Irving Berlin, the legendary songwriter who wrote hundreds of hits, including “God Bless America.” “White Christmas” is one of his most famous tunes, and it was originally performed in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn.”
The song “Snow”, sung by the “White Christmas” quartet as they head to Vermont, was originally called “Free” and was written for a musical called “Call Me Madam”. It had a completely different set of lyrics, which Berlin changed to fit the film’s holiday vibe.
Do you know the “seussian latin?” The term describes the robust collection of coined words used by author Theodor 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 would seem out of step with Seuss’ fantasy world.
Thus, Whoville’s Christmas songs were written in the Saussian style. Viewers even wrote in after the special aired asking for translations. Alas, “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores” means nothing. Trim the tree with “bingle balls and whofoo fluff?” Just use your imagination.
Stop-motion animation is an art form forged with exquisite craftsmanship and a lot of patience. The animators behind 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” used around 400 different hand-sculpted heads to bring Jack Skellington to life. In a behind-the-scenes special on the film, the animators explain that each sound and facial expression Jack created required a different head that could be inserted and removed from the character’s puppet body. With this kind of painstaking work, it’s no wonder the film took three years to make!
Rudolph may have been a cute reindeer boy in the 1964 TV special, but he was brought to life by Canadian voice actor Billie Mae Richards. Most of the vocals in this stop-motion classic were actually Canadian because it was cheaper to record audio for the special in Canada. However, in the film’s original credits, Richards is noted as Billy Richards.
It was no accident – she was intentionally credited this way to mask her gender. She once said kids wouldn’t believe her when her own grandkids told them she did the voice of Rudolph — but she could prove it by doing the voice on location.
By all accounts, Michael Caine had a great time playing the role of one of the only humans in 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” However, being a giant among puppets comes with some challenges. The bottom of the sets consisted of a series of pits to make room for the Muppet puppeteers. This meant that Caine and his human companions had to walk on planks above the puppeteers, much like an advanced version of “the floor is lava”. (The floor is people, maybe.)
The set designers also used forced perspective to keep everything in proportion – a common trick that is also used in many theme parks. They also included a nice nod to Caine: one of the signs on the street reads “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 produced, film crews typically used cornflakes painted as snow. Although they didn’t melt, they were also a bit too…crispy. The film’s director, Frank Capra, decided to try something quieter and opted for a custom mix for his winter scenes: ivory soap flakes, crushed ice and Foamite, 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 telltale soap suds floating around.
Prepare your ears by watching the 1983 comedy “Trading Places.” The classical music heard in the opening scene and throughout the film is taken from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro”. Christmas movies and classical music go together like milk and cookies (“Ode to Joy” and “Die Hard,” anyone?), but film-scoring Elmer Bernstein was particularly smart about add that particular piece.
“The Marriage of Figaro” is a tale of mad misunderstanding, in which a servant tries to get the best out of his pompous, wealthy employer – similar to how “Trading Places” Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy take revenge on two executives intriguing.