Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Yuletide Songs from the Celluloid

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

By Steve Herte

Every year radio, department store speakers and television greet the holiday season with the familiar songs and carols to get us in the spirit. But isn’t a song the same as a carol? Not quite. The original definition of a carol is a “round dance;” carols were meant to be danced. The secondary meaning involves the religious joy involved in a carol. Anything else is just a secular holiday song. Even though several carols are played in various movies, we’re just going to investigate popular Christmas songs associated with movies through time and explore a little of their background.

White Christmas” (1942): from Holiday Inn (1942) and its loose remake, White Christmas (1954). Written by Irving Berlin, it’s the oldest song in my list, and one of the most famous, returns every year to the television screen. Even though the song premiered a year before on “The Kraft Music Hall” radio show, it is more closely associated with Bing Crosby’s unforgettable crooning in Holiday Inn, for which it won the Best Original Song Oscar in 1943.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944): It was made famous by the movie Meet Me in Saint Louis (1944), directed by Vincent Minnelli. It stars Judy Garland as Esther Smith and, as her three sisters, Margaret O’Brien (Tootie), Lucille Bremer (Rose) and Joan Carroll (Agnes). Set in the year before the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the girls learn that their father is being transferred to New York and the family has to go with him. But they’re eagerly anticipating the fair. The scene is Christmas Eve and Esther is trying to cheer up her sister Tootie. However, the original lyrics are not that cheerful, with phrases as “hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” and “Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” The line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through, somehow,” gave the song a sad melancholy tone to fit the movie scene, and “It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past” were an intrinsic part of the story.

In 1957, Frank Sinatra had lyricist Hugh Martin change the words to the ones we know now.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949): This familiar holiday tune, based on a popular children’s book by Bob May, was recorded by Gene Autry, who made it into a huge hit. The song first made its film appearance in a Jam Handy Organization cartoon, which was also the last from the Fleischer Studios. The most popular version of the book – and song – is the 1964 stop-motion animated television special. Since Autry introduced the song in 1949, it has become the top-selling song of all time for the season and one of the most familiar to children.

Frosty the Snowman” (1950): This song, written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson, is associated most with the television special of same name and sung by Jimmy Durante in 1969. Gene Autry introduced the song on record back in 1950. UPA Studios animated the story of the song explaining how a snowman suddenly became alive by virtue of a magic stovepipe hat as a cartoon in 1954, but the most popular adaptation of the song is the 1969 animated television special from Rankin/Bass Productions.

Silver Bells” (1950): Originally, the title was “Tinkle Bells” until the double meaning of tinkle was discovered. Whoops! Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, it was sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the movie The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), directed by Sidney Lanfield and Frank Tashlin. Rumor has it that it was inspired by all the sidewalk Santas and Salvation Army workers on the streets at Christmastime.

Snow” (1953): Also written by Irving Berlin, it was composed before being featured in White Christmas (1954) with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Originally called “Free,” it had nothing to do with snow. But in the movie it’s a triumphant moment for the winter resort inn at a crucial instance.

Santa Baby” (1953): This sensual song, written by Joan Javits (niece of Jacob Javits) and Phil Springer, was a big hit for Eartha Kitt and has been heard in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Elf (2003) and Boynton Beach Club (2005). Miss Piggy also performed it in It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) television special.

Christmastime is Here” (1965): From the animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’s a haunting modern song, written by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi, in minor key, sung by the cast and reprised on piano several times in the film. The melancholy tone of the song reflects Charlie Brown’s mood when he sees everyone enjoying the season without him.

Welcome Christmas” (“Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze”): from the television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), directed by Chuck Jones. With lyrics by Dr. Seuss and music by Albert Hague, it was sung by Cindy Lou Who and all of Whoville while they linked hands around the town’s Christmas tree. Boris Karloff narrated the film and supplied the voice of the Grinch. Hague was born to a Jewish family in Berlin but was raised as a Lutheran to avoid Nazi persecution. He also wrote the music for “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”, “Young and Foolish” and several songs for the TV series Fame. “Welcome Christmas” is the song that cues the change in the Grinch’s heart.

We Need a Little Christmas”: from Mame (1974, originally entitled My Best Girl), music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The story is based on the 1955 Novel “Auntie Mame” by Patrick Dennis and is a musical remake of the 1958 film of the same name starring Rosalind Russell. Mame starred Lucille Ball in the title role, with Beatrice Arthur as her best friend Vera Charles. Mame loses her fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and uses her unsinkable style to bolster up the spirits of those around her by celebrating Christmas early (only one week past Thanksgiving Day). Even though the bouncy beat of the song suggests dancing, it is not considered a carol. The up-tempo is meant to brighten a rather dark period in American history.

Somewhere in My Memory”: Written by John Williams with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse for the soundtrack of Home Alone in 1990 and Home Alone 2- Lost in New York (1992), directed by Chris Columbus. A children’s chorus sets the sentimental mood for a child accidentally left home (and in the Plaza Hotel) on Christmas Eve by his way too distracted parents and dozens of relatives. The lyrics reflect his situation and his longing.

Believe” (2004, from The Polar Express): Written by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri and sung by Josh Groban, it won a Grammy in 2006 for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. The riotous train trip to the North Pole (including a scary scene where the entire train is off the tracks and skidding on ice) is instrumental in helping a child believe in Santa and all things miraculous as the lyrics say: Believe in what you feel inside, And give your dreams the wings to fly. You have everything you need. If you just believe.

What’s This?”: From The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, written and sung by Danny Elfman) as Jack Skelington is suddenly transported from the land of Halloween to Christmastown. He’s agog at all the strange sights and colors and investigates every nook and cranny. His amazement shows in the lyric:
There are children throwing snowballs here instead of throwing heads,
They're busy building toys and absolutely no one's dead
He later takes over the job of Santa Claus and mixes the chaos of Halloween into the peace and calm of Christmas.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963): This lively swing waltz was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle and recorded by Andy Williams that same year. Though it’s a waltz, it’s still not a carol. It was featured in the Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie of the same name starring Henry Winkler and Brook Burns in 2008.

Yes, for me it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Wars stop temporarily for it, people think more of others than themselves and some of the most familiar and beloved songs are sung in every venue. I know there are more movies with holiday songs and even more featuring carols with new melodies being written every year. My intent here is to start the spark of memory. It’s now your assignment to supply your own list.

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