Retro Look – Christmas Movies of 1976

Let’s continue to look back at Christmas movie releases of the past. For this article we will look at the releases from the Christmas movie season of 1976. That year was a very good Christmas season of releases. Many of the films were box office hits and of the eleven films released, seven of them would be remembered at Academy Awards time. Two of the films would go on to be nominated for Best Picture and one of them would take home the top prize.

There were only eleven films released that season because while movie palaces were still in operation, their policy of big city exclusive openings had been abandoned for the most part. That meant that most of the suburban twin and triplexes were opening the same films as those released downtown in the palaces.

Here are the movies released for Christmas of 1976. I can remember seeing a good many of these at that time as my love for film had come about by then. I hope some of these bring back some fond memories and, as always, may you see a title or two that you don’t know or remember and seek them out.

As always the films are listed alphabetically.

THE ENFORCER (Warner Bros.; Director – James Fargo) Clint Eastwood’s third go around as his most popular character, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, told the story of a disgruntled group of Vietnam veterans becoming domestic terrorists in an attempt to kill the mayor. Harry is also teamed up with a woman partner (Tyne Daley) as he tries teaching her the ropes and stop the terrorists at the same time. This was a typical Eastwood action film with loads of chases and gun play and funny one liners. Fans of the previous films were not disappointed with this one. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was a solid hit making over $23 million at the box office.

KING KONG (Paramount; Director – John Guilermin) This was the picture of the holidays. The one with the biggest ad campaign and most eager anticipation. It’s tagline read: The Motion Picture Event of Our Time. While it was hardly that, this $24 million remake of the 1933 classic starred Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin and introduced a young blonde named Jessica Lange. The film was more tongue in cheek than the original but still managed to be somewhat entertaining despite some silly effects (most of the shots of the ape were simply a man in a suit). Critical reaction was mostly negative and while it has always been believed to be a box office dud, the film still grossed a domestic total of over $37 million. It would be nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Visual Effects, Cinematography, Sound) and would win for its effects.

THE MONKEY HUSTLE (American International Pictures; Director – Arthur Marks) Back when “blaxploitation” films were still popular, at least one would come out at Christmas with the small studios believing that African Americans wouldn’t have a film aimed at them for the holiday season so releasing one at that high profile time would almost ensure a hit. One thing they never thought of was that the film still had to be good and this was one of the films that wasn’t. Shot in Chicago its thin story is about a neighborhood rallying against local government when a neighborhood is designated for demolition for the building of a new highway. Yaphet Kotto, Rudy Ray Moore and Rosalind Cash do what they can with the material given them and their talents outshine it. Critical reaction was poor and the film was not a success.

NETWORK (MGM; Director – Sidney Lumet) One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year was writer Paddy Chayefsky’s searing satire on the world of television, particularly the world of news where an anchorman, obviously losing his sanity, becomes a nationwide sensation after threatening to commit suicide on the air. A stellar cast is headed by Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Beatrice Straight and Ned Beatty. This very adult film was a critical smash and with its modest budget of $3.8 million, it was a solid hit earning almost $14 million. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, losing for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Holden), Supporting Actor (Beatty), Cinematography, and Editing. Its four richly deserved awards went to Best Actress (Dunaway), Supporting Actress (Straight – who basically has one extended scene), Original Screenplay and Best Actor (for Peter Finch who died suddenly two months prior to the award).

NICKELODEON (Columbia; Director – Peter Bogdanovich) The biggest flop of the holiday season was this slapstick look at the birth of silent movies with an impressive cast including Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds and Tatum O’Neal. Ryan plays a meek lawyer who soon finds himself writing and directing a silent movie and mayhem ensues. Bogdanovich, an obvious lover of the medium, overplays his hand with too much slapstick though the film contains two terrific scenes – one in which the cast and crew view Birth of a Nation for the first time realizing how minute their little film is, and the other involves the public recognizing Burt Reynolds from the movie they have just seen and going crazy, thus the movie star is born. Realizing the film didn’t live up to its expectations, the studio tried a nationwide sneak preview the week before the film opened and charged only $.05 to get in. Even that failed to draw crowds. The film was both a critical and financial flop and its flop was one Bogdanovich’s career has never fully recovered from.

THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (United Artists; Director – Blake Edwards) After 1964’s A Shot in the Dark director Edwards and star Peter Seller vowed never to make an Inspector Clouseau film again. Eleven years later and both badly needing hits, the two re-teamed for 1975’s Return of the Pink Panther and it was the smash hit they were both looking for. Naturally another film had to follow and this, the best since Dark, was another slapstick film that could be enjoyed by the whole family and audiences flocked to see Sellers at his goofy best. Critical reaction was mixed but the film made an impressive $20 million at the box office, spawning yet another sequel in 1978. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song but did not win.

ROCKY (United Artists; Director – John G. Avildsen) The film’s tagline, His life was a million to one shot, could also have been said for the film’s struggling writer and lead actor, a then unknown named Sylvester Stallone. The now familiar story is about a down and out boxer who gets the chance of a lifetime to fight to heavyweight champion of the world. The film’s colorful characters were the highlight along with a terrific, albeit pipedream, final match. Audiences were won over by this lightweight little romantic drama and it became the smash hit of the holiday season as it earned $56 million on a budget that was just at $1 million. Critical reaction to the film was also mostly positive. The dream continued when it would go on to get nominated for ten Academy Awards, losing for Actor (Stallone), Actress (Talia Shire), Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith), Supporting Actor (Burt Young), Original Screenplay, Sound and Song (Gonna Fly Now). It would win three Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Editing.

THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION (Universal; Director – Herbert Ross) One of the most acclaimed films of the holiday season was this “artsy” film that received only limited release, a victim of the studio not believing in the quality product they had. The film tells the classic tale of Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) and Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) as Watson tricks Holmes into going to Vienna believing he is to meet with Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) but instead is to be treated by him for his drug addiction. While Freud works with Holmes, Holmes naturally gets caught up in a mystery involving a kidnapping. This terrific film was written by Nicholas Meyer and it is an absolutely marvelous one. This was one of the best films that year and its critical reaction was tremendous but the film wasn’t able to find an audience mixed in with the other releases. It would be nominated for two Academy Awards for Meyer’s Adapted (from his own novel) Screenplay and its Costume Design but failed to win either.

THE SHAGGY D.A. (Walt Disney; Director – Robert Stevenson) The big Disney release of the holiday season was a sequel to The Shaggy Dog and starred Dean Jones as a lawyer who, sick of local crime, decides to run for political office. Things become complicated when he finds a ring that, when put on, turns him into a shaggy dog. Hilarity ensues as the family tries to figure out the secret of their new pet dog and bad guys try to get the ring from the lawyer. Typical Disney fare done in typical Disney fashion, the film was not a hit with critics but was a solid hit for the families starved for that kind of entertainment for the holiday season.

SILVER STREAK (20th Century Fox; Director – Arthur Hiller) One of the big hits of the holiday season was this comedy/adventure that teamed Gene Wilder for the first time with Richard Pryor. In it Wilder plays a mild mannered businessman who takes a train trip for relaxation and finds anything but. Before he knows it he ends up in a romance, accused of being a murderer and getting caught up in a conspiracy plot. Jill Clayburgh (never looking lovelier) plays his romantic interest and Pryor plays a con man who comes to Pryor’s aid. This was a most enjoyable film that does have its flaws but is still fun to watch. In fact, it is so fun it may not even occur to you that Pryor doesn’t make his entrance into the film for almost an hour. Critical reaction was mixed but the film made an impressive $30 million at the box office. The film would go on to be nominated for Best Sound but did not win.

A STAR IS BORN (Warner Bros.; Director – Frank Pierson) Along with King Kong this was the other most anticipated film of the holiday season starring Barbara Streisand, perhaps the biggest female star in the world at the time. This musical/drama is a remake (done twice previously) about the relationship between singers (the previous films were actors) as the woman’s star rises while her alcoholic boyfriend’s falls. Most agreed the best part of the movie was every time Streisand sang, particularly a magnificent eleven minute sequence to close the movie. Unfortunately its dramatic story is marred by Kris Kristofferson’s less than stellar performance and the obvious lack of chemistry between him and Streisand. Critical reaction was mixed but Babs’ fans could care less. It was a smash hit earning over $37 million at the box office. The film would be nominated for four Academy Awards, losing for Best Cinematography, Song Score and Sound and winning for Best Song for the love balled Evergreen.

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