Opinion

Stories behind Christmas classics

Political

Columnist

Santa. Christmas Trees. Wreaths. Presents. Egg nog. A crackling fireplace.

Just some of the holiday traditions that transcend fashions and fads. They are joined by a collection of timeless holiday movies and songs, some of which have fascinating stories behind them, including the most enduring Christmas movie of all time: “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Believe it or not, this film was once discarded and ignored to the point where no one wanted it. The 1946 Frank Capra movie featured an all-star cast: Jimmy Stewart as the young but increasingly frustrated banker, George Bailey, Donna Reed (who later moved to Mercer Island) as his attractive wife and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, the unscrupulous financier who schemes to ruin him. When released that December it made the cover of Life magazine and carried plenty of Oscar buzz, but it actually lost money at the box office, and many film critics looked down their noses at its celebration of everyday Americans (alas, some things never change). When the company that made it went under, it passed from one firm to another until its copyright lapsed, making it in the eyes of the film industry worthless.

Only then did people discover how priceless it was.

Local TV stations in the mid-1970s realized that they could air it for free, and many did – over and over again. Millions of people who had never seen it before loved how its idealism and optimism contrasted so vividly with the cynicism that saturated so much of American culture during the recessionary, crime-ridden, post-Viet Nam, post-Watergate era.

Frank Capra, who lived well into his 90s, marveled at the movie’s resurgence. It remains a timeless reminder of the central importance of family in each person’s life, along with the realization of how much one person’s actions affect the fortunes of others.

One of the pivotal lines of the movie is when George Bailey’s guardian angel, having shown him what life in his town would be like without him, said “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

How true. One of the most popular Christmas songs ever was written by a couple of guys trying to ignore the summer heat in southern California.

Singer songwriter Mel Torme arrived at the house of his friend Bob Wells, expecting to work on a pair of movie soundtracks. Instead, he found Wells trying to ignore the 90 degree temperature by jotting down phrases and words to remind him of cold weather, such as “Chestnuts roasting... Jack Frost nipping… Folks dressed up like Eskimos.” As Ace Collins relates in his superb little book “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” (Zondervan Publishing) Torme (pronounced Tor-may) thought he saw the stirrings of a song. He and Wells set to work, writing it in less than an hour. They drove over to a friend of Torme’s, Nat King Cole, and played it on the piano. Cole loved it and agreed to record it on the spot. It was released in October 1946 and remained in the top 10 for nearly two months. It hit the charts again in four other years. And it cracked a cultural ceiling, being the first mainstream holiday song sung by an African American.

All those warm, snug memories over the past 60 years created by a Christmas song that was written because someone was trying to take his mind off the Summer heat.

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