CHRISTMAS FICTION: Who used to make the best holiday movies? Jews. But do they still? 1,654 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The ghosts of show business moguls Joseph E. Levine, David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and William Castle took a break from their pinochle game to agree that what Hollywood needed was a good Christmas picture.
“As long as the goyim are spending everything they have on presents,” Levine said, “why can’t they throw a little of their money our way?”
“After all, Jesus was Jewish,” added Goldwyn, “at least on his father’s side.”
Selznick wasn’t as sure. “I admit that a Christmas picture is good for holiday business. But what happens on December 26? Who wants to see a movie about Santa Claus in January when the bills come in?” he said, shaking his head.
“For that matter, who wants to see a picture about the Civil War seventy-five years after Appomattox?” Levine shot back. “If it’s a good picture, people will come. But you gotta have the right ad campaign.”
“Amen to that,” Castle agreed. “Good ads, but also a gimmick. The gimmick is what brings them in. It’s called showmanship.”
“I know your kind of showmanship,” Selznick said dismissively.
“Vibrators on the seats, a nurse on duty, insurance policies, a skeleton that sails over the audience’s heads. What would you do for Christmas: give everybody a piece of the crucifix?”
“It brought them into church,” Levine noted.
“All I’m saying,” Castle continued, undaunted by his skeptical friends, “is that Christmas is a time of gift-giving, and the wise showman gives something to the people who buy movie tickets. Call it a souvenir, call it whatever you want. Give them something to take away and they’ll come back for more of it.”
“I think we should make a film about a traditional American Christmas,” advised Goldwyn. “A family sits down to a goose dinner, then they go to midnight mass, and then they come home singing ‘O Holy Night.’ Mother and Father tuck their children into bed and then make martinis while they wrap presents and trim the tree. The next morning the kids fall down the stairs to see what Santa left them. Then everyone goes out to a movie followed by sushi.”
“That’s a great idea!” Castle perked up. “And inside the fortune cookies is a message that says ‘What? You’ve only seen Stalking Santa once?’ I tell you, word of mouth is what sells pictures.”
“Bullshit,” Levine growled. “Word of mouth is what kills pictures. If I have the right ad campaign I can sell Hadassah a ham dinner. Our industry is the only racket where people pay their bucks up front and can’t get a refund even if they don’t like the product. As long as the film has sprocket holes, you can saturate it in as many theaters as you can and advertise the crap out of it. People will see anything if you sell it to them right. Look at boil-in-the-bag rice. Who needs that? Same with pictures. By the time word gets around that it’s a turkey, you’re counting your money.”
Levine shrugged. “Why do you think Santa splits after he leaves the presents? Because the shit that passes for toys these days is made in China.”
“China, huh?” Castle mused. “Maybe we can do a Chinese Christmas picture. Jackie Chan as Samurai Santa.”
“Samurais are Japanese,” Selznick corrected.
“So he converts.”
Goldwyn got up from the pinochle table and started pacing. He walked with his arms folded and tapped his index finger against his biceps and muttered, “Maybe if we turned Christmas inside out. You know how they reverse the point of view these days, like telling The Wizard Of Oz from the witch’s angle? What about A Christmas Carol from the point of view of the three ghosts?”
“I already did that in 13 Ghosts,” Castle said. “With a ghost viewer. Red if you wanted to see them, blue if you didn’t. Of course, nobody used the blue.”
“Okay then,” Goldwyn shifted. “How about the nativity from the point of view of the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away?”
“The anti-Semite?” Selznick asked. “Zanuck’s already making Gentleman’s Agreement over at Fox.”
Goldwyn remained undaunted. “What if we set Christmas in outer space?”
“Somebody already did that, too,” Levine snorted. “Didn’t you see Santa Claus Conquers The Martians?”
“We’re getting off track,” Selznick said assertively. “In the entire history of show business, nobody does Christmas like the Jews. Who writes the best Christmas songs? Jews. Who makes the best Christmas movies? Jews. Who runs the best toy stores? Jews. We don’t even take the day off so all the goyim can come and see us perform. What do you say to that?”
Goldwyn clucked his tongue. “It’s too Jewish.”
“You sound like L.B.,” Levine chided him, knowing that Selznick and Mayer were still at odds.
“Don’t start,” Sam said. “Louis always had a thing against Jews. He thought priests were more interesting because they had all those accessories.”
“Why not tell a story of a nice Jewish boy who didn’t want to go into his father’s business?” said Levine.
“You mean The Jazz Singer?”
“King Of Kings.”
“Can we please stay away from religion?” Castle said. “Half the audience still thinks we crucified Christ. Let’s stick to snowmen, reindeer and holly.”
All four men fell silent. Finally Goldwyn said, “Maybe if we made a Christmas picture and released it on Easter we’d have the next eight months to play it off.”
“How hard can it be to make a good Christmas picture?” Selznick said in frustration. “Hollywood makes a hundred movies a year. Why can’t we find one that says, ‘Peace on earth, good will toward men, love thy neighbor?’”
“My neighbor’s an asshole,” Levine grumbled. “He puts up his damn Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving and leaves them on through Valentine’s Day. People come from all over just to drive past his house. All night long there’s nothing but horns, rubberneckers, noise – “
“We’re getting off topic,” said Selznick. “What are the elements of a good Christmas picture?”
“Well,” ponderedCastle, “you got your Christmas trees, toys, angels, sleds and eggnog. You got kids staying up late just to see Santa Clause. And you got a killer on the loose who breaks into houses through the chimney, his glowing yellow eyes shining through the soot covering his horribly burned face. . .”
“Whoa, dial it down a little,” Goldwyn advised. “This isn’t The Christmas Killer, it’s got to be warm and fuzzy.”
Castle continued. “Only he’s not burned, he’s furry from head to foot. He’s an evil elf that turns into a werewolf one night a year on Christmas and the only way to stop him is to keep a fire going in the fireplace. The gimmick is that we give away red and green werewolf candles.”
“Get a grip, Bill,” Selznick said as calmly as he could manage as his Dexedrine kicked in. “Millions of people love Christmas. It’s based on a best-selling book.”
Goldwyn straightened. “I have a great idea,” he said. “It’s Christmas Day. An elf comes back to Santaland from his delivering duties. He’s tired. he hasn’t seen Mrs. Elf and the little elflings yet, and he’s had experiences that they haven’t had and he has trouble relating to them. His fellow elves who’ve had the same experiences also can’t relate to their families.”
“What are you giving us, Sam,” derided Selznick, “The Best Years Of Our Lives at the North Pole?”
“We’re making this much too complicated,” Levine said. “The story of Christ is the greatest ever told. I see it now. Jesus is chased all over the Holy Land by Roman legions. He’s just wearing sandals and a simple cloth robe but the soldiers are all decked out in armor and leather and carrying swords. We can shoot it in Italy for a song, do it in Italian, and dub it later into any language we want.”
Goldwyn and Castle groaned. Selznick held out his hand and calmed the table. “How about Santa Claus takes to the radio to announce that he’s calling off Christmas this year because the world’s gone to hell. But a little girl’s belief in him saves the day?”
“That’s beautiful,” Castle said, wiping away a tear – although it might have been cigar ash. “It’s pure and uplifting. What about if Santa is possessed by Satan and he wants little Rosemary to carry his spawn?”
“I think you’re missing the point,” Levine grumbled. “This isn’t Rosemary’s Baby with mistletoe. We’re not in the gimmick business, we’re in show business. I’ve produced two hundred films and I never had to give anything away to get people to see them.”
“I know your track record, Joe,” Castle snapped back. “Did you ever even watch half the dreck you produced? I mean, ‘presented’?”
“Bill, you’re running amok,” Selznick admonished. “Let’s get back on track. I know literature. Charles Dickens wrote a slew of Christmas stories besides A Christmas Carol. There’s a gem called The Cricket On The Hearth…”
“He better not be named Jiminy,’ Levine warned, ‘or Disney will sue his ass off.“
“Dickens is public domain,’ Selznick continued. “This story has everything: a miser, a toymaker, a missing son, a bittersweet love story, and a happy if ironic ending.”
“Which one is the cricket?” Levine asked.
“None of them,” Selznick said proudly. “He just sits on the hearth and watches everyone else.”
This excited Castle. “We could make the cricket CGI. Maybe we can give away miniature crickets. Or maybe those little metal clickers you press with your thumb and everybody says sounds like a cricket but you know it doesn’t.”
“We’re not getting anywhere,” Goldwyn proclaimed. “Let’s get a bite to eat, relax, and something productive might come out of this meeting. I just hope we can remember it.”
“Don’t worry,” Selznick said, putting on his coat. “I’ll send out a memo.”