The Pleasure of Watching Christmas Movies That Were Actually Summer Blockbusters

Whether they’re spoofing yuletide traditions or straight-up hiding the fact that Santa is the main character, holiday films released during the summer are a rare, special breed

Let’s face it: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to the pottery scene in Ghost. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the summer blockbusters that doubled as Christmas movies.

This has been such a strange year that it’s hard to get your bearings, so just to let you know: We’re about five months away from Christmas. It might seem odd to think about the holidays when it’s so warm outside, which is why Hollywood usually reserves its yuletide films for November and December, hoping to capitalize on audiences’ festive spirit. But every once in a while, a summer blockbuster just happens to be set during Christmastime, which might seem counterintuitive since no one’s got Santa Claus on the brain right now. And yet the film industry has a proud, albeit limited, track record of delivering hit holiday movies during warm-weather season.

But be warned: If you’re going to be successful, you might want to camouflage just how Christmas-y your film is — or, at the very least, let audiences know that you’re subverting the Christmas-movie element of your movie. Crunching the numbers, I’ve theorized that summer Christmas movies often fit into four different subgenres: the warmhearted family film, the belovedly irreverent comedy, the kick-ass action movie and the existential bummer. In other words, the idea was to package them as something other than a Christmas film — even if a guy claiming to be Santa Claus was one of the script’s main characters. 

Below, I pick the best example of each category and dig into what’s summer-y (and also what’s Christmas-y) about them. In some cases, it’s funny the lengths the studio went to hide the movie’s ho-ho-ho trappings. Other times, the producers put Christmas front and center so they could mock the holiday. The odds are good that, now, you think of all these films as yuletide staples. But back when they came out, audiences probably saw them while wearing shorts. 

The Warmhearted Family Film

Miracle on 34th Street 

Release Date: June 4, 1947

The Back Story: In November 1946, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, sent a memo to William Perlberg and George Seaton, who were, respectively, the producer and writer-director of a forthcoming film about a man who swears he’s the real Santa Claus, changing the life of several New Yorkers in the process. 

“I read with great pleasure the first 97 pages [of the script]. … It is excellent, fresh, exciting and delightful,” Zanuck said. At that time, the film was going to be called My Heart Tells Me, but Zanuck thought The Big Heart would be a better title — neither of which, you may notice, was particularly Christmas-y. The film ended up being named Miracle on 34th Street and starred Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle, who befriends Susan (Natalie Wood), a precocious girl who doesn’t believe in Santa. But he convinces her otherwise — as well as her hardworking single mom Doris (Maureen O’Hara) and the lovable lawyer Fred (John Payne), who has a crush on Doris. The film opens on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and ends on Christmas Day. It is one of the Christmas-y movies ever. 

What the Hell Kinda Summer Movie Is This? The story goes that Zanuck was worried about releasing Miracle on 34th Street during the holidays, giving it a summer release instead. (In the 1940s, summer was a much bigger time for moviegoing than the winter months.) As a result, the studio had to bend over backward to pretend that this wasn’t a Christmas movie, including putting together a poster that made it look like an endearing rom-com. 

Even more remarkable, Fox did a fake-out trailer that never once mentioned its Santa Claus premise or Christmas setting. Instead, the clip played up the romance and laughs — and even predicted you’d be on the edge of your seat, like it was a thriller. The trick was having a lot of real-life stars who weren’t in the film (like Rex Harrison) playing themselves and talking about how great Miracle on 34th Street was. In the history of innovative trailers, this one never gets mentioned, but it’s fairly brilliant in its ability to completely misguide the public. Sure, Miracle on 34th Street is funny and romantic … but, c’mon, it is absolutely a Christmas movie.

Miracle on 34th Street did so well that audiences clearly got over the switcheroo. And the Academy loved the film, too, nominating it for Best Picture. Gwenn took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, forever embodying the ideal St. Nick: a kindly old soul who’s funny and also a beacon of moral clarity. Zanuck essentially made a yuletide classic and then packaged it as a charming all-ages entertainment, putting it out at the “wrong” time of year. Subsequent versions wouldn’t do the same thing: Both a TV movie and a big-screen redo have come out during the holiday season. 

The Belovedly Irreverent Comedy

Gremlins 

Release Date: June 8, 1984

The Back Story: By the early 1980s, Steven Spielberg wasn’t just the most popular blockbuster filmmaker — he was hatching clones. Hence, the E.T. auteur hooked up with Joe Dante, a giddy B-movie director who had made Piranha, which Spielberg once declared “the best of the Jaws rip-offs.” The two joined forces for a tongue-in-cheek horror movie, written by an up-and-comer named Chris Columbus, about an adorable little creature called Gizmo who is given as a Christmas present to a sweet young man (Zach Galligan). However, there’s a catch: You can’t get Gizmo wet or feed him after midnight. If you do, bad things happen. Ladies and gentlemen, that advice isn’t heeded, setting this manic movie in motion.

What the Hell Kinda Summer Movie Is This? “It does start out as a kind of regular Christmas movie,” Dante said in 2012. “It’s got the fake snow, and it’s filmed on a little back lot, and everybody’s fairly cheery and nice, and then, of course, there’s this dark undertone that creeps out. It begins like It’s a Wonderful Life but ends like The Birds.”

From An American Werewolf in London to This Is the End, Hollywood has released horror-comedies during the summer, but Gremlins added a new wrinkle by introducing a Christmas element — and then savagely mocking it. Where holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life extol the virtues of small-town life and the warm communal spirit of the Season of Giving, Dante’s film was wonderfully snotty, making fun of Christmas and Christmas movies in equal measure. 

And so, while it might have made some sense to release Gremlins during the holidays, it was enough of an event movie — there were plenty of effects, action and scares — to warrant a summertime release. (Gremlins came out around the same time as spectacle-driven films like Ghostbusters, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) 

But it wasn’t simply that Dante was mocking Christmas — as a filmmaker known for subverting suburban American blandness (see The ‘Burbs and Matinee), he was also critiquing the grossness of rampant consumerism, turning Gizmo’s freak mutation into a warning about greed and materialism. “Christmas has been over-commercialized for years, certainly in this country,” Dante said in that same interview, “and there are subtle messages, and sometimes not-so-subtle messages, in a lot of my movies. But yes, there is a certain anti-consumerism theme underlying Gremlins.” 

What better time to watch an anti-Christmas flick than in the heat of June?

The Kick-Ass Action Movie

Die Hard

Release Date: July 15, 1988

The Back Story: When 20th Century Fox was preparing Die Hard for its July release date, the studio wasn’t so worried about whether audiences would accept a Christmas movie in the summer. No, the big concern was Bruce Willis, at that time principally the star of Moonlighting, who was trying to become the next Clint Eastwood, to list but one action hero who had turned down the part of John McClane, a New York cop visiting L.A. to see his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). As Vulture’s Jason Bailey pointed out in 2018, the odds were stacked against Willis: “Hollywood had recently watched Shelley Long, Don Johnson and Bill Cosby try and fail to make the transition [from TV to movies]. Why would Bruce Willis … who had already starred in two film flops (1987’s Blind Date and 1988’s Sunset), be any different? What’s more, he was a television comedy actor.”

And yet, Fox took a chance on Willis for its adaptation of the novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which took place on Christmas Eve, just like in Die Hard. And the studio didn’t fret about letting audiences know the film’s holiday setting. In fact, Die Hard’s trailer made fun of the season’s usual solemnity, juxtaposing Vaughn Moore’s nostalgic “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” with the movie’s high-stakes premise. From the ads, it was clear Die Hard wasn’t going to be some cozy Christmas family melodrama — there was going to be so much violence

What the Hell Kinda Summer Movie Is This? So beloved is Die Hard that many of its fans don’t just embrace it as a Christmas movie — they’ll often declare that it’s the greatest Christmas movie ever. That’s debatable, but in his 2017 book A Die Hard Christmas, comic and author Doogie Horner adapted McClane’s harrowing adventure into a kids-style picture book done in the style of Twas the Night Before Christmas. As far as he, and others, are concerned, Die Hard is a yuletide movie — albeit a very different kind.

“I’d say that it does have a Christmas theme,” Horner once told me. “John is separated from his family, and they don’t really go into why, but it seems like he and his wife are having some relationship problems. It also seems like there’s some tension with their two separate jobs  —  neither of them is willing to give up their work. And at the end of the movie, it’s insinuated that they’ve patched it up and realized that what’s important is their family. So to me, that’s similar to the theme of a lot of Christmas movies. It’s about family, and it’s about realizing what’s important.”

Even if that’s a stretch, Die Hard’s Christmas trappings helped give the movie extra emotional wallop as McClane tries to save his wife’s life. Plus, its yuletide setting lent the story a nice satiric edge. (After all, this is Christmas in L.A. — it’s not like the place looks or feels that different than it normally does during the year.) 

Plenty of films take place over one crazy night, but having Die Hard happen on Christmas Eve — a night where you’re not usually thinking of massive body counts and dudes jumping off exploding rooftops — made the film that much more novel. If anything, this phenomenal action movie’s Christmas setting was a bonus, not a deterrent. For proof, look no further than Die Hard 2, which came out on July 4, 1990 — and also took place on Christmas Eve. 

The Existential Bummer

Eyes Wide Shut 

Release Date: July 16, 1999

The Back Story: Stanley Kubrick didn’t intend this to be his final film, the story of a posh New York married couple (played by real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) going through marital problems. But the exacting director of 2001 and Barry Lyndon spent nearly two years on Eyes Wide Shut, reportedly showing his stars the movie only a few days before his death on March 7, 1999, at the age of 70. 

Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle, the movie had a dream logic: Cruise’s smug, uptight doctor character learns about an affair his wife almost had, which sends him spiraling into the city, bumping into strange characters and, inexplicably, finding himself at an orgy at one point. Eyes Wide Shut is set around Christmas, but that certainly wasn’t the selling point for most ticket-buyers, who went either because of their love of Kubrick or their fascination in seeing Cruise and Kidman together on the big screen. Indeed, Eyes Wide Shut was largely marketed as one last masterpiece from a revered filmmaker — and, erroneously, as a steamy erotic thriller. It didn’t matter when it was set — curious viewers were going to check it out regardless.

What the Hell Kinda Summer Movie Is This? Eyes Wide Shut was a fascinating mix of arthouse movie and blockbuster event film — both often show up during the summer, but not usually in the same movie. As such, this proved to be a pretty unconventional studio summer picture, just as its Christmas setting is seemingly incongruous to the story Kubrick is telling about commitment and distrust. 

But in his book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas, an authoritative overview of Christmas movies, critic Alonso Duralde argues that Eyes Wide Shut works so well precisely because it cuts against our usual ideas about the holiday. “Christmas weaves its way through the film from start to finish,” he writes, later adding, “Kubrick underlines his protagonist’s ambivalence about marriage, home and family by unspooling the tale in a season of familial warmth and closeness.” Similarly, in Roger Ebert’s review when Eyes Wide Shut came out, he notes, “Kubrick’s great achievement in the film is to find and hold an odd, unsettling, sometimes erotic tone for the doctor’s strange encounters. Shooting in a grainy high-contrast style, using lots of back-lighting, underlighting and strong primary colors, setting the film at Christmas to take advantage of the holiday lights, he makes it all a little garish, like an urban sideshow.”

In other words, much like Eyes Wide Shut itself, the film’s depiction of Christmas is a little surreal — a little off-kilter — so that we never quite feel comfortable during what’s supposed to be a joyous season. Here, Christmas isn’t a time of good cheer but, rather, a way to measure just how alienated this couple is from one another. In most yuletide movies that come out during the summer, the most beloved of holidays is usually either satirized or ignored. But in Eyes Wide Shut, it’s just endlessly depressing — which, come to think of it, is how a lot of people think of Christmas anyway.