Movies Opening Christmas Day, Merry Christmas! Deck the halls! Ho ho ho! Let’s all go to the movies. That’s right. It’s not just Jewish families that head to the local cineplex on Christmas Day. It’s practically everybody. Hollywood certainly knows this, so over the past couple of decades it’s become a sort of American tradition for studios to open a big movie on that big day, which kicks off one of the biggest box office weeks. The options this year cover quite a spectrum.
On Tuesday, viewers can be among the first to see the family comedy “Parental Guidance,” the splashy but dark musical “Les Miserables,” which has been generating buzz since it met with aggressive applause at some early screenings, or the epic and quite violent western “Django Unchained.”
The choice of Christmas as an opening day hasn’t always been part of the plan, but the practice does go back a number of years. Twentieth Century Fox was among the first to try it, with a 1943 Christmas release of the religious-themed “The Song of Bernadette,” which went on to garner 12 Oscar nominations and win four. Oddly, it’s the only overtly religious movie to open on that day, unless you count the remake of the irreverently titled slasher film “Black Christmas,” which debuted in 2006.
Of course, plenty of other films open in the always busy month of December, and Christmas Day openings haven’t happened every year, but the list is an intriguing one, devoid of much sense as far as subject matter. The Hope-Crosby comedy “Road to Rio” nabbed the spot in 1947, as did the Disney tearjerker “Old Yeller” 10 years later, and the passionate courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird” five years after that.
It wasn’t until 1963 that audiences had a choice of brand new movies on Christmas Day: The whole family could go to the animated “The Sword in the Stone,” or mom and dad could leave the kids with the grandparents, then see the fluffy comedy triangle “Move Over, Darling.”
Choices eventually became the norm. Christmas Day openings in 1975 included the child- and animal-filled “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” and the disaster film “The Hindenburg.” In 1980, our Christmas movie gifts were Bob Newhart playing the president and Gilda Radner as his daughter in the puerile “First Family,” while Tufts graduate William Hurt had his first starring role in the psychedelic drug-drenched “Altered States.” The idea of choice, with offerings for very different audiences, expanded in 1986 with the disease of the week movie “Duet for One,” the nostalgic Neil Simon comedy “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and the grim crime drama “The Morning After.”
The race was on. More and more studios would open more and more films on Christmas Day. In 1992, there were the biographies “Hoffa” and “Chaplin,” along with the gangs and gold thriller “Trespass,” and the art house hit “Peter’s Friends.” All kinds of genres were covered the next year with “Tombstone” (western), “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (drama), “Heaven & Earth” (biography), “Grumpy Old Men” (comedy), and “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (animation).
The record was set on Christmas 1996, when eight movies opened. There was “Hamlet,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh; “Evita,” with Madonna up on the balcony; “Mother,” in which Albert Brooks tried to relate to Debbie Reynolds; “Michael,” featuring John Travolta with wings; “The Evening Star,” the sequel to “Terms of Endearment”; “Some Mother’s Son,” the hard-hitting look at the moms of two IRA prisoners; “Thieves,” the Catherine Deneuve-starring French crime drama; and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” with Woody Harrelson in the juicy lead role.
Eight-film Christmas Days have happened two more times: in 1997, with “The Postman,” “Mr. Magoo,” “Wag the Dog,” “The Education of Little Tree,” “Kundun,” “Jackie Brown,” “An American Werewolf in Paris,” and “As Good as It Gets”; and in 2008, with “Bedtime Stories,” “Last Chance Harvey,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Valkyrie,” “The Spirit,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Marley & Me,” and “Doubt.”