It’s a Wonderful Case (1946)

There’s no doubting it, folks, the holidays are here! And with this season comes the return of certain movies. Of course, it’s just not Christmas if Ralphie doesn’t put on the pink bunny suit in a Christmas Story, or if we miss Kevin McAlister setting the traps in his Chicago home. Over time, these films have come to define the Christmas season so well, it’s already hard to imagine what Christmas was like without them. Today, we’re talking about one such movie. It’s a story about a man that believes he’s lived a worthless life until he’s given an incredible gift; a chance to see what the world would be like without him. 

It’s a Wonderful Life is so classic, we’ll bet you even know the story even if you haven’t seen it. Countless TV shows have spoofed the famous plot, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Fairly Odd Parents. But, this popular Christmas gem didn’t start out as wonderfully as you would think. In fact, the film underperformed initially, landing its fledgling production studio about $500,000 worth of debt. So, how did this dud find its place as a bonafide Christmas Classic? Grab a glass of Flaming Rum Punch (or whatever you prefer) and settle in as we discover the story behind It’s a Wonderful Life!

SYNOPSIS

  • George Bailey is about to give up on his life. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a complete failure who has never amounted to anything. When the angel Gabriel hears the prayers of George’s concerned family and friends, he sends a novice angel named Clarence to intervene. Clarence doesn’t know exactly how to help this man until George proclaims that he wishes he’d never been born, and Clarence decides to make that wish a reality. 

MAKING OF

  • It’s a Wonderful Life began, as so many Hollywood films do, with a short story. In the winter of 1938, Phillip Van Doren Stern wrote a story called, “The Greatest Gift,” about a banker on the brink of suicide until an angel shows him what the world would be like without him. Stern was unable to get the story published, so he made it into a pamphlet and mailed it out to two-hundred people as a Christmas card in 1943 (OMG 200 Christmas cards?!). According to the New York Times, one of the recipients of the story was Stern’s agent, who was able to sell the story to RKO Pictures, one of the biggest studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood, for $10,000. Due to inflation, this would be about $157,925 today. 
    • RKO had three scriptwriters adapt the story into three screenplays, with a plan for Carey Grant to star in the eventual film adaptation. 
      • Screenwriter Marc Connelly’s script included a scene where George Bailey sees a world with a “bad” version of himself. Clifford Odets took this idea and had the two Georges fight on the bridge, with the evil George dying in the end. The third uncredited scriptwriter was Dalton Trumbo, the famous writer known for scripting Roman Holiday
      • None of the scripts seemed to work. So, the project lost steam until Frank Capra came along and purchased the rights for $10,000, the same amount that RKO had paid. However, RKO also tossed in the three scripts. Capra combined the scripts and added some of his own ideas. For example, he created the character of Mr. Potter, the villain portrayed by legendary actor Lionel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s Great Uncle). He also reimagined Bedford Falls as a more believable place, so audiences could connect to the characters. 
    • It’s believed that during this time, Capra visited the town of Seneca Falls to get inspiration for Bedford Falls. According to the Seneca Falls It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, a barber named Tom Bellissima recalled cutting Capra’s hair during a visit. 
      • Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls have a few similarities. For example, they are both located in western New York. The architecture and layout of the town both look similar as well. Not only that, a resident of Seneca Falls once set up affordable housing named after his family. George Bailey does the same thing in the film. 
      • But, the biggest similarity was the story of Antonio Varacalli. In April of 1917, a woman attempted suicide by jumping from the Seneca Falls Bridge. Antonio Varacalli jumped in after her, saving her life, but losing his own in the process. In response to this, he was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal. Seneca Falls then came together to raise enough money for Varacalli’s family to come live in the United States, a dream he had been working toward. 
      • In the film, George walks down to the Bedford Falls Bridge and heavily considers jumping into the icy water. Clarence, George’s angel, saves his life by jumping into the water just before George could do it himself. George then saves the angel and forgets about his own thoughts of suicide. The events of Antonio Varacalli could have inspired this part of the film. 
    • After buying The Greatest Gift from RKO Pictures, Frank Capra changed the name of the movie to It’s a Wonderful Life. He hired two screenwriters to help with the new conglomerate script. Their names were Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. 
      • The screenwriters were thrilled to work with someone as creative as Capra, but the relationship between them and the director soured over time. For one thing, Capra was taking their work and re-writing portions of it with another screenwriter behind their backs–something that’s against the rules according to The Writers Guild. The couple also felt Capra was condescending, and they didn’t like that he referred to Frances as, “My Dear Woman.” 
      • They turned in their version of the script regardless, and Capra hired another two more writers to polish it off. The Writer’s Guild stepped in and made sure that Goodrich and Hackett got top credit for their work, with Capra and other writers listed below. 
  • It’s a Wonderful Life opens with a shot of a bell, very much like the famed liberty bell, ringing. This was the calling card for Liberty Films, an independent film studio founded by Frank Capra, Sam Briskin, William Wyler, and George Stevens.  
    • In the 1930s, Frank Capra was quite possibly the most well-known director in Hollywood. While the country toiled through the Great Depression, audiences could look to his films for a dose of optimism. In fact, some critics would even refer to his work as “Capra-corn” because of its perceived cheesiness. Capra didn’t mind, because he believed it was important to spread positive messages. 
    • During the 1930s, he directed award-winning classics like It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While serving in the Signal Corps during WWII, he directed seven documentaries that were meant to increase public support for the war effort. 
    • After returning from the war, Capra started the Liberty Films, and It’s a Wonderful Life would be their first and only production before they would be forced to sell their assets to Paramount in 1948. 
  • Some would describe Capra as a true independent, a filmmaker that never adhered to conventional standards. His philosophy was that there was one man behind every film, meaning he was involved in most of the decision-making on each production. 
    • Because of this, Capra was responsible for many of the key details of It’s a Wonderful Life, including the casting. 
      • James Stewart was Capra’s first choice for George Bailey from the beginning. He had already starred in other Capra projects like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can’t Take it With You. Stewart’s on-screen characters were often honest and friendly, and audiences recognized his unique and unassuming style of speech. Capra was convinced that Stewart could handle the darker scenes of this movie, and he was right. 
        • There’s a scene where George and Mary kiss passionately after speaking on the phone. Stewart was reluctant to do the scene, saying he was rusty. Capra insisted and changed the scene so that George and Mary would share the same phone, making the kiss afterward feel more natural. The couple shot it in one take, apparently leaving out a whole page of dialogue. When the script supervisor brought this up, Capra reportedly replied, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue?”
      • Capra’s first choice for Mary was Jean Arthur because she had experience playing opposite Stewart in two of his films. Arthur declined, and Capra looked at several other actresses (including Ginger Rogers) until deciding on Donna Reed. 
        • In one scene, Reed’s character was supposed to throw a rock at an abandoned house. Capra hired someone to throw the rock for Reed, but it turned out she was a terrific shot and threw rocks better than anyone on set.
      • From the start, Frank Capra was determined to have actor Henry Travers in the film. Travers was a veteran stage actor that had made a name for himself in famous film productions like, “The Bells of Saint Mary’s.” 
        • Ultimately, Capra decided that Travers would be perfect as Clarence Oddbody, George’s guardian angel. Travers retired from acting in 1949 and lived to be 91. Clarence would always be his most well-known role. 
      • Several different men were considered for the part of the conniving Mr. Potter, like Charles Coburn and Vincent Price. But, the role went to Lionel Barrymore, a legendary actor that had previously appeared in Capra’s film You Can’t Take it With You. 
        • When It’s a Wonderful Life premiered, the Hayes Code was still in effect. One of the stipulations of the code was that villains should always be punished for their misdeeds. However, the film was able to get away with not punishing the evil Mr. Potter! Capra said that he received more mail about this than anything else. 
  • It’s a Wonderful Life started production in the summer of 1946. 
    • Bedford Falls was a set built on the Encino Ranch owned by RKO Pictures in California. Even though it was a Liberty Films production, RKO Pictures would still distribute the film. 
      • This was one of the longest sets built for a movie at the time. The main street was 300 yards long, with a tree-lined center parkway. Bedford Falls included 75 stores and buildings, including a bank with a marble front. 
        • The set had been constructed in 3 separate sections. But when it had all been pieced together, it covered about four acres of land!
        • Twenty full-grown Oak trees were transplanted to the set as well
      • One of the most famous scenes in the movie takes place during a high school dance. As the main characters take part in a Charleston contest, a disgruntled teenager decides to open the floor to reveal a swimming pool! George and Mary then fall in, prompting other dancers to jump in as well. 
        • Critics felt that the scene was “fakery at its worst,” but the school and the gym floor really do exist in Beverly Hills.  
    • The special effects team developed a groundbreaking way to make fake snow. 
      • You can’t have a film take place during a New York December and NOT have snow, right? However, It’s a Wonderful Life was filmed during a record-breaking heatwave, meaning that there was no snow to be found. In fact, the heat was so intense, they had to take a day off of production so everyone could rest. 
      • Up until this point, movie snow was often bleached cornflakes, which as you can imagine, makes it difficult to record audio. The Special Effects crew used 3000 tons of ice, 300 tons of gypsum, 300 tons of plaster, and 6000 gallons of a special mixture of foamite, soap, and water. 
  • It’s a Wonderful Life was the final collaboration between Frank Capra and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Tiomkin had worked with Capra on previous films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. 
    • Frank Capra never saw this movie as a Christmas movie, although it takes place at Christmas. Originally, it was scheduled to release in the Spring of 1947, but RKO pushed up the release to December of 1946, rushing parts of the production. The greatest casualty of this was Tiomkin’s score. 
      • Tiomkin was famous for adding in popular songs or familiar melodies in his film scores, which definitely shows with the “Buffalo Girls” melody appearing throughout the film. 
      • But, the score that the audience hears while watching the final cut of the movie is drastically different than what Tiomkin composed. His music had a darker tone, emphasizing the more serious themes in the film; themes like financial ruin, death, and suicide. 
      • To make the film feel lighter, much of Tiomkin’s music was cut and replaced with pre-written music. Because of the rushed deadline, there wasn’t enough time for re-writes, and most of Tiomkin’s music ended up on the cutting room floor. He referred to it as, “a real scissors job.” 
    • For decades audiences didn’t have a chance to hear the original music, but the Sundance Institute was able to recover much of it. The reconstructed version of what Tiomkin had planned can be found on a recent episode of Saturday Cinema with Lynn Warfel, performed with David Newman and the Philharmonic Orchestra. We will link to it in the blog! https://www.yourclassical.org/story/2021/12/04/im-your-guardian-angel?fbclid=IwAR3sqg2VPAeI4ed9GLuXZnTCXBFGSpC5QrgxakBRyMnMOAU7CmcWeuA-yd8 

ALSO STARRING

  • Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
    • Mitchell was a character actor, and another recognizable role for him was Gerald O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. 
  • H.B. Warner as Mr. Gower
    • During this time Warner had been typecast after appearing as Jesus in the 1927 silent film The King of Kings. Although it was controversial to have him play a troubled alcoholic, Capra took the chance. Warner was thrilled to play such a different character and show that he was not a one-note actor. 
  • Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey
    • She was also a character actor that ended up being typecast as mothers and grandmothers. She played Jimmy Stewart’s mother about 4 times.
  • The children
    • Larry Simms as Pete Bailey
    • Carol Coombs as Janie Bailey
    • Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
      • When George calls her his little gingersnap it is cute but also relevant because Zuzu was actually a Gingersnap brand at the time.
      • Grimes said about the movie, “I absolutely love it. There are so many messages. Capra was trying to make people realize that life is worth living, and that you can make a difference. We lose sight of that every once in a while. That’s why I think people love to watch it.”
    • Jimmy Hawkins as Tommy Bailey
  • Lillian Randolph as Annie
    • Randolph was a prolific actress that appeared in several films and TV shows throughout her career, all the way until her death in 1980.
  • A little cameo appears in the scene where the gym floor opens at the high school dance. You can see that the young man that is jealous of George and opens the floor is Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer!

FUN FACTS

  • When leaving George’s house after the wedding festivities, Uncle Billy is clearly drunk. He is not able to realize that his “missing hat” is sitting upon his head. When filming this scene, as the character of Uncle Billy exits the camera’s frame, a loud crash can be heard. As intentional as it sounds, it is actually the accidental dropping of props by a technician. Thomas Mitchell just rolled with the sound, calling out from off-screen that he’s okay. Although the technician feared for his job, Capra instead gave him a raise for improving the sound of the film as the audience imagines the crash being Uncle Billy colliding into trash cans. 
  • During a run on the bank when customers fear that they will lose their money, George uses his own personal Honeymoon funds to calm his bank customers. All of the requests for money were scripted except for the last one made by Mrs. Davis. Her request was for only $17.50. Capra had told her to surprise Stewart, and so his reaction was genuine when he kissed her on the cheek for such a low money request!

RECEPTION/LEGACY

  • There are a few reasons why audiences didn’t go see It’s a Wonderful Life. For one, the East Coast of the United States was experiencing record lows in temperatures, prompting a lot of people to stay home. But, the main issue was that audiences felt it wasn’t cheery enough to be a Christmas movie. 
    • This is a fair sentiment. The film explores a lot of dark themes and might be a tough watch for some. Frank Capra never saw this as a failure. In fact, he often said It’s a Wonderful Life was his favorite among his films. He liked that it explored the pain of normal life as well as the joy. 
    • Capra didn’t want to make a film about the war, especially since it was fresh on the minds of audiences across the globe. But even though this film expressed a heart-warming message, it may not have been the uplifting escapism that post-war movie-goers were looking for. 
    • There is some debate about whether the film technically flopped, but it certainly didn’t do well and foreshadowed the end of Liberty Films, and in some peoples’ opinion, Frank Capra’s career. 
  • And this could have been the end of It’s a Wonderful Life’s legacy. But, in 1974, the copyright owner of the film made a clerical error and failed to renew the film’s copyright. It fell into the public domain, where TV studios jumped at the free content and played it freely for about 19 years. In terms of the film’s popularity, this was the miracle the movie needed. It’s a Wonderful Life had somehow become a Christmas staple, a movie that people of all ages would enjoy, gathered by their loved ones every holiday season. 
  • Although the film was nominated for five different Academy Awards it did not win any. However, Capra did win Best Director for the Golden Globes and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. 
  • Several television shows have their own episode version of this movie.
  • A sequel was in the works called It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story but it has now been canceled. 
  • Seneca Falls has a museum dedicated to the movie.  

It’s a Wonderful Life had all the makings of a Hollywood classic; a famed director, a well-known and likable lead, and a heartwarming, yet relatable story. But then, the unexpected happened: audiences didn’t see it. For nearly thirty years, the film fell into relative obscurity, generally only remembered by those that saw it when it first premiered. But just when it seemed like the world was better off without it, it resurfaced to bring joy to audiences everywhere.  

As a Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life might get a little too real. The main character is a regular man with extraordinary ambition that eventually gives up his dreams to live, what he considers to be, an ordinary life. He has no understanding of the incredible impact he’s had on so many lives until someone shows him. 

This film holds a message that nearly everyone on this planet longs to believe: that each and every one of us, just through the simple acts of life, has made a remarkable difference. And if we were to learn anything from this movie, it’s that we should all stop and remind the ones around us just how wonderful they are. 


SOURCES:

The Case of Our Five Favorite Santas

First, let’s talk a little bit about the origin of Santa Claus! 

Santa Claus is known around the world by many names. Some of the most well-known are; Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, and Papa Noel. These names and origins should not be confused with the Belsnickel and Krampus. St Nicholas is known to be the patron saint of many things including children, sailors, ships, merchants, pawnbrokers, and some cities like Moscow.

One of the most well-known stories tells of Saint Nicholas gifting three girls dowries in order that they may get married. Due to his generosity and good deeds towards children in life, he became their patron saint and a popular bringer of gifts on his celebrated day of December 6th. 

As people traveled and immigrated to the United States the celebrations followed and the legends of Saint Nicholas and the scary and shaggy Belsnickel became mixed to eventually become what we know as Santa Claus. Santa Claus, like the Christmas holiday, is an amalgamation of traditions and practices, and hopefully one day we will go further into detail about Santa’s history. 

Much of the details that we have accepted about Santa Claus came from a Clement Clarke Moore poem called, A Visit From Saint Nicholas. But, two years before that story, there was “The Children’s Friend.” It was notable for removing the religious aspects of St. Nick and associating him with the Christmas holiday. Here are a couple of stanzas: 

“Old Santeclaus with much delight

His reindeer drives this frosty night.

O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,

To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The steady friend of virtuous youth,

The friend of duty, and of truth,

Each Christmas eve he joys to come

Where love and peace have made their home”

NUMBER 5

  • “Sandy Claws” (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)*
    • If you need a refresher, The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. It follows Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweentown, as he faces issues with burnout and his own identity. Jack’s purpose in life becomes reinvigorated when he discovers Christmastown and attempts to give Christmas a try instead. 
    • Santa’s voice can be heard at the beginning of the movie during the initial narration. Since the narration doesn’t return, it makes sense that it turns out to be a character in the movie, though this is not immediately obvious to the audience
    • Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws) appears in this film after Jack Skellington visits Christmastown for the first time. However, the audience doesn’t get a great look at the character until much later, when three trick-or-treaters kidnap Santa Claus and deliver him to the evil Oogie Boogie Man.
      • Lock, Stock, and Barrell kidnap Santa so that Jack can take his place. 
  • Voiced by Edward Ivory, this is a pretty classic take on Santa Claus. Although Santa is generally depicted as a kind being that only wants to spread joy, The Nightmare Before Christmas gave some more depth to the character by showing how he would react to being kidnapped. Although this version of Santa becomes more and more frustrated (and possibly scared for his life), he never seems to really lose his cool and still recovers in time to save Christmas! 
    • Ivory was not in very many movies but he was also in the film Nine Months (1995), Rampage (1987), and Blood Red (1989.)
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a well-known and beloved classic, it’s safe to say the film made a major impact on a lot of people. Although the debate about whether it’s a Halloween or Christmas movie will never be settled, you’ll find fans enjoying it during any season. 
    • It won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and Best Music
    • It earned Annies for Best Individual Achievement for Creative Supervision in the Field of Animation and Best Individual Achievement for Artistic Excellence in the Field of Animation.
    • It also won the Blimp Award at the Kid’s Choice Awards for Favorite Movie!
  • So why did this Santa make it into our top five?
    • We LOVE the style of this film, and seeing a Tim-Burton-style Santa is an automatic win. Although he has the classic characteristics of many western depictions of Santa Claus (red suit, white beard, black boots) he still has the same unmistakable charm as other Burton creations. Before this film came out, you wouldn’t find a Santa that looks like this anywhere else. 
    • This Santa is inherently good-natured. He withstands being carried around in a sack and is essentially tortured by Oogie Boogie. But, when he realizes it was a misunderstanding and that Jack never intended for him to be hurt, he seems to forgive him almost immediately. He never hesitates to fix all the damage that the Halloweentown residents had done, and makes time to visit them after delivering all of his presents!
  • We asked our Twitter followers for their suggestions on some favorite Santas! Jacob (@DemChops) suggested Santa Claus from Nightmare Before Christmas, saying, “He was so fed up with the Halloween people but he still gave them some Christmas magic in the end. A true Santa.”

NUMBER 4

  • North (Rise of the Guardians, 2012)*
  • Rise of the Guardians is based on a book series by William Joyce called, “Guardians of Childhood.” Every year the holidays arrive and with them the protection of the immortal Guardians. The Guardians, known as Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, Toothiana, and Sandman, spread light to protect children everywhere from darkness and despair. An evil spirit called Pitch Black plots to overthrow them by destroying the source of their power, which is the faith of children everywhere. Saving the Guardians is left up to a new young immortal by the name of Jack Frost. 
    • This film was directed by Peter Ramsey for Dreamworks Animation
  • Voiced by Alec Baldwin, North is the leader of the guardians and this universe’s more-secular take on Santa Claus. Although he is far from the traditional depiction of Santa Claus, he is still dedicated to spreading love and cheer across the world and protecting the innocence of children. 
  • Though this isn’t the most popular Dreamworks film, we consider it to be one of their best works. The story is heartwarming and imaginative and encourages children to believe in magic–not just supernatural magic, but the magic within themselves.
    • Rise of the Guardians received the Vanity Fair International Award for Cinematic Excellence and the Hollywood Animation Award at the 16th Annual Hollywood Film Festival. The film also won two Annie Awards for Effects in Animation and Storyboarding. 
  • So why did North make it into our top five?
    • Out of all the entries on this list, North is the most unique version of Santa Claus. Generally, we see an older and less active version of the character in cinema, but here we see a buff Santa with tattoos and a Russian accent (which makes sense because St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Moscow). This Santa is much more active and unafraid to use weapons to protect the things he loves. It’s important to see a different take on a character because it shows that even though someone is unconventional, it doesn’t mean they are any less than someone who is traditional. This Santa thwarts tradition and conventional standards. 
    • Every story that includes a Santa storyline begs the question: how does he keep track of all the children and bring them toys in one night? The universe in Rise of the Guardians answers this question with a combination of advanced technology and magic. The approach feels rooted in our universe, so audiences find it easier to comprehend. 
    • Rise of the Guardians provides a completely different perspective on Santa. We’re used to seeing him as he delivers gifts and interacts with children. In this film, we see him amongst his peers (the other holiday guardians) which adds another layer to his character. There are even some comedic moments when he clashes with the Easter Bunny or gets frustrated with his bumbling elves. 
  • This was another Twitter suggestion! You guys really know how to pick your Santas. Mics and Beers (@micsandbeers) said, “Got to go with the Santa with swords.”

NUMBER 3

  • Santa Claus (Year Without a Santa Claus, 1974)
  • Based on a book by Phylis McGinley, The Year Without a Santa Claus follows the story of a sick Santa Claus (played by Mickey Rooney) who may not be well enough to deliver presents this year. His doctor even tells him that he should stay in bed because children don’t really believe in Santa anymore. Mrs. Claus takes action into her own hands and sends two elves with a reindeer out into the world to find Christmas cheer. When they run into some trouble, Santa heads out after them and discovers that the world still cares about Christmas. 
    • Of all the Rankin and Bass stop-motion specials, this is one of the most beloved. It included songs by Jules Bass and Maury Laws, most notably the heat and snow miser songs!
    • The special was written by William J Keenan and animated in Japan, like the other Rankin and Bass specials. 
  • This is a special that returns every year during the holiday season, and inspired a sequel special starring the heat and snow misers! You’ll also find their merchandise in stores at Christmas time. 
  • Mickey Rooney during his lifetime was in over 300 films from silent films from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Phantom of the Megaplex. He also voiced Santa Claus in three other animagic specials, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town. So, it’s probably OK to say that this version of Santa is the same one that appears in the other specials of the Rankin and Bass universe. However, we chose the Santa from this particular special because we liked seeing this side of him. Usually, Christmas movies are about children losing their faith in Santa, but this special was more about Santa losing faith in the world. 
    • This Santa Claus is relatable and hard-working. He seems more mortal than other depictions because he has fallen ill. More often than not, Santa is depicted as a supernatural being, capable of looking in on children at any given time to see if they are behaving. This version of Santa, however, doesn’t seem as powerful. 
    • No matter how awful this Santa feels, he’s never angry or upset with anyone. Sure, he feels unappreciated, but that makes him sad more than anything else. And who could blame him for wanting to cancel Christmas? None of us want to go to work when we’re feeling sick. 
    • This version of Santa also really seems to enjoy his job. Sometimes we get the sense from other versions of the character that he feels like he’s doing the world a huge favor, but here it seems that he gets as much out of Christmas as anyone else. 

NUMBER 2

  • Klaus (Klaus, 2019)*
    • Klaus is the most recent entry on our list! Directed by Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez Lopez, Klaus is a Netflix original that follows the origin story of Santa Claus, known in this universe as Klaus. 
    • The story initially follows Jesper, the privileged son of the postmaster general, as he’s banished to a cold and freezing island called Smeerensburg. While there, he meets a toymaker named Klaus. Because he needs to meet a quota of 6000 letters mailed, Jesper convinces the children to mail Klaus letters so that he will deliver toys to their houses. Because one act of kindness always sparks another, Jesper and Klaus end up changing the lives of everyone on the island. 
      • Actor J.K. Simmons provides the voice of the stoic and kind Klaus, a toymaker isolated in the woods. This version of Santa is more unwitting than others and is somewhat of a reluctant hero. Early in the film, it’s clear that he wants to make children happy, but Jesper pushes him to start making new toys again.
      • Simmons is famous for several character roles, like Tenzin in The Legend of Korra and Jay Jonah Jamison in the Spider-Man films.  
    • Impact 
      • Klaus won the 2020 BAFTA for Best Animated Feature
      • It also received several Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature, Character Animation, Character Design, Directing, Production Design, Storyboarding, and Editorial.
      • It was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It, unfortunately, lost Toy Story 4.
    • Number two on our list is pretty high, especially for a character that might not be as well-known or established as some of the other entries. But, we chose Klaus because we love how human his story is, and his immense generosity. 
      • When Klaus first delivers a gift, he does it solely because he saw the sad drawing of a child and wanted to cheer them up. He stays back to watch the child open the gift, and we can see how much it means to him that the child was happy. 
      • One of the most appealing aspects of Klaus is that he’s a regular man and not a supernatural being (to begin with, anyway). He uses his craft to bring joy to other people, inspiring others to do the same. 
      • Klaus is reclusive and uninterested in making friends, but throughout the film we see the character open up and grow, and it’s because others are willing to help that he becomes Santa Claus. 
      • Near the end of his mortal life, Klaus embodies the spirit of Christmas so much that he becomes father Christmas. It’s seemingly a reward for a life well-lived that he can continue to spark kindness across the world. 
    • This was another Twitter suggestion from our friend and listener, JD Gravatte! 

NUMBER 1

  • Kris Kringle (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947)
  • This Christmas classic follows Doris Walker, a no-nonsense single mother with a young daughter named Susan. While Doris performs her job as the manager of the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a kind old man approaches her and points out that the Santa Claus hired for the event is intoxicated. Doris invites the kind older man to fill in as Santa not only in the parade but during the holiday as the Macy’s store Santa. Kris Kringle, as he calls himself, is not only a hit with the children but also with adult customers. He truly embodies the spirit of Christmas by helping them buy gifts, sending them to other stores to find them. Soon, it captures the attention of the store that Kris believes that he himself is the real Santa Claus. This issue gets overlooked until Kris assaults the resident psychologist with his umbrella, causing him to get sent to an institution. All this leads to a public hearing, where Kris’s lawyer, Fred Gayley, must defend him by proving that he is indeed the real Santa Claus.
    • Doris’s daughter, Susan, has never believed in magic before, but Kris convinces her that magic is real, saving Christmas for at least one child. 
  • While this version of the character was played by Edmund Gwenn, there was a 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough. Since it’s the same character, we felt it was worth mentioning! 
    • Gwenn won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role! He also won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor!
  • Miracle on 34th Street is a tradition for many families during the holiday season. It’s heartfelt and engaging, a warm Christmas classic that’s also a legal drama? Count us in! 
    • The film won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor
    • It also won Oscars for Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay. Finally, it also won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.
  • When we set out to make this list, we knew from the beginning that Kris Kringle was our number one. Throughout the entire film, all the way until the end, the audience doesn’t actually see any proof that Kris is Santa Claus. We don’t see him perform magic or visit the north pole, we only see what the other characters see. And yet, we’re on board the entire time. Why? Because this character is so pure and believable as Santa Claus that it almost seems impossible not to believe him. 
    • This Santa is one of the most wholesome we have ever seen. He has a genuine personality and a great sense of humor and doesn’t get frustrated or upset when people don’t believe him. Sure, he’s got some old-school ideas for punishing naughty people (the umbrella might’ve been out of line) But in 1947, parents were spanking their kids harder than Kris hits that man with his umbrella. 
    • Kris’s interactions with others are heartwarming and memorable. He helps many different characters, from Alvin the janitor to little Susan Walker. 
    • He is able to change those around him for the better with simple acts of kindness, like listening to people and gently guiding customers to where they can find toys so that their children can have a happy holiday. 
    • Whether or not people believe he’s the real Santa isn’t important to Kris. Instead, he just wants to help those around him and only tells them that he is Santa because he’s just an honest person. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Since there are hundreds of movie Santas, we had some honorable mentions: 

Santa Claus (The Polar Express, 2004)

  • Our first honorable mention is the Santa from the Polar Express. Of course, we don’t see very much of this version, but the audience gets enough of him to know that he is a very classic version of the character. This Santa appears at the end of the film when the main character is finding his faith in Santa again. 
  • Tom Hanks voiced this Santa Claus (as he voiced many characters throughout the film). 

Scott Calvin (The Santa Clause, 1994)

  • Played by Tim Allen
  • While watching his son, Charlie, for Christmas, Scott hears a noise on the roof and goes to investigate while his son follows. After scaring a red-suited man off the roof, the man disappears in the snow but his red suit remains. Scott dons the suit and he and his son are taken to the North Pole where he discovers he will be Santa for the foreseeable future. Problems arise, however, when Charlie’s mother and Step-Father believe that Scott is endangering Charlie’s well-being.

Father Christmas (The Snowman, 1982 & Father Christmas, 1991)

  • Voiced by Mel Smith
  • Father Christmas follows Santa on his adventures as he decides to take a vacation in France, Scotland, and Las Vegas. When he returns from his travels to begin preparations for Christmas he finds that he has forgotten something during his trip.

Willie T Stokes (Bad Santa 2003)*

  • Played by Billy Bob Thorton
  • Willie T. Stokes only works one season a year. He drinks constantly and is an embarrassment to himself and others. He works as Santa at the malls. On Christmas Eve he and his accomplice Marcus take all the information they have gathered while working during the season to rob the entire shopping mall.
Noelle (2019)

Noelle (Noelle, 2019)

  • Played by Anna Kendrick
  • Noelle has always loved Christmas, especially the presents. The holiday is made even more special to her as her father is Santa Claus!  At a young age, her brother Nick is given a Santa hat and revealed to officially be the successor to their father as Santa Claus. Noelle wants to be a part of the magic and is tasked by her father to guide Nick and help how she can. Years later after their father passes away, the pressure becomes too much and Nick runs away. Noelle must save Christmas by finding not only her brother but the meaning of Christmas beyond the presents. 

Nick (Fred Claus, 2007)

  • Played by Paul Giamatti
  • Santa Claus’s older brother, Fred, is jealous of him.

Fred ends up needing help and must live with his brother for financial reasons.

Santa Claus (Elf, 2003)

  • Played by Ed Asner 
  • Buddy the elf finds his human father and helps him see the spirit of Christmas.

Santa Claus (A Christmas Story, 1983)

  • Played by Jeff Gillen
  • You’ll shoot your eye out!

Maybe you believe in Santa Claus, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you call him by a different name. Maybe you think he’s a person, and maybe you think he’s the spirit of Christmas. No matter how you feel about the character, these Santas can all teach us something about humanity. You don’t need magic or a sleigh or millions of helpers to be Santa Claus for someone. As long as humans continue to use their abilities to make others happy, the spirit of Santa Claus will always endure. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlies Brown–wait.


SOURCES:

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Case (1962)

Hey, Cassettes, and welcome to the first episode of the Christmas Case Diaries! We have a big month planned, filled with all kinds of holiday fun. We all have those Christmas specials that we watch every holiday season, right? I mean, is it even Christmas without the Island of Misfit Toys, or if we don’t watch the Grinch descend from Mount Krumpet to steal holiday cheer from Whoville? 

Animated Christmas TV specials are a holiday tradition that dates back almost 60 years, and while Rudolph has been airing consistently on TV for the longest amount of time, it was not the special that started it all. 

In December of 1962, people all across America turned on their TV sets to watch the first full-length animated Christmas TV special. Keeping with Christmas tradition, the special was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but with one notable twist: famous cartoon character Quincy Magoo was playing the part of Ebeneezer Scrooge. 

Boasting colorful and stylish limited animation and songs written by Broadway musicians, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol became an instant holiday classic. Although lesser-known than many other 1960s animated specials, it’s a delightful retelling of a familiar story, packed with great performances and animation, unlike anything you’ll see today. 

So, since this is our first episode of the month, we decided to start by covering the very FIRST animated Christmas special! Grab some woofle jelly cake with razzleberry dressing and come join us!https://www.youtube.com/embed/0y33r9bilw8?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

The first appearance of Mr. Magoo in Ragtime Bear (1949)

  • UPA AND MR. MAGOO
  • So first let’s start by talking about the history of United Productions of America (UPA) and Mr. Magoo
    • If you remember back to our history of animation episode, we talked a little bit about the Disney strike of 1941 and how that shaped animation in the years after. 
      • At this time, unions were an established organization for every other form of work from cameramen to cooks, but not animators. One animator, David Hilberman, realized working for Disney, “You were no longer the individual… you were part of an assembly line.” Many other animators and artists realized this as well, and since job security was not guaranteed, holidays could be mandatory, and overtime could be required without added pay. 
    • Industrial Film and Poster Service
      • After being fired for a second time from Disney in 1941, Stephen Bosustow decided it was time to make an animation studio of his own. His first studio was with animator Cy Young and named Associated Cine-Artists. This studio did not last long and soon he began the Industrial Film and Poster Service in 1943 with Zack Schwartz (fired from Disney in 1940), and David Hilberman (who left the company to gain the union more concessions). 
      • Stephen Bosustow had been fired 8 days before the strike. When one of the other fired employees asked Disney what they should do, Disney reportedly replied, “I don’t know, go start a hotdog stand.” 
      • The three men that founded UPA thought that animation could be used as a tool for social reform. They were unhappy with the restrictive, Academic style of drawing at Disney, with familiar fairy tales and an emphasis on humor. In an article titled Animation Learns a New Language Zach Schwartz and John Hudley, who would become a director at UPA, wrote of the Disney formula, “Select any two animals, grind together, and stir into a plot. Add pratfalls, head and body blows, and slide whistle effects to taste. Garnish with Brooklyn accents. Slice into 600-foot lengths and release.” 
        • In Between Disney and UPA, Zach Schwartz worked for Columbia’s Screen Gems where he had an epiphany. “Our camera isn’t a motion-picture camera. Our camera is closer to a printing press.” 
          • Schwartz explained to his coworkers that animated films are not really films at all but are instead graphic art. Although this revelation did little for his coworkers it affected Schwartz greatly.
    • The first few works produced were paid for by the United Automobile Workers.
      • The first short that the team produced was called Hell Bent For Election in 1944. It was directed by the legendary Chuck Jones and was a video that campaigned for FDR’s re-election. It depicted him and his opponent as trains racing for votes. FDR was a sleek new train and Thomas E. Dewey was older and run-down. 
    • The studio would go on to change its studio name to the much sleeker United Productions of America or UPA and win an Oscar for Gerald McBoing-Boing(1950), When Magoo Flew (1954), and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956).
    • Today we know of UPA for its most popular character–Mr. Quincy Magoo. His first appearance was in Ragtime Bear in 1949. The loveable Magoo’s nearsightedness often gets him in trouble where antics ensue but it all ends up alright in the end.
      • The cantankerous character came to life with Jim Backus’ booming voice. Jim would later be known not only for Mr. Magoo but also Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island.
    • The studio’s influence spread, and before long their use of simpler lines and limited animation techniques went on to be used by Hanna Barbera and even Disney.
  • As the anti-communist movement and publications gained traction, many UPA writers and directors were forced to renounce communism or be fired to save the company. In the end, it did little to save production and by the late ’50s, the creative giant was gutted of most of its most innovative and creative minds. 
    • When Henry Saperstein acquired UPA from Columbia in 1960, production halted on new animation as the medium was losing traction. Saperstein instead decided to license Magoo out for commercials and tv spots. 
      • But, this was not the final chapter for Magoo. In 1961, UPA hired a new director of program development that had a plan for the character: a full-length animated Christmas special complete with Broadwayesque music. 
    • In the ’80s Saperstein looked to sell but could not find the proper amount that he was asking for. By the 1990s he was determined to make a live-action Magoo which would eventually star Leslie Nielson. It was originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg but the option lapsed. 
  • SYNOPSIS
    • Mr. Magoo is late for Broadway’s opening night of “A Christmas Carol,” where he will play the lead role. As he finally makes his way to the stage, the curtain rises on the set of “A Christmas Carol.” From there, the audience sees a musical retelling, with Magoo giving a straightforward performance as Scrooge. 
The top picture is the original drawing of Belle. The bottom was the last minute re-design from Tony Rivera.
  • THE FIRST ANIMATED CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
  • Just as the TV series “Mister Magoo” had finished production, producer Lee Orgel entered the scene as the new director of program development. According to his wife, Lea, the two of them were out shopping when Lee got the inspiration for Magoo’s Christmas Carol. 
    • Orgel rushed to the nearest phone to pass along his idea. He created a pitch for the special, along with several other pitches that he called, “spectaculars.” 
    • While the other specials did not come to be, Orgel believed in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Although there were some doubts that the project could work–A cartoon character in a serious acting role?–Orgel did everything he could to get the project off the ground. According to Orgel’s wife, the made-for-TV film was his “baby.”
  • This was not Orgel’s first animation project, as he was already the Associate Producer of a Warner Brothers film called, “Gay Purr-ee,” starring Judy Garland and Robert Goulet. That film also featured the work of Chuck Jones and songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (the team behind The Wizard of Oz.) 
    • The movie was released around the same time as Magoo’s Christmas
  • Although Magoo was a fairly popular character, there was concern that audiences wouldn’t appreciate seeing him play a serious role. After all, Magoo was a goofball that got into wacky situations. Why would he be the lead in such a beloved and serious story as “A Christmas Carol”? 
    • Barbara Chain, a screenwriter that had collaborated with Lee Orgel on a cartoon called Crusader Rabbit, found a solution to this problem. Instead of Mr. Magoo completely changing his personality to fit the part of Scrooge, the special takes place on Broadway and features a play within a play. That way, the audience can see Magoo and his wacky antics on his way to the theater, and then the character drops all of that the moment the play begins. 
      • Of course, the running gag of Mr. Magoo is that the main character has difficulty with his eyesight. There are a few moments when Magoo as Scrooge also has difficulty seeing what is happening in front of him, since playing a character wouldn’t magically fix Magoo’s eyes. 
      • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a fairly true adaptation, but with some key differences. One of the biggest and most mysterious is the change in the order of the ghosts. We’ve never been able to find the exact reason for this switch, though we suspect it was for story purposes. 
  • Abe Levitow was the man tasked with directing Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. According to the artists that worked on the special, Abe gave them a lot of creative freedom with their sequences, and he had a tight grip on the production, which allowed it to run smoothly. 
    • Although several animators worked on the project, they hardly ever communicated with each other except through Abe. It really spoke to his ability as a leader and communicator that the final product turned out to be so seamless. 
    • Levitow also directed Gay Purr-ee and The Phantom Tollbooth. 
  • UPA was known for a specific type of style, and Mist Magoo’s Christmas Carol was no exception. The team of artists and animators truly understood how to match the specific look of a UPA film. 
    • Animator Lee Mishkin designed the characters, though some of them did go through several changes. 
      • For example, artist Tony Rivera drew a different design for the character Belle, but it was apparently changed late in production. Author Darrell Van Citters wrote about this in his blog dedicated to the special. He also published a book you can buy that he talks about in his blog! Which you can find—HERE
      • This was a big change, as the scenes that included Belle had already been inked and colored, and it would have been expensive to make that change so late in production. 
    • Gloria Wood and Bob Inman were two key background artists that really brought a unique look to the special. Wood designed the background for the graveyard sequence, which takes place when Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. 
    • Shirley Silvey was a female animation designer in a male-dominated profession. In the scenes with Marley’s ghost, she animated the characters from unusual angles, which drives home the unsettling nature of the moment. 
    • Many of the animators that worked on the production were freelance, as UPA probably couldn’t afford a large number of animators on staff. It’s impressive that the animation is as consistent as it is, as the freelancers had to grasp the style before working on the project. There were a couple of sequences, like the Cratchit Family sequence, that needed to be redone. 
  • Almost 60 years after its release, the lasting power of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is largely due to its incredible music. Lee Orgel reportedly wanted Richard Rogers to compose the songs, sending him a copy of the novel and asking him to consider it. Rogers was unavailable, and contacted legendary songwriter Frank Loesser (you might remember him from our Christmas songs episode from last year, he wrote “Baby it’s Cold Outside”.) Loesser was also unavailable, so he contacted Jule Styne. Styne was a former vocal coach and prolific composer, responsible for classic songs that appeared in musicals like, Peter Pan and Gypsy. Styne was in-between projects, as he was about to start working on the Tony-Winning musical Funny Girl with lyricist Bob Merrill. So, Styne and Merrill signed on to write the songs for Magoo’s Christmas
    • Merrill was a prominent lyricist that penned a lot of popular songs like, “How much is that doggy in the window?” 
  • Composer Walter Scharf crafted a score that seamlessly blended the songs while adding some musical magic of his own. Scharf was a prolific TV composer, scoring episodes of TV shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Mission Impossible. He also scored 1955 musical classic The Court Jester, though he was uncredited. 
  • SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THESE SONGS!
  • GREAT TO BE BACK ON BROADWAY
    • The special opens with a musical number, “Great to be back on Broadway,” showcasing the lights, billboards, and traffic of New York City. The challenge for animators in this scene was depicting such a complicated setting using the classic simplified style of UPA. 
    • Bob Singer was one of the layout artists responsible for the scene. He said that UPA was like an animator’s paradise. Even though there was a team of layout artists, the final product looked seamless because they were all able to match the style. 
    • This is the only song sung by Mister Magoo AS Mister Magoo. The rest of the music is the play within the play, which explains why this song has a different overall sound. 
    • As we said before, actor Jim Backus provided the speaking and singing voice of Magoo. 
  • RINGLE RINGLE
    • After Magoo gets pushed onto the stage and the play begins, the story wastes no time getting started. As Scrooge, Magoo begins to count his money and breaks into a song called “Ringle Ringle.” 
    • In order to create an accurate setting, layout artists and “color stylists” (also known as background artists) spent a lot of time researching the furniture styles of the 1840s. They also used a type of splatter technique to make the room look dingy. 
    • This song is the first appearance of Tony-nominated actor Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit (he would win a Tony in 1964). Scrooge and Cratchit sing a duet, with Scrooge continuing to count his money as Cratchit shivers in the other room. 
  • LORD’S BRIGHT BLESSING
    • When the ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to see the humble home of Bob Cratchit, the two witness the family sit down to a meager Christmas feast. The family doesn’t have very much but is still very happy. They break into a song called, “Lord’s Bright Blessing,” which perfectly captures the spirit of the holidays, as they dream of a better Christmas but happily accept the one they have now. 
    • The Cratchit House is designed to look run down, with broken furniture. However, it looks much cleaner than Scrooge’s office, showing the pride that the family has in their home. 
    • This song features Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit, Laura Olsher as Mrs. Cratchit and the Cratchit son, and Marie Matthews as the Cratchit daughter. Olsher was meant to only play Mrs. Cratchit, but the actor for the other roles was late to recording. Olsher had almost no experience with music, so Jule Styne helped her through the recording. 
      • Laura Olsher also voiced the boy at the end that gets the turkey for the Cratchits. The boy says, “walker,” which was Victorian slang for “humbug.” Olsher’s daughter had just visited the UK and told her mom about the word, and it made it into the special. 
  • ALONE IN THE WORLD
    • When the ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood, they see Scrooge as a boy. Together, Scrooge and his younger self sing a song about how lonely they are. 
    • “Alone in the World” was meant to be sung by a little boy, but none of the boys that auditioned seemed to have the sound they were looking for. Marie Matthews was in the room because her son had auditioned, and Matthews’ mother convinced the team to let Marie try singing the part. The songwriters resisted, saying that they really wanted a boy to sing the part, but they let her audition anyway. Matthews happened to have the voice they were looking for and was hired for the role. She said she was very honored to sing such a beautiful song. 
  • WINTER WAS WARM
    • When the ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge to relive his days with his love, Belle, she sings a song about their lost love. “Winter Was Warm” is one of the most loved songs from the special, serving as an emotional climax as Scrooge sees all that he lost because of his greed. 
    • Jane Kean played Belle, and although she was known as a comedic actress, Jule Styne knew she would be able to handle the song because they had already been working together on another project. Kean later said that the song should have been a big hit if it had been sung by someone much more famous. 
    • There’s a long-standing rumor that the song, “People” in the musical Funny Girl was originally written for Magoo’s Christmas. Kean cleared that up, saying that they were writing that song simultaneously, and she wanted to sing it, but Jule Styne told her no, they had another song for her instead. 
  • WE’RE DESPICABLE 
    • The final song of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (if you don’t count reprises) is sung by a group of criminals as they pawn stolen items from Scrooge’s home. “We’re Despicable” is many viewers’ favorite part. The song is bouncy and fun, with silly rhymes and gags. 
    • This scene was animated by Gerard Baldwin, who had been given the song and the situation, and built the storyboard from there. Baldwin said it took about two weeks to animate the entire sequence from start to finish after the storyboard had been completed. 
    • This is the only sequence in the entire special where Scrooge has four fingers and a thumb. This was because Baldwin liked to draw hands. This might seem like a continuity error, but it speaks to the charm of the special and the fact that many different people worked on the animation. 
  • ALSO STARRING
  • Royal Dano as Marley’s Ghost
    • Marley’s ghost is introduced with the sounds of dragging chains. Earl Bennett provided the sound effects for the special. 
    • Royal Dano was a screen actor that appeared as Tom Fury in Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Paul Frees as the stage director
    • Frees was a prominent voice actor, well known for roles he played in other Christmas specials, especially for Rankin and Bass
  • Joan Gardner as Tiny Tim/The Ghost of Christmas Past/Belle’s Speaking Voice
    • Joan Gardner was a prolific voice actor, although she is hardly known today. She was also a screenwriter and composer. 
  • John Hart as Billings
    • Hart appeared on TV shows like Rawhide and Dallas
  • Morey Amsterdam as Brady
    • Amsterdam was a comedic actor that appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show!
  • Les Tremayne as Ghost of Christmas Present
    • Tremayne worked in radio and had one of the most heard voices in the wartime era. 
  • RECEPTION/LEGACY
    • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol premiered in December of 1962. According to Lea Orgel, she and Lee rented a color TV and had all their friends over to watch the premiere. In the special edition commentary of the movie, Lea says that Walt Disney called Lee that night and congratulated him. He told him that it would be watched for generations. 
    • For several years after, the special aired on NBC. Sometimes certain songs would be cut for time (usually Winter Was Warm). Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, families across the US were treated to this special until it stopped airing. 
    • In 2012, on the 50th anniversary, NBC aired the special once again, and it has aired on TV sporadically over the past couple of Christmases. While it is unlikely that you will catch the special on TV, it’s now streaming for free on Peacock (with ads). 
    • At the time of airing, the special was popular enough that Mr. Magoo got a brand new TV series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and would appear in more animated specials with literary characters. 
    • Despite getting less exposure than some other more well-known Christmas specials, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol has no shortage of fans. You can find recipes for Razzleberry Dressing online, along with many testimonials about why this particular version of A Christmas Carol is an absolute classic. 

There’s no doubt that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol had a lasting impact on TV history. It was the first entry in a decades-long tradition of animated Christmas specials. If you love Rudolph and Frosty, but you’re unfamiliar with this animated gem, go ahead and give it a watch. It’s a unique and entertaining look at an old classic and calls back to a time in animation that is often forgotten. 

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a time-honored tradition. It’s a wonderful look back at the 1960s, a time capsule that brings the viewer to a different age of animation. And in our house, like so many others, it’s not Christmas until this short, bald man sings. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

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Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


SOURCES:

The (Brief) Case of The Snowman (1982)

Happy Thanksgiving, Cassettes!

This month, we talked all about movies that were based on books. Since it’s still November, we’re continuing that theme with a British TV special from 1982. 

In September of 1978, children’s author Raymond Briggs published “The Snowman,” a wordless picture book that detailed the story of a young boy embarking on a wondrous adventure with the snowman he built that day. Before that, Briggs had repulsed critics with a picture book called, “Fungus the Boogeyman,” and before that, he published a bestseller about a grumpy old man that didn’t even want to work one day a year. That book was called, “Father Christmas,” and detailed the life of Santa Claus. 

But when Briggs set out to write “The Snowman,” he wanted a story that was so quiet, he didn’t include any words. The book begins with comic-strip-like illustrations, panels that increase in size as the story unfolds, leading up to beautiful double-page spreads. The illustrations guide the reader through a nostalgic tale, filled with the magic of childhood. 

“The Snowman” is one of Brigg’s best-known books, returning to collective memory every holiday season. It wasn’t long after its release that a half-hour animated special based on the book premiered on Channel 4 in Great Britain in December of 1982. 

The short film received commercial and critical acclaim, and according to “The Snowman” official website, it has aired on Channel 4 in Great Britain every year since 1982. So, come join us from wherever you are, in whatever weather, to talk about this classic that has touched the hearts of millions of people. 

MAKING OF

  • Raymond Briggs went to art school to become a cartoonist but eventually found himself writing his own stories. By the time he published “The Snowman,” he had a successful career as an illustrator for at least twenty years. 
  • Because “The Snowman” relies only on imagery, it was more important than ever for the illustrations to make the viewer feel the action of the story. Briggs said, “That’s the essence of good illustrating I think, where the drawer really feels a feeling that a figure in the picture is feeling. You’ve got to feel what it’s like to fly, feel what it’s like to slow down as you land. And yet you’ve got to be outside observing it. Very difficult! I’m thinking of giving it up.” 
  • Producer John Coates of the animation studio TVC became interested in optioning the story for a short film. TVC was a well-established studio that had created the animated film “Yellow Submarine” in the late 1960s. 
    • Coates had two assistant animators, Hillary Audus and Joanna Harrison, buy a dozen copies of the book and start cutting it up to make a mock-up animation. 
  • John Coates brought the idea to Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the Chief Executive of Channel 4 at the time. The channel was brand new, and The Snowman was actually one of the first things they ever did. Isaacs felt it would be a stark contrast from the other programming they had planned for the channel, but it was so delightful that he gave it the green light. 
    • According to the Animation World Network, Coates mortgaged his own house to help pay for the project. 
  • Director Dianne Jackson, who had worked on TV commercials for several years, took over the project and created the storyboard “bible.” This “bible” was not to be changed by anyone except for the director or producer. The animators and the composer, Howard Blake, timed the storyboard and used it as their guide to finishing the final product.
  • They were a small team of about 8 animators and they were all given their own sequence to animate. 
    • The animators started by creating keyframes of movement, filling in more drawings based on the timing of the scene. Each drawing was sent to a coloring artist that used colored pencils to fill in the detail. Each image takes about 45 minutes to an hour to color. 
    • One of the most unique visual elements of “The Snowman” is the look and texture of the backgrounds. A background artist would layer every scene with pencil shading, resulting in no solid colors. Because of this, the texture of the paper shows through, giving the feel of a picture book. 
    • “The Snowman” used cell animation, meaning that artists would draw the moving elements of the short film on cells, which would then be placed on a static background and photographed one by one. 
  • The animators have said that they feel like the snowman wouldn’t look right if it wasn’t hand-drawn. In 2012, Briggs signed off on an animated sequel to the short film which was also hand-drawn. 
  • When the short film made it to the US in 1984, the American broadcasters wanted a new introduction with a famous person. So, they chose David Bowie. 
    • Bowie had already gotten in touch with the studio to work on an upcoming film, and even though the producers were nervous to ask him, he happily recorded a new intro. 
  • For the 20th anniversary of the short, the original animators created an opening sequence introducing the story with Father Christmas. This was done in the traditional hand-drawn style so it would match the animation.

THE SHORT FILM

  • The short begins with the little boy waking up to a snowy day, and he’s so excited that he forgets to put on his underpants before his trousers. Roger Mainwood, the man that animated the sequence, said that the number one question he got from children was, “why didn’t he put on his pants?” Mainwood said it was simply because there wasn’t enough time in the scene for it. 
  • In Brigg’s book, the boy and the snowman sit in the family car and play with the lights. One of the assistant animators, Hillary Audus, was a motorcyclist at the time and came up with the idea that they go for a ride. This way, the story could interact with the countryside and location of the story. 
    • The number on the motorcycle plate was the animator’s house number.
  • Joanna Harrison animated the scene in the bedroom when the snowman tries on false teeth. Harrison actually asked her grandmother to take out her false teeth so she could draw them.
  • Near the end of the short, the boy and the snowman travel to the North Pole and meet Father Christmas. Harrison and Audus were the ones that came up with the idea to incorporate the character, simply because he was a subject from another of Briggs’ books. 
    • Briggs thought it was a corny idea but later said that he was wrong and that it worked out just fine. 
    • The boy also receives a Christmas present in the film with a tag that says “James.” Joanna Harrison wrote the name on the tag because she was dating a man with that name, and it just stuck. The gift is a blue scarf with the snowman on it. Two props of the scarf were eventually made, one given to David Bowie.  
  • The most iconic part of the short, and possibly what made it stick in the minds of viewers, is the scene where James, the boy, takes off with the snowman. The pair fly across the world to a hauntingly beautiful song by composer Howard Blake. 
    • Blake had originally written the tune over 10 years earlier while walking on a beach. He felt the music held the sensation of innocence. Blake was visiting a friend at the studio when John Coates asked him if he would consider writing a song for the film. Blake reportedly said, “I think I may have something.” 
      • Blake scored the entire short film, using music to convey every moment of animation. Blake could play the music and tell you exactly what is happening with each sound. 
    • Peter Auty was a 13-year-old choir boy when he recorded the song for the special. Coates later blamed his lack of agent on the fact that the production forgot to credit him, so audiences weren’t aware that it was him. He went on to be an operatic tenor. 
    • Many people believe that singer Aled Jones recorded the original version because his cover of the song topped the charts a couple of years later. 
  • Of course, all great things must come to an end. When James wakes up the next morning, the score reminds us of the excitement from the day before as he runs downstairs to find his friend has melted. The scene is incredibly poignant, especially as the music shifts quickly to a minor sound. 
    • But, as James mourns the loss of the snowman, he reaches into his pocket to discover that the scarf that the snowman had given to him was real. 
    • Composer Howard Blake remarked, “I think why it touches so many people is, the friend melts, and it’s something we all experience. We lose somebody we’re really very fond of, and he’s absolutely heartbroken. But then he has the memory, and the memory is symbolized by the scarf.” 
  • Briggs has said that it didn’t occur to him at the time that the snowman is like a friend, and children see him as a real person. He received many letters asking him to bring the snowman back to which he replied, “ghastly idea.” 

RECEPTION

  • When “The Snowman” first hit shelves, it sold fairly well. It wasn’t until the animated film debuted that the book started flying off the shelves. 
  • The short was nominated for an Oscar, which it did not win. However, it did win the BAFTA for best children’s program! 
  • “The Snowman” has been adapted into a stage show and ballet! 
  • This classic will be 40 years old next year, and it continues to delight audiences to this day. 

From the moment that “The Snowman” begins, it evokes a special kind of nostalgia. There are elements to the story and imagery that we all can relate to in some way. The film is a perfect marriage of visuals and music, and it poignantly portrays the magical, beautiful, and fleeting nature of life. 

Thank you for joining us from wherever and whenever you are, this is another *brief* case closed! 


SOURCES: 

https://www.thesnowman.com/about/

https://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.4/articles/mcgreal1.4.html

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/22/how-the-snowman-melted-david-bowies-heart-raymond-briggs

The Case of The Shawshank Redemption

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, we spent last week talking about the 2003 classic family film, Holes. This week, we’re continuing our theme with one of the most beloved films of all time. 

There’s no doubt that Stephen King is a master of horror. In fact, when you suggest one of his books to someone who isn’t a horror fan, they might give you a funny look. But the truth is, King has contributed to several genres, and it’s quite possible that his source material is responsible for one of your favorite films as well. For example, popular movies like Stand By Me and The Green Mile were both based on his work. However, of all of the films adapted from King’s writing, one of the most lauded is The Shawshank Redemption. 

Based on a novella by King, this 1994 film was a slow-burning success. Although it didn’t catch the attention of audiences immediately, it soon made up for it with several Oscar nominations. Today, it’s achieved cult classic status, and currently holds the number one rated film on IMDB. 

So come join us as we learn all about this low-budget box office flop and how it crawled its way to cinematic glory!

SUMMARY

  • After being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences back to back at Shawshank Prison. Andy makes friends with Red, another prisoner and the man with connections to the outside. For nearly two decades they navigate the violent and psychological horrors of Shawshank together, while holding onto the hope that one day they will be free men again.

IT STARTED WITH A STORY

  • The Shawshank Redemption is based on a Stephen King novella called, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, published in a collection of stories in 1982. The collection is called Different Seasons and has three other stories, including The Body, which was made into another fan-favorite film, Stand By Me.
  • Only eight years earlier had King launched his writing career with his breakout horror novel, Carrie. Since then, he had penned classics like The Shining and The Stand. But, Different Seasons focused more on dramatic stories, and strayed from the horror fiction that fans expected. 
  • In 1983 Frank Darabont made his first Stephen King adaptation. At the time he was in his early twenties. Buying the rights to an author’s story can vary in price but Stephen King has a program that has given many young filmmakers a unique opportunity. It’s called the “Dollar Baby” program, and he offers certain titles to be bought for the low price of $1. The short film Darabont created was The Woman in the Room(1984). You can find it here in this link.
    • King still has this program open to young filmmakers looking to adapt works! The link of selected works that you can request for contract can be here: https://stephenking.com/dollar-baby/ 
  • Darabont felt he needed a little more experience under his belt before he approached Stephen King for the story he truly had his eyes on. After 1987, and his first screenplay credit under A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, he felt he was ready to request Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. He signed a check to the amount of $5000 to Stephen King. 
    • The story was written from the perspective of a prisoner serving a life sentence. Much of the text was a stream of consciousness, and King himself was unsure how the story could be made into a movie. But, since he enjoyed Darabont’s take on The Woman in the Room, he gave his blessing.  Though Darabont got the rights, it took him 5 years before he sat down to begin the screenplay. Once he did, it took a mere eight weeks. He wanted to keep the spirit and core of the source material, lifting lines directly from the story. Because the character Red’s voice is present throughout the story, Darabont decided that this character would also narrate the film. 
  • After directing the 1986 film Stand By Me, Rob Reiner co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, named for the fictional town in which Stand By Me takes place. After Darabont completed the script, it ended up in the hands of Liz Glotzer, who became so enthralled with the story that she didn’t even want to finish the script before seeing the movie. Glotzer fought hard for Shawshank, even threatening to quit if the company didn’t produce the film. When Rob Reiner heard about the project, he reportedly offered Darabont a “shitload” of money to direct the film, AND Castle Rock would finance any other film Darabont would want to direct. But, Darabont stuck to his guns. If he hadn’t, this would have been a different movie. 
    • Reiner later joked to Liz Glotzer that, “‘[Different Seasons] is on my desk for years. You would have thought we’d have read the next story! But we didn’t.”
  • Darabont added his own flair to the story, creating storylines that drove the message home and adding some violence. 
    • In the book, the two main characters Andy and Red look very different. Andy is described as short with small clever hands and gold-rimmed glasses. Red is a white Irish man, which they joke about in the movie.
    • Brooks is a major character within the movie and a key emotional storyline. Within the book, however, he dies uneventfully in a home for the elderly.
    • Tommy, who has information that could free Andy, was dealt with in a different way in the book versus the movie. In the movie, he is shot to death but in the book he trades his silence on the matter to be switched to a lower security prison. 
    • Darabont also condenses the part of three wardens into that of the one Warden Norton. 
    • The ending of the movie is different because Liz Glotzer fought for us to be able to see the two friends reunite in Mexico. Darabont had wanted the film to end as the book does, with Red on his way to Andy but with no payoff. Glotzer was adamant that if the intention was for the two to get together, then the audience should have the satisfaction of seeing it. 

MAKING OF

  • Director Frank Darabont and the rest of the cast and crew started filming The Shawshank Redemption in the summer of 1993. The film had a budget of $25 million dollars, which isn’t very high. In comparison, The Flintstones, which also came out in 1994, had a budget of $46 million. 
  • While Darabont and Production Designer Terence Marsh were location scouting for the film, they found the Ohio State Reformatory, a prison on the brink of demolition in Mansfield, OH. The buildings of the reformatory had been abandoned for several years, with piles of paint chips in almost every room.
    • The production was set up in Mansfield, and the crew would use other Ohio locations for the rest of the film. Many of the guards used in the movie were actually residents of Mansfield that were guards at the prison when it was in operation. 
  • The opening scene of the movie shows us two scenes at once. We see our main character Andy Dufresne sitting in his car while his wife has an affair inside. This was shot at Malabar Farms in Ohio. The other scene takes place in a courtroom in Upper Sandusky! 
    • According to Darabont, the two scenes were written separately but had to be cut together because they could only shoot at the farms for one night. The scene works very well cut together, as we see Andy pull out his gun, cut together with a prosecutor laying out the crime that had been committed. 
  • When Shawshank is first introduced in the film, we see a beautiful aerial shot of the building and 500 extras in the yard. Marsh also had the idea for that shot as well! 
    • This shot was pretty tricky to get. It had been raining off and on all day, and because of budget issues, production had to let go of most of their extras by the end of the day. This meant they only had a small window of time to get it right, coordinating the extras as the helicopter pilot glided over the prison yard.
  • Terence Marsh had the difficult task of taking the interior of the prison and making it look like it was still in operation. Locations like the offices, the mess hall, and the courtyard were all at the reformatory. But, the cell block itself was an elaborate hand-built set.
    • On the upper level of the cell blocks, it got to be almost 100 degrees during an Ohio summer, especially with all the production lights. 
    • Production had to build their own sets because the actual cells were only 6ft by 9ft, making them impossible to light. They were also meant for two men to share, creating a virtually unlivable situation. 
    • Andy Dufresne’s cell is covered in magazines and newspaper clippings that had been brought in by the production designers and hand-selected by Tim Robbins to make the set feel more like his space. 
  • When it came time to cast the film, it became quite clear that the film could not be called: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The original title seemed to be confusing, leading people to believe that the film was a biopic. Agents were calling Darabont and his team, saying that their clients would be perfect to play Rita Hayworth. 
    • To help work Rita Hayworth into the story, there’s a scene where the prisoners are watching one of her movies in the reformatory theater. In the original story, they are watching a different movie that would have been too expensive for the studio to use. So, Darabont found one of Rita Hayworth’s films on a list of movies that Castle Rock already had the rights to and they were able to use that. 
  • The cast is one of the many reasons why this film works so well. The two main actors don’t match the descriptions of their book counterparts, but they still fit their roles perfectly. 
    • When Rob Reiner tried to direct the film, he actually had Tom Cruise in mind to play Andy Dufresne. According to Morgan Freeman, he was the one that suggested Tim Robbins for the role. Despite the fact that Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner were both offered the role, it went to Robbins. Robbins delivered a stoic performance that perfectly captured the soul of an innocent man who has landed in an impossible situation. Robbins went on to win an Oscar ten years later for Mystic River
      • When Tim Robbins was asked why he thought the film has continued to resonate with audiences he said, “One is that there are very, very few films that are about the relationship, the friendship between two men that doesn’t involve car chases or being charming with the ladies and those kinds of buddy movies. This one is about a true, deep friendship that lasts. And part of me thinks that people want or need that kind of story to be told.”
    • Morgan Freeman embodied the character of Ellis Boyd (Red) Redding so well, it’s impossible to imagine the character being played by anyone else. Because the book counterpart is a white Irishman, Freeman wasn’t even initially considered for the role. 
      • After looking at several names like Harrison Ford and Gene Hackman, Liz Glotzer stepped in once again with a movie-saving suggestion. She advocated for throwing out the look of the character in the book and going with Morgan Freeman, an actor that Darabont did like for the part. 
        • Freeman was shocked when he was offered the part of Red, the character that sets the tone of the entire film with his voice. 
      • Usually, voiceover narration is completed after a production wraps, but because the pace of the film was so reliant on Morgan Freeman’s delivery, Darabont had Freeman record the narration first. Then, they played the narration on set while acting out certain scenes so that they could time action and dialogue with his words. 
        • However, there was a problem with the original recording’s audio, meaning that it would have to be completely re-recorded. Freeman completed the first version in only 45 minutes. The re-record, however, took three weeks. 
      • In the audio commentary, Frank Darabont praised Morgan Freeman for his patience throughout filming. In one scene, the actor is playing catch while talking to Andy (Tim Robbins). The shot took 9 hours to get, meaning Freeman had to throw the ball for that entire period of time. According to Darabont, he never complained. 
    • One storyline that added depth to the film was the story of a fellow inmate named Brooks. Possibly one of the most loved characters in the movie, Brooks Hatlen was played by James Whitmore. 
      • While much of Shawshank focuses on the horrors that occur inside prison, Brooks’ story highlights what can happen after a longtime inmate is released. 
      • Darabont had been a fan of Whitmore for a very long time, and was absolutely thrilled to work with him. You’ll notice that he got the “and” credit during the opening of the movie. 
      • Whitmore was a veteran TV and film actor that captured Darabont’s attention in the 1954 film Them!
      • Whitmore carried a live crow around throughout filming, as his character cared for the animal. Production had a woman from the ASPCA on set to ensure that the animal was treated humanely. During one scene, Whitmore was supposed to feed a live wax worm to the crow, and the ASPCA representative objected. She told Darabont that not only could he only feed a dead worm to the crow, but it also had to be a worm that “died of natural causes.” 
    • When Frank Darabont wrote the character of Warden Samuel Norton, he was concerned that religious audiences would take offense to the character, as he’s the only overtly religious person in the film and is absolutely despicable. His intention was to call out people like the warden that hide behind doctrine to justify their horrific acts. 
      • In the audio commentary, he mentions that he’s gotten more positive feedback from religious viewers, as many of them have interpreted Shawshank to be a religious allegory. 
    • The warden is a conglomerate of several characters in the original novella. Bob Gunton brought a foreboding presence to the character and was Darabont’s first choice to play the role. However, according to a screen rant article, Gunton almost didn’t get the part because his head was shaved for another film. He wore a wig while filming until his hair grew out.  
  • The Shawshank Redemption is a perfect storm of great writing, directing, acting, music, and cinematography. Roger Deakins was the director of photography and crafted the perfect visual aesthetic to match the tone of the movie. Deakins is a veteran cinematographer that has painted the light for many major films, like 1917 (2019) and The Big Lebowski (1998). 
  • One of the most important elements of this film is the soundtrack. Thomas Newman composed a score that is both foreboding and deeply hopeful. The music as Andy crawls his way to freedom is (in our opinion) one of the most uplifting pieces of cinematic music ever written. The scene would be completely different without it. 
    • Newman has scored classics like Wall-E and Finding Nemo. 

STARRING

  • As we mentioned before, this film stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. 
  • Bob Gunton as Warden Norton
    • Bob was Dr. Walcott in “Patch Adams”
  • Clancy Brown as Captain Hadley
    • Clancy is a fantastic voice actor, you may know him as Mr. Krabs in Spongebob! 
    • There is a popular fan theory that Andy Dufresne was actually guilty of the double homicide and that Captain Hadley was not a bad guy. Evidence for this theory is seen when Hadley protects Andy from “The Sisters” and beats up Bogs.
  • Mark Rolston as Bogs Diamond
    • Bogs is the leader of “The Sisters” and is the main attacker and sexual assaulter to Andy. 
    • Darabont saw Mark in the movie Aliens and wanted him for the movie.
  • Gil Bellows as Tommy
    • Tommy’s character helps to show Andy how greedy and heartless the Warden is. The Warden has him shot by Hadley on purpose in order to keep Tommy from testifying on behalf of Andy.
    • Gil is also well known as Billy Thomas in Ally McBeal.
  • William Sadler as Heywood
    • William is known also to be in Tales of the Crypt which is what prompted Darabont to choose him for this movie.
  • James Whitmore as Brooks Hatlen

TWITTER THOUGHTS

AWARDS/RECEPTION

  • Unfortunately Shawshank was not appreciated immediately. To illustrate this, in one 1994 review by David Hiltbrand from People Magazine he says, “Shawshank runs nearly 2 1/2 hours and sometimes gives audiences the sense of doing a 20-year stretch. Ultimately the rewards aren’t commensurate with the outlay of time. The movie’s message about the triumph of the human spirit and its exhortation to “Get busy living or get busy dying” seem rather paltry payoffs.” 
  • It was nominated for 7 Oscars but sadly did not win one. 
  • It actually won “Best Foreign Film” at the Awards of the Japanese Academy.

FUN FACTS

  • You might remember that Frank Darabont paid Stephen King $5000 for the rights to the story. However, King never cashed the check. Years after the film was released, King sent back the $5000 unendorsed check to Darabont with a note that said, “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve.”
  • Morgan Freeman’s son appears in the movie. He is the mugshot of young Red and also shows up as an extra in the prison yard.
  • In 2018, Hulu premiered the horror anthology show Castle Rock, a series based in the Stephen King universe.
    • The entire first season is set in Shawshank prison.
    • There are several references to the movie in the first episode, including the song that Andy Dufresne played on the record player over the speakers for the prisoners.
    • Tim Robbins plays “Pop” Merrill in season 2 of the Castle Rock Series.
    • A nod to the film may also be felt because the main title of Castle Rock and the score for the first two episodes was composed by Thomas Newman. 

CONCLUSION

The Shawshank Redemption is a cinematic journey. It’s two and a half hours of a carefully crafted tale that reminds audiences of the endurance of the human spirit. It’s a movie that takes its time but wastes none of it. Shawshank is a story about hope and friendship, set on a backdrop of a seemingly hopeless situation. 

This is a movie with a history as fascinating as the story itself. It started as a lower-budget flop, and was deemed a financial failure. But just like geology, filmmaking is the study of pressure and time. Eventually, The Shawshank Redemption lived up to its name, and this prison movie that couldn’t find an audience is now thought to be one of the greatest films ever made. 

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SOURCES:

The Case Full of Holes

November is national novel writing month! You might be wondering, what does this have to do with a movie/TV podcast? Well, plenty, actually! Whether it be Jurassic Park or The Princess Bride, some of our favorite films were adapted from novels. So, we’re marking this occasion by bringing you three episodes all about books and the movies that followed. This week, we’re taking a look at a childhood favorite. 

In 1997, young adult fiction author Louis Sachar began writing his most ambitious book yet. He had covered stories about children in school and home, but this time, he decided to focus on a location he hadn’t explored: what about kids in prison? For 18 months he sat at his computer, mapping out the history of a place called Camp Green Lake, and building the story of a boy whose last name is his first name, backward. 

Holes is possibly Louis Sachar’s best-known book. It won the Newbery Award in 1999, cementing its place in children’s literature alongside the likes of The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia. Five years later, the story got the full Hollywood treatment, with a feature film starring Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver, and Shia LaBeouf.

So Cassettes, hop on the bus with us to Camp Green Lake, and we’ll DIG into the history of Holes (2003). 

THE BOOK

  • When Louis Sachar set out to write Holes, he focused on the location of the story first. The author had moved to Texas a few years before, and he wanted to tell a story inspired by the heat he experienced in his new home.
  • He didn’t set out to write a story with any particular moral or lesson, he just wanted to write something thought-provoking and entertaining. This method seemed to work because the book was a favorite among kids everywhere. In our school, it was one of the only required reading books that most children genuinely enjoyed. 
    • The story does touch on themes like friendship, racism, destiny, and hope. But, another lesson is that stories change over time, and perspective is everything. The story is written on a foundation of misunderstandings. Stanley believes the outlaw Kate Barlow to be a ruthless thief when that’s not the whole story. Similarly, Stanley is wrongly accused of stealing, which starts the whole story. 
  • While he was creating the story, Sachar decided not to interrupt his train of thought to come up with a last name for the main character. So, he just spelled the character’s first name backward and left it at that. As the story process continued, there became plot points surrounding the name, and so it stayed that way. 
  • Like we said before, the book was ambitious and challenging. So, he started every day by typing the word, “try” before writing anything else. It took him a year and a half to get it done, relying on the help of his young daughter to let him know when the story didn’t make any sense. 
  • Holes was published in 1998, and quickly became part of the reading curriculum at many schools. Not long after, it got the attention of producer Teresa Tucker-Davies who shared it with director Andrew Davis.
  • Davis wanted to adapt the book into a live-action film, and he contacted Sachar about the idea. Sachar was hesitant, but Davis assured him that he would be included in the process.  
  • With some collaborative help from Davis, Sachar took over a year to complete the screenplay, keeping the story as true to the book as possible with some important practical changes. 
  • The film was green-lit by Disney, and filming began in the summer of 2002, only four years after the book was originally published. 

SUMMARY

  • Stanley Yelnats has never had the best luck, thanks to his no-good, dirty-rotten, pig-stealing, great-great-grandfather. This becomes especially apparent when Stanley is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of expensive sneakers. Just like that, a judge sentences Stanley to Camp Green Lake, a reformatory program for teenagers. Run by a mysterious warden and an aggressive counselor known only as Mr. Sir, this camp’s program consists of mainly one activity: digging holes. After spending a few weeks in the blistering heat, Stanley discovers that there’s a deeper purpose to the digging, and it’s not “to build character.” 

MAKING OF

  • Just like the book, the film establishes the location early on, with the characters coming in later. The first shot of Holes shows us Camp Green Lake, a barren waterbed with thousands of holes. Four hundred and fifty of those holes were physically dug, with 9500 added in post. The shot was filmed using a helicopter.
    • For months, the cast and crew braved the heat and intense weather conditions in a California desert. Every young actor had to go through something called, “desert boot camp,” led by the stunt director, Alex Daniels. 
    • Tents with water misters helped keep everyone on set cool in the 90+ degree heat. 
  • Shooting occurred in three principal locations that were all very close to each other in distance. The Camp Green Lake set was located on the Disney ranch. The Mess Hall and Office for the camp counselors was actually a re-purposed set from an Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence comedy called Life made just a few years earlier. 
    • For lighting purposes and because it was true to the book, the characters all live in tents. There was a big debate during production, but tents made it easier to set up lighting situations. 
  • Louis Sachar’s script relies heavily on jumping through time. The first sequences of the movie are even flashbacks, as the audience becomes acquainted with the main character, Stanley. Sachar and director Andrew Davis wanted the jump in the timeline to happen early on, so the audience could get acclimated with how the story would be told. Even before the movie introduces the plotlines from Camp Green Lake’s past, Stanley sees the ghosts of its history on his way into camp. 
    • Sachar had to make several changes to the story while adapting it to the screen. For example, he added the character of Stanley’s grandfather, who first mentions a so-called family curse. The actor that played him was Andrew Davis’ father! Another big change (that many book fans might notice) is Stanley’s size. In the book Holes, Stanley is overweight, and he loses weight throughout the course of the story. This plot didn’t make it to the film adaptation because it would have been too physically grueling to ask a child to lose weight while filming. Also, this would have meant that the film would have to be shot in continuity, which is famously inconvenient. 
    • As the film lays out Stanley’s origin and introduces us to his family, it shows the audience scenes from the Yelnats home. Set designers were only given the direction that there would be “piles of shoes,” as Stanley’s father is an inventor trying to find a cure for stinky feet. The designers went completely over the top, building rigs and fake machines that showed all of Mr. Yelnats’ failed attempts.
  • When it came time to cast the kids for the movie, Andrew Davis asked producer Teresa Tucker Davies for someone that was a “young Tom Hanks” to play the lead. When Davies suggested actor Shia LeBeouf for the part, she said she had found him a “cross between Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman” instead. 
    • At this point, LeBeouf was starring as Louis Stevens on the Disney sitcom Even Stevens. However, he had never had a starring role in a film, and the character Stanley was a far cry from the zany, trouble-making Louis. 
    • The rest of the kids were hand-picked for their roles to make sure they fit the characters perfectly.
      • The actors embodied their parts so well, they were allowed to ad-lib lines. 
  • Casting directors Cathy Sandrich Gelford and Amanda Mackey put together a fairly well-known group of stars for the adult roles.  
    • Since he was still a young teenager, Shia LeBeouf was a little star-struck by Jon Voight, who played the tyrannical Mr. Sir. For each day of shooting, make-up artists spent an hour transforming Voight into the character, complete with a beer belly. Mr. Sir constantly chews sunflower seeds, a detail that Louis Sachar picked up from a friend that had recently quit smoking. 
      • Voight came up with the idea that his character is paranoid of being arrested, which prompted Sachar to add a backstory to his character that involved the warden and Dr. Pendanski. 
    • Holes plays with the concepts of first impressions and misunderstandings. Right after Stanley arrives at Camp Green Lake, he’s shocked to find that there is no lake. The surprises don’t end there, as Stanley immediately assumes that Mr. Sir is the warden. 
    • Dr. Pendanski is the second official that Stanley encounters at the camp, a faux doctor that refuses to acknowledge the kids by their chosen nicknames. Pendenski was played by Tim Blake Nelson, a versatile actor and director. On the audio commentary, director Andrew Davis referred to him as a man that “does it all.” 
      • Pendanski has several scenes with the kids, which set up his toxic behavior toward Zero specifically. 
  • Holes breaks up the monotony of Stanley digging a hole for several hours by cutting together flashbacks. Director of Photography Steven St. John was responsible for stitching the different time periods together with seamless transitions. 
    • As Stanley sticks his shovel into the dirt, we see his great-great-grandfather shoveling animal droppings. It’s during this flashback that we meet Madame Zeroni, played by the legendary singer and actress Eartha Kitt. 
      • During filming, Eartha Kitt was 75 at the time and would tell stories about the golden age of Hollywood and James Dean. Only a few years earlier she starred as Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. In the 90s, she appeared in Earnest Scared Stupid. But one of her most iconic roles was Catwoman in the 1960’s Batman. 
    • When Sigourney Weaver’s daughter read Holes, she told her mom that she should play the warden. Andrew Davis wanted to build up to her entrance in the film, so they purposely held off showing her face. In fact, they never refer to the warden as female until Weaver appears on-screen. 
      • Andrew Davis said that she understood the role perfectly. 
    • When Stanley first arrives at Camp Green Lake, he sees the ghost of a man with his donkey. The incident does not come up again, and the audience doesn’t learn about the character until Pendanski tells Stanley about the history of the lake and the fact that the warden’s grandfather owned the town. 
      • The character is Sam, played by Dulé Hill. At the time of filming, Hill still had a recurring role on the hit TV series West Wing but was fairly unknown to children’s audiences. Dule Hill wanted to understand everything he possibly could about his character, and he developed a detailed backstory that didn’t make it into the film. 
      • In Hill’s first scene, Louis Sachar plays a cameo as a man that buys a cure for his balding head. 
    • During Sam’s first scene, the audience sees Kate Barlow for the second time. Barlow was played by Patricia Arquette, an Oscar-winning actress that has starred in multiple TV shows. 
    • Arquette first appears in Holes as “Kissin’ Kate Barlow,” a notorious outlaw. As the film progresses, we see a love story unfold between her and Sam that ultimately comes to a violent end. 
      • Throughout their story, Dulé Hill’s Sam begins fixing up Kate’s schoolhouse and often utters the words, “I can fix that.” In one of the most touching scenes in the film, he finds Kate crying alone in the schoolhouse. The plan was for Arquette to say a line about a broken heart, and Sam would tell her he could fix it before kissing her. However, Arquette opted out of saying anything, making the scene far more powerful. 
      • Sam gets executed by the townsfolk after he’s seen kissing Katherine in the church, prompting her to become Kissin’ Kate Barlow. When the film shows a montage of Barlow robbing and killing, filmmakers edited in footage from old westerns. 
      • Earlier on in the movie, there’s a flashback of Stanley’s grandfather telling him about his ancestor that was robbed by Kate Barlow. They talk about the mystery of Kate not killing Stanley’s ancestor, but if you look closely, Kate only kills people that were connected to Sam’s murder. 
      • Eventually, Kate dies after finding Sam’s overturned boat in the dried-up lake bed. Production designer Maher Ahmed actually created three versions of the boat to use in the film. The first was Sam’s version, the second was the boat where Kate dies, and the third is the boat that Zero and Stanley find. 
  • One of the biggest elements of the story is the Yellow-spotted lizard. These reptiles are deadly and will kill you with one bite. Sachar invented the animal for the story, so production had to find ways to bring them to life. 
    • So, the production brought in 14 Australian Bearded Dragons and hand-painted them with 11 yellow spots each. Animal trainer Larry Madrid taught four of the dragons to play principal parts. CGI versions of the reptiles also appeared in the film, like when Stanley is almost attacked by one. Jon Voight had a lot of fun shooting the scenes with the lizards, as he was the one that got to fire at them. 
  • Visual Effects artists used CGI for establishing shots, like the one of Green Lake during the time of Kate Barlow. Artists did a lot of research to find a lake that would match the dried-up lake bed. They used Lake Casitas in California. 
  • Stunts
    • The biggest stunt that was needed for the movie was when Stanley drives the water truck into a hole while trying to escape and find Zero. They shot the stunt from several different angles.
      • The lead-up to this crash is Stanley joyriding in the truck. Since the team was filming on private land they could make sure it was safe for Shia to actually drive. 
      • When we see Mr. Sir hanging from the door of the truck trying to stop Stanley, Jon Voight is actually on a platform alongside the car. When the character falls into a hole it is a double. 
    • In the scenes where Stanley and Hector are climbing the mountain, it is actually mostly Shia and Khleo! There were only a couple of times when it was stunt doubles because it was too dangerous. 
      • There was a scene where Stanley is having trouble getting up the mountain and Zero uses the shovel to help pull him up. Shia had to be cabled and although it looks like it was 300 ft, it was only about 30 ft up. 
  • After Stanley and Zero escape Camp Green Lake, we start to see how the land is still marked by its past. They walk past a skull which is meant to be the skull of Mary-Lou, Sam’s donkey. This shows the audience Stanley’s story is physically connected to what happened in the past, not only through the story of his ancestor but with the story of Katherine and Sam. 
  • Near the end of the film, Stanley and Zero return to Camp Green Lake to dig up Kate Barlow’s treasure, something that the warden has been searching for her entire life. Louis Sachar felt like denying the warden the treasure was punishment enough for her behavior, but director Andrew Davis disagreed. Davis had worked on several law enforcement shows, and he felt like Mr. Sir, Pendanski, and The Warden deserved to be arrested for the misery they inflicted on the kids at the camp. The scene where the trio gets arrested feels especially triumphant because it begins to rain. Production brought in giant rain machines, which the kids loved because it was often 100 degrees in the desert. 
    • In the book, Sachar never explicitly says that the curse has been lifted, but it’s very apparent in the film. There’s even a voiceover tying up the loose ends of the story, which was recorded after the entire film was shot.  

MUSIC

  • Music supervisor Karyn Rachtman helped find and negotiate a lot of the music for the film. The soundtrack is filled with many great songs.
  • Andrew Davis discovered singer Teresa James performing on Ventura Boulevard one night. When they needed a country cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” they asked her to do it. 
    • Teresa James’ version appears in the movie after Stanley finds Kate Barlow’s lipstick tube, and the kids begin digging together. 
  • Joel McNeely did the score for the film. He’s scored a lot of Disney projects, including many of the straight-to-video sequels of the 2000s. 
  • The most memorable part of the Holes soundtrack was the song, “Dig It.” Performed by the cast of young actors. The song appears in the first scene of the film and during the credits. The artist for the song is officially credited as the “D-tent Boys,” and was written by the cast members during their downtime on set. 

STARRING

  • As we mentioned before, this was Shia Labeouf’s first starring role in a feature film. In the credits, it even bills him with: “Introducing Shia LeBeouf.”  
  • Khleo Thomas played Hector Zeroni (or Zero), reportedly beating out well-known child actors like Taj Mowry. The two boys had great chemistry together. Since Holes, Thomas has had parts in TV shows like Shameless and Parenthood and will appear in the upcoming film Scrap. 
  • Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver, Eartha Kitt, Patricia Arquette, Henry Winkler, Dule Hill, and Tim Blake Nelson.
  • The others that played the young boys in D-tent were Max Kasch (Zigzag), Byron Cotton(Armpit), Miguel Castro (Magnet), Noah Poletiek (Twitch), Jake M. Smith (Squid), and Brendan Jefferson (X-Ray).

FUN FACTS

  • The stunt coordinator Alex Daniels got to be the one to arrest Jon Voight’s character in the movie.
  • The “Sploosh” that Hector finds under Mary Lou was actually made of Molasses and applesauce. The “dirt” on the jar was crushed up graham crackers.
  • The onion bulbs that Stanley and Hector eat on the top of the mountain are actually apples wrapped in rice paper. The rice paper had been dyed purple with beet juice and real onion tops were attached to the make-shift onion bulb.

AWARDS/RECEPTION

  • Holes was released in April of 2003 and became an instant classic. School kids all over America watched the film in English class. Worldwide, the movie grossed over 70 million dollars with an original budget of 20 million. 
  • The film won three awards, including the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for Best Family Film. 

By the mid-2000s, it would be hard to find a middle-school kid that hadn’t seen Holes. It was a movie that defined a generation, one that now parents show their kids and say, “I loved this when I was your age.” The film perfectly expresses themes of friendship and learning from the past. At every turn, Holes reminds the audience that nothing and no one is ever quite as it seems, holding onto the spirit of the original book. 

Holes is the kind of book that gets kids excited about reading, and in turn, the film is just as inspirational. It’s a film that entertains the entire family and holds the all-important lesson to never judge a BOOK by its cover. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

You can now buy us a Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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A (Brief) Case in the Haunted Library

Happy Halloween, Cassettes! This year, we recorded our annual (brief) case in a very special location: Wagnalls Memorial Library in Lithopolis, OH! The Library has a reputation for being haunted, so we thought it would be the perfect place to cozy up with a good scary book.

For this episode, we found three spooky tales from books in the library that all take place in our home state: Ohio! So, settle in and don’t get too scared!

THE MOONVILLE TUNNEL

Our first story comes from a book called “Guide to Ohio University Ghosts and Legends” by Craig Tremblay. This story, however, is about Moonville, a small ghost town in Lake Hope State Park. Moonville is a ghost town in the literal and figurative sense. It’s a completely abandoned town that is most famous for the ghosts that people have spotted there. For more information on The Moonville Tunnel, check out this link!

THE OHIO STATE PENITENTIARY

Our second story comes from the book “Haunted Ohio II” by Chris Woodyard. This scary tale recounts the horrific tragedy that occurred in the Ohio State Penitentiary on Easter Sunday 1930 when fires broke out in the prison. Over three hundred people were killed, and the event shocked the entire country. If you would like to know more, check out this link.


THE GHOST THAT ROARED

Our final story also came from “Haunted Ohio II.” It was a personal account of a haunting in someone’s home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The haunting took place in the 1960s, and involved a demon and a bookcase!

Now that you’ve heard the stories, here are some more photos of the haunted library!

Wagnalls Memorial Library was founded my Mabel Wagnalls in 1925. For more info, follow this link!

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The Case of Frankenweenie

On a rainy afternoon in 1816, a 20-year-old woman named Mary Shelley wrote a story that would change the world forever. It was possibly the first science fiction novel, a book about a scientist that created a living creature from corpses. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus challenged the romantic idea of beauty and explored philosophical themes about the nature of man and the power of creation. 

Today, Frankenstein is a Halloween staple. It’s a story so ingrained in western celebrations of the holiday, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. The story inspired many different adaptations, but one of the strangest and most original was created by Tim Burton in 1984. 

Frankenweenie followed the story of a young boy that uses electricity to bring his beloved dog back to life. Twenty-eight years later, Disney gave Burton the chance to remake this short film in his favorite medium: stop-motion. Today, we’re bringing you through the history of this fun re-telling of a classic tale. So grab your popcorn and settle in for the SHOCKing story of Sparky and his human Victor!

THE ORIGINAL FRANKENWEENIE

  • Based on his films, it’s no surprise that Tim Burton is a fan of horror stories. He grew up watching the Universal Monster movies and Japanese monster films. One of his favorite aspects of these movies was that the monsters were almost never what they seemed to be. 
  • Burton had the original idea for Frankenweenie while working at Disney in the 1980s. 
    • The story came from experience. When Burton was a child, he had a dog named Pepe that he loved dearly. It was his first major relationship and the first big death that he experienced. This, combined with the Frankenstein storyline, created a new kind of adaptation that flipped the original story on its head. The original monster in Frankenstein was cast out by its creator because it wasn’t a product of love. In this story, Victor only attempts to create life because he misses his best friend. 
  • The project was green-lit, and Burton was able to direct a live-action version of the story starring Barret Oliver, Daniel Stern, and Shelly Duvall. Its runtime was only 30 minutes, and it was set to premiere on television. But, the test screenings appeared to scare children, and the short film was pulled. 
    • Years later, Disney released the short film on home video. It quickly became a hit, and today it has a cult following. Now, it can be streamed on Disney+ and can be found on many The Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs. 
  • When Tim Burton was gathering pieces for a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, he came across the concept drawings for the film and decided he’d like to revisit the story again. By now, Burton was an accomplished filmmaker with hits like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas under his belt. So, he brought the idea to Disney which would eventually fund the project.  
    • To Burton, this didn’t really feel like a remake. This time he had the budget and the resources to incorporate all of the personal experiences and monster movie influences that birthed the original concept. 
      • Burton decided the film wouldn’t be live-action, but stop-motion instead! Burton said of using stop motion, “It’s a form that I do love because there’s something that’s very tactile about it, you know, it’s a set and the lights and characters are going in and out of shadows, you see that. There’s something, yes, why I love Ray Harryhausen’s work where you can feel hands on it, you can feel there’s an energy to it.” 
    • When asked why redo an already successful movie, Tim Burton replied to puppet designer Peter Sanders that he wanted more of a performance from the dog Sparky. This would be more possible with a stop motion dog than a live-action dog. 

SYNOPSIS

Victor Frankenstein loves his dog, Sparky. They do everything together, including making their very own monster movies. One day, while Victor is playing baseball, Sparky runs into the street and gets hit by a car. Victor is devastated. After learning about the possibilities of combining electricity with a dead frog in science class, Victor decides to use lightning to bring Sparky back to life! As other students catch wind of the experiment, they want to try it as well. But, things go awry and the town is soon under attack by a group of pets-turned-monsters!  

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • Based on an original idea by Tim Burton, the 1984 screenplay was written by Leonard Ripps. John August wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film. 
    • Tim Burton was adamant that the film be in black and white. Thankfully, there was no push back from the studio to produce a color film. It was a nice coincidence that the black and white film The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012 validating the choice for black and white. 
    • In order to give the filmmakers more aesthetic options, it was shot in color and changed in post to be black and white.
  • 3D
    • To keep up with the monster movie tradition, the team knew immediately that the film should be 3D. A test was conducted to make sure that the effects worked well with the black and white aesthetic. After the test was done they saw right away it worked. The contrast of the film even helps to intensify the effect. 
    • Instead of shooting the film originally in 3D the team shot normally and gave the different elements, such as the set and characters, to a visual effects house team. This team then put it all together into a 3D film. 
  • Stop Motion
    • Stop motion is a time-consuming art form that we have discussed before. In order to keep filming going smoothly, Exposure Sheets are used. 
      • Exposure Sheets help to clarify what a character is doing in each frame so that everything can be mapped out. The sheets include frame numbers, the waveform for the score, and the phonetics of the words formed by the characters for mouth movement. Frankenweenie was shot at the standard 24 frames per second. For animators, that meant that for one second of film the puppets must be moved 24 times. Most often one animator is able to animate about 5 seconds of the film a week. 
    • In order to speed up the process animators would be working on different scenes at the same time with the multiples of puppets that were created.
  • Puppets
    • Inspiration for the puppets began from the drawings by Burton. Not only did they have his original concept drawing from the 1984 film, but he drew some new ones as well. The team of artists worked closely off of these and consulted Burton often on the personalities and looks of the characters. 
    • The puppets were cast from sculptures and then cast into foam rubber. All of the clothes had to be hand sewn as the puppets were only about a foot in height, and Sparky was about 4 inches.
    • In total, there ended up being over 200 puppets that needed to be cared for. A special Puppet Hospital was created where there was a team that made repairs for the clothing, limbs, and more.
  • Production
    • The production designer Rick Heinrichs had worked with Tim Burton before on both the short film Vincent and Nightmare Before Christmas. The longtime collaborators had also done well with the 1984 Frankenweenie. When Rick heard that Burton intended to remake the movie in stop motion, he was in from the start. Rick saw opportunities to improve what they built with the original. 
    • Rick Heinrichs was blown away by the animators working on the film. He was thrilled to see the story in black and white again and loved the controlled nature of stop-motion. He said, “When you’re doing a live-action film, you’re dealing with a lot more people and, as much as you want to control the sets and control the lighting, it’s like wearing boxing gloves to try to do something delicate. With stop-motion animation, the cinematographer is lighting the set, and the set decorators and the model makers and the animators are all people you’re talking directly to. You can fix things. It’s on a scale where it’s all fixable, and you can continue to manipulate things until it shoots. It’s a longer process of prep and production as well, so you can really bring more continuity to bear, on the whole process.”
    • The sets were built on tabletops complete with trap doors, similar to the ones we learned about when Nightmare Before Christmas was made! The attention to detail on the sets was incredible. 
      • Art director Sandra Walker, when talking about the sets, said that they strived to create Burton’s version of American Suburbia. What’s strange isn’t the neighborhood, it’s what happens in the neighborhood. Burton grew up in a 50’s/60’s middle-class Burbank-type area.
      • This story takes place in the fictional town of New Holland with a classic-looking windmill near the town. In the climax of the original film, Victor and Sparky become trapped in the windmill at the local golf course. So, the animated film needed to have a windmill for the ending as well. Heinrichs said about using the cultural aspects of New Holland, It was all about having Dutch day, and also about how American communities really take these Old World elements and they turn it into this flat, suburban thing. They knock down all the maple trees and they call it Maple Street. It’s this absconding of things out in the world and making it your own thing. There was something characteristically American and charming about that…To be honest with you, I really think that it establishes a purpose for the windmill.
  • Artists
    • Working on a stop motion film is incredibly physical work. Instead of working in front of a screen, you are constantly moving. One frame of movement would include several changes that would all have to be physically and meticulously moved. It is a very hands-on process that is evident in the final product. 
  • Film references and research
    • Burton believes that references should not be used just to have them there. He enjoys referencing older movies but you should not have to know what is being referenced to enjoy the movie. It should pass by as you are paying attention to the story. 
    • Producer Allison Abbate said that in order to be able to reference these movies, and with a purpose, the animators all watched the classic monster movies, paying special attention to the old Frankenstein movies. 
    • Here are just some of the references that we noticed throughout the film!
      • Frankenstein- Including a character similar to Igor
      • Sleepy Hollow and Frankenstein both have a windmill that burns down as well
      • Rodan- In the short film that Victor created at the beginning
      • Bride of Frankenstein- Sparky’s love interest Persephone ends up with white hair
      • Pet Sematary 
      • Invisible Man- Invisible fish
      • Gremlins-The sea monkeys resemble Gremlins
      • The Mummy- Nassor’s Colossus the hamster, and also when Nassor gets wrapped up and shoved into a large nesting doll
      • The Birds- Phone Booth scene with all the sea monkeys trying to get in
      • Gamera: The Giant Monster
      • Jurassic Park- The mayor tries to hide in a Porta Potty 

SCORE

  • Danny Elfman of course!
  • In an article in Films in Review from 1992, Ken Hanke comments that “Elfman’s scores are far more creative, far more in line with Burton’s combined sense of charm, irony, and absurdity, and generally just better music.”

STARRING

While the actors recorded their lines for the performances, video references were taken. These videos would be watched for behaviors, movements, and idiosyncrasies that could be used in the performance of the puppets.

Burton in an interview with Collider commented on the casting saying “Always, the voices have to be right.  With Martin [Short] and Catherine [O’Hara], they’re so good.  That’s why I had them do three voices each.  To me, there’s a great energy with that.  And Winona [Ryder], I hadn’t seen for many years.  Same with Martin [Landau].  Anything like that just makes it that much more personal.”

  • Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing
    • Can it even be a Tim Burton film without Winona?
    • She is a favorite of Burton’s and was also in Beetlejuice.
    • Van Helsing references Bram Stoker’s character from his novel, Dracula. 
  • Catherine O’Hara as Mrs. Frankenstein, the gym teacher, and the weird girl
    • She was in Beetlejuice but is also well known as the mom in Home Alone.
    • In this universe, there is no Frankenstein story. These people ARE the Frankensteins. 
  • Martin Short as Mr. Frankenstein, Nassor, and Mr. Burgermeister
    • Martin Short is most recently seen in Only Murders in the Building!
    • In the Rankin and Bass episode, we talked about how much Burton enjoyed their work, and so in this film, he pays tribute with the character Mr. Burgermeister. The character is similar in a lot of ways to Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. 
  • Charlie Tahan as Victor Frankenstein
    • Charlie most recently has been in Ozark.
    • You can see in his character’s room a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea poster.
  • Frank Welker as Sparky 
    • Frank is a voice actor that did voices for the live-action Transformers.
    • Sparky is given the classic bolts on the sides of his head in reference to Frankenstein’s monster.
  • Martin Landau as the teacher Mr. Rzykruski
    • This character may look very familiar to you because he is modeled after Vincent Price!
    • Martin was in many films before he passed away, most recently Abe and Phil’s Last Poker Game in 2017.
  • Also features the voices of Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, James Liao, Conchata Ferrell, Jon Donahue, Tom Kenny, and Dee Bradley Baker.

RECEPTION

  • There are lots of opinions out there as to whether or not Tim Burton’s films are for children. Burton himself grew up where death was a taboo topic. But, monster movies made him feel more optimistic about it all and reminded him of how life and death go hand in hand. He never felt he had a morbid fascination with death. Frankenweenie in particular was made with kids in mind and distances you from the scary with its emotional storyline, humor, and animation. Animation inherently shows you it is not real and therefore children are more receptive to the scariness. 
  • The film did not do well commercially, but it did make back its budget. 

FUN FACTS

  • There was an “Art of Frankenweenie Exhibition” that toured the world after the premiere. It had a wonderful reception and even came to Comic-Con in San Diego! You were able to tour some of the sets, props, and characters.
  • Burton invited his high school art teacher to the movie premiere.
  • Names of animators’ animals were on the gravestones at the pet cemetery.

AWARDS

Frankenweenie was nominated for a lot of awards, including for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature which it, unfortunately, did not win. It lost to Brave. It did, however, win a lot of awards in different states and Saturn Awards for Best Animated Film and Best Music.

Frankenweenie is a wonderful retelling of a classic story, with an optimistic twist. The original Frankenstein ends with the monster becoming increasingly destructive as he faces more cruelty, and the townsfolk end up hunting down a being that was initially harmless, his only crime being his existence. In Frankenweenie, the townsfolk make this same mistake but have the capacity to learn and grow, deciding to bring Sparky back to life. This concept can be summed up with the line, “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about,” spoken by Victor’s father at the end of the movie. 

In the tradition of the original, this movie explores human nature, the strength of an act of love, and how dangerous an act of fear can be. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

You can now buy us Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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Some Case Wicked This Way Comes

Well ghosts and goblins, it’s time for part 2 of our month of Disney Halloween! This week, we’re covering one of the scariest and most obscure Disney Live-action releases! 

Everyone knows that the 80s was the scariest decade for Disney movies. In animation, there were dark flops like The Black Cauldron. But live-action was the real horror show. Three of the scariest films ever released by Disney came out during this time, two of which we’ve already covered on this show. They were: The Watcher in the Woods, Return to Oz, and finally now, Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Tonight, we’re taking you to Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival on the edge of Greentown, Illinois. We’ll walk through the mirror maze as we discover our deepest desires…or our greatest fears. Come join us, won’t you? By the pricking of my thumbs…Something Wicked This Way Comes!

FROM SHORT STORY TO SCREENPLAY TO NOVEL TO SCREENPLAY AGAIN

  • In the early 1930s, a carnival came to the small town of Waukegan, Illinois. Among its visitors, there was a young boy that would grow up to be one of the most famous authors of the 20th century; his name was Ray Bradbury. Even as a child, Bradbury was a fan of horror and fantasy. The first film he ever saw was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the main character inspired him, as did Chaney’s other movies. So, gazing at the mysterious oddities of the traveling carnival sparked Bradbury’s imagination, and gave birth to an idea for one of his most popular novels. 
  • One member of the carnival was a man named Electrico, that would shoot electricity through his body every night as part of his show. Electrico took Bradbury around the carnival to meet everyone there. This encounter was so influential to him, that Bradbury later said that Electrico was largely responsible for his career as an author. 
  • Ray Bradbury drew from these influences for a short story published in 1948 for a horror pulp fiction magazine called Weird Tales. This story followed two boys as they visited a mysterious carnival, with a Ferris Wheel that could change the age of a person by just moving forward or backward. 
  • A few years later, Ray Bradbury met up with actor Gene Kelly. He was really impressed with a film that Kelly had just directed, and Kelly asked Bradbury if he had a story he’d like to make into a film. Bradbury decided to repurpose Dark Ferris into a screenplay. Gene Kelly tried to get funding to make the film but was unsuccessful. So Bradbury re-purposed the story once again into a novel. 
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes was published in 1962. The novel also followed the story of two boys, and how their lives changed when a sinister carnival came to town. The story focuses on the relationships between Will Halloway and his father, and between Will and his best friend, Jim Nightshade. 
    • Will and Jim complement each other, exhibiting opposite traits while remaining best friends. Will is blonde, while Jim has dark hair. Will was born one minute before midnight on October 30th, while Jim was born one minute after midnight on October 31st. As they run together through the town, Will speeds up to keep with Jim, while Jim slows down to keep with Will. 
    • Alternatively, Will’s father, Charles Halloway, and the carnival owner, Mr. Dark, are antagonistic foils. While Halloway represents the light in Will and Jim’s life, Mr. Dark represents the evil threatening to snuff that light out. 
  • This coming-of-age tale steeped in darkness was a big hit, and it was only a matter of time before it would be adapted as a film, as that was Ray Bradbury’s intention for the story before writing the novel. Many producers and directors expressed interest, including Steven Spielberg. But, when director Jack Clayton mentioned to Bradbury his desire to adapt the book, Bradbury handed over his hefty 257-page screenplay. 
    • Clayton worked with Bradbury on a new screenplay, cutting down several pages a day. Together they decided to place the story in the 1930s, because as Clayton would later say, “…children, like the ones Ray had written about, just don’t exist anymore. A carnival coming to town used to be a big event years ago, but now what with the advent of television, something like that hardly causes a ripple.”
    • Another big change was the relationship dynamic between Will and his father. Charles Halloway is an old man in Will’s eyes and the film emphasizes how much this upsets Charles. For the film, Clayton and Bradbury portrayed their relationship as a tense one that deepens over time, while in the book, Charles and Will have a sweeter relationship from the beginning. 
  • After finishing the screenplay, Clayton and Bradbury brought the project to several studios that passed. Eventually, they ended up at Walt Disney. Clayton hadn’t directed a film in 9 years and was excited to get back in the director’s chair. Filming lasted 90 days, from October to December, and took place almost exclusively on the Disney lot and the Disney ranch. In fact, the water tower shown in the movie is the Disney water tower, re-painted to say Greentown!

SYNOPSIS

It’s late October in Greentown, IL when a strange carnival comes to town. Best friends Will and Jim go exploring and discover that under its friendly facade, the festival is much more sinister than it seems. As adults in the town start to go missing, the boys realize that the carnival feasts on the desires of men and uses them to do their bidding. 

MAKING OF

Usually, we run through the facts of how a movie is made, but this week we’re doing something a little different. We understand that this movie is fairly obscure, and many listeners may not have seen it–or at least maybe it’s been a long time. So, we’re going to run through some of the biggest scenes in the film while discussing how it was made! Hopefully, this will give listeners more context. 

The top portion shows the matte painting. The middle shows the matte painting and the projection. The bottom image shows the final product.
The top portion shows the matte painting. The middle shows the matte painting and the projection. The bottom image shows the final product.
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes begins with an ominous and energetic theme, written by the late great composer James Horner. Originally, the score was written by another composer, Georges Delerue. Disney felt that his score was too somber for modern audiences, and made the switch to Horner, much to Jack Clayton’s dismay. But, Ray Bradbury ultimately agreed that Horner truly brought the magic with his score. (Here is a link to some of the original music for you to enjoy!) 
  • The first image on-screen is the train, bringing Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium carnival to town. This scene was originally CGI, but it was eventually deemed to be too hokey for the dark and menacing tone of the beginning. Throughout the film, there aren’t very many visual effects. This was due to the fact that TRON was in production at the same time, and took most of the focus in terms of effects. Jack Clayton also fought against the use of too many effects, leaving more for the audience’s imagination. 
    • The title sequence was actually a practical effect, with the letters of the title appearing to look like liquid. It was actually re-dyed milk on a metal plate.
  • “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” When the audience sees Greentown for the first time, we hear a narrator introduce the story. The first spoken line was also the first line of the book’s prologue. When filmmakers decided they wanted narration, they had Ray Bradbury himself record it. But, as Ray himself put it, he “didn’t do a very good job.” 
    • The beginning establishes the main characters and the setting. We see Tom Fury, a lightning-rod salesman, walking down the road with Greentown, IL in the distance. Of course, the town is fictional and not actually along that road. So, the footage of Tom Fury was combined with a matte painting of the town. This effect was used several times in the film. The matte paintings are put onto glass and an area is left open where the live-action shots are projected. It is composited in this manner and filmed together to produce the final result we see. (You can see this in the picture above.)
      • This beginning is meant to seem quiet and mundane. Jack Clayton said,  “You can only make a fantasy – or even a farce for that matter – only provided you root the beginning in reality. Something Wicked starts very normal-ly and from that…it’s just my theory, whether it will work or not we will just have to wait and see.” 
    • The production team built the entire town square on the lot, and Bradbury said it was so similar to the town he grew up in, that he felt like he was visiting home again. Many of the sets were composites, meaning they were actual buildings with several enclosed rooms and floors, and many of them were connected. 
      • Many of the outside scenes were shot in the early part of the day to get a gloomier look. When this wasn’t possible, the production team would “silk” over the top of the set to soften the natural light. 
    • Just after the narration introduced Will and Jim, we see them running through the town, ending up at the library. Many of these shots are continuous, and the camera was mounted on a car so it could follow the running boys. 
  • “But I suppose that this is really the story of my father.”
    • The library that Will and Jim enter was a detailed set, designed to look like the Carnegie libraries donated to many small towns in the 1920s. This scene introduces Charles Halloway, Will’s father, and sets up his dilemma of being a man too old to keep up with his growing son. This is also where we learn that Jim doesn’t have a father, though he pretends that his father writes to him. 
      • Jack Clayton didn’t like doing several takes with young actors because their acting tended to fall apart after saying the same lines over and over again. So, scenes like this have very minimal cuts. 
    • Now that the film has implied Charles’ desire to be young, we see him interact with the other adult characters. This scene sets up their unique wants, as the barber wishes to be with women, the cigar store owner wants money, and the barkeep wishes to be an athlete again. 
    • After this, Charles encounters the first piece of the carnival in his own town, the “most beautiful woman in the world” encased in ice. The red ring on her hand glows, which was one of the many visual effects that producers added after the first cut of the film was too ambiguous. Clayton and Bradbury didn’t initially agree that audiences needed to see effects to understand the magical aspects of the film, but felt that most of the effects added did enhance the story. 
  • The Carnival arrives
    • Will and Jim are safely home in their beds when they awake to the sounds of a train. Their bedrooms were composite sets, and very difficult to film in. So, sometimes the ceiling had to be taken out in order to fit all the filming equipment. 
    • The boys sneak out of their windows and run to see the train. This scene was shot on the Disney ranch, and bright lights were flashed on the boys’ faces to make it appear as if a train was passing by. The moment that the train stops, a carnival appears out of nowhere. 
      • Filmmakers used miniatures to show the carnival as a whole, while individual sets were built for the actors to interact with. 
      • In this scene, we meet the dust witch character for the first time. She’s dressed in a black costume of spider lace. In the book, the witch is more fairytale-like, but in the movie, they combined this character and “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Ray Bradbury loved the costume for this character. 
    • After Will returns home from seeing the carnival, he confronts his father who was also out late. This encounter shines a light on the tension in their relationship. Instead of using multiple cameras to shoot this scene, they utilized the lighting to get the audience to focus on specific characters at certain times. The key light is on Charles, played by Jason Robards, because this scene is about him and his regrets. 
  • “It’s just an ordinary carnival” 
    • The boys return to the carnival in the daytime, and are almost disappointed to discover that it is a seemingly ordinary carnival that just looked evil at night. But, while they explore, the audience witnesses the adults become consumed by their own desires. 
    • The boys walk past a tent of dancing women, and Will wants to keep walking. But, Jim peeps through a hole in the fabric to watch the dancing ladies. 
      • Set designers specifically made the carnival appear weathered and broken down, with ripped canvases and unkempt attractions. It added to the creepy aesthetic, but it also proved how old the carnival itself was. 
      • This scene replaces a moment in the book, when Jim witnesses something happening with adults in their bedroom at night. Will wants to keep walking, but Jim can’t tear himself away. This speaks to the difference in their characters and how even though they are the same age, they are at different places mentally. 
    • The boys sneak into the off-limits part of the carnival and run into Mr. Dark, the man that runs the place. At first, his face is shrouded in darkness to symbolize the presence of his evil. 
      • Before sending the boys away, he shows the boys the shifting tattoos on his hands, which seems to be his carnival trick. To achieve this effect, the director projected the image of a kaleidoscope onto Jonathan Pryce’s arm. 
  • The backward carousel
    • Convinced that something strange might happen at night, the boys stay behind and sneak back into the carousel’s tent. They watch as the ride runs in reverse, lowering the age of the man riding it until he becomes a little boy!
    • Filmmakers used a real carousel for the scene that they found on Long Beach. They took it apart and shipped the parts to Los Angeles, where it was rebuilt on the sound stage. 
      • The director overlayed past frames to get the dragging, blurred effect as the carousel ran.
    • The man, Mr. Cooger, is one of the carnival owners in the book. He turns into a little boy to do Mr. Dark’s bidding. The boy that played this role was very young and didn’t really understand what was happening. This helped bring a creepiness to the character. 
  • The talk on the porch
    • After returning home, Will has another talk with his father. It’s in this scene that we realize that Will almost drowned as a younger child, and Charles was unable to save him. Will had been saved by Jim’s father, and Charles has felt like a failure ever since. 
    • This scene was cut up by the studio, making it one of the choppier scenes in the movie. It also has the tightest close-ups in the entire film, as it’s an important moment for both characters. 
    • At the end of the scene, Will challenges his father to climb up the side of the house and into his bedroom window. Charles refuses, because Jack Clayton felt it would build the tension between the two characters. 
      • In the book, Charles rises to the challenge and almost falls. But Will saves him, setting up the final act when Charles must rise to the challenge of saving his own son. 
  • Seeing something they shouldn’t
    • Miss Foley, Jim and Will’s teacher, looks into her mirror and sees a younger version of herself. She so desperately wants to be young again, and suddenly becomes her younger self…but immediately goes blind. 
      • To create this sequence, filmmakers used a sodium vapor technique that predates green screens. It’s a version of matte photography that allowed them to overlay images in a realistic way. 
    • After seeing the magical power of the carousel, Jim also gives into his desire to be grown, and heads to the carnival to make his wish come true. Luckily, Will stops him. The boys discover all the adults in the town under the tent, and Mr. Dark has Tom Fury, the lightning salesman strapped to an electric chair. Mr. Dark demands Fury tell him when the next storm is, for storms wash away the carnival.  
    • The sky in this scene was created by using a cloud tank. The bottom layer of the tank is salt water, while the top layer is freshwater. Various liquids are injected into the tank to create clouds! 
    • From this point on in the movie, a lot of visual effects were added to enhance the story. This involved adding hand-drawn animations of dust, smoke, and glowing objects. A green, hand-drawn smoke follows Will and Jim as they run home. 
  • The Spider scene
    • The first cut of Something Wicked did not do well with audiences. The film went through major cuts, and some re-shoots were done for the ending. Originally, there was a scene that involved a giant hand reaching into Will and Jim’s bedrooms. The hand was animatronic, and didn’t seem to look real enough to keep the scary tone of the movie. 
    • So, about one year after initial filming, the actors that played Will and Jim had to return to shoot a new scene that involved hundreds of tarantula spiders. Jack Clayton had to be careful which angles to shoot the boys from, because it was obvious that they had grown. In fact, the actor that played Will had to wear a wig.
    • The scene features a lot of real spiders, which gave most of the crew a bad allergic reaction. The special effects team also built animatronic spiders, but they didn’t match up to the real ones. So, the spiders under the blankets on the boys’ beds are actually animatronic. 
  • The Parade
    • After experiencing the horrible night terror of the spiders in their beds (a vision sent by the Dust Witch, presumably), Will and Jim are certain that Mr. Dark is searching for them because they’ve witnessed too much. 
    • Mr. Dark leads a parade through the town, and for the first time, we see all the people that he has tricked and transformed, but none of the other townsfolk seem to care. Charles Halloway notices when a young boy shows up, wearing the exact clothes of the barkeep, a man that had lost his leg and arm. The little boy catches a football the exact same way the barkeep would, confirming Charles’ suspicion that something nefarious is going on. 
    • Mr. Dark approaches Charles and asks about Will and Jim, showing him tattooed images of them on his hands. The images were photos of the boys that the make-up department had to draw on Jonathan Pryce’s hands. When Charles refuses to give the boys up, Mr. Dark closes his hand so tightly, that blood drips from it. This effect was achieved with a simple sponge with cosmetic blood. 
  • “By the pricking of my thumbs” 
    • The most intense scene of the film takes place in the library, as Will and Jim hide from Mr. Dark. Charles tries to hold him off, buying the boys more time, but Mr. Dark proves to be too powerful. This was Ray Bradbury’s favorite part of the movie. Jonathan Pryce and Jason Robards (who played Charles) were able to act out the scene over and over to give the director lots of different options for the final cut. The scene took a week to shoot.
      • This scene involves pages being ripped from a book. As each page falls to  the floor, it glows. An animator has to use rotoscoping to trace the images frame by frame to add the effect. 
    • This is the scene where the audience learns about Mr. Dark and who he truly is. They are “the hungry ones” that feed off the desires of men. As Mr. Dark attempts to tempt Charles, he quotes the song, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The song is heavily featured in the book, and Ray Bradbury felt it appropriate for the story. Mr. Dark is mocking the idea of love and goodwill. 
    • Mr. Dark then breaks Charles’ hand, solidifying his defeat. This was a prosthetic hand, and the scene was initially too gory and had to be cut down. Mr. Dark then finds the boys and steals them away, as a Dust Witch gives Charles a “taste of death.” As Mr. Dark pulls the boys away, he shuts off the barber pole in the town, symbolizing the end of life. 
  • The Mirror Maze
    • When Charles awakes, he runs to the carnival to save the boys and gets trapped in a mirror maze. This was another scene that needed to be re-shot. If you look closely, Will is wearing the same wig in this scene that he wears in the spider sequence. 
      • Originally, the scene showed Charles running through a series of mirrors with older men without their false teeth on the other side. This represented his fear of being too old, but the climax didn’t work well with the test audiences. 
      • So, the story was changed, and Charles instead saw the memory of him failing to save his son. Special effects artists added rounded edges to the mirrors so that the audience understood that he was looking in a mirror and not a screen or a doorway. 
    •  Charles is able to break through the mirror and save Will, as Tom Fury defeats the Dust Witch. But, their troubles aren’t entirely over until Mr. Dark accidentally falls victim to his own tricks and is forced to age rapidly on the carousel. 
      • This scene was far too extensive in the original cut, which made the audience laugh. 
    • The scene ends with the carnival being swept up in a cloud that was created with a cloud tank. The miniature carnival was shot upside-down, and filmmakers simply dropped the pieces from the ceiling!
    • After the carnival is swept away, Will, Jim, and Charles all head skipping back to Greentown. The light on the Barber’s Pole flicks on again, and everything seems to be okay. 

STARRING

  • Vidal Peterson as Will Halloway
    • He also played the elder in Mork and Mindy!
  • Shawn Carson as Jim Nightshade
    • This was his biggest role.
  • Diane Ladd as Jim’s mother Mrs. Nightshade
    • Diane has been in many films including National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
  • Jason Robards as Will’s father Charles Halloway
    • Jason had several credits, such as Little Big League and Parenthood to name a few.
    • He was Ray Bradbury’s first choice for the character! The two got to know each other well during filming. 
  • Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark
    • Jonathan has also been a well-known actor in things as recent as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Crown.
  • Royal Dano as Tom Fury
    • He was in a lot of things, even Killer Klowns from Outer Space!
  • Pam Grier as the Dust Witch
    • Pam is an influential woman who starred in blaxploitation films in the 70’s like Foxy Brown. She now has an autobiography Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. 

RECEPTION

  • When the test audience watched Something Wicked This Way Comes, they did not give it a good reception. According to Ray Bradbury, at least ¼ of the film had to be changed. 
  • The movie was a commercial flop, making only about half of its budget. It’s not available to stream, and is still relatively obscure. But, Ray Bradbury was incredibly proud of it. 
  • The movie won two Saturn Awards for Best Fantasy Film and Best Writing. It was also nominated for several other awards, including best director. 
  • In 1983 Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars and wrote “It’s one of the few literary adaptations I’ve seen in which the film not only captures the mood and tone of the novel, but also the novel’s style…In its descriptions of autumn days, in its heartfelt conversations between a father and a son, in the unabashed romanticism of its evil carnival and even in the perfect rhythm of its title, this is a horror movie with elegance.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes is dark and magical. Pressing play on this film is like opening a time capsule to 1980s Disney, when they weren’t afraid to get truly scary. The film is frightening for children and adults alike, but for different reasons. For children, the fears are literal, like darkness and spiders. For adults, the frights are more abstract: like failure and weakness. And this story makes us all face the question: If you were faced with the chance to fulfill your deepest desires, what price would you pay? 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, and Carlos!

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SOURCES:

The Hollywood Case of Terror

Well cassettes, it’s the SPOOKY MONTH! This is not a drill! It’s time to get spooky! Two years ago, we spent October learning all about some Disney Halloween movies. This year, we’re doing it again! Get ready for three episodes on some of our favorite spooky stories from Walt Disney. 

Before Emily Blunt rode off on a Jungle Cruise, before Captain Jack Sparrow sailed on The Black Pearl, before Eddie Murphy got trapped in the Haunted Mansion, Steve Guttenberg helped a group of ghosts move on from their untimely death in an elevator shaft. Not sure what I’m talking about, well, strap in because you are in for one thrilling ride. 

Back in 1997, The Wonderful World of Disney on ABC premiered its latest made-for-TV movie. It starred Steve Guttenberg as a former journalist, and a pre-Spiderman Kirsten Dunst playing his niece. The film had an interesting concept, to say the least. It was based on a Disney World ride: The Hollywood Tower of Terror!

Today, we’re taking you back to the late 90s, as we uncover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of 5 guests at the Hollywood Tower Hotel on Halloween night, 1939. Join us as we take a terrifying look at this spooky Disney gem. 

HISTORY (OF THE RIDE)

  • The Twilight Zone
    • We don’t know about you, but we LOVE rides with themes. Not only do you get a thrilling ride but a story that keeps you interested while you wait in line. In Ohio the best example of this, and the ride that we personally (Robin and Marci at least) love is called Flight of Fear at Kings Island and has a history of its own. 
    • On May 1st, 1989 Disney-MGM studios opened in Florida. Imagineers modeled this park to look like a soundstage, as it was themed around films and TV. 
    • When Disney needed to add shorter attractions to their parks, Imagineer Kevin Rafferty began brainstorming with his coworkers. One idea that had been tossed around, was the concept of a haunted Hollywood hotel. He was talking with another imagineer named Steve Kirk when he considered the idea of working in The Twilight Zone to draw the ride into a TV theme. Then, the name of the ride just came to him: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Rafferty later said that when he said the name, Steve Kirk dropped the pencil he was holding and said, “you may be on to something.” 
    • Rafferty recently recounted pitching the idea to Disney executives, saying, “Michael Eisner just lit up when I said, ‘Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.’ When he asked, ‘What happens?’ I knew I had him.” Later, he added, “This is one of my most vivid memories in my entire career: Michael looked at me and said, ‘This is a home run. We’ve got to do this.’ It was awesome!”
    • So, the Imagineers got to work. The design of the building was modeled after the early revival styles of the 20th century in California. Buildings that were looked at for inspiration included the Mission Inn, the Biltmore Hotel, and the Chateau Marmont.
    • Since the ride has a 1939 theme, the aesthetic of the building was planned out, including how tall it would be. Imagineers wanted it to be as tall as possible. Due to FAA regulations at the time, any building over 200 feet must have a red beacon at the top. Since this would take away from the theme, it was built to 199 feet to avoid the red eyesore. It is currently the second tallest attraction in the Walt Disney World Resort after Expedition Everest which is 6 inches taller. 
    • As they prepared to design this themed ride, the Imagineers reportedly watched all 165 episodes of The Twilight Zone twice! Some of them were screened even more. The building’s entrance is littered with references to many Twilight Zone episodes. The music, props, settings, and more were created in the spirit of the TV show.
      • Although it is not centered around an already existing episode, the ride’s plot was inspired by a few certain episodes. “Little Lost Girl” (Season 3 Episode 26) is what prompted the team to center the ride around entering the 5th dimension. Though mostly they talk about the 4th dimension in this episode, at the very end Rod Serling questions if it was the fourth dimension or even a fifth dimension. The footage of Rod Serling in the ride’s pre-show was taken and transformed from the 8th episode of season 3, “It’s a Good Life.” 
      • Since Rod Serling had passed away before they created the ride, Imagineers watched Rod Sterling’s opening and ending credits a minimum of 10 times in order to pull out the common phrasing he used. This in turn helped them to fashion the pre-show ride video.
    • CBS licensed the rights of Twilight Zone to the Disney Theme Parks. On July 22nd, 1994 Twilight Zone Tower of Terror opened and quickly became one of its most popular attractions. It was located in Florida, at the end of Sunset Blvd.
  • After walking into the lobby of the ride, visitors watch as Rod Sterling introduces the pre-ride video. A voice actor imitating Sterling then recounts the unfortunate events that occurred in 1939, when 5 people mysteriously disappeared after entering the elevator. Then, the voice invites the visitors to ride up the service elevator and into The Twilight Zone. 
  • Multiple sources said that the 1930’s costumes used for the bellhops in the video were the most expensive, costing over $1000 per uniform. This made it the most expensive costume for any ride at Walt Disney World.
    • Because the video is in black and white, audiences don’t see that the uniform that the bellhop wears is actually blue, and not the iconic deep red color that bellhops tend to wear.
  • Eventually, the ride was so successful, it had four different locations! 
    • The original ride is in Florida. In 2004, Disneyland added its own version of the ride, which was also a major success. 
      • Many fans were incredibly upset in 2016 when it was announced that renovations would be made to this location to turn it into the Guardians of the Galaxy-Mission: Breakout! We will link to the youtube video of the announcement and by looking at the thumbs down and comments, you can see what we mean.
    • The Tokyo DisneySea version was completed in 2006. 
      • Imagineers had to reimagine the story for this version of the thrilling ride. This was due to the fact that The Twilight Zone was not popular in Japan. The story became about Harrison Hightower III who was a collector and multi-millionaire. On the Eve of New Years in 1899 he vanished after having collected a strange statue from Africa. His elevator crashes to the ground and only the statue is found in the elevator. 
    • The Tower of Terror in Paris opened in 2007
      • It follows the story of the original but in 2019 they announced a new dimension of chills where 5 new experiences were put into the ride. This included shaft creatures that become scarier the more you scream and the little girl haunts you even more while you are in the elevator. 

SYNOPSIS

  • It is Halloween night in 1939 and there is a party at the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Five guests board the elevator to head up to the Tip Top Club on the 12th floor. Strange green lightning strikes the hotel and the guests on the elevator disappear. Sixty years later a disgraced journalist, Buzzy Crocker, continues to try to make his way back into The Los Angeles Banner.  As he continues to work toward that goal he creates fake news stories for the tabloids with his niece, Anna. His “stories” attract the attention of Abigail Gregory, an elderly woman that was at the hotel on the day of the fateful incident and has information that will shed light on what happened to the five that disappeared. 

MAKING OF

  • In the mid-1990s, writer and director DJ MacHale was finishing up his groundbreaking children’s horror anthology show, Are You Afraid of the Dark. If you have heard our podcast before, you may have heard us mention that show from time to time. Some Nickelodeon producers jumped ship to Disney around the time DJ was wrapping up his final episodes, and they asked DJ if he would be willing to work on a project for Disney. MacHale had built a reputation as someone that had “honed his craft” of creating entertainment that was scary, but not tooo scary. 
    • When asked by Beyond the Mouse Podcast about how he kept this balance, DJ said, “It’s all about tension. It’s about (and this applies to all horror movies frankly) it’s what’s truly scary is what you think you might see, not what you see. Using that kind of tension 101 you can translate that to a kids show because the payoffs will never be as gruesome as they are in adult movies.”
  • When DJ MacHale started writing the script for this film, he had to drop any reference to The Twilight Zone because Disney did not secure the rights to the show. Although it might seem like this would make the writing process more difficult, DJ MacHale was thankful that he did not have to work it into the story. Since the characters in the pre-show were not given detailed backstories, he could use their appearances to give them character, stories, and personalities. 
    • Disney did not give the team the budget for a big production, so MacHale knew that he could not afford to create a period piece that would span the whole movie. For this reason, we are brought into a contemporary setting for most of the film. The story only needed to have two major points that matched the ride; the characters from the elevator and the lightning. DJ MacHale felt it was easier to have parameters than to make up a story from scratch.
    • In order to begin preparation for the film, DJ got to meet with the Imagineers that worked on creating the ride. When he arrived at the Glendale offices he noted how bland and unimaginative the offices were with all their normal cubby holes. Once you stepped inside each cubby however you got to see where all the magic and innovation came from. In order to protect all this magic, DJ had to sign non-disclosure agreements before entering. When he talked with the creators it was obvious how proud of Tower of Terror they were. The Imagineers did not hesitate to show him all the schematics and information they had on it. They gave him all the information they could, and let him control the story.
    • Tower of Terror Replica
      • As mentioned before, the ride is incredibly detailed. DJ assumed that a lot of the filming would be done within the actual building of the ride, but Disney did not want to shut down the ride for the duration of filming. They also do not let you skip the line, even if you are making a movie about the ride (according to DJ.) So in order to film at the location, they would have only been able to shoot during the hours of midnight to 4 am. Due to this short time frame, they were not able to film on location. Although there were soundstages nearby, the production team could not use them because they had been booked for months. So, they moved production from Florida to California. There are shots of the actual ride in the film, however. They are wide building shots and detail shots of statues and carvings that are shown when Buzzy Crocker first enters the building.
        • The beginning exterior shot of the film set in 1939 needed a Hollywood Tower Hotel that looked new because the audience needed to believe that it had recently been built. DJ MacHale was worried that the team would have to use CGI to light all the letters on the sign as some of them blink or are not on. When they went to the top of the tower with a worker they were in luck and found that there were switches for the neon lights that would fully light the sign.
      • The Production designer was Phil Dagort (pronounced Dagore). He most recently has worked on the set design for the TV series Why Women Kill. Dagort was dedicated to creating the perfect aesthetic for the film, which also meant building an almost exact replica of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’s lobby. The only major difference between the replica and the real lobby was that the replica did not have a ceiling! Because a quarter of the budget went to building this set, more scenes needed to take place in the lobby to justify the expense. DJ MacHale had scenes that were going to happen in other parts of the hotel; like the kitchen, but they got moved into the Lobby. Luckily the room was so diverse and expansive that it does not look like it was all shot in that room.
    • One major feature of the hotel is its enormous gates that display the HTH acronym. While searching for a cheap material to make the gates, they found themselves at the same shop that had created the gates for the actual attraction. Not only had they done that, but they had also created a backup set! MacHale could not recall for sure but he believes that they were given to the team for free because they were in a scrap pile.

CAST

When DJ was interviewed by Beyond the Mouse Podcast, he commented on what it was like hiring and working with the cast. This was one of the few movies that he shot in Los Angeles, so many actors that came in to audition were well known. Because of this, he was actually a little starstruck. On another note, he mentioned that it was fun to be able to work with a predominantly adult cast who could carry the workload after having worked with almost exclusively kids. 

  • Steve Guttenberg as Buzzy Crocker
    • Known for his roles in the Police Academy series and Three Men and A Baby 
    • This was not the first time that DJ MacHale had used the name Buzzy Crocker for a character. As an NYU student, he made a film called Deadline and the reporter’s name was Buzzy Crocker.
    • When having to replace audio, DJ met up with Steve at a street cafe in Toronto where Steve was recognized constantly and everyone who saw him wanted to say hello. DJ said that Steve was genuinely happy and nice to each and every person.
  • Kirsten Dunst as Anna Petterson
    • Starred in many child roles until one of her most popular roles in Spider-Man (2002)
  • Nia Peeples as Jill Perry
    • Was in the show Fame from 1983 to 1987 as well as Walker, Texas Ranger from 1999 to 2001
  • Michael McShane as Chris ‘Q’ Todd
    • Known for his roles in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Office Space, and the voices for both Tuck and Roll in A Bug’s Life
  • Amzie Strickland as Abigail Gregory
    • Her acting career dates as far back as 1937 in many uncredited roles, as well as many TV series like Seventh Heaven and Sister, Sister. 
    • DJ MacHale said that she was one of the greatest people to work with because she had been in pretty much everything. He said that normally resumes come in chronological order but hers was in alphabetical order.
  • Melora Hardin as Claire Poulet
    • And actress with many TV roles such as Little House on the Prairie, Murder, She Wrote, and Gilmore Girls
    • The song that she sings at the end is one that a close friend of hers wrote. 
  • Alastair Duncan as Gilbert London
    • He has become a well-known voice actor for video games and cartoons such as The Batman (2004), Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and the recent God of War
  • Lindsay Ridgeway as Sally Shine
    • She doesn’t have very many credits, but those she does have to include Boy Meets World from 1996 to 2000, and Cats Don’t Dance
  • John Franklin as Dewey Todd
    • Another actor with relatively few credits, but he appeared in films and series such as Tammy and the T-Rex, Star Trek: Voyager, and The Addams Family
    • Dewey appears in the book series Pendragon that DJ MacHale created! The events take place prior to 1939 in Manhattan and in book 3  he says he is going to go to work at his Grandfather’s Hotel in California. In book 8 they go back to the Manhattan hotel and someone comments on the fact that Dewey disappeared at the California hotel.
  • Wendy Worthington as Emeline Partridge
    • She has had many roles and Tower of Terror is one of her most well-known. Others include Ally McBeal, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

RECEPTION

  • Although it’s not the most well-known film from The Wonderful World of Disney, Tower of Terror has garnered a cult following in recent years. Kirsten Dunst was nominated for a Young Artist Award for best actress in a TV movie/mini-series/pilot!
  • You cannot currently watch the movie online, but it is available for purchase! 

TALKS OF NEW MOVIE

  • Recently there had been talks about creating a new movie based around the Twilight Zone of Terror. This movie would also have its own story due to CBS still owning the rights to The Twilight Zone. Scarlet Johanson’s Three Pictures Production Company was set to produce the film, and have her as the lead. Pre-production for the film halted due to the recent legal disputes between Scarlet Johanson and Disney. This does not completely rule out a new Tower of Terror but it will most likely not be with Scarlett Johanson.  

Although Disney’s Tower of Terror wasn’t technically a Disney Channel Original Movie, it was prominently featured on Disney Channel for several years. For many of us 90s kids, it was a Halloween staple, a fun ride that felt like a prolonged episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. 

So, for our first episode of Disney Halloween, we were happy to take you into the fourth or maybe fifth dimension…down an elevator shaft and into the not-so-Twilight zone (because copyright I guess). 

So if you haven’t seen this wonderful Disney charmer, go ahead and give it a go. We’re sure you’ll FALL in love. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

You can now buy us a Popcorn! @  buymeacoffee.com/blackcasediary   

Thank you to all that support us whether it be through listening, telling a friend, or donating!


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