Christmas Films: Atypical Macho John Travolta + Whacked Sandra Dee Topples Family Tree

Christmas films: Grease John Travolta Olivia Newton-John. Swishy macho gets girlChristmas films: Grease with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on TCM. Despite an array of mostly uninspired songs and dance numbers, the Randal Kleiser-directed, 1950s-set musical Grease was a gigantic box office hit. Olivia Newton-John has the more appealing screen presence, but the most notable element in this youth-oriented musical is John Travolta's – in all fairness, truly daring – performance as a macho high-school gang leader; one who swishes around, sings in a falsetto voice, and flails about when in heat.

TCM Christmas films: Daring swishy/macho John Travolta in otherwise lame 'Grease' + Sandra Dee topples Christmas tree

(See previous post: “TCM's Christmas Films: What Do Quakers Believe? Friendly Persuasion & the Lure of Violence + War.”) Inexplicably, I've always gotten Irvin Kershner and Randal Kleiser mixed up. But in my defense, they do have one thing in common: Kershner directed the sci-fi adventure The Empire Strikes Back (1980); Kleiser directed the 1950s-set romantic musical Grease (1978). Released two years apart, both were major teen-oriented box office hits.

Grease is one of Turner Classic Movies' December 2010 Christmas films. More specifically, it'll be aired on Dec. 19, followed by the Sandra Dee-Troy Donahue blockbuster A Summer Place, Cecil B. DeMille's silent biblical hit The King of Kings, Jean Cocteau's romantic fantasy Orpheus, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's World War II fantasy A Matter of Life and Death / Stairway to Heaven.

The year of Danny & Sandy

Grease takes place in 1958. That's the year Nikita Khrushchev became the premier of the Soviet Union, Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane fatally stabbed her mother's gangster lover Johnny Stompanato, Pope Pius XII designated St. Clare as the patron saint of television, and Danny spent romantic summer nights with Sandy.

Fresh off of the disco-boogying blockbuster Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta stars as Danny, a leather-jacketed, brilliantine-haired, 23-year-old high-school gang leader who strives to maintain his James Dean/Marlon Brando wannabe image after falling for wide-eyed, pony-tailed, 29-year-old Australian high-schooler Sandy, a would-be Hope Lange/Sandra Dee played by singer-turned-actress Olivia Newton-John.

For much of the film, Danny and Sandy's relationship has more downs than ups, with each wondering about the other. Is he debauched? Is she frigid?

But then Sandy decides to undergo a radical makeover: she gets rid of her pony tail, adds a black leather outfit to her wardrobe, and sticks a lit cigarette in her mouth without throwing up. The change works wonders on her object of desire: Danny bares his arms, goes down on his knees, and shakes his ass at her.

Between Presley & Bowie

The low-key, fresh-faced Olivia Newton-John effortlessly steals most of Grease's romantic and musical sequences; yet John Travolta is the one who delivers the more noteworthy portrayal.

Even if irresistible isn't quite the word for it, his daring mix of masculine and feminine energy, especially in the dance numbers, lands him somewhere between Elvis Presley and David Bowie. For better or for worse, that in itself makes Travolta's Danny a movie character to remember.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Grease cast is all but completely wasted. That includes 27-year-old high-schooler and future Taxi actor Jeff Conaway (see further below), 33-year-old high-schooler and future Best Actress Oscar nominee Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation, 1993), and seasoned old-timers Joan Blondell (Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933) and Eve Arden (Mildred Pierce, Our Miss Brooks).

Compounding matters, Randal Kleiser's hit couldn't have been more artificial and infantile. Co-produced and written by Allan Carr[1] – from Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's long-running (1972–1980) Broadway hit[2]Grease could be seen as a prelude to the Carr-written 1980 box office cataclysm Can't Stop the Music and the Carr-produced 1989 Oscar telecast disaster.

What's more, not even George Chakiris and Rita Moreno could have saved the film's embarrassingly lame dance sequences.

'Grease'-induced nightmares

Notwithstanding its overall clumsiness, the cinema connoisseurs at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association shortlisted Grease in their Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical category. Also nominated were John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

But unless you're a Golden Globe voter, expect Grease to give you more nightmares than Black Christmas.

See “Christmas Movies: The Good, the Bad & the Weird – From Bette Davis & Gary Cooper to Santa Claus & Serial Killers.”

A Summer Place Sandra Dee Constance Ford. Christmas Films list incomplete without 1959 hitA Summer Place: No Christmas Films List would be complete without Delmer Daves' 1959 blockbuster featuring Sandra Dee getting whacked, toppling the family's Christmas tree, and wishing Mom Constance Ford an embittered Merry Christmas. Coincidentally, a few years after the demise of her movie career, Dee ended up as the title of a song in the Broadway musical Grease: “Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee” – in the film version, mockingly sung by Stockard Channing and later wistfully sung by Olivia Newton-John. It goes, “Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee / Lousy with virginity / Won't go to bed 'til I'm legally wed / I can't; I'm Sandra Dee.” Constance Ford, however, isn't so sure.

'A Summer Place': They don't make Christmas films like they used to

Unlike Grease, writer-director Delmer Daves' A Summer Place is a 1950s-set movie that was actually made in the 1950s, a time when sweet, pony-tailed girls sucked on lollipops and tough, pompadour-haired guys drank root beer floats. It was a more innocent era, as can be attested by this 1959 romantic drama based on Sloan Wilson's novel taking place in a Maine resort town.

So, get ready for some good old-fashioned Christmas cheer as A Summer Place showcases alcohol addiction, marital infidelity, social hypocrisy, class prejudices, and teen pregnancy, as it follows in the footsteps of other family-friendly, small-town/suburbia-set, 1940s/1950s Hollywood fare such as Kings Row, In This Our Life, Peyton Place, and No Down Payment.[3]

But how could a northern-hemisphere-set movie with “summer” in the title be considered a “Christmas film”?

Well, in one scene – that can never be unseen – pissed off Mom Constance Ford gives daughter Sandra Dee a whack that sends the poor teen crashing down along with the family's Christmas tree.[4]

All that and more to the tune of a melodious score by veteran Max Steiner (Now Voyager, Casablanca): “Theme from A Summer Place” undoubtedly remains one of the most-hummed compositions in cinema history – besides being, via Percy Faith's 1960 rendition, a Record of the Year Grammy Award winner.

Add that all up and you'll understand why one can state with confidence that they really don't make Christmas films like they used to.

Teen sex sells + prestigious 'A Summer Place' cast

A Summer Place was a sizable hit at the time of its release, helping to turn Sandra Dee, however briefly, into a top box office draw. Domestic rentals totaled $4.7 million – or, based on average domestic ticket prices, about $73 million in 2010 dollars. That means U.S. & Canada grosses may well have hovered around $140–150 million.

Besides Dee and Constance Ford, the prestigious A Summer Place cast features the following:

  • Best Actress Academy Award nominee Dorothy McGuire (Gentleman's Agreement, 1947), also seen in TCM's “Christmas Films” presentation Friendly Persuasion (see link at the top of this post).
  • Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender brother Richard Egan.
  • Two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Beulah Bondi (The Gorgeous Hussy, 1936; Of Human Hearts, 1938).
  • Five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy (as Best Actor for Bright Victory, 1951; as Best Supporting Actor for Champion, 1949; Trial, 1955; Peyton Place, 1957; Some Came Running, 1958).
  • And, as Sandra Dee's forbidden paramour, up-and-coming Troy Donahue (Parrish, Rome Adventure) at his shirtless beefiest.
Christmas Films: The King of Kings H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ is holiday season faveChristmas Films: Starring H.B. Warner as Jesus Christ, Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings has been a holiday season favorite since its release in, ahem, spring (Easter) 1927. By then already a veteran of stage and screen, the London-born H.B. Warner (1876–1958) is seen here with Ernest Torrence as Peter, Micky Moore as the boy Mark, and Joseph Striker as John, the Beloved. Of note, a quarter of a century later Nicholas Ray would direct King of Kings (1961), starring 1950s heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter – very much cast against type – as a hunky, blue-eyed, all-American Jesus.

Silent era's reverential 'The King of Kings' among best-known Christmas films

Following A Summer Place and its relentless sociocultural angst, TCM will provide viewers with direct divine intervention by way of Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings, a silent-era Jesus Christ biopic notable for having opened Grauman's Chinese Theatre in May 1927. In fact, DeMille's biblical drama will offer you so much comfort that there's a good chance you'll fall asleep during the proceedings.

Truth be told, tedious is the word for the staid, reverential The King of Kings. Bear in mind that DeMille took his work on the film so damn seriously that he had his second unit director, Frank Urson (The Road to Yesterday, The Volga Boatman), officially credited as the director of Chicago, a saucy comedy DeMille himself had handled that same year.

When Judas beat Jesus

Not helping matters, H.B. Warner's Jesus is a dispiritingly uncharismatic savior. That's unfortunate, as the British stage and screen veteran did much more empathetic work elsewhere.

Warner, for instance, is brilliant as the devoted father in Herbert Brenon's 1928 silent drama Sorrell and Son, and would receive a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Shangri-La's Chang in Frank Capra's 1937 romantic fantasy Lost Horizon.

On the positive side, Jacqueline Logan is an awful pretty Mary Magdalene, while master scenery-chewer Joseph Schildkraut brings to emotive life the traitor Judas.

Ah, the irony: at the 1938 Oscar ceremony, The King of Kings' Judas got the better of its Jesus when Schildkraut was named the year's Best Supporting Actor for William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola, thus beating fellow contender H.B. Warner.

Morality lesson for the ages

When it comes to The King of Kings, here's the perhaps-not-so-obvious Moral of the Story: Cecil B. DeMille should have avoided the New Testament altogether, unless, of course, he were to focus on Mary Magdalene and her titillating temptations.

After all, the Old Testament was never more salaciously illuminating than in the director's Samson and Delilah (1949) and in his 1956 version of The Ten Commandments (as opposed to the more well-behaved 1923 film).

Ambitious Evangelical leaders and their political bed partners should take careful note of DeMille's phony, image-conscious piety, as he and his biblical flicks were to remain enormously popular for decades.

“Christmas Films: Atypical Macho John Travolta + Whacked Sandra Dee Topples Family Tree” follow-up post: “Stairway to Heaven & Hell: Orpheus & A Matter of Life and Death.”

 

John Travolta dancing Grease: Wildly swaying hips seen in Staying Alive + PerfectJohn Travolta dancing in Grease: One of TCM's Christmas Films. After Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) decides to get rid of her goody-two-shoes image, her on-again, off-again bad-boy boyfriend Danny (John Travolta) doesn't quite know how to react. That's when his ass comes to the rescue, seizing full control of the situation. Travolta's wildly swaying hips would later be seen in Sylvester Stallone's dreary but commercially successful Staying Alive (1983), and in James Bridges' critical and box office disaster Perfect (1985).

Robert Stigwood musicals

[1] Allan Carr's fellow Grease producer was Robert Stigwood, the Arthur Freed of his day. Except that instead of Meet Me in St. Louis, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Singin' in the Rain, and Gigi, moviegoers of the 1970s and 1980s got Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Staying Alive – in addition to, about a decade later, Evita.

And let's not forget the Patricia Birch-directed 1982 sequel Grease 2 – even more bland than the original, and understandably a critical and box office bomb.

Replacing John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were a more conventionally masculine Maxwell Caulfield and a pre-stardom Michelle Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer managed to go on to bigger and better things (and, to date, three Academy Award nominations); Caulfield's film career, however, never recovered from the Grease 2 debacle. (He has been much more successful on stage.)

In all, Stigwood produced four John Travolta star vehicles. Besides Saturday Night Fever and Grease, there were the 1978 melodrama and box office bomb Moment by Moment, with Lily Tomlin, and the Sylvester Stallone-directed 1983 Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive.

'You're the One That I Want'

[2] On Broadway, Grease toplined Barry Bostwick (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Carole Demas. According to online sources, the latter has an unbilled cameo in the 1978 film, as a girl fixing her hair at a drive-in.

Also on stage, Jeff Conaway was an understudy to various roles, eventually getting to play Danny after Bostwick left the show. In the film, Conaway was cast as Danny's pal Kenickie.

A curiosity: the best-known song in Grease the movie, the pop-ish “You're the One That I Want,” was written by John Farrar for the post-pony-tail Olivia Newton-John. It's not found in the stage musical.

'A Summer Place'-'Their Own Desire' connection

[3] A Summer Place has several key elements in common with E. Mason Hopper's 1929 potboiler Their Own Desire, adapted by Frances Marion and James Forbes (dialogue) from Sarita Fuller's novel.

In both movies, an adulterous relationship involving an older couple (Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan in A Summer Place; Lewis Stone and Helene Millard in Their Own Desire) is mirrored in an affair between their children (Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue; Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery).

Besides, both A Summer Place and Their Own Desire feature a capsized boat that leaves the two young lovers stranded on an island/beach for a while.

A troubled little Christmas

[4] The Sandra Dee-Constance Ford Christmas tree scene in A Summer Place is quite possibly the inspiration for the family Christmas bit in John Waters' 1974 cult classic Female Trouble.

The key difference is that daughter Divine is the one who throws a violent hissy fit after discovering that there are no cha-cha heels to be found among her Christmas presents.

When the irate teen is done wreaking havoc on the place, Mom Betty Woods can be seen lying unconscious under the family's toppled Christmas tree.

 

Turner Classic Movies' “Christmas Films” schedule via the TCM website.

TCM Christmas films' cast info via the IMDb.

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta Grease images: Paramount Pictures.

Image of Micky Moore, Ernest Torrence, Joseph Striker, and H.B. Warner in one of Hollywood's perennial Christmas films, Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings: DeMille Pictures / Pathé.

Constance Ford and Sandra Dee A Summer Place image: Warner Bros., via Pinterest.

“Christmas Films: Atypical Macho John Travolta + Whacked Sandra Dee Topples Family Tree” last updated in May 2018.

Christmas Films: Atypical Macho John Travolta + Whacked Sandra Dee Topples Family Tree © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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