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Monday, December 4, 2017

Holiday TV Classics revisited

Here's another look back at a Weird Movie Village Post of old. This is from 2010 — seven years ago! It's amazing that there haven't been any new Christmas TV specials since then, just the wretched Hallmark TV movies that start in October and continue to collapse people's brains through January. But let's look back on the Christmas gold...

The first holiday special I remember seeing was a repeat broadcast of the Mary Martin 1960 Peter Pan. Although not technically a Christmas show, it's performed annually in England to raise funds for the Great Ormonds Children's Hospital, an institution to which J.M. Barrie contributed all the rights to his play.

Watching the show now really takes me back to my childhood. Video was so blurry then, and the production values were cheap and cheerful. But it was in color! I remember going to my grandparents' house (they were the only ones in the family with a color television) to watch it and, in the spring, The Wizard of Oz in saturated, fuzzy, unnatural color.

I've never been a big fan of musicals, so Peter Pan never did anything for me in particular. And as a kid, I thought, "Why are they calling that lady a boy?"

Yes, I admit it. I am old enough to have seen the very first showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the holidays  really begin for me when it's aired. It's still charming 45 years later, with the hilariously precocious lines delivered by the Peanuts gang and Vince Guaraldi's too-hip jazz improv score. I love Linus' soliloquy about the true meaning of Christmas and poor Charlie Brown's miserable little tree.

Sure, it's made with limited animation and there are some continuity errors. You can also tell that the sound editors had to piece together the young actors' performances, sometimes word by word. But none of that spoils the show for me.  

A Charlie Brown Christmas never fails to take me back to a time when Christmas meant sparkling, snowy Indiana nights, snow-covered nighttime bushes twinkling with lights, a shimmering tree in the living room and surprises around every corner. Sentimental, ain't I?

1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is another favorite, even though its cheese factor is high. Maybe I like it because its cheese factor is so high—this is Weird Movie Village, after all.

I don't recall having seen stop-motion animation before Rudolph, and the living, breathing "puppets" transfixed me. And the Abominable Snowman scared (and thrilled) me when I was small. But I still hate the ending when he's been neutered and all his teeth have been pulled out by Herbie, the dentist elf. The songs are hilarious and rather obnoxious, but that's what makes it even more fun.

 One of my very favorite holiday specials is How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and it's easy to understand why. It's the most "horror film" of all the shows, with its creepy green anti-hero and the Frankenstein monster himself—Boris Karloff—doing the narration!

He won a Grammy for the recorded version of the story, and I just love it. But the Whos are sure as hell a bunch of hyperactive little buggers, particularly the kids after they receive their bizarre Christmas loot. As I get older, I can appreciate more and more the Grinch's desire to spoil the holiday for that town full of noisy, endlessly grinning morons.

I have never seen—and will never see—Ron Howard's film version. The idea of watching that overpaid buffoon Jim Carrey hamming his way through a story I hold dear makes my flesh crawl.


Though it was originally shown in 1966, I somehow didn't discover A Christmas Memory until the mid-80s when it aired on a local PBS station. How could I have missed a Truman Capote-written story starring Geraldine Page for so long? Thanks to home video, it became a holiday tradition every year afterward.

 It's the bittersweet story of the author and his last Christmas with his beloved Sookie, the elderly cousin with whom he lives (along with a couple of really mean aunts). Every year Buddy (as she calls him) and Sookie bake a slew of fruitcakes to distribute to friends; not necessarily neighbor friends, but people who strike their fancy, including the Roosevelts.

The hour-long special follows the unlikely pair as they acquire ingredients for their fruitcakes, including the hard-to-get whiskey, which they must purchase from Mr. Ha-ha Jones, owner of a fish fry and dancing cafe. Here's a clip of Sookie and Buddy heading for Ha-ha's:


The film was made by Frank Perry (Katy's uncle, but don't hold it against him) of Mommie Dearest fame, and you can tell that editor Ralph Rosenblum literally had to piece it together—but it still works. Really well. Page was only 41 or 42 when she played the elderly Sookie, and she looks startlingly young, but such was her talent that you completely believe her character. The actor who played Ha-ha, Josip Elic, also had a diverse career. He was in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the perennial kiddie matinee mess, and he also played Bancini, one of the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest!

At one point in the 90s there was a viewer revolt over the treatment the classic holiday specials were receiving. In order to shove in more and more commercials, they were shown digitally speeded up and heavily edited. It got so ridiculous that A Charlie Brown Christmas became a continuous onslaught of Dolly Madison commercials with a few scenes from the show thrown in. The networks didn't take into consideration that these were beloved treasures whose millions of viewers knew virtually every frame.

Since they were all available unedited and at the correct speed on home video, viewers went there instead, and ratings plummeted. Realizing the error of their ways, the networks began advertising "complete, restored editions"—sometimes with special (and often lame) features. Even Rudolph aired in hi-def this year! Recently, before A&E went over to the darkside to became a ridiculous reality trash network, it broadcast a "restored, color-corrected" A Christmas Memory, but that was also speeded up, edited and jammed with commercials.

Holiday specials are still being made right and left, but I don't think of them are going to be considered classics even ten years from now. I mean—Shrek the Halls? New holidays classics are like new classical music. They just don't work. The closest they've come in recent years was with the funny and sweet 1991 Opus and Bill special A Wish for Wings That Work, but even that show only aired a couple of times before being consigned to the discount video pile.

Sigh. Season's Greetings, all.

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