Sunday, April 10, 2016

Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour Christmas (1969)

I recently wrote a review of the 1988 Christmas episode of The Wonder Years which includes a small clip from the 1969 Christmas episode of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. That really put me in the mood to watch the 1969 episode again--and so I thought I'd share my thoughts. I'm a big fan of those old fashioned Christmas TV variety specials and maybe you are too!  You should get a big kick out of remembering this program. The '69 and '70 Christmas episodes from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour were both released on DVD last year. Have you seen this one recently?

"Gentle On My Mind" was one of Campbell's first big hits as a solo performer and was used as his TV show's theme tune.

Taped in front of a live studio audience, Glen Campbell opens his TV variety series' first Christmas show singing his hit song “Gentle On My Mind.” After an introduction and announcement about his guests Andy Griffith, Cher, and Paul Lynde, Campbell sings “Gotta Travel On.”

Do you remember what an adding machine is?
Next, Andy Griffith and Glen Campbell perform a comedy sketch about calculating the costs of the gifts described in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” As Griffith leads the singers through each chorus of the familiar song's lyrics, they estimate the lavish expense of buying a partridge, a pear tree, a pot for the tree, two turtle doves, a bird cage, three french hens, a coop, etc. It's heart-warming seeing Andy Griffith in this 1969 TV variety show. Remember the 1960 Christmas episode of The Andy Griffith Show?

Cher performs the song made popular by the late Otis Redding.

Cher takes the stage and sings a stripped down, simple version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Together Campbell and Cher perform a soulful up-tempo version of “Jingle Bells.” This is followed by a comedy sketch with Andy Griffith and Paul Lynde. Griffith plays a bartender listening to Lynde as Santa Claus share his holiday woes.

Set design on these 60s TV variety shows was always impressive.

Easing his pain with shots of milk, Santa stresses about his job.

Next, Glen Campbell plays “Classical Gas” on the acoustic guitar. Visual interest is created behind him with dancers taking the stage as well. Campbell is on fire performing this popular but complex Mason Williams instrumental. If you only know Campbell as a chart topping vocalist, this performance will inform you that he started his career as a sessions guitar player--and was a prominent member of The Wrecking Crew. You've seen the 2008 documentary film on The Wrecking Crew, right? (Yes--he previously worked with Cher as a member of the Wrecking Crew).

Campbell's fingers are flying on "Classical Gas."
Another sketch follows--this one is a filmed short with stop motion animation about a heroic cowboy named Blaze Glory--a tribute to kiddie western serials. Blaze Glory defends a stagecoach from an outlaw named Black Bart. Does that name sound familiar? Black Bart was an actual nineteenth-century outlaw and his name has since become synonymous with villains in western tales. It was used as the bad guy's name in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story in the scene in which Ralphie fantasizes about using a Red Ryder gun to defend his family from robbers.

"Here Comes Santa Claus."
Glen Campbell sits with his band and performs the chart toppers “Witchita Lineman” and “Galveston.”  Both of those songs, written by Jimmy Webb, were gold-selling hits for Campbell the previous year. It's fantastic to hear Glen perform his biggest hits alongside Christmas favorites. Next, Campbell is joined by a member of his band playing a five string banjo for a bluegrass-inspired version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This is followed by another comedy sketch. Griffith, Lynde, and Campbell humorously attempt to assemble a child's toy manufactured in Japan.

A sketch that pokes fun at everyone's frustrations during Christmas having to assemble complex toys.

The live audience actually coos when the baby begins to drift off to sleep during Glen's song.
Campbell sings the gentle holiday song “Little Toy Trains” while holding his baby son Kane. Then, Campbell joins the guests, singers, and dancers on a Christmas-decorated, living room set to sing a medley of holiday favorites.

The living room set is festively decorated and everyone is wearing red and green during the medley sing along.
Accompanied by a toy piano, Griffith takes the lead in “Christmas Chopsticks (Twas the Night Before Christmas).” Campbell solos on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and the whole group sings “Joy to the World.” Cher sings the lead during “Silent Night”--the song and video clip that is found in the 1988 episode of The Wonder Years. Everyone together sings “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and  “Deck the Halls.”

Next, Campbell is joined onstage by his wife Billie, daughter Kelli, and son Travis while he sings “There’s No Place Like Home.” When young Travis experiences a coughing fit, the show continues its live performance! I love Billie's 1960s hairstyle--singer Amy Winehouse would find inspiration in that same style some forty years later. Finally, Glen Campbell closes the show singing “Try a Little Kindness.”

Campbell features his family in the Christmas shows.

Have you seen the other Christmas TV variety shows I've written about on this website before? I wrote about 1967's Christmas with the King Family, the 1963 Christmas episode of the Judy Garland Show, the 1957 Christmas episode of the Frank Sinatra Show, an essay with highlights from several Andy Williams Christmas TV specials, and more. Of course, there is much more written in the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV about TV variety specials. Do you have a favorite Christmas TV variety special?

Campbell's "Try A Little Kindness" is a wonderful reminder during the holiday season.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Back to the Future Christmas (1991)

The animated series Back to the Future ran for two seasons (1991-92).

Remember watching the Saturday morning cartoon series Back to the Future--adapted from the blockbuster Hollywood movie franchise? The first season Christmas episode is a tribute to literary giant Charles Dickens. Let's review this 1991 episode "Dickens of a Christmas" and unpack some of the details.

Remember the characters? left to right: Einstein (the dog), Marty McFly, Clara Brown, Verne, Jules, and Doc Brown. Here the family is feeling irritable in the summer heat.

After enduring a hot, miserable July day, Doc suggests that the family take a break and cool off--by time traveling to Christmas in Victorian London! The group lands the DeLorean, dons period costumes, and sets out to explore the city. Jules is honored when his father lets him look after the keys to the car.

Doc Brown entrusts Jules with the keys to the DeLorean.

Mechanical toys are appealing to scientific minds!

Everyone marvels at the mechanical toys on display in a toy store window. While Marty, Clara, and Doc enter the toy shop, Jules' keys are stole from his pocket by a boy on the street! Both Jules and Verne take off in pursuit after the thief. The two brothers follow the pickpocket up stairs and into a building.

Reg works as a pickpocket on the streets of London to survive.

Jules and Verne find themselves facing Reg's boss--an intimidating man named Murdock.

It turns out the pickpocket's name is Reg and he's not such a bad sort of kid after all. But he's already turned over the keys to his boss Murdock. Jules and Verne decide they may need to stick around a while to find out where the keys have been hidden. That means Jules and Verne will have to pretend to become pickpockets themselves in order to have an excuse to remain with Reg and Murdock. You recognize these Dickens literary characters, don't you? Although their names are different, Reg certainly resembles The Artful Dodger, Murdock is Fagin, and Jules and Verne have become like Oliver--all from the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist.

The landlord Tannen brings in the police to arrest and jail the Fedgewicks.

Meanwhile Doc discovers his sons are missing and goes out looking for them. While Marty and Clara are talking with the toy shop owners, their landlord arrives and demands the rent. It turns out the shop owners are a few months behind in their payments. The money grubbing landlord decides to throw the Fedgewicks in debtors' prison. Poor Clara Brown is mistaken for someone else and is thrown in jail as well! Marty doesn't know what to do to extricate Clara from this horrible Victorian institution. Just who is this harsh, greedy landlord? It's an ancestor of Marty's nemesis Biff Tannen--named Ebiffnezer Tannen.

Using his hoverboard, Marty presents himself as a ghost and flies into Ebiffnezer's window on Christmas Eve.

Learning that the landlord is the only person who can free the Fedgewicks and Clara from debtors' prison, Marty sets out to change Tannen's mind. Marty decides to haunt this scrooge and teach him a lesson about generosity and compassion. Yes, this cartoon is now referencing a second Dickens book--A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas shows Tannen how children labor.

The homeless and starving on the streets of London.

The Ghost of Christmas-aka Marty--takes Tannen on an overnight flight to show him how people without means often suffer. Not only is Tannen exposed to child labor conditions, he also sees how homeless families live on the streets. If you're familiar with Dickens' work, you know that these social issues were a concern for the author. However, in this cartoon, the character of Tannen remains uncaring and unchanged until...

This "vision" frightens Tannen into becoming a better person.

Marty accidentally drops his personal movie viewing device from his hoverboard and a monster movie begins projecting on the wall. Fearing his own mortality, Ebiffnezer Tannen is moved towards compassion for others. He follows the ghost's advice and releases Clara and the toy shopkeepers from debtors' prison.

Doc and Wilkins.

Meanwhile, Doc Brown has been looking for his sons Jules and Verne who have been learning to become pickpockets in order to stay close to the keys to the DeLorean. Both Jules and Verne come away from this experience better understanding the difficulties young orphans endured in order to survive on the streets during Victorian England. Doc Brown helps Reg and his sons by alerting the police about Murdock and Wilkins who are exploiting the youngsters.

The police are eager to capture Wilkins and Murdock.

Another character from Dickens' Oliver Twist that turns up in this animated story is Bill Sikes. Here the character is renamed Wilkins--and given an eye patch. I'm guessing the animators gave Wlkins/Sikes an eye patch out of tribute to the popular 1948 movie adaptation of Oliver Twist (directed by David Lean) in which actor Robert Newton was cast as Bill Sikes. Newton is also well known for playing the pirate character Long John Silver on both the silver screen and on television--thus eye patch!

Christmas in July for the Brown family!

It's a happy ending when the Fedgewicks adopt Reg, Doc gets the keys to the DeLorean back, and everyone celebrates Christmas together. There's only a slight problem when Ebiffnezer Tannen, now a changed man, recognizes Marty on the street as his ghost from the previous night!

An interesting way to keep the conflict going between Biff and Marty in all the episodes.

Bill Nye the Science Guy demonstrating the laws of physics.

The episode ends (like all the Back to the Future TV series episodes) with a live action segment with Bill Nye the Science Guy serving up a science lesson. Here, Nye demonstrates the difference between kinetic energy and potential energy by using a pendulum.

Remember the 1965 Christmas episode of The Avengers? They attend a Dickens party where Emma Peel dresses as Oliver Twist and Steed dresses as Sydney Carton (from A Tale of Two Cities).

This episode is interesting to me for several reasons. One is that the story pays tribute to the classic literary works of Charles Dickens (both Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol). While certainly there are hundreds of TV and movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol, this episode attempts to honor more of Dickens life work. Many Christmas episodes do this--including the 1965 Christmas episode of The Avengers entitled Too Many Christmas Trees." Click on the link to see my review of that episode again.

What does the Christmas episode of the Dukes of Hazzard share in common with this animated episode of Back to the Future?

Another reason I find this episode interesting is that one of the characters attempts to gaslight another by tricking them into having an overnight moral conversion. Here, Tannen (as Scrooge) doesn't experience his change of heart after an evening filled with nightmares or by means of his own conscience--but rather, by being manipulated by Marty McFly who is familiar with Dickens' A Christmas Carol book. This Back to the Future episode is not the only example of this device. I've written about other examples before, including the 1967 Christmas episode of Bewitched, the 1976 Christmas episode of the Six Million Dollar Man, the 1980 Christmas episode of the Dukes of Hazzard, and more.

What do you think of this Christmas episode of Back to the Future? Please feel free to share your comments below.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wonder Years Christmas (1988)

I've been thinking about nostalgia quite a bit lately. When I consider nostalgia, I can't help but be reminded of The Wonder Years--a TV series that aired in the late 80s and early 90s that was set in the late 60s and early 70s. In addition to the setting, the voice-over narration by adult Kevin Arnold looking back and giving commentary on his junior high and high school experiences makes it even more nostalgic. Another layer of nostalgia creeps in when you realize this series first aired 28 years ago. It's no wonder that the Christmas episodes of this series are so moving. Let's look back once again on the second season holiday episode entitled "Christmas" from 1988.

While buying the Christmas tree, Kevin attempts to once again bring up the subject of wanting a color TV for the family.

Adult Kevin's narration tells us that this story takes place during Christmas time 1968. Kevin, his siblings Wayne and Karen, and their mother Norma are hard at work trying to convince their father that they want a color TV for Christmas. Jack says that color TVs are very expensive and reminds his family that money "doesn't grow on trees." But each member of the family takes their turn trying to nudge their father closer to getting them what they all want.

Karen, Wayne, and Kevin discuss the psychology behind convincing their father to get them what they want for Christmas.

Winnie offers Kevin a Christmas present. "Don't open it until Christmas," she requests.

In another story line, Kevin is given a small wrapped gift by his dream girl Winnie Cooper.  Surprised by the attention, Kevin wants to reciprocate the gesture. So he lies and says he has a gift for her as well. Kevin explains that he'll drop his gift off at her home later. In the meantime, Kevin spends a great deal of time trying to imagine what her gift means on the junior high romance spectrum.

Kevin and his friend Paul wage a debate in the school hallway between Christmas vs. Hanukkah--essentially quality vs. quantity as Paul puts it.

At the local department store, Kevin smells many, many perfume samples.

Kevin is intent on buying Winnie the perfect Christmas gift. At the department store, Kevin annoys the counter sales woman by requesting to smell all the different perfume samples in stock, hoping to identify Winnie's current scent. Then Paul points out the flaw in Kevin's gift idea: why give Winnie the same perfume she already owns? Kevin ends up purchasing a less-than-perfect gift he had passed over earlier--a small snowglobe with a ballerina inside.

Recognize what Christmas TV special is airing on the large bank of TVs at the department store? Yes--that's "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol."

Can Christmas be happy with three angry teenagers stuck at home? Ever notice that in this scene Wayne is wearing a Christmas stocking on his head?

On Christmas Eve, the Arnold family is feeling restless as they try to hide their disappointment. Kevin, Karen, Wayne, and Norma have given up on their dream of getting a color TV--and Jack is frustrated by not being able to afford the one gift he knows everyone wants. Norma asks if anyone would like to go caroling around the neighborhood with friends but no one is interested. Karen wants to go out on a date for the evening but her parents make her stay home. Kevin decides to slip out for a few minutes to deliver Winnie's Christmas gift.

This memorable scene has been included in numerous clip shows over the years as an example of everyone's favorite Christmas moment.

Kevin's fantasy gets the best of him.

Standing in front of her door, Kevin imagines a romantic scene in which the beautiful Winnie expresses her overwhelming gratitude for his gift. Reality awakens him when a stranger opens the Cooper family's front door.

Kevin is informed that Winnie is not home.

It turns out, a family member is housesitting while the Cooper family is out of town. Winnie and her parents left town for Christmas since this is the first holiday since her older brother Brian was killed in Vietnam. Kevin (and TV viewers) immediately sympathize with the pain and grief the Cooper family must be enduring. Kevin drops off his less-than-perfect gift and slowly returns home.

Don't think about it too long or you'll realize Mitchell's "River" wasn't released until 1971. No matter--the song captures the tone of this holiday scene and probably shouldn't be read as a song Kevin was listening to (while walking) in 1968.

Kevin dwells in the complicated emotions of knowing that he's spent the previous week worried about what Winnie's gift could mean for their future. He was only concerned about finding the perfect gift to impress her into becoming his girlfriend. And now, he feels guilty and regretful for only thinking of himself. The melancholy song "River" sung by Joni Mitchell that plays under the scene in which Kevin walks home perfectly captures the sadness of the moment.

Caroling in the neighborhood finally brings the family together on Christmas Eve.

Closer to home, Kevin finds his family caroling door-to-door in the neighborhood. He joins them in song just as it begins to rain! In keeping with traditional sitcom structure, the play against expectation (it doesn't snow this Christmas Eve) causes the Arnolds to laugh and we're rewarded with a happy ending to this story, despite the heavy emotions just moments before.

Remember what Kevin found in the box Winnie gave him for Christmas?

At the beginning of the episode, did you ever notice who plays Kevin's french teacher? It's actress Liz Torres from All in the Family and more recently the Gilmore Girls.

This episode is a powerful Christmas story that reminds us about the pain of adolescence and becoming more aware of the world around us. While I don't want to minimize this episode's impact and entertainment value, I do wish to point out a minor flaw. At the episode's start, Kevin and his family are at the local store watching a color TV set that is airing a television variety Christmas special.

Screen shot from The Wonder Years. Is it 1968--or 1969?

We're told this story takes place over Christmas 1968--however the TV set shows the 1969 Christmas installment of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour starring Campbell, Cher, Paul Lynde, and more. I suppose it really doesn't matter, but it is a detail that Christmas TV fans may notice.

Screen shot from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour's 1969 TV special as the guests sing "Silent Night." This episode was released on DVD last year.

When you think of Christmas nostalgia, what TV episode comes to your mind?  Feel free to share your comments below.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Twilight Zone Christmas (1960)

I've spoken about this Christmas episode so many times, I sometimes overlook the fact that I haven't written about it on the blog before. But don't be mistaken--this second season episode of The Twilight Zone sits at the top of the list of my favorite Christmas episodes of all time. Even more special is that the 1960 episode "Night of the Meek" frequently tops lists made by TV critics (and fans) of the best Twilight Zone episodes ever made. Let's look again at what makes this Christmas TV episode so noteworthy.

This dirty and disheveled Santa is spending his meal break at a nearby bar.

Down-on-his-luck Henry Corwin works as a department store Santa Claus. Not only is he late returning from his lunch break but we see that he's drunk. The world-weary man isn't in a hurry to get off his bar stool and go back to work. However, when he sees two excited kiddies looking at him through the windows of the tavern, he's happy to wave at them and smile back.

We all know this disillusioned Santa--it's actor Art Carney. We've seen him in numerous Christmas episodes of The Honeymooners, as well as 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special.

In a brief exchange with the bartender, we hear Corwin explain that he drinks to excess because he's trying not to cry. Corwin is disillusioned with a modern Christmas that focuses on spending, buying, and rushing around. He remarks that he longs for the holidays that used to mean something, like inspiring hope, offering kindness, and remembering simple pleasures. In his impoverished neighborhood, he sees children that struggle for bare necessities and it breaks his heart to hear them ask for luxuries like toys and games that he knows they'll never receive.

Corwin has a soft spot for children but many adults are intolerable.

Corwin returns to work but he's too drunk--the store manager fires him. In a gut-wrenching soliloquy, Corwin explains to his boss Mr. Dundee that he drinks to excess in order to fantasize that the North Pole exists and to feel like he really is Santa Claus. All he wants is to offer hope to those in despair and ensure that the meek inherit the Earth. Corwin may be a drunk but TV viewers are on his side.

Corwin's heart is in the right place even if his frustrations in life keep him from succeeding.

Corwin is moved as he hears children ask Santa for toys as well as a job for a father and a holiday meal for the whole family. Their generosity inspires him to want to give more.

Walking the streets of his neighborhood in a grimy Santa suit, children are still filled with excitement to talk with the man of the hour. Touched by their pure hearts, Corwin makes his own Christmas wish--to be able to give everyone what they ask for.

TV viewers can hear the tinkling of the familiar carol "The First Noel" on music box chimes as we cross over into the Twilight Zone.

What a jackpot!

It is in this moment that the magic of Christmas and the wonder of the Twilight Zone meet. Stumbling down a back alley, Corwin finds a large sack filled with wrapped gifts! Joyful to have something to share with others, he grabs the bulging bag and runs out of the alley to give his gifts on Christmas Eve.

Corwin is caught up in the spirit of giving.

In a following scene, we see Corwin enter the local mission and offer to give everyone there whatever their hearts desire. As each soul steps forward and names what they would like, the bag offers up another wrapped package containing that item! One elderly man asks for a pipe and smoking jacket--and the bag produces them. Sister Florence, the head of the mission, doubts Corwin's offer of a brand new dress--but the bag supplies one upon request. The unbelievable news of the Christmas gifts is spreading around the streets and soon the police show up.

"You got a receipt for these gifts?"

Officer Flaherty questions Corwin about the expensive items he's handing out. When Corwin can't provide receipts to prove the items are paid for, the generous Santa is arrested and taken to the police station. Corwin's former boss Mr. Dundee is called into the station house to help identify the gift items which may have been stolen from the department store. But when the officer or Mr. Dundee reaches into the bag, all they find are empty tin cans. Without any evidence to hold him, Officer Flaherty lets Corwin go. Corwin continues to hand out wrapped packages and gifts the rest of the night to the people in the streets.

Mr. Dundee and Officer Flaherty can't make sense of the magical bag. It even offered up a vintage bottle of brandy when Dundee asked for one!

When the clock strikes midnight, Corwin finds his bag finally offers up its last goodies for Christmas. Exhausted and satisfied from the evening's activities, he sits down on a stoop in front of the mission. There, Corwin is joined by an old man--who earlier had asked for the pipe and smoking jacket. Corwin once again echoes his happiness in being able to give away tokens of joy this Christmas and brighten a few hearts. He only wishes he could do it again next year.

Can it be true?

In the kind of twist we have come to expect from the Twilight Zone, we see Corwin once again start into the alley nearby. Something new catches his eye--sure enough, there's a sleigh hooked up to a team of reindeer and an elf! The elf calls out to Santa and explains that they have to hurry back to the North Pole and begin preparing for next year's deliveries. Without question, Corwin gets in the sleigh with the elf and together they ride off.

Dundee and Flaherty can't believe their eyes when they see Santa and his sleigh fly overhead.

Cynicism transforms into the Twilight Zone.

This profoundly hopeful story was another written by Rod Serling himself. The story's depth of feeling is pretty remarkable considering its half hour length. The economy of storytelling and its universal message makes it as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago when it was first broadcast. I find the story's wonderful mix of melancholy and hope to be its charm. A similar hybrid of melancholy and hope is what appeals to me as an adult to continue watching A Charlie Brown Christmas year after year.

Recognize the actor who plays Mr. Dundee? It's John Fiedler. He also played Mr. Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show for years.

"Night of the Meek" is so well known and loved that it was re-made for the new Twilight Zone series in the 1980s. The second version cast Richard Mulligan as Corwin--and the episode was directed by Martha Coolidge. Twilight Zone fans should definitely check it out. The 1985 episode still airs on TV when the new series runs in syndication.

Character actor Burt Mustin plays the old man who receives a pipe and smoking jacket for Christmas. LOVE Burt Mustin.

And, if you consider yourself a fan of Rod Serling's work, I recommend seeking out the 1965 movie Carol for Another Christmas--which usually airs on Turner Classic Movies channel each year. It's quite unusual but also profound. The Serling-written movie is an adaptation of Dickens' holiday tale that expresses the political perspective of promoting diplomacy in reaction to its Scrooge's isolationist views. It's amazing--and a one-of-a-kind installment of Cold War television.  (I've written extensively about it in both The Christmas TV Companion and Tis the Season TV).

Does this Twilight Zone episode make your top 10 list of Christmas episodes too? Tell me what you think.