How the Movies Invented Christmas
This article was a weekend read in the Wall Street Journal before Christmas this year. As believer, we must be careful where we get our source for the meaning of Christmas. Most of our thoughts on Christmas come from Hollywood movies, which have no trace of any Biblical content. Enjoy you favorite Christmas movies this week, but be sure you realize that many of them have nothing to do with Christmas. Many should actually not be given the label of Christmas movie,
By Terry Teachout
What is Christmas, anyway? For those who don’t celebrate the birth of Christ yet still trim a tree on December 25, it’s…well, complicated. Christmas is, after all, a specifically Christian holiday, albeit one briefly banned by the 17th-century Puritans (too much popery and public drunkenness), and at which the neo-puritanically inclined and the chronically grinchy persist in looking askance (too much unregulated joy). How, then, did it metamorphose into The Most Wonderful Time of the Year™, a commercially sanctioned opportunity for everyone in America, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, pagans, agnostics and atheists, to take the day off, eat to excess, sing sappy songs and spend money they may or may not have on gifts they may or may not feel naturally inclined to give?
Chalk it up to Hollywood—and Charles Dickens.
I exaggerate, but not by much. It is a well-attested historical fact that the publication of “A Christmas Carol,” the best-loved book by the best-selling English-language novelist of the 19th century, had the unintended consequence of reintroducing Christmas to countless Britons and Americans who had stopped observing the holiday. And its influence continues to be felt: Dickens’s 1843 novella has been adapted more than three dozen times for film and television since 1901 (Bennett Miller is currently working on a new screen version with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard). Moreover, the vast majority of America’s most popular Christmas films contain plot twists that are derived, at one or more removes, from “A Christmas Carol.”
What explains its enduring appeal to filmmakers? It is, first and foremost, a rattling good story. But it is also a secular story, one that offers skeptics a nonreligious route to spiritual renewal. To be sure, the spooky tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas-eve visitation by a tag team of spirits from the great beyond appears at first blush to be a thoroughly Christian parable of the power of grace to melt the hearts of men. It turns out, though, that the “religion” to which Scrooge is converted is what would later be dubbed the “social gospel,” a strain of liberal Protestantism whose premise was that there would be no Second Coming until the faithful started taking proper care of the poor. In case you hadn’t noticed, no one in “A Christmas Carol,” not even the reformed Scrooge, is actually shown going to church, just as none of the holiday festivities described in the book has any explicitly religious content. To the extent that the birth of Christ figures at all in Dickens’ portrayal of Christmas in London, it is as mere pious window-dressing.
That’s where Hollywood comes in. While the first American film version of “A Christmas Carol” appears to date from 1908, it wasn’t until the 1930s that American producers, especially at MGM, started releasing idealized screen portrayals of contemporary middle-class families, beginning with “A Family Affair” (1937), the first of the Andy Hardy movies. Needless to say, Christmas was very much a part of their lives. Therein, however, lay a potential trap, for virtually all of Hollywood’s studio chiefs (including Louis B. Mayer, the second “M” in MGM) were Jewish immigrants who were all too painfully aware that anti-Semitism was tightly woven into the fabric of American life.
How, then, to work Christmas into their movies without raising hackles? They split the difference by portraying Christmas in a sincere but secular manner, and their precedent for doing so was “A Christmas Carol,” in which Scrooge is redeemed not through the operation of divine grace but by his embrace of the social gospel. Sure enough, Hollywood’s first full-length sound version of Dickens’s story, starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge, was released by MGM in 1938, the same year as “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” which takes place at Christmas.
“A Christmas Carol” served as the template for many future commercial films about Christmas, in which the central character, a dry, unhappy soul, is delivered from his or her misery by a mysterious force known as the Spirit of Christmas. This force, usually conjured up by the performance of a charitable act, is capable of making nasty people nice (“Bachelor Mother,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner”) and causing pretty young things to fall in love (”Christmas in Connecticut,” “The Shop Around the Corner”). On occasion the template was jettisoned, as in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), where Christmas is presented not as a font of individual redemption but as part of the yearly calendar of middle-class domestic life. But even those Christmas movies that purport, like “The Bishop’s Wife,” to contain a religious element are typically at bottom secular tales driven by the tireless engine of romance.
To fully appreciate how secular most classic Christmas movies are, it helps to look at two that aren’t. John Ford’s “3 Godfathers” (1948) is an allegorical recounting of the biblical Christmas story in which John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr. and Pedro Armendariz play a trio of gun-toting, bank-robbing Wise Men who stumble across a pregnant woman stranded in the desert, deliver her newborn baby and unselfishly put their own lives at risk to bring it to safety. Unlike Ford’s other westerns of the period, “3 Godfathers” is rarely shown on TV (though it did turn up this month on Turner Classic Movies), and few critics have much use for it. But while they’re right to look askance at Ford’s unabashed sentimentality, which is on display throughout the film, I have a feeling that the equally unabashed religiosity of “3 Godfathers” has more to do with the bad critical odor in which it is held.
Ford was, of course, a Roman Catholic. So was Frank Capra, the director of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which in recent years has become the best known of all Christmas movies. Only modestly successful when it came out in 1946, the film accidentally went out of copyright in the 1970s and thereupon became a staple of Christmas-week programming at budget-conscious TV stations. Because it could be telecast for free, a younger generation of viewers were able to make the acquaintance of George Bailey (James Stewart), a small-town banker who takes a header into the slough of despair on Christmas Eve and gives serious thought to suicide. He is rescued by Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), a thick-witted but good-hearted angel-in-training who contrives to save the day by showing George what the world would be like had he never been born. Annual repetition has turned a long-forgotten film into a holiday icon as ubiquitous as “Jingle Bells.”
‘Miracle on 34th Street’ was a big hit precisely because it made no spiritual demands on its viewers.
To read the original reviews of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to be struck by how completely the critics of 1946 misunderstood it. “I suppose it’s all meant to show that there’s nothing like a real American boy for bringing out the good in the worst of us—perhaps a sound proposition but hardly one that improves by being enunciated in terms so mincing as to border on baby talk,” the New Yorker smirked.
Billy Bob Thornton in ‘Bad Santa’ (2003) PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION
Not so those who see the film for the first time today. They are far more likely to notice its darkness, a quality well caught by David Thomson in the entry on Capra in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film”: “In America, ‘Wonderful Life’ was an institution, all over the TV airwaves at Christmas, bringing good cheer without quite letting us forget a vision of dread. For happiness here was pursued by the hounds of living hell; the American dream was so close to the nightmare. The film that failed…had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity and the temptation of suicide. How could so many people convince themselves that it was cheery?”
No Hollywood actor of the studio era could have played George Bailey as believably as James Stewart. Though he liked to play the gangly, genial, All-American good guy, it was Stewart’s own dark side—openly neurotic, terrifyingly intense and toughened by his heroic service as a bomber pilot in World War II—that brought such wildly disparate postwar films as “Vertigo” and “Winchester ‘73” to blazing life. Small wonder that such a man should have unerringly found the ragged edge in the soul of the frightened banker who finds himself clutching at the end of his well-worn rope.
Strikingly, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is as unapologetically religious as “3 Godfathers.” While Dickens went out of his way to call his angels “ghosts,” Capra dispenses with that transparent disguise. Clarence is clearly identified at the beginning of the film as an angel who is dispatched from heaven to stop George from “throwing away God’s greatest gift.” To be sure, Capra’s Christianity is the all-purpose Hollywood kind, denuded of divisive doctrinal specifics: George even makes a point of mentioning that he’s “not a praying man,” the obligatory disclaimer whenever a Hollywood star dares to pray on screen. Be that as it may, he asks and God delivers, and one never doubts for a moment that, unlike Scrooge, he’ll be heading straight for the nearest church come Christmas morning.
Harry Carey Jr., John Wayne and Pedro Armendariz, in “3 Godfathers” (1948) PHOTO:EVERETT COLLECTION
The mere existence of these two films proves that it isn’t absolutely necessary to stick to the Dickens precedent. But the fact that they are such rare exceptions to the iron rule of secularism says something about the priorities of the American film industry, not to mention the American public. It was “Miracle on 34th Street,” a 1947 rom-com about a young couple brought together by a slightly daft department-store Santa Claus (played with winsome sincerity by Edmund Gwenn) who thinks he’s the real thing, that hit big at the postwar box office, not “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “3 Godfathers.” And it did so precisely because it made no spiritual demands on its viewers. Such films taught audiences how to keep Christmas in an anodyne manner that was designed not to give offense. That was the American way. As Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed during his 1952 presidential campaign, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Neither did golden-age Hollywood at Christmastime, and neither do most Americans today.
Even now, Hollywood continues to make this kind of Christmas movie. Some of them are genuinely touching, like the roguishly charming “Bad Santa” (2003), in which Billy Bob Thornton plays a drunken thief who rediscovers his better self when he dresses up as Santa to rob a mall and is mistaken for the real thing by a motherless child. Likewise “A Christmas Story” (1983), in which Bob Clark spun Jean Shepherd’s radio monologues about the Christmases of his childhood into a reminiscence of what it was like to celebrate Christmas in Indiana in the 1940s. And then there are the countless versions of “A Christmas Carol” that have made their way to the big screen. My personal favorite is “Scrooge” (1951, released in the U.S. as “A Christmas Carol”), a British adaptation in which Alastair Sim gave us a truly Dickensian Ebenezer Scrooge, whose skull of fearful mortality is at all times visible through his thin, pasty skin. But if you’d like to be reminded, as the saying goes, of the reason for the season, spend an evening with James Stewart or John Wayne. They’ll set you straight.
Mr. Teachout is the Journal’s drama critic and the critic-at-large of Commentary. “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.