WINTER 2014 / VOL. 14 ISSUE 1

Holiday Flicks Always a Hit

By James Barlett

As the season to be jolly fades away until next December, we decided to take a look at some of the most popular Christmas movies of all time - movies that are on television year after year and many know almost word-for-word, yet never seem to lose their magic. 

Surprisingly, the majority of these classic movies featured Irish-American actors, some of whom were well known for their connections to the Emerald Isle, and others who had connections long back in their family history:

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 
Just like the ones I used to know 
Where the treetops glisten, 
and children listen 
To hear sleigh bells in the snow…"

Sung by Bing Crosby in what many consider to be the greatest holiday film of all time - the appropriately named White Christmas - this song represents an idyllic, picture-perfect vision of Christmas, and is the song that Crosby is most famous for. 

The Irving Berlin composition was the best-selling single for over 50 years, selling over 100 million copies, although it had actually first been used in another Crosby film, 1942's Holiday Inn, when it won the Oscar for best original song.

Crosby had 37 other #1 singles in his career, more than Elvis Presley and The Beatles, and in total he sold close to 500,000,000 records, also being rated as the third most popular actor of all time after Clark Gable and John Wayne. 

The 1954 movie also featured another Irish-American actress/singer, Rosemary Clooney, and was notable not only for the fact that it was directed by Michael Curtiz (who directed the legendary Casablanca) but it was the first movie in glorious "Vistavision", and was the biggest box office hit of that year. 

The story of White Christmas is based around two WWII Army buddies, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), who hit it big as entertainers after the war and help Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and her sister to escape some trouble, joining them on a train trip to Vermont for the - you guessed it - Christmas holidays. Confusion and music follow, but by the end everyone has fallen in love and there is a snowy finale. 

Harry Lillis Crosby was born in Tacoma, Washington on May 2, 1903, the fourth of seven children. His parents were Harry, a bookkeeper, and his mother was Irish-American Catherine Harrigan (known as Kate), the daughter of a builder from Co. Mayo. 

In 1910, Crosby was forever renamed "Bingo" (shortened to Bing) due to his love of "The Bingville Bugle," a humorous parody newsletter included in a local newspaper. One of "Bing's" earliest experiences in entertainment was in 1917, when he took a summer job as property boy at Spokane's "Auditorium" and saw some of the finest acts of the day, including a black-faced performer named Al Jolson. 

As for Rosemary Clooney, she was a popular pop music singer and actress in the 1940's and 50's, scoring #1 hits with "Come On-a My House", "Half As Much", "Hey There" and "This Ol' House". She was born in Maysville, Kentucky to Andrew Joseph Clooney and Frances Marie Guilfoyle, both of whom were Irish Catholics, and was the aunt of Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney, the star of recent movie The American, Michael Clayton and the Ocean's 11/12/13 trilogy. 

Second in the list, and certainly a movie that has inspired numerous re-makes, is 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, which featured fiery redheaded Irish-American actress Maureen O'Hara as Doris Walker. 

The movie was written and directed by George Seaton (who wrote Marx Brothers movies Night At The Opera, Day At The Races and early "disaster" movie Airport) and is a charming tale based around Santa Claus: or is he?

Following the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, a single mother (O'Hara) and her daughter, a lawyer, and many others are left wondering whether or not a department store Santa just might be the real Mr. Claus, the jolly, red-and-white bringer of toys to good children. 

The movie won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, who shouted "Now I know there is a Santa Claus" on receiving the gold statue), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay (Seaton). 

Maureen Fitzsimons was born on August 17, 1920, in Ranelagh, Co. Dublin, and among her five other siblings she was a child prodigy. Her mother Marguerita Lilbur was an accomplished contralto, and her father Charles was a businessman and part owner of an Irish soccer team named "The Shamrock Rovers."

Her last name was changed when she was cast to star in Jamaica Inn (1939) - apparently so it would fit on the marquee easier - and this was the first in a long line of classic films she appeared in, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, How Green Was My Valley, Irish classic The Quiet Man, The Parent Trap and McLintock!

She was a renowned beauty, spoke fluent Irish, and worked with the most dashing of Hollywood's Golden Age leading men including Tyrone Power, Rex Harrison, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Sir Alec Guinness and, of course, "The Duke" himself, John Wayne, in The Quiet Man.

On television, there are several classic shows that everyone watches at Christmas, and perhaps the most famous of these is "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" from 1964, directed by Kizo Nagashima and Larry Roemer. 

The Irish-American connection here is white, cold, and often doesn't last very long: Burl Ives was the voice of "Sam The Snowman", who sings and tells the tale of the famous reindeer and his special schnozzle. 

Born on June 14, 1909, in Hunt, Ill., the 6-foot-plus Ives was one of six children born to a Scottish-Irish farming family in Jasper County. Many years before he was the famous snowman, he first took the stage for a soldiers' reunion at the tender age of four. Later on in high school, he learned the banjo and played fullback, intending to become a football coach when he enrolled at Eastern Illinois State Teacher's College. 

Things didn't work out though, and after dropping out in 1930, he traveled around hitching rides, doing odd jobs and street singing. This eventually led to a job with CBS Radio in 1940, and through his "Wayfaring Stranger" persona he popularized many of the folksongs he had collected during his wanderings. 

He also had a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950's, when he was suspected of having Communist sympathies and named fellow folk singer Pete Seeger and others as possible Communists. 

By the 1960s, Ives had both country and pop chart hits, and recorded nearly 50 albums over his career, although his acting career was just as successful - he reprised his Broadway role as "Big Daddy" in the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Country that same year. 

Forty-one years after cooperating with the HUAC, Ives and Seeger were reunited in a benefit concert in New York City, singing "Blue Tail Fly" together, while his song "A Holly Jolly Christmas" from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" remains a seasonal favorite. 

Finally, there is one contemporary classic Christmas movie - albeit now 20 years old - that many enjoy at Christmas. Based on a tale written by Charles Dickens over 150 years ago (and remade regularly ever since), Scrooged (1988) was directed by Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon movies) and featured Irish-American actor Bill Murray as wild, harassed TV executive Frank Cross, a man who workaholism has lost him the love of his family and a good woman. 

Now he's having trouble sorting out his company's annual television Christmas Special - which of course is A Christmas Carol - until some rather weird ghosts of past, present and future pay him a visit.

Born on Sept. 21,1950, in Wilmette, Ill., Murray was the fifth of nine children born to Irish-American Catholic parents Edward and Lucille Murray, a lumber salesman and mail room clerk, respectively. Acting is clearly in the family blood: three of Murray's siblings are also actors - John Murray, Joel Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray - and they all appeared in Scrooged.

In his early days Murray and most of his siblings worked as caddies, which paid his tuition to Loyola Academy, a Jesuit school. He played sports and did some acting while there, but in his words, mostly "screwed off". He enrolled at Regis College, Denver to study medicine, but left after being arrested for possession of marijuana and joined the "National Lampoon Radio Hour" with Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi, later joining them again on American comedy program "Saturday Night Live".

A comedy favorite, he has had plenty of hits in his career: Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day to name but a few, though he famously eschews the Hollywood scene, Murray acts without an agent or publicist, and is only contractible by a phone service - which he only checks every now and then. This has probably cost him some big roles, but Murray seems to be happy with life's pleasures: he owns several minor league baseball teams and is a diehard Chicago Cubs fan. 

So enjoy the next holiday season, and in the words of Irving Berlin - and the voice of Bing Crosby:

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 
With every Christmas card I write 
May your days be merry and bright 
And may all your Christmases be white"


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