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Tracing Hollywood's Christmas Tree

December 22, 1991|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most beloved Christmas movies--including "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street"--were products of the 1930s and '40s. But Hollywood started bringing Christmas cheer to audiences at the turn of the century, when filmmaking was still in its infancy.

The new Discovery Channel documentary, "A Hollywood Christmas Story," looks at these ghosts of Hollywood Christmases past. Rosemary Clooney, who starred in the 1954 holiday favorite "White Christmas," hosts the one-hour special.

Documentary filmmaker Jim Forsher was interested in illustrating how today's vision of Christmas was developed by how cinema has portrayed the holidays.

Christmas movies, Forsher discovered, came into full bloom around 1910. "I think we have the first Christmas film, which was done by Thomas Edison," he said. "That was around 1908. What was notable about it was there's actually a shot of Santa flying through the sky."

Forsher, who culled material from his own archive in Los Angeles and at the National Archive in Washington, also unearthed the 1910 "Christmas Burglars," a D. W. Griffith ("The Birth of a Nation") fable about burglars who decide not to rob a poor family but bring them presents and a tree instead.

"It was contemporary at the time," Forsher said. "They shot it in the streets of New York, the Lower Eastside type of environment."

Also included in the documentary is the first film about the life of Christ--"The Star of Bethlehem," which was produced sometime between 1905 and 1910. "That was shot in New Jersey," Forsher said, laughing.

Most of the holiday films produced before 1920 were biblical stories. "They tried to be as literal as possible with a touch of humor or pathos," he said. "The D.W. Griffith film was very much tied into the spirit of Christmas."

A quarter of the special deals with Christmas during World War II. "I have newsreels of stars performing at the field of war and Marian Anderson doing a Christmas wartime performance."

On a lighter note are clips of the Hollywood Christmas Parade from the late '30s with Bob Hope and John Barrymore and a lot of public service announcement footage featuring celebs at home or work during the holidays.

"We got Lucy and Desi, Gary Cooper pitching Christmas Seals and Bing Crosby on the set of 'White Christmas' doing his pitch for Christmas Seals," Forsher said.

Bette Davis and her two children also are seen doing their bit for war bonds on a set re-creation of their home. "I got one (clip) with Marlon Brando and his sister Jocelyn from 1954 at home with the Christmas tree."

A real find, Forsher said, is "Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party"--a short from the early 1930s featuring the Macaulay Culkin of his time. "Clark Gable is in it and so is everyone who was a contract player at MGM that year," Forsher said.

Except for a few isolated clips from the '50s, "A Hollywood Christmas Story" concludes in 1949. "I have this feeling that the Christmas films after the '40s didn't have the same impact," Forsher said. "During the '40s, they were so powerful because they were tied to the war. Whatever people's feelings were to what Christmas was suppose to be, war just intensified it. The look on soldiers' faces watching Marian Anderson sing 'Ave Maria' still reaches through."

Forsher said he believes Hollywood makes very few Christmas movies these days because the audience has become jilted. "It is so used to anything, no matter what (filmmakers) try to portray, you have to be 10 times as cunning to get an emotional pull."

He believes Frank Capra's 1946 "It's a Wonderful Life" bombed when it was released because "it was overkill for the late '40s. We were in a time of healing at that point and here was this film that made us look at this whole internal issue. Because people are hard (today) they can look at it and see what Frank Capra really had in mind.

"I don't think anyone knows what the hell is going on (in the world) now. We don't have the ability to judge anything contemporary and have an emotion put to it. That is why I didn't do anything current."

"A Hollywood Christmas Story" airs Monday at 6 p.m., Thursday at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 10 a.m. on the Discovery Channel.

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