Rude Epiphanies: Christmas Songs’ Cinematic Origins

This week, we’ll be focusing our posts on holiday movies, including several that we feel are worth putting into your holiday viewing rotation this year. Follow along here

“It’s a Festivus miracle!” — Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld

Unlike regular pop songs, whose origins are widely known and celebrated, Christmas carols tend to exist on a different historical plane. 

There’s something magical about holiday tunes — particularly those written before 1955 — that numerous people can conjure up on a moment’s notice without the aid of lyrics or sheet music, suggesting these compositions have been around since time immemorial and have worked their way into our DNA. Perhaps they arose through something akin to a virgin birth, or at the very least came about via purely altruistic circumstances, possibly to help fund a children’s hospital or an orphanage.

Such naiveté has its place and time, but the longer us bags of bones inhabit this third rock from the sun, the more it becomes clear that many beloved Christmas songs weren’t immaculate conceptions – but were actually written for movies. 

Having these bubbles burst can certainly be a bummer, yet learning about famous carols’ roots can lead to a greater understanding of the films and the songs themselves, as well as a more honest and merry holiday season. And with such shamelessly cynical awakenings as the use of “Silver Bells” in Sidney Lanfield’s The Lemon Drop Kid, those lessons are bound to stick.

In order to pay off a $10,000 debt to gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) by Christmas Eve on penalty of death, the eponymous con artist (Bob Hope) recruits various unsavory associates to dress as Santa Claus and collect “donations” for his hastily-established “charitable organization,” the Nellie Thursday Home For Old Dolls — a retirement home named in honor of his fellow grifter (Jane Darwell).

Making the most of his booze-soaked gruff tenor, a Santa-suited Gloomy Willie (William Frawley) hashes out a blunt, honest version of the tune: “Silver bells, silver bells/Let’s put some dough in the kitty/Chunk it in, chunk it in/Or Sandy will give you a mickey.”

Horrified, The Kid notes that it’s “vulgar” to mention money at Christmas and instructs Willie that a lighter touch is necessary to appeal to passersby’s sentiments. With his on-again, off-again squeeze Brainey Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) on his arm, The Kid walks around with a kettle and the duo’s kinder, gentler lyrics bring in the dough with magnetic success.

Framed in its cinematic origins, the nostalgic charms of “Silver Bells” quickly lose their luster as The Kid and Brainey employ it to loosen willing pedestrians from their cash. It’s a bizarre sequence, and while coming to terms with the song’s history, viewers must also contend with some not-so-casual racism. 

When two young Chinese boys emerge onto the street from a hand laundry establishment and contribute an innocent “ring-a-ling” to the chorus, The Kid taps them on the head — accompanied by wood-block foley — and sings a cringe-worthy line of Asian-accented sounds. Not to be left out, an Italian man standing outside the adjoining shop with his wife adds a quick, stereotypically inflected fill, and around the corner The Kid addresses a German Santa with yet another accented aside.

Despite the head-spinning that the whole scene incites, Lanfield directs the action as if his characters inhabit an intricately decorated snow globe, pulling back with a crane shot of the festive street and then to a view of (a fairly convincing miniature of) NYC that heightens the production’s majesty. Such moments suggest a purer appreciation for the wonders of the season, but with practically everyone in the scene hawking something or carrying around a wrapped gift, and such lyrical fills as “just fill it up with loot” (that mysteriously haven’t been included by carolers over the years), the main objective seems to be demystify the rose-tinted glow.

The cinematic origins of “White Christmas” are less of a surprise, seeing as there’s the Michael Curtiz film of the same name. By the time of its 1954 premiere, 12 years had passed since the song’s introduction in Mark Sandrich’s Holiday Inn, which won writer Irving Berlin the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Heartwarming as its lyrics and melody are (they’re playing in your head now, right?), its function within Holiday Inn is ultimately almost as bitter as “Silver Bells” in The Lemon Drop Kid. No mere love letter to the season, the song is one of many that Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) writes for his titular establishment on a Connecticut farm that’s open only on holidays for “dancing, entertainment [and] home cooking.”

Its commercial roots aside, the number’s initial rendition in a private moment between Jim and up-and-coming performer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) is innocent enough. But as Jim’s venue becomes popular and Hollywood calls to make a film about it, Holiday Inn turns starkly honest about people creating Christmas songs to make a buck.

One can’t help but groan at the film’s movie-within-the-movie, complete with a reconstructed Holiday Inn on a soundstage and fake snow falling from the rafters. Yet these sights are also a welcome reminder that we too are watching a movie conceived through such artificial means and complicit in the perpetuation of the seasonal money machine.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” however, is somewhat sneakier in its intentions. While only a portion of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis takes place on or around Dec. 25, to the extent that a Die Hard-esque “Is it really a Christmas movie?” debate is warranted, its trademark song and the key role it plays have made the film’s final-act moments its most enduring.

Though the narrative purpose of Hugh Martin’s lyrics and Ralph Blane’s music isn’t explicitly in the service of its characters turning a profit, there’s still a stench of capitalism in the air. Smith family breadwinner Alonzo (Leon Ames) gets a promotion and transfer from Missouri to New York City, and though his family protests having to relocate their lives right after Christmas, he makes it clear that they don’t have much of a choice.

Upon returning home from becoming engaged to neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake) at a Christmas Eve ball, Esther Smith (Judy Garland) finds her kid sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) waiting for Santa to show up, and worried that St. Nick won’t be able to find their family the next year. With the now-familiar melody emanating from a hand-cranked music box, Esther attempts to cheer up her sibling with a song that’s also honest about the hardships ahead.

Instead, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sends Tootie into a violent rage. Distraught that she can’t bring the snowman family in the yard with them to Manhattan, the littlest Smith sprints outside and destroys Frosty & Co. — which simultaneously melts their father’s heart and prompts him to keep the family in the Gateway to the West, thus starting the tradition of children wearing down their parents and getting their way at Christmas.

While witnessing these three classic songs play out in their natural forms isn’t exactly like watching the Zapruder film, they nevertheless prove revelatory. There’s a sense of liberation in realizing that, like so many things in this world, they were crafted to earn a profit, and it makes sense that they were engineered to coincide with the biggest sales month for the majority of commercial enterprises.

That’s not to say the shine is completely gone from these anthems. Similar to coming to terms with the fact that a certain holiday icon isn’t real — yes, cat’s out of the bag: Ebenezer Scrooge is a work of fiction — knowing the truth frees one up to more sustainably appreciate the holidays and their more fulfilling traditions, whether that’s spending time with family, going caroling, or watching Christmas movies.

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