It Happened One Christmas Movie

December 24th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

Thanks to Hallmark and Lifetime, among others, there’s no shortage of Christmas movies available right now, particularly on the streaming services. I ran across one such flick this weekend and just took a casual look at it, initially, before getting caught up and taking the whole sleigh ride. From my perspective (and I’ll be discussing that), this made-for-TV-movie is a particularly memorable example of its kind. But in the unlikely event that you see anyone else discussing it online (or anywhere), you will almost certainly find it dismissed and even disparaged.

It Happened One Christmas (1977) is a gender reversal of It’s a Wonderful Life with Marlo Thomas in the James Stewart role – not just a twist on the premise, but a remake and one that invokes the look of the original film (the story remains in period) and uses much of its dialogue. To understand how the telefilm even exists requires a little background.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was largely forgotten until it accidentally lapsed into the public domain. In the 1980s the film began its rise to Christmas season perennial, initially through screenings on PBS stations. This Yuletide film noir is essentially an American take on A Christmas Carol, with Lionel Barrymore (who had played Scrooge famously on radio from 1934 to 1953, although in 1938 Orson Welles filled in) as Scrooge-like Mr. Potter. In a way, it’s A Christmas Carol from the point of view of Bob Cratchit.

Though Jimmy Stewart has been perhaps my favorite screen actor since Vertigo warped me at age ten (and despite my being a film buff as long as I can remember), in 1977 I had not only never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I wasn’t even aware of its existence. I watched It Happened One Christmas in December 1977 without knowing it was a remake of a Frank Capra movie (even though the remake’s title winked at the source by invoking Capra’s career-making It Happened One Night).

The reason I watched it in the first place was Wayne Rogers. My love for his short-lived mid-‘70s private eye show, City of Angels, had made me a fan of his, and here he was in another period piece. He even looks much like his fedora-sporting P.I. Jake Axminster in It Happened One Christmas. That got me up the gangplank, but my love for a certain kind of fantasy – Here Comes Mr. Jordan and, yes, the Alistair Sim Scrooge – kept me onboard.

In 1977 I had just signed to write Dick Tracy. We got a nice advance from the Tribune Syndicate (I had to begin work on the strip three or four months before my paychecks kicked in) and our extravagance was to buy one of them new-fangled video tape recorders – a Betamax. The very first movie I recorded – the very first anything I recorded – was It Happened One Christmas, off the air (an ABC Sunday Night Movie), using two 60-minute tapes.

That was the beginning of a still-in-progress collecting obsession that would turn into thousands – yes, thousands – of videotapes, laser discs, DVDs and Blu-rays as my wonderful if demented life unspooled.

So when, this past weekend, I discovered It Happened One Christmas streaming on Amazon Prime, I just started watching for what I thought would be for a brief visit with an old friend. Even as the credits began, I realized the telefilm looked great – it was in 16:9 widescreen format and HD! And as I read the opening credits, I noticed something early on – the cinematographer was Conrad Hall.

Conrad Hall, as you may know, was one of the greatest directors of photography in the history of Hollywood. He won an Oscar for a little something called (wait for it) Road to Perdition. Had George Bailey not existed, his brother would have died breaking through the ice, remember, consigning all those soldiers on a troop carrier to die. But if I hadn’t existed, Conrad Hall wouldn’t have won his Academy Award shortly before his death.

So just seeing Hall’s name in the credits sat me up in my recliner. Other names – and some actors who didn’t make the opening credits, but who were instantly recognizable to me – had even greater resonance today than when I first saw (and loved) the telefilm. Getting top billing with Marlo Thomas and Wayne Rogers was Orson Welles, once again filling in for Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge-like Mr. Potter. Cloris Leachman, the Iowa girl whose first movie was Kiss Me Deadly, is Clara, the role reversal of Clarence the angel. Christopher Guest in a rare straight role was Harry Bailey, Mary Bailey’s brother. Archie Hahn from Phantom of the Paradise (“Little Eddie Mitty, born in Jersey City…”) was Ernie the cab driver.

Now that I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life countless times, I am aware of just how faithful a remake It Happened One Christmas really is – it even includes the Charleston contest with the hidden swimming pool beneath the gym floor. Hall’s attention to the look of the original film – the art direction by top talent John J. Lloyd was Emmy-nominated – is respectful to say the least.

But even more interesting is the gender-reversal aspect that takes the telefilm into new areas – when Mr. Potter offers Mary Bailey a box of cigars for her husband as a sweetener for the bribe he’s tempting her with, she hands it back to him, saying, “Have a cigar, Mr. Potter – I’m gonna have a baby!” That the Thomas character wants to leave the idyllic but boring small town to live her own life and follow her own talents has strong (but not overplayed) feminist underpinnings.

Leachman was Emmy-nominated, too, and Rogers and Welles are quite wonderful. But Thomas is the surprise. She is luminous, and her acting is spot on, the emotions she conveys – that she’s a mother amplifies things – genuine and often heart-breaking. Stewart gave his first dark post-combat performance in Wonderful Life, just as Thomas in Happened One Christmas explores the frustrations of a young woman in the mid-20th Century trying to live her own life and pursue her goals and dreams. It seems a pity that her acting career, post-That Girl, didn’t really go anywhere, but that may have been her choice. I really don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s a pity this film became lost in the shuffle when public-domain screenings in the 1980s gave It’s a Wonderful Life a wonderful second life. There’s no question that Capra’s film is a big-screen classic. Yet this small-screen tribute, a canny re-imagining, is itself an unrecognized classic of the late 20th Century TV movie.

Merry Christmas, movie house.

Rest in peace, Betamax.

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Here are the five great Christmas movies, as I wrote about them in 2014:

1. Scrooge (1951). Alistair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the definitive filming of A Christmas Carol.
2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Hollywood filmmaking at its best, with Edmund Gwen the definitive, real Santa Claus, Natalie Wood in her greatest child performance, John Payne reminding us he should have been a major star, and Maureen O’Hara as a smart, strong career woman/working mother who could not be more glamorous.
3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Heartwarming but harrowing, this film is home to one of James Stewart’s bravest performances and happens to be Frank Capra’s best film.
4. A Christmas Story (1983), Jean Shepherd’s unlikely claim to fame, and a Christmas movie with Mike Hammer and Carl Kolchak in it.
5. Christmas Vacation (1989) uncovers every Christmas horror possible when families get together and Daddy tries too hard.

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Here’s a positive review of Do No Harm from Kirkus, although their assertion that the book is more fiction than fact belies the rigorous research that went into it.

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I hope all of you have wonderful Christmases. I am a sucker for this time of year, and for the first time we have our entire family living here in Muscatine, Iowa…with son Nate, daughter-in-law Abby, grandson Sam (four) and granddaughter Lucy (one) just up the street. They’ll be spending Christmas Eve and morning with us.

By the way, this is an official Christmas, so-defined by our receiving our annual Christmas card from Paul Reubens and his friend Pee-Wee Herman.


Shameless Self-Promotion in my Stocking

December 17th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

I’ve had some nice notices of late, showing up like early stocking stuffers. I am going to rather brazenly and completely self-servingly turning this update into a look at the best and most fun of some of these.

I am particularly happy with this starred review of the forthcoming new Nathan Heller novel, Do No Harm, from Publisher’s Weekly:

MWA Grand Master Collins’s Zelig-like PI, Nate Heller, who’s tackled most of 20th-century America’s greatest unsolved mysteries, gets involved in the Sam Sheppard murder case in his superior 17th outing (after 2016’s Better Dead). When the Cleveland doctor reported having found his wife, Marilyn, bludgeoned to death in their bedroom in 1954, Heller happened to be in the city, spending time with his old friend Eliot Ness, who invited him along to the crime scene to help determine whether the killing was the work of the serial killer whom the two men had been chasing for years. The m.o. established that another murderer was responsible, but Heller noted multiple oddities, including the failure to preserve the crime scene and indications that Sheppard’s family was covering up his guilt. The doctor was eventually convicted of the crime, a verdict many felt the evidence didn’t support. Three years later, Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner asks Heller to reassess the case, a request that leads to a creative solution of the notorious mystery. This is a superior and inventive effort that shows the series still has plenty of life.

I’ve had my share of good reviews from PW (and some not-so-good ones too), but just a handful of starred reviews, which is really kind of a big deal. As I’ve noted here before, entries in long-running series find it difficult to get reviewed at all in the publishing-industry trades (PW, Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist).

So this one feels good and comes at a good time, because Do No Harm is the last Heller novel on my current contract, and I want to do more. The novel, which is about the Sam Sheppard murder case, comes out in March, but can be pre-ordered now.

Another nice surprise was to learn that selected Supreme Justice as one of the best 21 legal thrillers of the 21st Century (so far). That’s particularly interesting because I thought it was a political thriller, but I guess when the murder victims are Supreme Court justices, it qualifies. Here’s the listing:

Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins
A blend of political and legal thriller, this story about the politics of the Supreme Court of the United States feels ahead of its time.

Secret Service agent Joseph Reeder heroically took a bullet for a president, but he’s been speaking out against that president for stacking the SCOTUS with ultra-conservative judges.

He’s paired with FBI agent Patti Rogers on a task force to investigate the death of Justice Henry Venter.

Reeder discovers the death was murder and not a robbery-gone-wrong, and soon the pair realizes it’s a conspiracy to replace the conservative judges with liberals—one that will also endanger Reeder’s family.

And here’s where you can check out the entire list.

My co-author Matt Clemens (who gets cover credit with me on the two other novels in the trilogy) and I get asked all the time why we don’t do another Reeder and Rogers thriller. He and I have discussed that endlessly, but the problem is the current political situation/climate. We were attacked for being “libtards” just because protagonist Joe Reeder was a center-left liberal (protecting right-wing justices!), and this was back when Obama was President. And how can you come up with a wild political thriller plot when every day the news has four or five of those?

For those who came in late, Supreme Justice is about a serial killer targeting conservative justices; Fate of the Union is about a kazillionaire running as a populist for President; and Executive Order has a plot within the government attempting a coup.

Blu-ray reversible inner sleeve

Last time I announced the Blu-ray of Mommy and Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day. Here’s a nice advance review with lots of info.

Jerry’s House of Everything is a fun review site by Jerry House (get it?). He spends some time lauding the unfortunately little-written about Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer graphic novel, The Night I Died, published by Titan as part of the Spillane 100th birthday celebration.

Finally, here’s some nice love for Paul Newman in Road to Perdition from the UK’s Telegraph.


Mommy’s 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray

December 10th, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

In 1994 and 1995, here in Muscatine, Iowa, I wrote and directed (and executive produced) two B-features – Mommy and Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day. We raised the money locally for the first film and the feature’s success funded the sequel. We brought Patty McCormack in to play Mommy, a kind of take on what might have happened to her famous Bad Seed character if she had grown up to be a mom herself. Though not officially a sequel, the idea of Rhoda grown up caught a lot of imaginations and Mommy did very well, getting tons of major media including TV (Entertainment Tonight) and print (Entertainment Weekly).

And our casts included Jason Miller, Majel Barrett, Brinke Stevens, Gary Sandy, Arlen Dean Snyder, Del Close, Paul Petersen, Larry Coven, and somebody called Mickey Spillane. My friend Mike Cornelison (Eliot Ness himself) was in both films, as were my discoveries Rachel Lemieux and Sarah Jane Miller. The idea in those days was to have plenty of names to spruce up the video box; but, boy, did having actors on that level pay off.

So. If you still have any of the money set aside for Black Friday, Cyber Monday or are looking for something to use those Amazon gift cards you’ll probably receive, look no further.

A Blu-ray double feature of Mommy and Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day is available for pre-order now at $19.98, around a third off the regular price. In addition to separate Blu-rays of the two features, a DVD packed with special features is also included – a Making of Mommy documentary, me interviewing Patty McCormack for Mommy’s Day, bloopers, media coverage and more. The release date is January 21 and you can pre-order it from Amazon right now, here.

This has been a longtime coming, and I’m thrilled to have these two features out again in a superior format and looking better than ever.

My editor and director of photography, Phil Dingeldein – one of my best friends and my most valued collaborator in the world of video and film – worked with me on both features, getting them into a 16:9 aspect ratio for proper viewing on a flat screen TV. Mommy, which appeared on Lifetime in 1995 (we shot it in 1994), was seen on TV in the old 4:3 aspect ratio (i.e., not widescreen). Mommy’s Day, which appeared on TV in many foreign countries (both broadcast and DVD), also was seen in the old square-tube 4:3 TV format. Both features enjoyed their biggest success with the Blockbuster home video chain (R.I.P.), where VHS copies were in the wretched 4:3 format. The widescreen versions were only seen on the Roan Group’s laserdisc releases, and even those simply represented a masking off of the 4:3 masters, top and bottom.

This just means we’ve never been able to get the widescreen versions in front of audiences except at occasional screenings around the Midwest (including the Muscatine premieres).

Restoring these movies – which were shot in a combo of Betacam professional video and 16mm film – required new color correction at Phil’s dphilms in Rock Island, as well as us going through and reframing every shot to accommodate our intended widescreen image. (When we shot the features, the video monitors had grease-pencil indications of where the widescreen frame would be within the tube-TV-style 4:3 image we were shooting.)

We also had to make a trip to Fairfield, Iowa, to get access to some once-state-of-the-art equipment that was now obsolete in order to check out what the content was on some of the Mommy and Mommy’s Day tapes we’d located in storage.

For Mommy we found the original output from the Avid Video Composer (cutting-edge at the time), having used one of the first digital Betacams. To make our feature acceptable to the likes of Lifetime and Blockbuster, we had to make our shot-on-video material, however high-end, look filmic. The industry standard at the time was a process called FilmLook, used a lot for TV at the time, to make video-shot features and series episodes appear to have been shot on film.

In 1994, Phil and I took our Avid output tape to Hollywood to the FilmLook facility and supervised the creation of a version that appeared more like film. We did the same two years later with Mommy’s Day.

We hadn’t been told the FilmLook process would darken the footage, and because of that our new master – the basis of the Lifetime, Blockbuster and international broadcasts and DVDs – was overly dark. If you’re familiar with Mommy, you may recall that the junkyard sequence that concludes the film is sometimes so dark it’s hard to tell what the eff is going on. To put it mildly, Phil and I have never loved that.

So it was a very good thing to have the un-FilmLooked tape to work from in creating the new widescreen Mommy master. We could not locate the Avid output tape of Mommy’s Day, but we had factored in allowing for the footage to be darkened by FilmLook, so in that case using the D-2 master (high-end for the time) was not problematic, as long as we could find a way to play the thing. VCI Home Video was able to do that.

My apologies if that was too technical. I barely understand some of it myself, but fortunately Phil is both knowledgeable and terrific in this area, and helps me through.

Phil and I often smile about the number of people we encountered in Hollywood on our FilmLook trips who would chat with us, discover we were in town to do post-production on a feature, and would want to know about how to get their movies made (!). That and other anecdotes are included in new commentaries that Phil and I recorded for this Blu-ray release.

With luck, we’ll place the Mommys with a streaming service at some point. But right now, we’re stoked about getting both of these films out there in one package, looking better than ever and in widescreen.

Check out the Mommy’s Day cast here.


One More Time for Nolan?

December 3rd, 2019 by Max Allan Collins

Apparently I told an interviewer a while back – a few years ago least – that the Nolan series was complete. That I had no interest in writing another, and wouldn’t under any circumstances write a new Nolan novel.

So, of course, I am preparing to write one. I’ll be spending December and January on Skim Deep, the cover for which (by the wonderful Mark Eastbrook, my personal choice among a bunch of wonderful artists provided as possibilities by editor Charles Ardai) appears with this update.

For those of you who came in late, Nolan was the hero (anti-hero?) of my first published novel, Bait Money, written around 1969 and published in December 1972. Nolan (no first name) is professional thief, who – approaching the ripe old age of fifty – wants to pull one last big job and retire. I teamed him with a young would-be cartoonist, Jon (no last name), whose first heist this would be.

Nolan was (and is) an homage (French for “rip-off”) to Richard Stark’s Parker. For a long time, Nolan died at the end of Bait Money, and until an editor returned the manuscript with coffee spilled on it, I had ignored my then agent Knox Burger’s request to un-kill Nolan, which he thought would help the book sell. I did, and it did.

When the publisher (Curtis Books) asked for more, I suddenly had a series. I asked Don Westlake (who of course was Richard Stark) if it was all right with him for me to do a series so blatantly imitative of his own. Don, who’d been mentoring me by mail, was nice enough to say that Nolan with the addition of the surrogate son, Jon, was different enough from Parker for me to proceed with his blessing.

So Blood Money followed, and later came Fly Paper, Hush Money, Hard Cash and Scratch Fever, and finally in the mid-‘80s, Spree. The publishing history is torturous and I won’t go into here, though I’ve discussed it elsewhere in detail.

There’s also a prequel of sorts called Mourn the Living, which was the first Nolan, unsold and tucked away by me till fanzine editor Wayne Dundee heard about it and requested that I allow him to serialize it. Which I did, and it was eventually published a couple of places.

When, a decade and a half ago or so, Charles Ardai was putting Hard Case Crime together, he was nice enough to want to reprint my novel Blood Money, which for inexplicable reasons was and is a favorite of his. I said yes on the condition that he combine it with Bait Money, to make its sequel Blood Money more coherent, into a single volume. He did this. Hard Case Crime is noted for its terrific retro covers, but the Nolan duo – now titled Two for the Money – was possibly the weakest Hard Case Crime cover ever…the only time dark, mustache Nolan was depicted as looking like blond Nick Nolte.

When Charles came around wanting another M.A.C. reprint, I offered to do a new book – The Last Quarry – instead, for the same reprint money, as long as I could get a Robert McGinnis cover. Also, I wanted a chance to finish that cult-ish series once and for all. While I got my McGinnis cover, the rest of the plan didn’t exactly work out that way, and now – with a bunch of new Quarry novels, a Ms. Tree prose novel, several Spillane projects and a couple of graphic novels under our collective belt – Charles has twisted my arm into doing another Nolan.

Part of what made that attractive to me was Charles bringing all of the Nolan novels back out, in the two-per-book format, so that – like the Quarry novels – the entire canon is under one imprint. Better still, we have new covers…including Two for the Money.

Double Down will include Fly Paper and Hush Money. Tough Tender will include Hard Cash and Scratch Fever (these appeared under that join title before but not at HCC). And Mad Money will have Spree and, as a sort of bonus, Mourn the Living.

What will Skim Deep be about? I haven’t plotted it yet, but the premise has to do with a Vegas honeymoon, casino skimming, and a Comfort or two. If you’ve read the Nolan novels, you understand that last bit.

As with the Quarry novels, I will be doing this one in period – probably within a year of the action in Spree.

Am I looking forward to it? Sort of. I have this nagging feeling that by writing another Nolan, at this age, after all this time, I could be bookending my career. So my ambition is not to fucking die immediately after finishing it (or during it, for that matter). I have other contracts to fill, and miles to go before I sleep.

But it sure is fun to see these new HCC covers. The Van Cleef resemblance (which was part of the Pinnacle covers, to a degree, and very much an element of the Perfect Crime reprints) is mentioned prominently in the novels. I met him once, interviewed him, and he treated me with amusement and at one point got briefly irritated with me. It was unsettling but memorable, being Jon to his Nolan. No guns were involved.

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Here’s a nice essay by my frequent collaborator, Matthew Clemens, on what he learned about suspense writing from the film Jaws.

The First Comics News blog has Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother on its Christmas gift list.

And here Ms. Tree is on another holiday gift guide, from Previews no less.


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