With Christmas just gone and New Year’s fast approaching, now is the time for thick blankets, hot chocolate, and a favourite black-and-white film on the TV. I – like so many others – absolutely love December and everything that comes with it. But there is truly nothing better about the season than the opportunity to pull out some of the best festive movies for a viewing. Would it, after all, truly be Christmas without an opportunity to let Bing Crosby make us feel all the feels in White Christmas? We owe a lot to classic Hollywood for helping us usher in some festive spirit and feel the joy that the holidays bring (troubling family members and potential catastrophes aside).
While I’m well acquainted with the best seasonal films to emerge out of early Hollywood, I’ve been wondering about how exactly Hollywood recognised the Christmas period outside of creating some really great movies. So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and an exploration of Christmas in Hollywood.
Since the 1920s, Hollywood has rung in the festive season with incredible extravagance. Following a campaign by retail merchants to increase Christmas business, businessman Harry Blaine and the Hollywood Boulevard Association reached an agreement on the annual transformation of Hollywood Boulevard into Santa Claus Lane. Beginning in 1928, the Boulevard became a wonderland for prospective shoppers and tourists coming to view the elaborate lights display and daily parade. The parade – at the time known as the Hollywood Santa Parade or the Santa Claus Lane Parade) – still takes place as an annual event.
Actress Mary Pickford putting up the Santa Claus Lane sign
As historian Nathan Masters describes Santa Claus Lane:
“The first year, 100 living firs were dug up from the forest near Big Bear and placed along Hollywood Blvd. in wooden planters. Once fully dressed in nearly 10,000 incandescent light bulbs, the trees lit the path for a nightly parade. Joined on his sleigh by a silver screen star, Santa Claus greeted passerby as a team of six live reindeer pulled him down the boulevard. After New Year’s Day, the trees were replanted on the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl.
In later years, metallic decorations replaced the living trees. Drawings of film stars’ faces smiled at shoppers from the center of tin wreaths hung from lampposts. Whimsical, shiny toy Christmas trees blinked with colorful lights. At the annual promotion’s peak, organizers boasted that Hollywood Blvd. was the most brightly lit street in the nation.”
Other notable features of Santa Claus Lane included imitation fireplaces and 4-feet high papier-mache Santa Claus heads (not at all terrifying, I’m sure). As an interesting side note, the song ‘Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)’ was inspired by Hollywood Boulevard’s transformation into Santa Claus Lane and the daily procession of Santa and his reindeer.
Beyond Hollywood’s physical transformation, the studios also picked up on the publicity potential afforded by the Christmas season. Filmmakers capitalised on moviegoers’ festive spirit through the production of great films – White Christmas (1954), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) remain some of the best known – but also through the marketing of their greatest stars. The late 1920s onwards marked a dramatic transformation in the way that studios presented their stars – starting to sell films to the general public through the reputation of their performers. A studio’s contracted stars became integrally tied to the success of its films and, as such, Christmas became an opportunity for studios to thrust their actors even more forcefully into the public eye. Alongside the production of holiday films featuring prominent names, studios also worked with their actors to release carefully staged publicity shots. Here are a couple of my favourite examples:
The history of Hollywood at Christmas is a reminder that they had more to offer than some, admittedly amazing, films. The nature of ‘Tinseltown’ is one that was firmly established in the 1920s, with a desire to drag business away from surrounding retail areas and towards Hollywood’s main strip. And these are traditions that are continuing – albeit in slightly adjusted forms – over 80 years later.
So with Christmas just gone and New Year’s around the corner, pull out your favourite old films, look up some seasonal Hollywood photos (there are some real *crackers*) and enjoy the best of what December has left for us. However – and whether or not – you’ve celebrated, I’m sending you all the best wishes for the rest of the holiday period and hoping that you have a wonderful long New Year’s weekend!