Thursday, May 14, 2015

Family Christmas (1976)

Family ran for five seasons, 1976-1980.  Are you a big fan too?

The one drama series I most frequently turn to when I'm looking for emotional comfort is Family.  Although the Lawrence family never resembled my family, I've always connected to the emotions and the gentle, perhaps even common, dramas my favorite TV family struggled with.  I've watched the first and second seasons on DVD over and over again.  Today I thought I'd share my thoughts on the second season Christmas episode.  When will they release more of this series on DVD?  I make this complaint a lot, don't I?

On-screen title of this yuletide episode although the DVD re-names it "The Christmas Show."

The 1976 holiday episode has been titled "The Christmas Show" on the official DVD set however, the title appears differently on screen at the beginning of the episode.  Episode title changes happen quite a bit, actually.  No matter, this first Christmas episode of the series has several memorable moments.

Doug's father James comes to the house for Christmas and introduces his new girlfriend, Constance Hume.

The central storyline concerns itself with Doug's father James.  He is coming over for the family tree trimming party as he does every year, however, this year he brings along a girlfriend.  Doug is polite and warmly welcomes Constance to his home but he is upset.  Not only is Constance significantly younger than his father (Doug comments she must be his own age) but Doug is shocked to discover that his father is serious about the relationship and they are talking about getting married on New Year's day.

Nancy was experiencing Christmas in an all new way, through the eyes of her child, only to learn that Timmy is leaving with his father for the holiday.

Meanwhile, the other members of the family have their own concerns.  Oldest sister Nancy is disappointed to realize she has unknowingly agreed to share custody of her young son Timmy with his father over the entire Christmas weekend.  Young Timmy is at that age where he is experiencing the joy of Christmas for the first time and Nancy is upset with her ex-husband Jeff that he is taking Timmy on a cruise to Mexico.  Nancy was hoping to have Timmy home with her and the whole family for the holiday.  (This is just one among many bitter struggles Nancy has with her ex-husband Jeff throughout the series.)

Although she's a teenager, Buddy is still the youngest member of the family so she gets to put the star on the top of the Christmas tree at the party.

13 year-old Buddy is awkwardly occupying that space between being a child and an adult.  As the youngest, she finds she has to remind the adults to keep up the family's annual holiday traditions while she knows she doesn't feel like a child anymore.  Mother Kate is disappointed in the warmer-than-usual weather in Pasadena this Christmas.  She misses the snow she experienced at Christmas as a child growing up in Oregon.  Emotions are running deep this holiday season at the Lawrence home.

Constance catches Willie staring at her!  Constance Hume is portrayed here by singer/actress Sheree North.

Willie is convinced he's met Grandpa's girlfriend Constance before.  The next day while Christmas shopping with Buddy, Willie steps into a record store and instantly recalls why Constance looks familiar to him:  she used to be a recording artist known as Connie Sullivan.  Willie buys a Connie Sullivan record to give to Grandpa as a stocking stuffer on Christmas morning.

Willie remembers why Grandpa's girlfriend looks so familiar.

Willie thinks everyone will be tickled to discover that Constance used to be a celebrity.

Willie tells his father about the Connie Sullivan record he's purchased--but Doug isn't happy.  In fact, Doug forbids Willie to give his gift!  Later, we hear Doug talking to his wife Kate about his feelings.  Doug remembers Connie Sullivan from her singing career in the 1960s.  She made headlines several times from a lurid affair with a married bandleader and getting mixed up with mobsters.  Kate feels that Doug should drop his concern about Constance but Doug wants to talk to his father about her scandalous past.

Doug has hurt his father's feelings so badly that James refuses to come over for Christmas dinner as planned.

Sure enough, James takes offense to Doug's interference in his private life.  It turns out, James knew all about Constance's past. Now James resents his son meddling in his business and speaking to him like he's incompetent--or worse, an old fool being exploited by a younger woman. Doug thinks he has every right to be protective of his father's interests but James is so hurt that he refuses to come over to the house for Christmas dinner.  Kate is angry that the family won't be together for Christmas.

Doug is stubbornly convinced he's right but now the family won't be together for Christmas.

Although Christmas TV episodes require a bit of conflict in order to move a narrative forward, this drama unfolds and resolves itself acknowledging its characters' depth and subtlety of emotion that is most often overlooked in family sitcom storylines and many other dramas.  This is the strength of the series Family overall--and it's true in this particular episode as well.

Kate quotes Hamlet about the tradition of holding Christmas sacred to make her point about the holiday's importance to adults as well as children.

My favorite moment in this holiday episode is a shared conversation between mother and daughter on the sofa.  Teenager Buddy tells her mom that she thinks Christmas is best enjoyed by children.  Kate hugs her daughter, agrees, and says that she thinks Christmas time may be more important for adults.  She quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act I, scene i--dialogue spoken by Marcellus) to make the point that adults require the annual reminder to stop and remember the importance of love, family, and peace.  It's a powerful moment, filled with the depth of emotion and importance that only a mother's wisdom can bring.  And, Kate makes her point by quoting Shakespeare!?  The oft repeated claim that television is a "vast wasteland" overlooks precious moments like this.

It's emotionally satisfying to see mature men express their feelings and resolve their conflicts.

By the end of this episode, the conflicts are resolved--and the Lawrence family spends Christmas together.  Again, the happy ending may be of no surprise to television viewers but here the emotional lives of the characters are the driving force of the story--not the plot itself.  It's wonderful to see Doug not just apologize to his father but tell him that he loves him and needs him in his life.

This episode also give actress/singer Sheree North a chance to shine a little.  We hear her sing at bit of "The Little Drummer Boy" at the Lawrences' tree trimming party and "What Child Is This?" as a part of her church choir on Christmas Eve.

Despite their rancorous divorce,  Jeff and Nancy agree to come together for Timmy this Christmas.
Jeff ends up dropping by on Christmas day to return Timmy to Nancy.  After spending Christmas Eve with his side of the family, he now better understands how important it would be for Timmy to be with his mother and her family on Christmas day.  Nancy graciously invites Jeff to spend the rest of the holiday with her family and his son, Timmy.

Buddy's mysterious box from the freezer reveals its contents:  Kate's authentic snowman.
And, Buddy thoughtfully gifts a bit of Christmas nostalgia to her mother.  Buddy has found and purchased a snowman--made of real ice--for Kate to experience a bit of her childhood again.  While most of us know what it is to have a bit of family drama at Christmas, sometimes it's easier to endure when fictional families, like the Lawrences, inspire us to hope for the best.

The Lawrence family at Christmas.

In 1976, McNichol appeared in both the Family Christmas episode and the Starsky & Hutch Christmas episode.

Are you a fan of the series Family too?  Who is your favorite character and cast person?  I always wanted a brother like Willie but I identified with Buddy.  If you want to see Kristy McNichol in another yuletide episode, don't forget that she appears in the 1976 Christmas episode of Starsky & Hutch too.

Kristy plays a street-wise kid on the Christmas episode of Starsky & Hutch.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Green Acres Christmas (1966)

Although the Green Acres Christmas episode isn't my favorite installment of the series--it is consistent with the absurd world envisioned by series creator, Jay Sommers.  (My favorite episodes usually center around Oliver's knuckleheaded farm hand, Eb.)  Nevertheless, let me remind you of the plot of "An Old Fashioned Christmas" from Green Acres' second season.

While others may dream of Christmas in New York, Oliver fantasizes about Christmas in the country.

We see a scene from several years ago when Oliver and Lisa were still living in New York (before they moved to the farm outside Hooterville.)  The couple are Christmas tree shopping and Oliver is frustrated with his limited options of flocked and painted trees.  These trendy firs are pricey as well.  This establishes the context for Oliver's dream of a simple, old-fashioned Christmas spent in the country.

Mr. Haney drops by the Douglas farm to sell Oliver a "transistorized neck tie." Oh boy. 

This means, Oliver looks forward to the simple life, one in which he chops down his own Christmas tree.  Back on the farm, Oliver is told by Mr. Haney that it's illegal in Hooterville to chop down your own Christmas tree!

Mr. Drucker and Fred Ziffel check out the latest in plastic Christmas trees!  Not only do you assemble it yourself, but each one comes with a bulb you squeeze to release a spray of pine fresh scent.

Squeeze the bulb--and instant spruce juice!

Not sure if he believes Mr. Haney, Oliver goes to store owner Sam Drucker and asks about chopping down his own Christmas tree.  Sure enough, Mr. Drucker confirms that you can't chop down your own Christmas tree--even on your own property!  It's a matter of conservation.

Oliver Douglas is a fish out of water.

Oliver is frustrated with what he's being told is the the law where he lives.  Even as a matter of tree conservation, he thinks he should be able to chop down his own Christmas tree on his own property.  Oliver believes he's a genuine American Farmer (cue the song "Yankee Doodle" played on a fife) and it's part of the American Dream for him to want a simpler life and an old-fashioned Christmas....if you've seen the series, you get the idea! (Oliver seeks a more genuine, authentic, back-to-basics, farm lifestyle over the artificial, mass-produced, manufactured urban life that's popular in the 1960s.)  Next, Oliver heads to his county agent's office to see Hank Kimball about chopping down a tree.

The truth in Hank Kimball's character is revealed if you've ever had bureaucratic dealings with government officials.  Regulations typically defy logic and there's always red tape.

After a lengthy and round-about conversation with Hank Kimball (if you've seen the series, you know how these conversations always go), Oliver learns he can get a permit to legally chop down his own Christmas tree, on his own property. Finally, Oliver can experience the old-fashioned Christmas of his dreams.

Oliver finally chops down his own tree.

Lisa sets out to bake her own fruitcake--with just a few modifications to her hotcakes recipe.

This is Lisa's idea of stringing popcorn (kernels still on the cob!?)

In keeping with an old-fashioned Christmas, friends and neighbors drop by to express their holiday greetings.  Most say they were curious what a real tree looked like--after years of fake and artificial decorations.

Even Arnold Ziffel likes the real Christmas tree!

Christmas is made merry when Oliver receives his wife's gift:  it's snowing in Hooterville!'s snowing (despite the 80 degree temperatures) outside the Douglases' window.  This Christmas miracle is courtesy of Mr. Haney--sitting on the roof sprinkling soap flakes over the edge.

A Christmas miracle: it's snowing!

While this episode certainly embraces the holiday spirit, it lacks some of the more extreme absurdism that some of the other Green Acres episodes embrace.  To be honest, it isn't that ridiculous for Oliver to long for an old-fashioned Christmas with a real Christmas tree, homemade fruitcake, and handmade Christmas decorations.  More and more, people seek out a simpler lifestyle and old-fashioned holiday experiences each year.  Despite the ridiculous commercialization and fake sentiments all around, people still strive and find just what Oliver was looking for and found for himself.  This episode may be a reaffirmation of what many would consider the American Dream--the enjoyment of a simpler, more authentic life, even if it is temporary.  The humor in this episode is how no one else in Hooterville shares Oliver's values for an old-fashioned holiday and to what lengths Oliver must go in order to achieve it.  And, in the end, Oliver gets exactly what he wants.  I sure hope Eb gets the radio necktie he wants.

Oliver and Lisa share a kiss under the mistletoe.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Christmas (1966)

Remember this Cold War espionage TV drama?
The trailers are out and the promotions have begun for the upcoming release of the new theatrical  movie The Man from U.N.C.L.E. starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.  This latest film update of a classic TV series is directed by Guy Ritchie and seems (from the trailer I've watched) to capture some of the sense of humor and retro 1960s fashions and style of the earlier television project.  We'll see.  In the meantime, I thought this might make a good time to reflect back on the third season Christmas episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. entitled "The Jingle Bells Affair."  Did you expect anything less?

It's vintage footage from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade!

This episode's story begins with Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin working as bodyguards for a visiting Russian dignitary, Chairman Georgi Koz.  The very powerful man is in the United States for a visit and to speak before a United Nations meeting in New York City.  It just so happens that Koz's visit coincides with the Thanksgiving holiday and Macy's parade.

Front seat: Kuryakin drives and Solo rides shotgun.  Back seat: Russian Maxim Radish accompanies Chairman Koz.

While the men are stuck in traffic in Manhattan during the parade, we hear the details of the Chairman's visit and his political views.  It's no coincidence that the actor playing Koz resembles Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev was the real-life Russian Chairman at the time of this 1960s sci-fi/fantasy spy series.

I have to be honest--HALF the fun of this episode is looking at the retro film footage of the Macy's parade during the 1960s!

Can you imagine standing on the street at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in the 1960s and then seeing yourself on an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Solo and Kuryakin are escorting Koz around town in order to protect him from protestors as well as potential assassins.  Sure enough, a bomb is tossed at the entourage endangering the visiting Russians.  Bodyguards Solo and Kuryakin successfully protect Koz.  Now the men know there is someone looking to harm the Chairman--and not just the potential for a threat. 

Brush up on your 60s Cold War politics! This episode is a fun trip back in time.

Solo and Kuryakin must investigate the bombing attempt and determine if the assassin is an angry American looking to eliminate the foreign leader or a hardline Communist who wishes to silence the Chairman's current political philosophy of co-existence.

Koz suspects that what he's heard about the abundance of consumer goods in America is propaganda!  Not so, says the store manager at Macy's.

Georgi Koz is undeterred by the assassination attempt.  He has sat in the car all morning during the parade listening to Solo and Kuryakin describe Macy's department store.  Koz wants to see it for himself!  Despite the security risks, Koz wants to tour "the citadel of bourgeoisie expectations."  Koz is doubtful and suspicious of the descriptions he's heard of the affordability and abundance of consumer goods available to the average American consumer.  Skeptical of the successes of capitalism, Koz wants to see it for himself--at Macy's department store.  When does Koz visit Macy's? On the day after Thanksgiving, of course--the first official day of the Christmas shopping season.

Koz marvels at the Macy's store Santa Claus.

Koz's visit to Macy's impresses him.  He's even won over by the store's Santa Claus!  Koz wants to know more about Santa's influence on consumer affairs and asks to visit the Santa school where men are instructed to fulfill the fantasy role.  Despite the obvious security risks, Kuryakin and Solo are obligated to keep their guest happy.  They agree to escort Koz to visit a local Salvation Army mission.

What happens when the leader of the communist world dons a Santa suit, a symbol synonymous with capitalism?

Koz, his bodyguards, and Priscilla, a Salvation Army officer, find refuge after another assassination attempt.

Chairman Koz argues politics with a few of the down-on-their-luck persons at the Salvation Army mission but seems to be enjoying himself.  Koz even puts on a Santa Claus suit in the spirit of the season.  Again, there's an assassination attempt made on the foreign visitor which Solo and Kuryakin successfully thwart.  Koz escapes the spray of bullets that fills the mission's store front windows by escaping out a back exit.  As he flees, he is separated from his bodyguards.

Koz's thick Russian accent brings comfort to a sick immigrant boy.

Koz escapes from the deadly situation and finds himself lured by a woman into her apartment.  Away from his bodyguards, Koz's identity is unknown--he's just a man in a Santa suit.  The woman wants Santa Claus to speak to her sick child and comfort him.  Koz may be upset with how the character of Santa Claus is used to manipulate children with the decadence of Christmas but he's delighted to bring happiness to a sick little boy.  Meanwhile, Solo and Kuryakin are looking into who might be the assassin.  They know that few people were aware of Koz's surprise visit to the mission--it must be someone close to the security detail.  They begin to suspect Maxim Radish--the Chairman's right-hand man.

Chairman Koz is so angry about another assassination attempt, he bangs his shoe on the table.  He decides to abandon his peaceful philosophy of 'co-existence' during his speech at the United Nations.

Heavy politics mixed with tongue-in-cheek humor--this is what we love about The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

We learn that Solo and Kuyakin are correct.  Comrade Radish fears that Koz's interest in understanding capitalism will soften his commitment to the cause of communism.  At the least, Koz is unpredictable and Radish sees this as a threat to his hardline politics.  Radish begins another plot to kill Koz--this lethal attempt will take place during Koz' automobile ride to speak at a meeting of the United Nations.  The limo driver is working in allegiance with Radish.  Illya and Napoleon overhear the schemes of Radish--they are caught and taken captive.  You must see it to believe it--the two men are bound inside a poultry crate along with several live turkeys. 

Santa Koz showers the little boy with consumer goods at Christmas!

The humorous humiliation of Kuryakin and Solo continues until they manage their escape from custody.  I won't spoil it to explain how they escape--it's worth seeing it and laughing about it on your own.  But I will add that Chairman Koz's assassination is stopped because he makes the choice to exit the vehicle before he reaches the United Nations.  He gives in to a request to wear his Santa suit and speak to the little sick boy one more time.  Koz purposefully decides to help improve the life of one little boy over addressing a group of world leaders about political ideologies.  Even TV spy series get the Christmas spirit!

Nikita who? Actor Akim Tamiroff plays Koz.

Although it's not hard to recognize Georgi Koz's similarities with then-Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, there are a few additional clues worth mentioning.  Earlier in the episode, Illya and Napoleon discuss restricting Koz's tour of Macy's department store because of the security risks and Koz dismisses their concerns citing the cancellation of his visit to Disneyland.  Those watching this episode when it originally aired would probably have recognized that as a direct reference to Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the United States in 1959.  Khrushchev was not permitted a visit to Disneyland because of the overwhelming security risks.  And, this episode also includes a scene of Chairman Koz banging his shoe on a table in his hotel when he becomes angered.  This is another obvious reference to Khrushchev who notoriously took off his shoe and angrily banged it on a table at a UN meeting in 1960.  Should I even ask if Khrushchev ever wore a Santa Claus suit?

The real Khrushchev--did he ever watch The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Little House on the Prairie (1977) Christmas

Little House on the Prairie has several memorable Christmas episodes.  I wrote about the 1974 episode "Christmas at Plum Creek" several years ago.  I've also shared my thoughts on the 1981 episode "A Christmas They Never Forgot."  Click on the titles to see those essays again.  The third season of LHOTP also produced a yuletide episode which may be easy to overlook.  One reason for this is that "Blizzard" was originally broadcast in January of 1977 nearly two weeks after Christmas.  Another reason it may be overlooked is because the episode's story centers around a natural disaster and feels more like a horror story.  Let me remind you of the plot.

Charles and Isaiah at the telegraph office.  They want to get home before the storm dumps several feet of snow.

The women in the community have come together to make the decorations for the community Christmas party.
A severe blizzard with strong winds is moving through the Midwest.  The news about the storm travels across the telegraph wires however the warnings don't reach everyone in the blizzard's path. It's Christmas Eve and Charles and Isaiah are making deliveries from shipments dropped off at the train station.  Back in town, the children in school are excited for the day's work to be over for the Christmas holiday.  The teacher Miss Beadle is unaware of the dangerous forecast but senses a storm. She sends the children home early to make it easier for them to walk home.  Meanwhile, the women of the community are waiting for school to be over--they are looking forward to decorating the classroom for the upcoming community Christmas party.

Young sister Carrie (foreground) was the class' special guest on this last day of school before Christmas.

The snow storm quickly turns from a gentle holiday snowfall to a windy, bone-chilling white out.  Most of the children struggle to make the journey home in the blinding snow.  The group of women head over to the school hoping to find the children waiting for them.  Unfortunately, Miss Beadle had sent the children home early.  Now all of the youngest in the community are out in the blizzard.

Miss Beadle feels horrible.  She didn't know that the storm would become dangerous so quickly.

Parents quickly separate into search parties to locate the children in the storm.

The storm is so severe that Charles and Isaiah cease their deliveries to come into the school to find shelter.  Panic begins to spread as it becomes clear to everyone that the storm may be too dangerous for the children to reach their destinations.

The journey for Mary and Laura is made more difficult because they have to help Carrie.
Mr. McGuinness needs a lantern to continue the search for his children after the sun goes down.

Some children are found safe not far from the school while others have turned around and returned to the school building.  However some parents are finding that their children didn't take their usual routes home attempting short cuts and other diversions to avoid the worst of the winds.  While the men brave the deep snow, plummeting temperatures, and high winds to look for lost children, the women help Doc Baker prepare to treat cases of frostbite.  A true test of character comes to those sitting in the schoolhouse, waiting for updates about their loved ones and their neighbors.  The teacher Miss Beadle is overwhelmed with guilt as she watches the tragic evening unfold.

Caroline and Mrs. Edwards are beside themselves with worry waiting for the men to return with their children.

Mary, Laura, and Carrie take shelter away from the high winds and blinding snow.

Pa Ingalls traces his daughters' journey away from their usual route home.  He eventually finds his girls safe in an abandoned shed and he helps them return to the schoolhouse.  However, not every family was as lucky.

With renewed clarity, the survivors of the blizzard listen as Charles reads from the Bible.

By Christmas morning, the storm is over and nearly everyone in town is accounted for.  Some families are in need to recovering from their injuries and frostbite.  Others are experiencing tragic loss of life while the survivors are feeling grateful.  It is during this sobering mix of emotions at the schoolhouse that Charles steps forward to read the story of the Nativity from the Bible.  The tragic evening is over and a new day begins. 

While the episode's story clearly takes place at Christmas time and includes scenes of the women making Christmas decorations and Charles' reading of the Nativity story, I think it's easy to forget that this nightmarish snowstorm episode is a holiday one too.  The eighth season episode "A Christmas They Never Forgot" also takes place during a severe snow storm which may cause some to confuse this earlier holiday story with the latter.  However, scary stories have been a Christmas tradition for generations.  Don't forget Charles Dickens gave us a Christmas story with four ghosts and Dr. Seuss' Grinch is a monstrous character.  How many chills and thrills do like with your favorite holiday tales?