Christmas Films as Reflections of American History, Part II: Stop-Motion, Action, and Horror in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s

­­­­­­As explored in Part I of this series, Christmas films transcend genres. Christmas films from the 1940s revolved around Dickensian themes and tropes, and those in the 1950s departed from that tradition, with more romances and musicals. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Christmas films continued to reflect the contemporary world while expanding the Christmas subgenre into animation, children’s films, horror, and action.

The Child-centric 1960s and 1970s

Christmas films received another reimagining when Disney released Jack Donohue’s Babes in Toyland in 1961. The 1960s and 70s would produce now-classic American Christmas films that introduced the idea of children’s media as central to the public view of Christmas.

Babes in Toyland is a fantasy film that only loosely touches on Christmas but was marketed and distributed as a Christmas film by Disney. The movie follows the Mother Goose characters of Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) and Mary Contrary (Annette Funicello) as they escape the clutches of the villainous Barnaby (Ray Bolger) and end up with a Toymaker (Ed Wynn) who is trying to reach a Christmas deadline for Santa. The film is quite bizarre and a complete departure from both the original 1903 operetta of the same name and Laurel and Hardy’s 1934 Babes in Toyland, only loosely retaining the plot of earlier versions. Disney’s Babes in Toyland effectively functioned as a feature-film length advertisement for Disneyland after the opening of the park in 1955.

The same week that Babes in Toyland was released, another Frank Capra Christmas film, Pocketful of Miracles debuted. While Babes in Toyland enjoyed commercial success, Pocketful of Miracles performed terribly, contributing to the end of Frank Capra’s career. The more adult themes in Pocketful concerned a homeless woman, Annie (Bette Davis), in the 1930s having a Cinderella-esque makeover to fool her estranged daughter into thinking she is a wealthy noblewoman. The tone of the film and the adult storyline flopped, recognized at the time as out of touch with early 1960s American culture. The success of Disney’s production and poor performance of Capra’s solidified the idea of children as a consumer market for Christmas content.

This shift toward children as consumers was something few Hollywood studios were equipped to handle. However, Walt Disney Productions was an outlier. Since the 1920s, Disney recognized the potential of children’s media, and as the Baby Boomer generation – born between 1946 and 1964 – grew up through the 1950s and 60s, the Disney Company dominated the children’s market.[1] The Baby Boom completely altered the demographics of the US; whereas 2.3 million babies were born each year in the mid-1930s, 3.8 million were born in 1947 alone and over 4 million every year from 1954 to 1963. By 1964, this population increase resulted in 40 percent of the US population being under the age of twenty.[2]

In addition to the Baby Boom, entertainment began changing in the 1950s. Hollywood experienced declining ticket sales throughout the 1950s, with weekly ticket sales dropping from 90 million in 1946 to 60 million in 1950 and to 40 million in 1960, bottoming out in one data set’s estimation at 16 million weekly sales in 1971.[3] Hollywood’s crisis in this period owed to many factors, but the most influential was the rise of television.

As the young families moved into suburbs throughout the 1950s and away from the cities where most cinemas were located, they also benefitted from the postwar economy (see Part I). As their wealth increased, families were able to purchase televisions, resulting in nearly 90 percent of American homes owning at least one television by 1959.[4] The turn towards children as Christmas viewers in the context of the Baby Boom, the decline of box office sales, and the rise of television’s popularity resulted in a two-decade Hollywood departure from producing Christmas films at all, with the subgenre instead shifting to television specials.

This era saw the production of now-classic stop-motion films, held in high esteem today for their animation styles, simplicity, and vintage quality. These TV specials largely came from Rankin/Bass Productions, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). The stop-motion animation style became iconic for the era and is both honored and parodied today across many genres.

Rankin/Bass were not the only ones producing television specials for Christmas in the 1960s and 1970s. A Charlie Brown Christmas was released in 1965 and 1966 also saw the animated, televised version of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As television got into the Christmas spirit with made-for-TV movies, Americans enjoyed Christmas fare not in cinemas but in their living rooms. This shift towards televised specials also coincided with the annual showings of It’s a Wonderful Life on numerous television networks when the film fell out of copyright in 1974.  

In the 1970s, another television classic geared towards children – and specifically developing the use of Christmas stories to sell toys for the holiday – was the Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978. The special covers the fictional holiday of Life Day celebrated in the galaxy far, far away. It premiered on CBS on November 17, 1978. This release date (over a month before Christmas and eighteen months before the film sequel) not only promoted the sale of Star Wars Christmas toys, but also introduced new characters, including the first look at Boba Fett before his film appearance in Empire Strikes Back (1980).

The 1960s and 1970s solidified Christmas-themed entertainment as a profitable category of children’s media and witnessed successful brand partnerships, especially between George Lucas and Kenner toy makers.

The Action-Packed 1980s

Once Hollywood decided to get back into the Christmas spirit, Christmas films took another turn, with the subgenre branching into the emerging realm of action movies. With new technology that made special effects and stunt-work look more realistic than ever, Hollywood established the action film genre in the 1970s and 80s. In addition to the changes within Hollywood, the wider American cultural context was shaped by the conservatism of President Ronald Reagan and his two-term administration. Reagan also shaped US foreign affairs, which remained contentious in the final decade of the Cold War.

Die Hard (1988) is widely recognized for establishing the basic paradigm for an action film. It is also contentiously categorized as a Christmas film – see Part I. The film revolves around John McClane (Bruce Willis) who attends his estranged wife’s office Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve in the hopes of reconciling their differences and spending the holiday together. The Christmas party guests are taken hostage by German radical Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) as part of a plot to steal $640 million from the building’s vault.

A high-tech, action-packed hostage crisis seems an odd direction for the Christmas subgenre, but the film reflects the Cold War context of the 1980s while retaining the undercurrents of romantic Christmas tropes seen in earlier films. McClane’s dedication to spending Christmas with his estranged wife, the Christmas party setting, and the references to Christmas themes – especially the several to Santa Claus – firmly place Die Hard within the realm of the Christmas subgenre. The adrenaline of the final decade of the Cold War contributed to Hollywood’s turn to action-packed, special effects, and science-fiction Christmas films.

Gremlins (1984) is another contested Christmas film that fits comfortably into the special effects, science-fiction dominated 1980s. The film also features extensive violence and dark storylines that bring Christmas into the genre of horror films for the first time in mainstream cinema.

In Gremlins, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) receives a mogwai for Christmas from his father and names him Gizmo. Not heeding the warnings of the shopkeeper Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) in Chinatown who sold Gizmo to his father, Billy’s friend Pete (Corey Feldman) unexpectedly unleashes the self-replicating mogwai who terrorize their town and are ultimately vanquished in an explosion at a movie theater. When Mr. Wing returns to collect Gizmo, he chastises the Peltzers for disregarding his warning and observes that Western society cannot responsibly care for mogwai, offering a unique commentary on the separation of American and Chinese cultures during the Cold War. Despite stable political relations and economic ties between the US and China in the 1980s, cultural differences between the two countries (especially in terms of collectivism vs. individualism) were stark throughout the Cold War.   

Christmas films of the 1980s echo the political and cultural climates, including distrust and fears of foreign cultures. They reflect the high-stakes anxieties many Americans felt in the decade with extravagant violence and explosions, bringing the category of Christmas films into the new genres of action and horror for the first time.

Up next, Part III: Christmas Films in the 1990s through today.

Featured Image: The cast of the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978). 20th Century Fox Television. Retrieved from The Guardian.

[1] James Russell and Jim Whalley, Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) 4.

[2] Russell and Whalley, Hollywood and the Baby Boom, 6.

[3] Russell and Whalley, Hollywood and the Baby Boom, 27.

[4] Martin Halliwell, American Culture in the 1950s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 147.

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