Jeremy Arnold is a jack of all trade. Author, classic film expert, awesome guy. When I attended my first TCM Classic Film Festival, Jeremy was a fellow social producer for TCM, so we’ve always taken the time to chat about movies. TCM seems to like him too, as he’s become their main author for two books now, TCM’s The Essentials and their new compendium, Christmas in the Movies. Jeremy took time out of his book tour and recent spot as guest programmer on the network to talk to Journeys in Classic Film about his latest book and the movies he watches during the holidays.
This is your second book in collaboration with TCM. What’s the journey been like being – at least as far as I’m concerned – one of TCM’s main authors?
Jeremy Arnold: Oh, thank you for that, though I should say that while I might be the first author to have two books released in the current publishing partnership between TCM and Running Press, I know there are others working on their second books, too. Sloan de Forest, for instance, who did the very enjoyable Must-See Sci-Fi book, is hard at work on another. But from my perspective, it’s been a gratifying ride. It’s sometimes hard for writers of books that deal with older movies to get attention for their books when the time comes, but when you are working with TCM you know the book is going to get some real exposure. TCM has an obvious interest in advertising and promoting it, and thanks to the wide-appeal subject matter of these books, other entities are interested, too. Barnes and Noble is stocking the Christmas movie book in all their stores; Amazon is selling it, as well as all the other TCM books.
Furthermore, with TCM I had access to thousands of beautiful photos, mainly from their image database, and any clearances and rights issues were handled by Turner and the publisher together. That alone is probably worth doing one of these books!
You started out listing essential movies in 2016 and now you’re talking Christmas. How did you settle on the topic? (Unless TCM just told you “Jeremy, this is what you’re doing!”)
The idea was pitched to me by my editor at Running Press, Cindy De La Hoz, who has written a lot of movie books herself. She and TCM regularly talk about ideas for future books and this was one they all wanted to do, and she thought I’d be a good fit for it. At first, I wasn’t too sure. I thought, why should I write about all these movies that have been written about so much already? But then I realized I was limiting my definition of what Christmas movies actually are, and I became interested in exploring that concept, the definition, and looking into movies that approach the holidays from many different perspectives.
How did you settle on the thirty films included in the book? Were there any personal favorites of yours that you fought to include or, conversely, you couldn’t get in?
Yes and yes! There was quite a bit of back and forth among TCM, Running Press, and myself on what the final list would look like. Not combative, just an honest stating of desires. Luckily, we were all pretty much on the same page so everyone was happy with the result. It IS a TCM book, after all, so therefore it justifiably leans heavily towards older films, which was certainly my main interest, but we all agreed on the need and desire to include modern classics that are just as beloved. I wanted to balance several things: older and newer films; known titles that are already annual viewing for millions, and lesser-known titles that would be worthy of adding to that annual viewing; classic titles that TCM fans and film buffs already know of, and some real obscurities that even THEY might not know; and a spectrum of genres that encompass purely light films as well as ones that explore the darker, lonelier aspects of the season. I also enjoyed including some films (like The Apartment and Lion in Winter) that are certainly not obscure but which many people might not have thought of through the “Christmas movie” prism.
We agreed on 30 titles because we wanted this to be a gift book, fairly compact in size, with room for many photos; it should look physically attractive and colorful, we thought. It should be fun and inviting to flip through. I took that as a bit of a challenge because usually books like that aren’t heavy on substance: I wanted it to be thought-provoking as well as cheery. I started by simply making a giant list of movies that COULD be included — well over 100, gleaned from my own ideas as well as friends’ suggestions and countless articles online that compile lists of holiday movies, which were a handy resource to remind myself or learn about titles I hadn’t already come across. I then whittled the 100+ down to titles that absolutely HAD to appear (or I would’ve gotten hate mail!), then played with the remaining slots to include as much a variety as possible based on the parameters I just mentioned, and, most important of all, I thought hard about which titles really do use the holiday season in a meaningful way in their stories. I wanted to show that Christmas movies, for all their similarities, encompass many genres, tones, and approaches.
When I saw Trail of Robin Hood and The Holly and the Ivy, I knew I wanted to include them, and that took a bit of persuading but actually not too much. Those titles have been very hard to see in America, but I am thankful TCM cleared the rights to show them for the first time this December. The one title that is still hard to find is Miracle on Main Street, but I’m hopeful it will see the light of day soon as well. It was too interesting and offbeat a title not to include.
What was the actual writing process for this like? I’m assuming it all started with watching a ton of movies?
I watched a ton of movies, some for the first time, to settle on the final list of thirty. Then I watched those thirty again, taking notes on how they approached the season, and started researching them at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library (and other institutions). I scoured the Internet for interviews with filmmakers, too, and also watched trailers for these films (if I could find them) to see if they had been advertised with holiday themes. I always checked their print campaigns, too. It’s so interesting that some were not marketed with their Christmas content at all. And then it was a challenge to make each entry fit into a quite small word-count, relatively speaking. I did arrange to have more space for the really big titles, like It’s a Wonderful Life, and I also selected photos while I was writing so that in some cases could squeeze in some extra information into the photo captions, thus eliminating the need to put them in the main body.
Was working on this book harder or easier than the Essentials book?
It may have been easier since there was such a clear theme to focus on for each write-up. With The Essentials, each film was essential in a different way, and it was sometimes hard to explain why very clearly and concisely while still allowing room to write about how it was made and so forth. I remember Seven Samurai and The Searchers took forever to finalize in that book. I must have done close to twenty drafts of those.
What is it about the classic era holiday films that, for you, make them timeless?
They’re so relatable. We all live through the holiday season each year, just as folks did back in the 1930s or ‘40s when those classics were made, and we all have a relationship to it, even if we don’t “celebrate” Christmas. We see the trappings and décor and hear the music, and some of us love it, some of us don’t, some of us have mixed feelings. We also all have families (well, I suppose some of us don’t actually, but even there, the “non-family” is an issue), and family gathering/love/dysfunction is a big part of the season and of holiday movies. It’s fun to see families we care about onscreen trying to live together, fix themselves, fight, love, bicker, support one another. Beyond that, the best holiday films conjure a sort of “magic” glow that comes with the season and is very appealing. Finally, with the older classics, I think there was less fear of melodrama and sensitive emotion on the part of filmmakers and audiences back then, and the holiday films from that era are more consistently touching than many of the ones today
Are there any non-Christmas specific movies you consider worthy of watching over the holidays? At the same time are there any holiday movies you make a tradition of watching in your own house?
Yes, I actually considered including some movies that feel like holiday films even though Christmas plays a fleeting role, or no role. When Harry Met Sally is an example. I remember the scenes of Meg Ryan struggling with a Christmas tree on a snowy sidewalk, with the weather and music creating a cozy Christmassy feel. And my favorite Woody Allen picture, Radio Days, is strongly nostalgic and has long sequences set in the wintertime, and is focused on a family as seen through the eyes of a boy. It would have been pretty funny to include Radio Days, made by a Jewish director and full of Jewish humor, in a book about Christmas movies! In the end I decided it would be better to stay focused on the matter at hand. My personal favorites are It’s a Wonderful Life and Remember the Night. Although now I think I will be adding Trail of Robin Hood to the rotation!
I know you’re busy promoting this book but is there a subject you’d love to tackle in a future TCM volume if you had the ability to make it happen?
I have been wanting to do a book on underrated classic films, sort of a flipside to the Essentials. Movies from the studio era that are hidden gems and for whatever reason don’t get enough attention. But I haven’t gotten a green light on that one yet. Fingers crossed!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.