Turner Classic Movies' Christmas family programming: From aspiring author Katharine Hepburn to sex-starved wife Elizabeth Taylor
Turner Classic Movies' Christmas 2010 daytime programming includes George Cukor's version of Little Women, Edwin L. Marin's version of A Christmas Carol, and William Wyler's version of Ben-Hur. (Check out TCM's Christmas evening schedule further below.)
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, and Jean Parker as the titular characters, the unabashedly sentimental Little Women (1933) chronicles the life and times of four Concord, Massachusetts, sisters while their father is away fighting in the American Civil War. Later on, we find out what happens after tomboyish little woman Jo March (Hepburn) grows into a big woman with literary aspirations.
One of the National Board of Review's Top Ten Films of 1933 and a 1932–1933 Best Picture Academy Award nominee, the David O. Selznick-supervised Little Women earned George Cukor his first of five Best Director nominations (he'd win for My Fair Lady, 31 years later).
Additionally, married couple Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman took home a naked-bald-man-with-a-sword statuette for their adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel.
First Venice Film Festival Best Actress
Left out of the running was Katharine Hepburn's well-regarded performance as the independent-minded Jo, apparently because the recent Broadway arrival and rising RKO star ended up receiving more nomination votes for her portrayal of an ambitious Broadway newcomer (reportedly based on Tallulah Bankhead) in Lowell Sherman's Morning Glory (1933), which eventually earned Hepburn her first of four Academy Award statuettes.
She did, however, win one Best Actress award for Little Women: at the 1934 Venice Film Festival – the first edition in which official prizes were handed out for acting.
A major box office hit upon its release in the depths of the Great Depression, Little Women, along with Morning Glory and, to a lesser extent, Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong, helped to turn Katharine Hepburn into a bona fide – albeit unusual – Hollywood star.
Best 'Little Women' movie adaptation?
Heresy, perhaps, but I find Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's great-looking 1949 color version of Little Women, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring June Allyson as Jo March, both less syrupy and more enjoyable than the 1933 George Cukor film.
Yet the most effective big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel remains Gillian Armstrong's pitch-perfect 1994 version starring – a however miscast – Winona Ryder as Jo, and featuring Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, and Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis (as the younger/older Amy March) as the other sisters.
'A Christmas Carol' & 'Ben-Hur' vs. 'Ben-Hur'
Back to Turner Classic Movies' Christmas presentations: in Edwin L. Marin's A Christmas Carol (1938), stage and film veteran Reginald Owen – replacing an ailing Lionel Barrymore, at the latter's suggestion – was cast as the grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, while the Christmas Ghost Trio was played by Ann Rutherford (one of Scarlett O'Hara's sisters in Gone with the Wind), and the little-remembered Lionel Braham and D'Arcy Corrigan.
No less than 375 prints of the film – a reported record – were made available so as many Americans (and Canadians?) as possible could watch A Christmas Carol in its appropriate Christmasy setting. And so MGM could earn back as much of its investment as possible before their year-end release became passé.
Although Marin's 1938 film has its admirers, the most prestigious movie version of Charles Dickens' classic novel remains the British-made Scrooge (1951), directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim in the title role.
As for Ben-Hur 1959 … Well, William Wyler was often a first-rate director (These Three, The Letter, The Little Foxes), but this multi-Oscared semi-biblical epic pales in comparison to Fred Niblo's more concise, less pretentious, and (mercifully) dialogue-less 1925 version starring Ramon Novarro – who, though hardly a flawless Ben-Hur, was eons better than Best Actor Oscar winner Charlton Heston.
Turner Classic Movies' Christmas evening: Sparring couples through the centuries
On Christmas evening, Turner Classic Movies' offerings get quite a bit more spirited, thanks to a series of family-oriented movies of the dysfunctional kind.
For starters, while stuffing your face with your favorite Christmas dish you'll be able to enjoy 1968 Best Actress Oscar co-winner Katharine Hepburn verbally spar with Best Actor nominee Peter O'Toole in Best Director nominee Anthony Harvey's highly theatrical, Christmas-set Best Picture nominee The Lion in Winter.
Hepburn plays jailbird and Queen Consort of England Eleanor of Aquitaine, out of prison for the holidays; O'Toole is her, to put it mildly, estranged husband, British king Henry II. That's the same – also Oscar-nominated – role he had played even more theatrically four years earlier in Peter Glenville's Becket. (Richard Burton had the title role in that one.)
The New York Film Critics Circle's controversial Best Picture winner – John Cassavetes' low-budget marital drama Faces lost by one vote, which infuriated some NYFCC members – The Lion in Winter was adapted by James Goldman from his 1966 play starring Robert Preston and eventual Tony Award winner Rosemary Harris.
More Katharine Hepburn on Turner Classic Movies
Check out these other Alt Film Guide posts about Katharine Hepburn on Turner Classic Movies:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Raquel Welch make their movie choices.
- Turner Classic Movies presents premiere of little-seen The Iron Petticoat.
- “Fade Out, Fade In”: Racial Tensions & Hollywood Mansions.
- Katharine Hepburn: Women in Drag & in Danger.
- Summer Under the Stars: Turner Classic Movies' Katharine Hepburn Day.
Fearless 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Following The Lion in Winter, Turner Classic Movies will travel back to the 20th century to present more dysfunctional couples by way of Mike Nichols' co-masterpiece (along with The Graduate), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), in which Oscar winners Elizabeth Taylor (Best Actress) and Sandy Dennis (Best Supporting Actress), and Oscar nominees Richard Burton (as Best Actor) and George Segal (as Best Supporting Actor) get soused, and then proceed to laugh out loud, cry hysterically, and yell accusingly at each other.
Doesn't that sound just like your typical Christmas family reunion? Of course it does, except that unlike most Christmas family gatherings, it all gets better as the night grows darker: there's more laughing, crying, yelling, and drinking – plus several disturbing revelations (but how much of it is true?) – in this brilliant adaptation (screenplay by Ernest Lehman) of Edward Albee's play about a quartet of out-of-whack heterosexuals.
Declawed 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'
From 1966, Turner Classic Movies will go back in time to 1958, as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be followed by writer-director Richard Brooks' miserably bowdlerized – what a difference eight years made back in those days – but hugely successful version of Tennessee Williams' 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In the Mississippi-set story, the beautiful, sexually starved Maggie “the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor) can't figure out why her handsome, football-playing husband Brick (Paul Newman) won't have sex with her. Considering Brooks and co-screenwriter James Poe's fuzzy depiction of the footballer's homosexual leanings, it's no wonder Maggie is at a loss to understand what the hell is behind her husband's boozy reticence.
Despite its Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nominations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof isn't one of the better (or better-acted) film adaptations of a Tennessee Williams play.
On the positive side, former Warner Bros. contract actor Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, Two Guys from Milwaukee) and future The Flying Nun actress Madeleine Sherwood provide solid support in difficult roles, respectively, Brick's colorless lawyer brother and neurotic sister-in-law.
Folk song singer/banjoist-turned-actor Burl Ives, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for William Wyler's Western The Big Country, plays Newman's larger-than-life – and soon-to-be-dead – Big Daddy. By the way, that's just a cutesy family nickname; there's nothing particularly kinky about this daddy-son relationship.
Dysfunctional-family-oriented Oscar winner
Turner Classic Movies' family-oriented Christmas Night will (more or less) come to a close with some more heavy-duty – but less sultry – goings-on, courtesy of Robert Redford's decorous directorial debut: the 1980 Best Picture and Best Director Oscar winner Ordinary People.
Set in an ordinarily upscale Chicago suburb, Redford's dysfunctional family drama – adapted by Alvin Sargent from Judith Guest's 1976 novel – gets maudlin at times and it isn't nearly as insightful as it believes itself to be, but most of the performances and the director's unobtrusive handling of the material make it well worth a look.
Known for her portrayal of the cuddly Mary Richards on the long-running television series (1970–1977) named after her, Mary Tyler Moore made her big-screen comeback in Ordinary People – she had been gone since playing a nun in love with Elvis Presley in William A. Graham's 1969 romantic melo Change of Habit. For her generally capable characterization as Ordinary People's frozen-hearted Mom, incapable of coping with the death of her favorite son, Moore received her one and only Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Nevertheless, the film's acting highlights are provided by Donald Sutherland as the concerned, understanding Dad and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Timothy Hutton as the surviving, guilt-ridden son.
Another Ordinary People plus: John Bailey's outstanding autumnal cinematography, which perfectly captures the general mood.
As an aside … Notwithstanding his Best Supporting Actor win, big-screen newcomer Timothy Hutton is the actual lead in Ordinary People.
See below Turner Classic Movies' Christmas evening schedule.
“Turner Classic Movies: Dysfunctional-Family-Oriented Christmas Films + Katharine Hepburn Double Dose” follow-up post: “Silent Version of Curious Gay Icon + Soviet Union Hit Starring Lilli Palmer & Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves 1 of the Greatest 'Conservative' Movies Ever?”
Turner Classic Movies' schedule (PT): Dec. 25
5:00 PM The Lion in Winter (1968). Cast: Katharine Hepburn. Peter O'Toole. Anthony Hopkins. Jane Merrow. John Castle. Dir.: Anthony Harvey. Color. 134 mins.
7:30 PM Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Cast: Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton. George Segal. Sandy Dennis. Dir.: Mike Nichols. B&W. 131 mins.
10:00 PM Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Cast: Elizabeth Taylor. Paul Newman. Burl Ives. Jack Carson. Judith Anderson. Madeleine Sherwood. Dir.: Richard Brooks. Color. 108 mins.
12:00 AM Ordinary People (1980). Cast: Mary Tyler Moore. Timothy Hutton. Donald Sutherland. Judd Hirsch. Elizabeth McGovern. Dir.: Robert Redford. Color. 124 mins.
Double Oscar nominees
- Greta Garbo, Anna Christie & Romance.
- Norma Shearer, The Divorcee & Their Own Desire. She officially won for The Divorcee.
- George Arliss, Disraeli & The Green Goddess. He officially won for Disraeli.
- Maurice Chevalier, The Big Pond & The Love Parade.
- Ronald Colman, Bulldog Drummond & Condemned.
Since then, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' rules have prevented double nominations in the same acting category.
'Little Women' box office
“Rentals” refer to RKO's revenues after exhibitors worldwide took their cut of the box office grosses (in the last five decades or so, about 45–60 percent of the total).
The profits figure refers to what was left after deducting not only the film's production budget but also the studio's marketing and distribution expenses.
In 2010 dollars, Little Women's $2 million could mean up to $65–70 million in worldwide rentals – or, applying today's rentals/gross ratio, a worldwide box office gross of $130–$140 million.
Just bear in mind that such inflation-adjusted estimates are iffy, especially when currency fluctuations and unknown rentals/gross ratios are added to the mix.
First three-time winner in acting categories & early Best Actor tie
 Walter Brennan was the first individual to win three Academy Awards for acting – all three in the Best Supporting Actor category: William Wyler and Howard Hawks' Come and Get It (1936), David Butler's Kentucky (1938), and William Wyler's The Westerner (1940).
However, the tie was an official, not an actual one. Since March had received only one more vote than Beery, according to Academy rules back in those days, that meant the two would have to share Best Actor honors.
Multiple Best Actress Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn
Besides Morning Glory and The Lion in Winter, Hepburn's two other Best Actress Oscar wins were for the following:
- Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
- Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond (1981).
Turner Classic Movies' website.
Cast info for the various Turner Classic Movies presentations via the IMDb.
Katharine Hepburn Little Women 1933 image: RKO Pictures.
Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn The Lion in Winter image: AVCO-Embassy Pictures.
Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor Cat on a Hot Tin Roof image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore Ordinary People image: Paramount Pictures.
“Turner Classic Movies: Dysfunctional-Family-Oriented Christmas Films + Katharine Hepburn Double Dose” last updated in April 2018.