This Christmas we can all use a little extra joy.
How about a celebration in a party? And two ? Or three?
Because in this Christmas period, we are also celebrating three birthdays.
“It’s a wonderful life,” many people’s favorite Christmas movie turns 75. “A Christmas Carol,” the definitive film adaptation with Alastair Sim, turns 70. “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” less known now, but for many years a tradition of Christmas on television, also has 70 years.
Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday!
These three holiday favorites have something in common besides Christmas. They all owe their success to television.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and “A Christmas Carol” (1951) – originally titled “Scrooge” in Britain – were seen as disappointments when released in theaters. It was only after repeated appearances on television that viewers warmed up. “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was an annual Christmas tradition between 1951 and 1966 and has been performed frequently on stage since then, was commissioned by NBC – the first opera created directly for television.
Think you know those familiar Christmas gifts? Let us help you unbox them. You might find some surprises in the box.
‘It’s a wonderful life’
You might not guess it, given the hype surrounding this film’s 75th anniversary, including a new deluxe Blu-ray edition of the movie with lots of bells and whistles, that he was considered a failure in 1946.
It was director Frank Capra’s first film (“It Happened One Night”, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”) after returning from WWII, and people expected big things. Instead, what was it? Disappointment, despair, suicide attempt, hallucinations, all wrapped up in a large Christmas ribbon.
No thank you, said the audience. No thanks, said Hollywood, which awarded the film just one Oscar – a technical nod to a new method of creating fake snow. No one thought much about the film for many years.
This is how a Christmas miracle happened. In 1974, someone forgot to renew the copyright.
Suddenly small local TV stations got access to a top Hollywood Christmas movie, starring Jimmy Stewart, which cost them absolutely nothing. They ran it over and over again. When VHS was introduced in 1976, “It’s a Wonderful Life” began to appear in dozens of video editions. When the lawyers regained control of the property in 1994, it was too late. “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been seen by millions of people.
But it wasn’t just the constant exposure that made “It’s a Wonderful Life” a classic. It was also the television medium itself, says Jeanine D. Basinger, chair of the film studies department at Wesleyan University and author of the book “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1986).
The dark tale of George Bailey (Stewart), the frustrated idealist of a small town who is on the verge of suicide until his Guardian Angel (Henry Travers) shows him a nightmarish vision of what his town would be like without him , could have been too upsetting for the audience of the theater. But on the small screen, she said, it feels right.
“On television, where you are at home at Christmas, surrounded by your family, it was a different viewing experience,” Basinger told The Record in 2016. “People could absorb the darkness without feeling defeated by it. she.”
‘A Christmas Carol’
This is now widely regarded as the definitive version, with Alastair Sim the Scrooge against whom everyone else is measured. But like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, it took a long time to find its audience. And for the same reason. Too sinister.
In 1951, it was originally scheduled to open at Radio City Music Hall. Then the managers took a look and abruptly canceled the reservation. He performed instead at The Guild, a small newsreel cinema around the corner.
The problem? It was “scary and dark,” as the New York Times put it. Not the happy family entertainment that people expected. Not the “Christmas Carol” that American moviegoers (there had been “Christmas Carol” movies as early as 1901) and radio listeners were used to. That it sounded a lot like the “Christmas Carol” that Charles Dickens wrote was irrelevant.
As with “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it was repeated television shows throughout the 1960s and 1970s that endeared viewers to the movie.
And Sim, who the Times called Scrooge “rather mannered and neurotic”, now seems an inspired choice.
The difference between Sim and all the other Scrooges before and since? He’s funny.
Scrooge is usually played by the most sinister and brooding actor available: Lionel Barrymore, George C. Scott. It’s an unlikely role for the whimsical Sim, known until now primarily as a comedian. That’s why he’s so perfect in Scrooge. He alone is likely to transform from an austere miser into a light and mischievous old man. He simply becomes himself. “I am not crazy,” he said to his terrified housekeeper, convinced that this newly reformed Scrooge had gone mad. Then – mischievously – he ruffles his hair into a creepy wig.
“Even though I look at him,” he said. Dickens would have cracked.
“Amahl and the Night Visitors”
Alas, you might not be familiar with this lovely Christmas tradition unless you are an opera enthusiast or an elderly viewer.
It used to be an annual event on NBC. It evokes a time in the dawn of television when television was not entirely a medium of reality shows and celebrity dancing, but sometimes a vehicle for cultural enhancement. Anyway, that’s what NBC had in mind when they commissioned Gian Carlo Menotti, one of the greatest opera composers of the day, to create a one-act Christmas opera specifically for the hit.
The melodious opera, about a handicapped little shepherd who receives a visit from the Three Kings – on his way to see the baby Jesus – was inspired by Menotti’s own memories of his Italian childhood. There, it was the Three Kings – not Santa Claus – who left Christmas presents for the children. “I guess Santa Claus is far too busy with American children to be able to take care of Italian children as well,” he said.
The opera was aimed at a popular audience, not an upscale audience. And it was a huge success in 1951, seen by 5 million viewers. This first show, it was introduced – with charm – by Menotti himself. “I hope you haven’t sent all of your kids to bed,” he told viewers. “Because it’s actually a children’s opera, and I don’t want you to be like those horrible parents who insist on playing with their children’s toys.”
It has been repeated every year for years. But by the end of the 1960s, he had grown too intellectual for prime time. It has only been shown sporadically since.
But opera companies took it over from 1952, and there are still plenty of productions every holiday season. And maybe, after all, television is not the ideal platform.
“It comes straight from my own childhood,” Menotti said on that first show. “And I want you to realize that it is very difficult to find my childhood back on television, because when I was a child television had very little to do with my upbringing.”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports on how you spend your free time, please register or activate your digital account today.
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