Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Alice Christmas (1977)

I see this opening title and I can actually hear Linda Lavin singing the theme tune.  LOVE IT!

There are a few series I've watched so often in syndication--too many, my mother would quip-- that I have not only the plots memorized, but the rhythm and flow of the dialogue is a part of, what feels like, my being.  The 1970s sitcom Alice is one of those series.  (If you're curious, so is The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple, The Facts of Life, Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Gimme a Break.... I'll stop there before I embarrass myself even further).  How long has it been since you've seen the 1977 Christmas episode "A Semi-Merry Christmas" from the series Alice?

Waitresses Vera and Flo think nothing of celebrating the holidays with an artificially colored pink tree while living in the desert of Arizona.  However, Alice longs to experience another white Christmas.

Alice is excited because she's been invited by her cousin to come to their home in Colorado Springs to celebrate with the family and enjoy a white Christmas.  She's looking forward to treating her thirteen year-old son Tommy to a snow-filled holiday--something she hasn't been able to give him since they left New Jersey.  All Alice needs is her bonus check from Mel and she'll buy the bus tickets to Colorado Springs.

The waitresses don't want to hear Mel's bad news.

If you've seen the series even once, you know Mel is stingy--and perpetually broke.  Of course, there will be no Christmas bonuses for the waitresses this year which puts a wrinkle in Alice's plans.  One of the best lines of dialogue in this episode: after she is told her Christmas bonus isn't money but rather two complimentary dinners at Mel's Diner, Flo calmly responds, “Mel, I’d like to wish you a merry Christmas and extend to you a heart-felt message for the new year: KISS MY GRITS!”

Jason complains that his wife wants him home for Christmas--what's he to do?

Later, Mel hears his regular diner patron, Jason Carp, complain about having to work over the Christmas holiday and Mel offers to drive Jason's eighteen-wheeler for him to Denver.  Now Mel can offer Alice and Tommy a free ride to Colorado Springs--and earn $200 for completing Jason's job for him.  Alice is so excited that her trip is back on and she invites her friends Vera and Flo to join her for Christmas. 

It's gonna be a white Christmas after all for the crew from Phoenix.

All five persons fit inside the cab of the semi-truck and the gang merrily sing Christmas carols as they head into the Rocky Mountains.  Alice shares that she's made knitted hats as gifts for her cousin's children, and baked and assembled a gingerbread house too.  Mel is excited for the holiday party as well--he's packed a Santa suit to surprise the children on Christmas Eve.  Tommy is enjoying the long drive and displays his knowledge of CB jargon.

Nothing makes this episode feel more like the '70s than hearing all the CB jargon again.  Can you guess what Flo adopts as her CB handle?  "Hot Cargo."

As the long road trip continues, Mel decides to nap while Alice (whose husband used to be a long-haul trucker as well) continues the drive towards Colorado Springs.  Unfortunately, Flo misreads the map, ditzy Vera was silent about crucial road signs, and the gang finds themselves stopped and stranded in deep snow on a closed mountain road!  The CB isn't receiving or sending any signal.  Mel finally awakens and steps outside to investigate--but falls through the ice in a ditch and is drenched in frozen water.  The travelers turn off the motor in the truck to preserve fuel but the cab becomes quite cold, as the friends begin to point fingers at who is to blame for their misery.

Feeling cold and hungry, the waitresses don the knitted hats, Mel wears the Santa suit, and they all end up eating the treasured gingerbread house--while stranded in the truck.

Afraid they'll spend Christmas cold, hungry, and isolated in the truck, Tommy voices that he's having one of the best Christmases of his life.  He reminds them that they have had fun talking on the CB, singing Christmas carols, eating the gingerbread house, seeing more snow than ever before--and they've done it all together.  Though this isn't the Christmas they all had planned, the gang agree that it has been a good Christmas after all.

Tommy reminds them that spending Christmas with those you love is the best holiday after all.

The way this episode's conflict is resolved reminds me of many other sitcom Christmas episodes.  A family--here a workplace family, a family of friends--choose to be happy with the best of unexpected circumstances at Christmas.  I actually like that plot line--it's serves as a reminder each Christmas season to choose to be happy at the holidays. 

This trucking-themed Christmas story also reminds me of several others.  If you'd like to re-visit other trucking-themed holiday episodes--and WHY wouldn't you?--might I suggest the following:

--the animated series King of the Hill's 2003 episode "Livin' on Reds, Vitamin C, and Propane."
--the mystery drama Monk's 2006 episode "Mr. Monk Meets His Dad."
--1987 TV movie Christmas Comes to Willow Creek starring John Schneider and Tom Wopat
--even the 2003 holiday episode of The Simpsons entitled "Tis the Fifteenth Season" features a brief reference to a humorous Christmas carol, "Christmas Convoy"--a parody of C.W. McColl's hit song "Convoy" which was featured in the 1978 movie Convoy about truckers.

The Duke Boys reunite in 1987's Christmas Comes to Willow Creek.

Can you think of any other trucking-themed Christmas stories in the popular culture?  10-4, Good Buddy!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Jingle Bell Rocks! (2013) documentary


I'm so excited about a new documentary movie Jingle Bell Rocks! that began circulating film festivals in late 2013.  This week the movie comes to my local area, screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF).  Film Critic Bob Ignizio from The Cleveland Movie Blog generously shares with us his review of this new movie.  Thanks Bob!  I can't wait to see the movie myself--and I'm looking forward to its eventual wider release so that everyone can see it and buy a copy themselves.

Jingle Bell Rocks! (March 28th, 29th, and 30th at the Cleveland International Film Festival)

[JINGLE BELL ROCKS! Screens Friday March 28th at 4:50 pm, Saturday March 29th at 8:00 pm, and Sunday March 30th at 1:50 pm at the Cleveland International Film Festival.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

However you feel about Christmas, even if you loathe the holiday or are ambivalent to it, there's probably a Christmas song for you. For Vancouver based JINGLE BELL ROCKS! director Mitchell Kezin, that song was Nat King Cole's “The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot.”  It's a song about a kid with an absentee dad who, despite being good and having a perfectly reasonable Christmas list, winds up being passed over by Old Saint Nick. “The Christmas Song” it ain't, but nonetheless it struck a chord with Mitch, whose own father was frequently absent (or might as well have been) around the holidays.

As strange as it might seem, that one dreary carol started Mitch down what he thought was a lonely road collecting Christmas music, and despite the film's title, not just of the rock and roll variety. As it turns out, though, there's actually a sizable underground of Christmas music collectors, many of whom put great time and effort into searching for rare records and then making mix CDs of their finds for friends and family each year.  Once Mitch realized how widespread his hobby was, he decided to make a movie about it.

In JINGLE BELL ROCKS!, Mitch introduces us to fellow collectors like former Def Jam Records producer Bill Adler and filmmaker John Waters, and also tracks down some of his favorite Christmas music performers ranging from the known, like bebop pioneer Bob Dorough and rappers Run DMC, to more cult performers like soul singer Clarence Carter (“Back Door Santa”), jazzy folkies The Free Design (“(Close Your Mouth) It's Christmas”), and indie rockers The Flaming Lips, who made the film CHRISTMAS ON MARS. It all leads to a surprisingly emotional conclusion in which Mitch gets to make his own contribution to Christmas music history.

Although Mitch does appear on camera and the film is upfront about being from his point of view, it never feels self aggrandizing the way the films of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Nick Broomfield sometimes can. Once he gets his personal story out of the way, Mitch puts the focus of his film where it belongs: on the musicians who made these often quirky songs, and the other obsessives who share his passion. Sure, on one level this is just a movie about some weird guys and their weird hobby, but it also manages to find something to say about the human condition that just about anyone can relate to. And it's a lot more fun than yet another documentary trying to change your politics or make you eat better. 3 out of 4 stars.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Christmas Snow (1986)

With the dozens of hours of new Christmas TV movies generated each November and December, it's so easy to forget about the classics.  Sometimes we can lose track of our Christmas spirit unless we actively incorporate the past into the present.  How long has it been since you've seen 1986's Christmas Snow?  Though I see this movie in the TV listings each December, I think Christmas Snow is too easy to overlook in cable TV's many holiday offerings--maybe because of its familiar-sounding title.  But I never forget this movie-- it has an incredible cast and a heartfelt story.

Mr. Snyder (left) is played by Sid Caesar, and Ma is played by Katherine Helmond (center).

The optimistic Widow Ma runs a candy store with the two children she’s taken in.  Two days before Christmas, their cantankerous landlord Mr. Snyder informs them he has plans to turn his property into a laundrette and the widow and her children will not only have to close the store but find a new place to live. 

Ma's intuition is correct:  it snows on Christmas Eve!  Ma hugs her children Wally and Amy.

Yes--Amy is played by a very young Melissa Joan Hart (before Melissa & Joey, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and even Clarissa Explains It All).

Despite Mr. Snyder's threats, Ma is hopeful and thinks things will eventually work out well for her family.  The widow tries to stay focused on her immediate concerns such as making the scheduled deliveries and running the candy store.  Just as she predicts, there is a rare snow storm the covers the city on Christmas Eve.  When Mr. Snyder misses his appointment to meet with the launderette franchise operator, Ma begins to worry.

Ma calls the police to report Mr. Snyder's absence but no one is concerned except her.

Mean Mr. Snyder seems to have disappeared, but no one is worried except Ma.  Amy and Wally think his absence may solve all their problems.  How can they be forced to move if Mr. Snyder stays missing?

Sacrificing her own time and business concerns, Ma closes the shop so they can go out looking for Mr. Snyder.

However, Ma fears Snyder is in trouble.  Although Ma needs to keep her business open on Christmas Eve, she decides they close it to go look for their landlord. 

Amy follows what she thinks may be Mr. Snyder's tracks in the snow into the cemetery.

Amy sets out to follow the old man's tracks in the freshly fallen snow.  Mr. Snyder has an unusual gait and walks with a cane so his tracks are distinguishable from most others'.  But when Amy follows his tracks into the local cemetery, the young girl becomes frightened from her brother's many scary stories and she flees the graveyard before reaching the end of the tracks.

Ma is so convinced that Snyder is in trouble, she can't open her Christmas gifts.

The next day, Christmas morning, Ma is still worried about Mr. Snyder's disappearance.  She explains to the children that she can't celebrate Christmas and open gifts with Mr. Snyder's absence looming about.  The children still believe that their mean landlord's disappearance is the answer to their problems--but Ma's maturity and compassion speaks otherwise.  It is then that Amy shares her experience of hearing a ghostly wail after following Snyder's tracks in the snow at the cemetery the day before.

Ma insists they go out looking for Mr. Snyder again.

Just as Ma feared, Mr. Snyder was in trouble, having fallen into a recently unearthed grave in the cemetery.  Snyder was terribly frightened that no one would ever find him in the hole over the holiday and is grateful that Ma came looking for him.  He also confesses that the idea of his new business opportunity offered him no comfort while he was trapped--but the hope that Widow Ma would miss him and come looking for him was all he wished for.

Trapped in a hole overnight, Mr. Snyder has a change of heart.

Though this TV movie runs less than an hour in length, it efficiently tells its story and expresses more character than most other Christmas TV movies.  Ma's insistence that people are more important than business, betrayal, or hurt feelings is inspiring--and not just at Christmas!  It's also a distinctive story that you won't confuse with many others.  Too bad the title isn't just as distinctive.  Fortunately, this short movie can be found on DVD.

Have you memories of Christmas Snow?  Do you like it as much as I do?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Good Times Christmas (1977)

Thank you for continuing to support Black History Month.  I enjoy celebrating BHM on my blog because there are so many excellent Christmas episodes, specials, and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members.  There are also many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  All month long I've been highlighting just few of my favorites.

Good Times originally aired on TV from 1974-1979, and was developed by Norman Lear.

The fifth season Christmas episode of Good Times is the third of four holiday episodes produced for the series.  1977's "Penny's Christmas" is worth recalling because it is the first holiday storyline with the young actress Janet Jackson--yes, THAT Janet Jackson--who joined the Good Times regular cast starting in the fifth season.  And, this holiday episode centers around her character, Penny.

Don't call her baby--it's Janet, or Miss Jackson if you're nasty!

In "Penny's Christmas," the Evans family--father James and mother Florida are gone--are looking forward to spending their first Christmas with young Penny, the upstairs neighbor Willona's adopted daughter.

Everyone cracks wise on JJ's skinny Christmas tree. 

Willona answers the door, sarcastically remarking, "It's Tiny Tim!"

Michael and Thelma have been busy wrapping gifts, JJ has gone out and bought a tree, and the building superintendent Bookman is hoping to get invited to the family's party.  However, Penny and Willona are on their way to the department store to do some last minute shopping.  Penny is very excited about the money she has saved in order to buy her new mother a Christmas gift.

It's Santa Claus Lenny--pimped out for the holidays in a rabbit fur-lined Santa coat.

How well do you know your 70s culture?  That urban Santa is played by Dap Sugar Willie, a Philadelphia comedian who made appearances on a bunch of 70s sitcoms.

At the department store, Willona and Penny greet the street-wise, bell-ringing Santa Claus near the entrance.  Then Willona leaves Penny to do her own shopping alone.  Penny finds the perfect necklace at the right price at the jewelry counter--but her wallet has gone missing!  She's the victim of a sneaky pickpocket.

The creep bumps into Penny as he lifts her wallet.  You gotta love the live audience during the taping of this episode--you can hear them sympathetically yelling out to warn Penny about her wallet!

Penny panics while in the store and she doesn't know what to do if she can't give Willona a Christmas gift.  Unfortunately, the young girl decides to shoplift the pretty necklace and the theft is caught by the store's security cameras.  Back at the Evans' apartment, Mrs. Dobbs--the woman from the Department of Family Services in charge of finalizing Penny's adoption--has arrived to meet with Willona for the last of the adoption process.  When Penny is escorted home by the store security, Mrs. Dobbs is no longer sure Willona has created the right environment for the young girl.

The social worker Mrs. Dobbs is played by actress Alice Ghostley.

You may remember Alice Ghostley from her TV roles as Esmeralda on Bewitched and Bernice Clifton on Designing Women, among many others.

Willona is crushed that Penny's crisis has taken place in front of Mrs. Dobbs and promises the girl will be punished.  Willona also begs Mrs. Dobbs to return for the family's Christmas party for the opportunity to show her that Penny does live in a stable, loving environment, surrounded by adults who care for her.  Sure enough, the Evans family Christmas party is filled with love--both JJ and Bookman show up dressed as Santa Claus, looking to make the young girl's Christmas bright.

I think we can all agree that JJ is TV's skinniest Santa.

Mrs. Dobbs seems to be enjoying herself at the party--and drinking round after round of the eggnog.

Willona is on edge all night, hoping to convince Mrs. Dobbs to change her mind about the adoption.  Desperate, Willona considers blackmailing Mrs. Dobbs over her obvious drunkenness at the party in order to leverage her approval.  But Willona gives up on the dishonest plot--and apologizes to Mrs. Dobbs for even thinking it.  All of Willona's worry is for nothing when Mrs. Dobbs explains that she has every intention of finalizing Penny's adoption--the young girl is obviously loved and cared for by everyone at the party.  The good news causes the party-goers to erupt into song as everyone claps and sings a funky version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

The party erupts into celebration.

If you haven't seen it yet--or haven't seen it in a long while--I encourage you to seek out the sixth season, 1978 holiday episode "The Traveling Christmas."  That episode includes a variety show-within-a-show which includes music and dancing with the cast of Good Times--which includes a young Janet Jackson.  Her talent and abilities have come a long way since 1978.  Haven't we all?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The PJs Christmas (2000)

Thank you for continuing to support Black History Month.  I enjoy celebrating BHM on my blog because there are so many excellent Christmas episodes, specials, and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members.  There are also many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  Throughout the month of February, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.

The PJs originally ran for three seasons (1999-2001)

The animated series with an attitude, The PJs, seems to be another one of those shows that is too often overlooked.  Were you aware it's currently airing on MTV2?  The writing on this show was quick, sharp and filled with pop culture references.  No wonder it still stands up.  Are you familiar with the 2000 yuletide episode "How the Super Stoled Christmas?"

The voice work on this series is star-studded.  Thurgood is voiced by Eddie Murphy and Muriel by Loretta Devine.

Our main character Thurgood Stubbs, the superintendent of the Hilton-Jacobs projects, is counting on using his holiday tips from the tenants to buy his wife Muriel a computer for her Christmas gift.

Thurgood's response when he finds only empty envelopes where he expects his holiday tips, "Don't these people know I work 24 hours a week, 7 days a month for them?"

Desperate to buy a computer for Muriel, Thurgood takes on a second job for the holidays.

When Thurgood doesn't receive any tips, he takes on a job working for the owner of the local pawn shop.  Knowing the tenants and his friends will despise him, Stubbs wants to keep his new job, working as a repo man, secret from the others.  As the superintendent of the building, he possesses the passkeys to every apartment in the building and repossessing items turns out to be fairly easy.

Thurgood is playing Santa in the local Christmas pageant entitled Toyz n the Hood.  During the performance, he slips out and repossesses the last of the items on behalf of the pawn shop.

This is, until he's asked to repossess items from his friends.  Thurgood attempts to resign from his job but Muriel is excited to discover that he has already purchased her new computer.  Poor Thurgood can't break his wife's heart at Christmas.  Still trying to keep his second job a secret, the Super decides to repossess his friends' items while they are all attending the neighborhood Christmas pageant.

In reference to the familiar image from the original Grinch, here Thurgood slithers across the floor under the Christmas tree on his belly like a snake.

Recreating the scene with Cindy Lou Who, here Stubbs is caught stealing items by another adorable young girl.

While Thurgood is entering peoples' homes and taking their stuff, we can see many clear references to the 1966 animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Not only is the sequence accompanied by the song "You're a B*stard, Mr. Stubbs"--a funny re-write of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"--but we see familiar shots of a toy train rolling into his bag, Thurgood--like the Grinch--slithering across the floor on his belly, and getting caught by an adorable young girl that questions what he's doing.  Don't you just love when a Christmas episode references popular Christmas TV specials from the past?  I know I do.

Stubbs is racked with even more guilt after his friends admit they have been saving their money for his Christmas gift.

Though he regrets being the local repo man, Thurgood returns to the Christmas pageant to be with his friends.  There he finds his friends have surprised him with a gift--the item at the top of his own Christmas wish list--an expensive massage chair.  Turns out his tenants and friends have been scrimping and saving to pay for the chair.  Some of his friends admit they didn't make their usual timely payments to the local pawn shop in order to save to afford this gift to Stubbs!

Thurgood is caught in a car's headlights trying to return his friends' repossessed items.  Notice that Smokey is tied by a rope to the sled (shopping cart) attempting to pull it--much like the Grinch's dog Max. 

Feeling more guilty than ever, Thurgood decides to sell his new chair and use the money to pay off his friends' debts at the pawn shop.  In a continuation of the references to The Grinch, we now see Stubbs packing all his friends' repossessed items back up in order to return them.  The oversized sack sitting atop the shopping cart should remind you of the familiar images of the Grinch on Christmas morning with his large bounty on the sleigh returning to Whoville.

Returning to the Hilton-Jacobs projects, Stubbs rides atop the large sack of items he is giving back to his friends--much like the Grinch sitting atop his sleigh traveling back to Whoville.

In addition to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this episode's story and dialogue also makes brief references to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Miracle on 34th Street.  I absolutely love it when Christmas episodes make reference to popular Christmas culture.  Are you good at spotting these type of references?

Another detail that makes this Christmas episode a special experience is that this stop motion animated series was produced by Vinton Studios--the animation company behind the unforgettable A Claymation Christmas Celebration from 1987.  Though The PJs was, I believe, made with foam figures and the 1987 Christmas TV special was made entirely with clay, Will Vinton and his team have always been at the top of the list of stop motion animators.  How long has it been since you've watched A Claymation Christmas Celebration?

Among the many musical segments in A Claymation Christmas Celebration, most people instantly recall the California Raisins singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."  Enjoy.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What's Happening!! Christmas (1976)

Thank you for continuing to support Black History Month.  I enjoy celebrating BHM on my blog because there are so many excellent Christmas episodes, specials, and TV movies with exceptional African-American cast members.  There are also many outstanding or touching Christmas TV story lines aimed at black audiences.  Throughout the month of February, I'll highlight a few of my favorites.

The series was loosely based on the 1975 movie Cooley High.

 The 70s sitcom What's Happening!! was initially appealing to TV audiences because it was a then-rare glimpse into the lives of African-American teenagers.  Who is your favorite character in this series--is it the ever-hungry Rerun?  Raj's sassy little sister Dee? or the waitress Shirley? 

In the 1976 episode "Christmas," the friends exchange gifts.  Left to right; Rerun, Raj, Dee, and Dwayne.

The first season brought the episode "Christmas."  Much like the title, it is a simple holiday story but one that continues to be meaningful for TV audiences.  The episode begins on Christmas Eve with Raj and his friends exchanging Christmas gifts.  Raj explains to Rerun and Dwayne that he and his sister Dee will be alone, like they are every year on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, because their mother works.  As a maid, Mrs. Thomas is able to make a lot of money on those two days because her employers host annual holiday parties. 

Dee to Dwayne while he hands out gifts, “If that one isn’t for me, I’m gonna deck your halls!"

Both Dwayne and Rerun extend invitations to Raj and Dee to spend Christmas with their families, but Raj assures them that they like staying home and waiting for their mother to return late in the evening.  When Raj and Dee's father Bill stops over to drop off Christmas presents, he too learns that his children are spending Christmas alone.

Because their parents are divorced, Raj and Dee are used to spending Christmas with their mother.

Though Raj and Dee would rather stay at home and wait for Mama, their father demands that his children spend their first Christmas with him.  Bill Thomas (played by actor Thalmus Rasulala) begins to plan for a special Christmas dinner to share with his children and Raj shares the news with his mother.  Of course, Mabel Thomas (played by actress Mabel King) is supportive and understanding--and she makes sure that Raj knows she wants him to have a good time with his father.

Mabel is happy that her children will spend time with their father on Christmas.

What Raj doesn't know is that his mother had been able to ask off from work on Christmas.  This year, Mabel made the financial sacrifice to not work in order to spend time with her family. Now her children are spending the day with their father--and his girlfriend--and she will spend Christmas day alone.

With their turkey dinner ruined, Raj suggests they eat dinner at the Thomas home.

A twist of fate causes Bill's girlfriend (played by Rosalind Cash) to accidentally burn the turkey of their holiday dinner.  Raj suggests a solution: they can all go to the Thomas home to eat.  He knows Mama has left a complete dinner at home and his friends have dropped off enough food for a feast.  Sure enough, when Raj, Dee, and their father arrive back home, they find Mabel home alone.  But Mama welcomes everyone--including Bill's girlfriend--to share the holiday meal with her. 

On Christmas, the family overeats to the point of turning up their noses at Shirley's homemade pumpkin pie!

This story may be a simple one but stories about families coming together at Christmas time remain popular ones every year throughout TV.  It's a traditional story that never goes out of style.  While the heartwarming story may be familiar, the continuing appeal here is the funny cast of characters.  How long has it been since you watched an episode of What's Happening!!?