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While Christmas films have an odd place in popular culture, the math on Christmas songs is much more straightforward: A Christmas album is relatively easy to produce (most of the songs are already written), and if it’s popular it will sell a lot in the short term but also will do well over a longer period, as so many radio stations spend all of December playing Christmas music. So for a recording artist, it makes a lot of sense to eventually release a Christmas album.
However, producing a film is a lot more expensive, and studios are much more interested in short-term results. It doesn’t do a studio head much good if a film eventually becomes a holiday classic if it doesn’t excel at the box office right away. There’s definitely a Christmas niche where a modestly funded film can make good money (1983’s A Christmas Story cost $4 million and took in $16 million; this year’s Best Man Holiday cost $17 million and has already taken in $67 million), but they rarely break out to become blockbusters (The Santa Clause, Holiday Inn and White Christmas are some notable exceptions). So if you are a studio executive and you have a really good film that happens to have a Christmas theme, you might be tempted to downplay the holiday elements. However, when the entire film is about Santa Claus, it would appear to be a difficult feat to do so. And yet that’s exactly what 20th Century Fox’s Daryl Zanuck did with the release of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Read on to see how Zanuck tried to hide the nature of the film upon its release in 1947!
Miracle on 34th Street began with a story idea by veteran screenwriter and playwright Valentine Davies during a stint with the Coast Guard during World War II. He felt that Christmas was getting too commercialized and he came up with the basic plot of the film (Kris Kringle leaves an old-age home to take over as the Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and then becomes the department store Santa and befriends an employee and her daughter and a lawyer, who has to then defend Kris’s sanity at a court hearing) and sent the pitch to director George Seaton. Seaton loved it and tried to get it made at 20th Century Fox. Studio head Daryl Zanuck wasn’t a big fan of the initial concept, feeling it to be a bit corny, but Seaton pressed and eventually Zanuck agreed to fund the film, provided it was done relatively cheaply and if Seaton would agree to direct a few future features of Zanuck’s choosing. Once Zanuck saw the first draft (Seaton wrote the screenplay), however, he was a lot more enthusiastic and became more involved in the project, coming up with the idea to cast Maureen O’Hara as the female lead to go along with male lead John Payne (the two had acted together in the very successful 1942 film To the Shores of Tripoli as well as 1946’s Sentimental Journey) and devising a way to soften O’Hara’s character.
While everyone was proud of the complete film, set for fall 1947 release, Zanuck thought it could do well in the most popular time of the year for movie-goers, summer, so he pushed the release date all the way to May 1947. That left Fox with a dilemma: How do you promote a Christmas film in May? The answer was to try to hide that it was a Christmas film! The film poster barely showed Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle with Natalie Wood’s character, and instead just spotlighted O’Hara and Payne. The strangest promotion, though, was the film’s trailer. Veteran character actor Charles Tannen plays a studio executive modeled on Daryl Zanuck who has not yet seen Miracle on 34th Street. He wanders the studio lot and encounters notable Fox stars like Rex Harrison (fresh off of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), Anne Baxter (fresh off her Academy Award-winning performance in The Razor’s Edge), Peggy Ann Garner (soon after her Academy Juvenile Award-winning performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and singing sensation Dick Haymes (soon after a starring turn in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movie musical State Fair), who all rave about the film, all without mentioning the plot, of course. Just that it is a hilarious, romantic, thrilling story perfect for all ages. There is barely a snippet of the actual film shown in the trailer, just a second or two of O’Hara and Payne together from the end of the film.
Here is the trailer, in all of its bizarre glory:
The end result worked, with the film doing well at the box office, bringing in roughly $3 million on a $630,000 budget. Interestingly enough, it was just edged out at the box office by another Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life (which was technically released in December 1946 so it would be eligible for the Academy Awards, but received wide release in January 1947). It’s a Wonderful Life, however, was a much bigger-budgeted film (in fact, it didn’t make back its $3.3 million budget). Miracle on 34th Street also did well at the Academy Awards, winning Best Supporting Actor for Gwenn, Best Original Story for Davies and Best Screenplay for Seaton. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, went 0 for 5 in 1946.
The legend is …
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