|Inspiration for this puzzle came from an ingenious Thanksgiving-themed puzzle by Liz Gorski for Crossword Nation [click here for a pdf; here for a puz file; and here for an external review that includes the solution], as well as this quirky Sporcle quiz with its deliberately misleading descriptions of certain movies. So I figured one could have a holiday-themed puzzle built around giving thanks to one's loved ones ... by giving T(om) Hanks movies [the majority of which were released during some holiday season or another]. Hence the puzzle's title, and the clues for the theme entries.
I communicated said idea, along with a long list of films that might work [culled from the even longer imdb.com list], to George sometime over Thanksgiving, when I had a week off from school. Unfortunately, I didn't have my computer with me, so George jump-started the project by selecting the films he thought would work best, and taking into account the rules of crossword symmetry and other considerations. He also made the essential decision to go with a larger-than-usual grid, i.e., 17x.
The first grid that George sketched [actually filled completely] had FORREST_GUMP across the middle, the grid-spanning A_LEAGUE_OF_THEIR_OWN and SAVING_PRIVATE_RYAN a respectable distance above and below it, and the 12-letter PHILADELPHIA and its symmetrical counterpart, the "reveal" GIVING_T.HANKS, towards the northwest and southeast respectively. He then noticed that it was possible to partially stack two 8-letter film titles, i.e., TOY_STORY and CASTAWAY, respectively in the northwest and southeast sections [in each case, three-letter juxtaposition]. He also experimented with different orientations of theme entries, and with swapping in YOU'VE_GOT_MAIL to replace PHILADELPHIA, as well as a non-stacked arrangement in which the two 8-letter movies were in the middle, separated by a black square in the dead center of the grid [of course, that meant sacrificing FORREST_GUMP].
These latter were just outlines, leaving it for me to try to fill them.
Drawing off these ideas, I stagger-stacked three films in the center, though most of the crossings were short and iffy, and there were too many black squares on the whole. Also, we agreed to move the "reveal" from being an entry in the puzzle to being the basis for its title, freeing up yet another space to slot in a movie — for a total of seven. Not too bad, huh? Somewhere during the cycles of passing versions back and forth, I had the idea to drive one long answer through five (!) theme answers, and then George improved it even more by opening up the middle with the two 6-letter answers.
All in all, building this puzzle was an enjoyable experience, as each edit offered new ideas that built upon, and noticeably improved, the previous ones. The puzzle became even better after we consulted with the crackerjack team of beta testers listed on the puzzle's main page, You'll see that we even managed to sneak in an eighth film title, albeit a short one, with BIG. But we also felt that either one of two versions created was good enough to share with you, and were able to highlight two different approaches to clue theme entries.
BTW, this article, about research into computer models that used Tom Hanks as an example, has nothing to do with our puzzle except for featuring Tom Hanks. It makes for an interesting read, and came to our attention in the middle of our editing process.
A few of the answer words and/or their clues require additional commentary and/or documentation:
- 6-Across and 16-Across: EPACTS over MERRIE was originally EPODES over MENACE, resulting in difficult three letter crossings. One of our beta testers (Alex Vratsanos) suggested the fill now used, which seems to worked better [our alternative version still has MENACE, which allowed George to have some fun cluing TCA].
- 12-Across was originally AKIN [clued conservatively as "Related (to)," rather than to a certain conservative 2012 Senatorial candidate from Missouri], but George and several beta testers lobbied for working BIG into the grid. Symmetrical to BIG is ALL at 82-Across, which isn't thematic at ALL, unless one were to decide to clue it as a FITB: "___ of the films for which Tom Hanks has been nominated for Best Actor are in this grid." [For the record, it's true: Hanks has been nominated for Big, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away, though he was not nominated for the three OTHER films, i.e., A League of Their Own, Toy Story, and You've Got Mail, that are mentioned in the puzzle].
- 55-Across: Despite all the swearing, the gray hair, and the fact that he's over six feet, Holden Caulfield is still only 17, i.e., a TEEN, in The Catcher in the Rye. [Added note, for another TEEN, see 31-Down in this puzzle honoring David Steinberg].
- 59-Across: ISOS is short for isolation plays. I,_TOO would have been better fill, but it dupes AM_TOO at 44-Down.
- 82-Across: Refer to the discussion of the symmetrically placed 12-Across. The clue "Word in the Three Muskateers' motto" is not particularly helpful, since every word in the motto is three letters long.
- 2-Down: Many of the punny clues in this puzzles are George's, including reference to "I ETA Pi," which continues to grow on me every time I see it. [Added note, crossing this landmark Rolling Stones song].
- 4-Down: Neither George nor I are particularly fond of Frozen, and so wished to clue the wickedly talented IDINA Menzel otherwise. The first thing that came to mind was John Travolta mangling her name in front of over 43 million TV viewers. When Rex Parker included the video just linked to in his review of a Patrick Berry puzzle the very next day, that confirmed our choice [Relevant quote from review: "I'm already phenomenally tired of all 'Frozen' clues, I've realized. 'Frozen' is basically just a fount of 'new' clues for old answers (ANNA, ELSA, OLAF, and now apparently SVEN). Surprised we aren't seeing IDINA Menzel more often."] [Added note, agreed about IDINA, which has never appeared in a Will Shortz-edited New York Times crossword, but let's not stop there, neither has he wonderful operatic heroine ADINAŃcompare to how frequently the Minneapolis suburb EDINA is used. George considers it his personal mission to work either ADINA or IDINA into a MSM puzzle, if for no other reason than those are respectively his daughter's middle name and the first name of her favorite singer.]
- 12-Down in the alternate version: Speaking of Patrick Berry, we originally had A_FRAME in the grid, clued with respect to the kind of house he lives in, which also provides the name of his website (linked to earlier in this sentence).
- 12-Down in the main version: We looked at several B?Y?A??? options, including BIYEARLY, BOY_BANDS, BUY_BACKS, and (the eventual "winner") BAYWATCH. Interestingly, there is an upcoming movie (2017) based on the TV show, but we had decided to not use anything related to non-Tom Hanks films in either the fill or the clues. An earlier clue for BAYWATCH was "TV show set on Malibu Beach," which unfortunately duped SETS_ON, i.e., the answer right before it. Hopefully, the clue actually chosen is more entertaining and illuminating.
- 26-Down: In general, we tried to make the long vertical answers nice and interesting. One notable exception to this goal is VERY_STEEP, which sounds a bit made up, but we'll stand by its validity. Note in our defense that this entry crosses five theme answers. The original clue was "High grade?," which was discarded in favor of the current language. We submit that an allusion to the race course for the Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake more accurately conveys the VERY part of the answer.
- 36-Down: We needed a four letter word ?SF? (the S and F were locked in by theme entries). In another moment of amusing synchronicity, this Brendan Emmett Quigley puzzle contained both USFL and NSFW, the two candidates that we had already considered for this position in our grid.
- 43-Down: Parthenon, in Greek, has a pair of NUS, i.e, 2x the Greek letter ν. [GB adds: I have a lot of fun writing chemistry exam questions like, "What's ν?" or "What's the frequency?"]
- 72-Down: Earlier drafts did include AJA, which was taken out from the alternate version and snuck back in for the main one.
- 73-Down: Very rarely does somebody say LOL and actually laugh out loud.
GB adds: In terms of the pictorial hint on the puzzle's main page, I wanted to use a well-known Hanks film that was not itself a grid entry. Apollo 13 came to mind immediately. Subsequently, we got the sad news about the passing of Robert Loggia, and decided to add the iconic photo from Big [link is to the complete scene, which runs about 2 min]; this choice still makes sense despite later adjusting the grid to incorporate BIG as a "bonus" theme entry.
It was certainly a pleasure to work with Chris, especially to note his relentless drive to keep pushing to improve the puzzle in terms of quality as well as theme density, and the rigor with which he approached both the fill and the cluing. As a case in point for the latter, we went out of our way to not have any non-theme content that referred to non-Hanks films. For a grid this complex, it was inevitable that we had to use some words that might not exactly pass muster in a MSM puzzle, so we took the liberty of giving the solver some extra help by including parenthetical anagram hints (e.g., 6-Across in both versions, and 23-Across in the alternate version).
Finally, I note with some amusement a Will Shortz/Joel Fagliano word game puzzle that was posted on the New York Times website on Thanksgiving eve, at a point when we had already made substantial progress with this project. Part IV asked: "The first initial and last name of an Oscar-winning actor, read together, name something that many people give today. Who is the actor?" Doh!