Editor’s note: The CNN special, Tis the Season: The Holidays on Screen, celebrates the popular genre of holiday movies and television specials. It premieres this Sunday at 8pm ET/PT.
Watching Christmas movies is a whole tradition in itself. Every family has its mainstays, whether it’s an animated classic from a bygone era or a more modern take on holiday cheer.
Learn some of the fascinating stories behind the stories so you can look at your old favorites with new eyes. (And bother everyone with your newly acquired trifles.)
A Charlie Brown Christmas is now a cozy Christmas classic, but some of the people involved in its production thought it would bombard audiences. The 1965 film was made as a TV special with financial backing from Coca-Cola but was put together in just a few weeks to meet broadcast requirements.
Some iconic aspects of the film, like the simple animation and pianist Vince Guaraldi’s unique jazz music, were a bit odd for the time. Director Bill Melendez is said to have even declared, “I think we ruined Charlie Brown.”
See, all these worries were for nothing. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was an instant hit, and all the things the producers feared made it too weird were the things that made it so popular.
The 1954 film “White Christmas” is full of behind-the-scenes stories, especially when it comes to the music. Most notably, Vera-Ellen, who played Judy Haynes, did not contribute her own vocals. (Her dancing, however, was a different story.) Singer Trudy Stevens provided Judy’s voice.
All of the songs in “White Christmas” were written by Irving Berlin, the legendary songwriter who has written hundreds of hits including “God Bless America.” “White Christmas” is one of his most famous tunes and was originally performed in the 1942 film Holiday Inn.
The song “Snow” starring the foursome from White Christmas sang when they drove 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 adapted to fit the film’s holiday feel.
Do you know “Seussian Latin”? The term describes author Theodor Geisel’s robust collection of made-up words, better known as Dr. seuss For the 1966 animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, producers wanted the musical feel of a Christmas special, but didn’t want to include elements that seem out of sync with Seuss’s fantastical world.
So Whoville’s Christmas carols were written in the Seussian style. Viewers even wrote after the special, asking for translations. Alas, “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores” doesn’t actually mean anything. Prune 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 from the film, the animators explain that each sound and facial expression Jack made required a different head that could be snapped on and off the character’s puppet body. With this kind of meticulous work, it’s no wonder the film took three years to make!
Rudolph might have been a cute little reindeer boy in the 1964 TV special, but he was brought to life by Canadian voice actress Billie Mae Richards. Most of the voices for 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 referred to as Billy Richards.
It wasn’t a coincidence – she was named that on purpose to disguise her gender. She once said kids wouldn’t believe it when their own grandchildren told them she did Rudolph’s voice — but she was able to prove it by doing the voice on the spot.
By all accounts, Michael Caine had a great time as one of the only humans in 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. However, being a giant among puppets comes with its own set of challenges. The floors of the sets consisted of a series of pits to make room for Muppet puppeteers. This meant that Caine and his fellow humans had to walk over the puppeteers on planks, like an advanced version of The Floor Is Lava. (The floor may be made of people.)
Set designers also used forced perspective to keep everything in proportion – a common set trick also used in numerous theme parks. They also included a nice nod to Caine: one of the signs on the street set 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 filmed, film crews typically used painted cornflakes for snow. Although they were melt-proof, they were also a little too…crispy. The film’s director, Frank Capra, opted for something quieter and ended up with a bespoke mix for his winter scenes: ivory soap flakes, ice chips and foamite, a compound used in fire extinguishers. According to the It’s a Wonderful Life museum, if you look closely at the scene with Clarence and George in the river, you can see some telltale suds floating by.
Prick up your ears as you watch 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 biscuits (“Ode to Joy” and “Die Hard,” anyone?), but Elmer Bernstein, who scored the film, was particularly clever in adding this special piece.
“The Marriage of Figaro” is a tale of mad misunderstandings in which a servant tries to get the best out of his pompous, wealthy employer – much like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy seek revenge on two scheming managers in “Trading Places.”