TCM says 'Merry Christmas!' with holiday film documentary

MoviesEntertainmentTravelDocumentary (genre)Deborah RaffinGenresStephen King

If you don't think it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Turner Classic Movies is ready to take care of that.

Many clips from favorite holiday films are compiled, along with related interviews, in "Merry Christmas!" -- a new episode of the channel's recurring "A Night at the Movies" documentary series premiering Tuesday, Dec. 6. From "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" to "White Christmas" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," pretty much all the top titles are represented.

"Christmas Vacation" star Chevy Chase is among those commenting on his yuletide classic and others. Also appearing are Chazz Palminteri (who directed the 2004 movie "Noel"), former MGM child star Margaret O'Brien, actress-author Deborah Raffin, author and ex-film critic Julie Salamon, and Karolyn Grimes ... not only a co-star of "It's a Wonderful Life" (as Bailey daughter Zuzu) but also of another seasonal staple excerpted in the TCM show, "The Bishop's Wife."

"Merry Christmas!" was written, produced and directed by a master of documentaries on moviemaking: Laurent Bouzereau, whose behind-the-scenes efforts have enhanced numerous home video releases from "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago" and "Ben-Hur" to "Back to the Future," "Jurassic Park" and "Avatar." Bouzereau also made the recent "The Horrors of Stephen King" for TCM, and for this article, he spoke about his fresh approach to showcasing Christmas films.

Q: Since there have been other specials of this sort, how did you decide on your take?

A: My No. 1 concern was that it was such a vast subject. You can't expect to cover everything, so I wanted to first have an appreciation of "A Christmas Carol" -- which is one of the most definitive books about the holiday -- and the films that have been based on it. Then I wanted to move into "It's a Wonderful Life," which is always shown around Christmas, and then it was just a question of breaking down the other themes that I felt represented the genre best.

I contacted a very eclectic group of people, and I let them guide me to what their favorite films were. Chevy Chase added humorous touches, and Julie Salamon wrote a book about the Christmas tree at (New York's) Rockefeller Center. And Karolyn Grimes is one of the few survivors of "It's a Wonderful Life," so it was important to have her.

Q: Still, one might not necessarily expect to see Chazz Palminteri or Deborah Raffin in such a program. How did you make those decisions?

A: My design for this was, "Oh. Why are these people talking about Christmas?" And suddenly, you discover there is a connection, and I think that's the value of reinventing a discussion of a genre that's already been established very strongly. It brings a fresh outlook from different perspectives. I mean, who knew that Chazz believes in angels? It gives a really touching, mystical aspect to his personality that's very seldom seen in the roles he plays.

Q: Did you feel extra pressure because this was for Turner Classic Movies, which has a reputation for definitive film history?

A: They're so supportive and give such essential guidance to me. I want to make sure I live up to the TCM caliber, because there is an image and an expectation. I wrote a very detailed script and shared it not only with TCM but with Amblin Television (Steven Spielberg's company, also a producer of the project), so that there are no surprises. It's an amazing collaboration, and you absolutely cannot let those people down.

Q: There's real depth to the program's discussion of "Miracle on 34th Street," involving resistance back in the movie's time (1947) to its inclusion of single parenthood and possible mental illness as themes. Do you expect that to surprise viewers?

A: That's why I wanted the Julie Salamon type of interview, because there are all those different layers, and what has made the movie such a classic is an identification with those things. You could easily have a fluffy discussion about it, but everyone had a take on it that was much more emotional and thoughtful and intellectual.

Q: Though you went into this with a certain structure in mind, how much is the final result guided by your interviewees' answers to your questions?

A: It's kind of a mix, but I have to tell you that I went into this having watched all of these films in kind of a marathon. I did not grow up in America, so I really had to do more research for this than, say, the program on Stephen King and horror. I know those movies inside and out, and that's all in my brain ... as scary as that might sound.

With this, I had to figure out how to bring in "Gremlins" without making it seem completely out of left field, and it was even the same with "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." That's part of the sort of outrageousness of Christmas.

Q: You also get to go straight to the major moments of very familiar movies in showcasing them. How much fun is that?

A: I have an amazing editor, Andy Cohen, and he is a very integral part of my work. The reason I feel this program is successful is that we know the power of the interviews, and the very well-thought-out balance with the clips and photos, is what's going to sell the story we want to tell.

It's about how to get more out of the iconic things we have access to, in order to illustrate a much bigger thought. This is my fourth episode of "A Night at the Movies," and it's really been just great fun.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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