It’s easy, I think, to labor under the illusion that all of our favorite holiday films have somehow always existed, that they sprung fully formed from the primordial ooze, as if God, after realizing what a hopeless existence he doomed us to, said, “Oh jeez, you guys. My bad. Here’s some feel-goods.”
But even these touchstones of our childhoods have something of the nitty-gritty to them, some apocrypha that merits telling, if only to make us appreciate them even more. So here are a few little-known facts about your (or, who are we kidding, my) favorite Christmas films.
- The Crew of “A Christmas Story” Actually Stuck Flick’s Tongue to that Pole
“A Christmas Story” is chock-full of iconic moments and immortally quotable lines, perhaps none more so than the scene in which a group of boys taunts Flick into sticking his tongue to a flagpole to see if it will stick. The “exact exchange of nuance and ritual” with regards to “double” and “triple-dog” daring each other is what really makes the scene, but actual payoff — Flick’s tongue, of course, becoming stuck to the flagpole — is played to hilarious effect by all involved.
Because it kind of actually happened. In a book detailing the film’s production, cast and crew members own up to pranking the hell out of a pubescent boy. See, to achieve the tongue-sticking effect, the crew ran a vacuum through a hollowed-out pole, then drilled a tiny hole in the exterior to create suction. Scott Schwartz, the actor playing Flick, would stick his tongue onto the hole, thereby achieving the effect. It wasn’t enough to hurt him, but was strong enough to hold his tongue in place.
Schwartz knew all this, had been briefed on it, and was cool with it. But when the scene was over, director Bob Clark — who, I guess not surprisingly, had filmed the “Black Christmas” horror flick just prior to this — called “Cut,” then sent the crew off for a lunch break, leaving Schwartz with his tongue stuck to the pole, probably flailing around exactly as he did in the film. There’s probably a joke to be made about Schwartz’ subsequent porn career, but I’m above that, at least when I’m sober.
- “It’s a Wonderful Life” was Initially Famous Only for the Snow
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a shockingly polarizing film today, with about half of American lauding it as the greatest Christmas movie ever made, with the other half decrying it as two hours of milquetoast propaganda. Honestly, it’s kind of a minor miracle that a movie about a man driven to suicide became a holiday family classic, but that’s neither here nor there.
What people forget, however, is that the film was a complete bomb when it was first released. Remember, this was immediately post-WWII, and the entire country was a little disillusioned with… well, everything in general. People were beginning to realize that, every so often, life DOESN’T wrap itself up with a big fat bow, so director Frank Capra, famous for similarly rose-colored classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “You Can’t Take it With You,” was kind of up sh*t creek when he even decided to start making the movie.
But you know what people did love? The SNOW. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards (but, y’know, so was “Crash”), but the only one it nabbed was for Technical Achievement. RKO Pictures had developed a new chemical method for creating the falling snow in the winter scenes; they did this because snow in movies was typically created by crushing up white-colored corn flakes, and the studio wanted to ease the hassle of dubbing in dialogue later on that had initially been drowned out by the actors walking around on mounds of crunchy breakfast cereal.
I like to think that this movie and “White Christmas” populate a shared universe where the song “Snow” is about this, because it’s the only reason I can think of that Irving Berlin would let that one make the cut. Or cocaine. Maybe cocaine.
- “The Muppet Christmas Carol” Featured a Grab-Bag of Technical Tricks
It may not seem like it at first, but any full-length production involving a combination of puppets and live actors is bound to require some ingenuity and elbow grease. And so it was with this supremely underrated version of Charles Dickens classic Christmas ghost story, starring Michael Caine, the Muppets and literally no one else who matters. Caine, despite having to act, engage and emote with a bevy of polyester co-stars, is arguably the greatest Scrooge to ever grace the screen, and the Muppets are as charming and heartfelt as ever.
Also, the film features some impressive technical achievements that you probably never noticed or assumed. Take, for instance, the musical numbers bookending the film: “Scrooge” and “Thankful Heart.” Caine merrily minces his way through the streets of London, interacting with both live actors and puppets, all fairly seamlessly. But here’s where it got tricky: the dozens of puppets were controlled by dozens of puppeteers, all located right beneath Caine’s feet. Not only that, but they had to stand or crouch in recessed cubbies cut into the floor of the set. So for that entire time, Caine is hitting his marks, delivering dialogue, singing and dancing, all while avoiding shin-kicking the puppets or stepping on anyone’s head.
Later, Scrooge is visited by the first ghost: Christmas Past, here portrayed by an ethereal, cherubic embryo-type child that is, holy crap, a lot creepier now that I think about it. It looks like CGI, but it’s not: to achieve the effect, the puppet was first suspended in a tank of water, its movements recorded, then finally green-screened into the actual scene with Caine.
Perhaps most impressively, when Bob Cratchet (Kermit) and Tiny Tim (Robin) are walking through the street, singing on the way home, it took a team of several different puppeteers to make that happen. See, Kermit’s legs are fully visible, which is unusual and difficult for this type of shot. So a rotating walkway was constructed, and a gang of puppeteers, operating Kermit’s torso, head, mouth, and legs, to achieve the walking effect.
- No One Except Irving Berlin Thought Much of “White Christmas” at First
It’s the best-selling single of all time, let alone the most popular holiday song of all time. Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas,” whatever you may think of it, is an absolutely immortal tune, a staple of the season, and only slightly less depressing than “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” And almost no one thought much of it.
Songwriter Irving Berlin sure did; when he originally jotted down a rough draft of the song, he reportedly summoned his secretary and said “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!” Berlin introduced the song through Bing Crosby in 1941 for the latter’s Christmas Day recording of “The Kraft Music Hall.” Crosby famously said of the song when he first heard it: “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
Initial sales backed that up. It performed poorly, overshadowed by “Holiday Inn’s” other singles, but it rocketed up the charts the following year, and the rest is history: it went on to inspire an eponymous sequel of sorts to “Holiday Inn,” and made Crosby all of the money, ever. Bing remained fairly dismissive of the song, saying that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it,” because snippy jabs were hilarious in America’s golden age.