The Daily Heller: Deck the Walls With Halls of Titles

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I’ve been trying without success to find comforting Christmas movies. All I want for Christmas is something I can escape into and stay there for twelve holy commerical days. Well, TCM has not provided what I need and the Hallmark Channel is cliche-ridden bust. Global warming in the form of an Xmas movie melt has hit the North Pole. So I decided to go another route for satisfaction: I asked Lola Landekic, the Editor in Chief of Art of the Title, to suggest the best movie title sequences. Although one cannot tell a book by its cover, movie titles are more likely to give some clues into the quality or lack thereof the merry, jolly or just plain old watchable fare.

Bad Santa

There are a few Christmas movies that are not so much about the holiday as they are just associated with it. I am particularly fond of Auntie Mame, with all its sparkle and glimmer. Wayne Fitzgerald designed the title sequence and you interviewed him. What did he say about it?
I’m also extremely fond of Auntie Mame‘s title sequence. I love the film itself—Rosalind Russell is effervescent as Mame—but the title sequence has been a favorite since I discovered it during my work on Art of the Title. When people invariably ask me about my personal picks, I often mention it. It seems to me such a vital example of the multifarious ways title design can be approached—using live action, staging, props, acting, stop-motion, handlettering, that kaleidoscope effect, and all that luscious, glimmering color. When we interviewed Wayne Fitzgerald for Art of the Title about creating the title sequence—he was working at Pacific Title at the time—he talked about how it was meant to introduce and embody the character of Mame. I also love its little imperfections, how large some of the names appear and how hard it is to read in some moments. But Fitzgerald called that “disastrous.” Even in 2014 when we spoke to him, more than 50 years later, he said how frustrating he still found it, looking back at how large the names appear, and so forth. But I don’t see that. It’s a reminder to me, as a graphic designer myself, that no one sees what you intended for your work. They have their own interpretations and feelings about it as a finished piece that has nothing to do with you.

Auntie Mame

What do you hold in your pantheon as the three best Christmas film titles ever?
The ones that come to mind, for me, as movies watched around the holidays are:

White Christmas. I love the sumptuous Vistavision colors, how deep the textures feel, the crisp white blackletter, how those sprigs of holly pop off the background. The red background looks so soft, warm and velvety, like you could just swim in it. And then the titles end on a close-up of the landscape set painting. It eases you right in.

White Christmas

I love the Rankin/Bass holiday specials intros, especially Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Fred Astaire voices a stop-motion mail carrier surrounded by forest critters who reads out letters to Santa while dancing, singing the opening song and nearly falling off a cliff. The credits appear in child-like hand-scrawled lettering on envelopes, complete with illustrated stamps. The attention to detail is just heart-warming to me. 

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Last year, curious to see what kind of titles it would have, I watched the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. While superhero fare is normally not for me, I cannot get the opening song “I Don’t Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime is Here)” by the Old 97s out of my head. Director James Gunn has shown a devoted commitment to fun title sequences—full of dancing and pop rock–doused camaraderie—so I always make sure to check them out. Despite Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt’s) interjections, the song is a cute, questioning look at Christmas traditions from an alien point of view. 

Bad Santa

I also really enjoy the opening to Bad Santa. There’s something about the combination of Chopin’s soaring “Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 9 No. 2″ combined with a depressed, vomiting dirtbag in a Santa suit that just says “art” to me. 

There is always a lot of splashy Christmas tropes used in seasonal films. What do you think makes a Christmas title so holiday-specific?
Christmas titles, I suppose, mimic what we know to be the tropes of the season. They’re often specific to the Northern hemisphere—snow abounds, for example—but there’s also family, soft textures, holly, candles, bells, angels, storybooks, a red-white-green color palette, so forth. 

Lady in the Lake

I always appreciate a film that flips these standard aesthetic tropes on their head, like Robert Mongomery’s 1947 noir Lady in the Lake. With its glittering illustrations and fine lettering on cardstock, it begins just like a Frank Kapra film might—in fact, its opening looks just like It’s a Wonderful Life‘s, which came out the previous year—but it finishes off on a darker note: with a gun. 

It’s A Wonderful Life

Another one I like is the opening to Edward Scissorhands, with title design by Robert Dawson. The film only partially takes place during Christmastime—near the end of the film—but the opening title sequence foreshadows those moments in its use of snow, choral music, and soft, floating motion.

Edward Scissorhands

Guardians Of The Galaxy


Elf (with Bob Newhart)

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