Sunday, October 22, 2017

Peace on Earth (1939) Christmas cartoon

In case you don't know, cartoons like this were originally made to run in movie theaters before feature films. Audiences usually saw a couple cartoons, a newsreel, maybe other shorts, and trailers before the movie. Those were the days, eh?

I thought October would be a fun time to look back at the 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth. It was Oscar nominated for “Best Short Subject” that year. While this yuletide classic is not typically considered a horror story, it does contain frightening imagery with the intention to shock viewers--an experience that stands out against most other Christmas entertainment. Even if you've become accustomed to Dickens' ghost story, a post-apocalyptic story about the extinction of mankind isn't what we expect from a Christmas cartoon. If you haven't seen it in a while, let me remind you of the details.

The imagery from the start is bleak and frightening.

The 1939 MGM animated short was originally filmed in Technicolor, and directed by the legendary Hugh Harman. The story begins with snow falling on a bombed-out church with splintered stained glass windows, abandoned artillery, and a community in ruins after war. Viewers hear the carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," however the lyrics have been changed to highlight a repetition of the phrase "Peace on Earth." Eventually we see a warm, little community of houses made from military helmets, spent mortar shells, and cannon barrels. Within that community, chipmunk carolers are seen as the ones singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." An elder squirrel walks by the carolers, offering them a friendly holiday greeting before entering his home.

Grandpa squirrel offers the young ones a scary bed time story about humans.

Once inside, the elder squirrel is welcomed home by his wife and grandchildren. He offers to them the same festive greeting "Peace on Earth. Good Will to Men!" His grandchildren ask him "What are men?" and the elder squirrel decides to share a scary bedtime story to amuse them.

Confirmed: gas masks and bayonet rifles are horrifying!

The squirrel's story begins with a description of men as monstrous creatures that were always fighting about their significant and trivial differences. The description is accompanied by frightening images of a soldier wearing a gas mask and carrying a bayonet rifle, a line of tanks roaring through a bombed-out city, and a sky lit up by exploding bombs.

The last man's desperate grasp sinks into the mud as he dies in battle. This is some scary stuff!

The grandfather's story continues, explaining that humans continued to wage war until they made themselves extinct. The nightmarish point is made by showing how the last two humans killed each other, and their bodies sink into the mud. With mankind gone, the animals emerge from the forests and begin to investigate what's left behind.

The animals stumble across the human's own ignored instruction "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Ouch!

The elder squirrel explains that he was quite young then, but he joined a group of animals in a war-ravaged church. An owl reads from a "book of rules" left behind by the humans which includes the 10 Commandments and the Old Testament verse "Ye Shall Rebuild the Old Wastes." Learning from the humans' mistake, the birds, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits begin to rebuild their homes and community in peace and cooperation from what's left behind.

A sign identifies the new city as Peaceville.

The new community "rebuilt from the old wastes" recycles the obsolete helmets, mortar shells, and artillery into habitat for the forest survivors. As we hear the carol "Silent Night" over the soundtrack, viewers recognize that Peaceville is the same village where the elder squirrel and his grandchildren now live. With his grandchildren fast asleep, he tucks them into bed on the peaceful Christmas evening. The cartoon’s clear anti-war message is deliberately created to overlap with the Christmas sentiments of peace, goodwill, and respect for God’s rules, such as the Ten Commandments.

The lyric "Sleep in Heavenly Peace" from Silent Night completes the cartoon's message.

While the cautionary tale remains as relevant as ever, the powerful imagery of the modern soldiers and warfare in 1939 certainly points to the immanent conflicts in Europe at the time, namely the incursions of Nazi Germany. Moving against the warnings made in this short film, less than two years later, the United States joined in the fighting in what was to become World War II.

The cartoon was re-made in 1955 as “Good Will to Men” by Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. More on that, coming soon.

Watch the 1939 cartoon for yourself at this link:

Do you have a favorite scary Christmas tale? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Perry Como's Early American Christmas (1978)

First broadcast Dec. 12, 1978

Visiting Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, the hometown of singer Perry Como, last month sparked a desire to re-watch an old Como Christmas TV special. Click here to see the details of my journey to Canonsburg again. Deciding on which Como holiday special was a challenge--he's been in so many. Perry's first TV appearance during Christmas time was in 1948. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, he hosted his own Perry Como Show and Kraft Music Hall which featured annual Christmas installments. By the late '60s, he hosted his own annual Christmas TV variety specials. In the 1970s and 80s, his popular Christmas specials were shot at distinctive destinations around the world and were themed to highlight the culture of each place. His final Christmas special, a concert shot in Ireland, first aired on PBS in 1994. That's almost fifty years of outstanding holiday TV entertainment.

I decided on the 1978 special Perry Como's Early American Christmas from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia because it easily combines patriotism and the Christmas spirit--two American celebrations that aren't commonly joined together quite like this. While Como's annual holiday TV specials are certainly a thing of the past, this particular one honoring our American heritage seems to be a forgotten trend as well. Let's look at this one again.

Hot Diggity! Mr. C sings Christmas favorites in Colonial Williamsburg.

Como's guests for this Christmas show include actor John Wayne, actress/singer Diana Canova, violinist Eugene Fodor, and beauty pageant winner Kylene Barker. In 1978, Diana Canova was starring on the serialized sitcom Soap as Jessica Tate's daughter Corinne. Don't even get me started talking about my favorite characters and storylines--I'm a huge fan of Soap! Actor John Wayne's final Western was already behind him by 1978. Sadly, the film legend died of cancer six months after this Christmas special first aired. Also featured in this special are the College of William & Mary choir, and the fife and drum corps, dancers, craftsmen, and costumed people of Colonial Williamsburg.

"...2 powdered wigs..."

The opening song in the 1978 Christmas variety special is the "Twelve Days of Christmas" sung by Como with special lyrics reflecting the colonial experience of historic Williamsburg. As the lyrics countdown the twelve days of the holiday, we see the gifts given were ones made by the local makers, including candles, powdered wigs, violins, gingerbread men, golden rings, woven baskets, wooden barrels, printed Christmas stories, spools of linen, ladies' bonnets, horseshoes, wagon wheels--you get the idea! Viewers are immediately immersed in the distinctive culture of eighteenth-century Colonial Williamsburg.

The eighteenth-century costumes are delightful!

Next, the fife and drum corps marches across the grounds. Como walks alongside a young drummer and sings the popular Christmas carol "Little Drummer Boy." In one of the historic homes on the grounds, Diana Canova sings "My Cup Runneth Over." This is followed by Perry and Diana singing "It Couldn't Please Me More (A Pineapple)," a song originally written for the Broadway musical Cabaret.

Canova explains that a pineapple is a colonial symbol of hospitality.

Mr. C discusses early American Christmas traditions. Here, Kylene Barker--Miss Virginia 1978, and Miss America 1979--explains the traditions behind the Christmas games played by colonists.

The next production number takes place at the Governor's Palace, with dancers and costumed colonials dressed in their finery for a holiday ball. Perry Como sings one of his signature holiday songs "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays."

The colonials ignore Perry's contemporary tuxedo.

Violinist Fodor performs alongside a harpsichord.

Violinist Eugene Fodor performs an impressive classical piece, followed by John Wayne reading a soldier's letter written to his mother back in Williamsburg. The letter was dated 1758, written while the soldier was away from home over Christmas, serving during the French and Indian War. The touching letter articulates the timeless sentiment about the pain of missing one's family at the holidays while faithfully serving one's country.

In this Christmas special, patriotism and the holiday spirit go hand in hand.

Perry and Canova during "Try to Remember."

Next, Diana Canova and Perry sing "Try to Remember," originally written for the musical The Fantasticks. They are accompanied by Fodor on violin. And, Como and Canova join the colonial dancers in the Virginia reel.

In the tavern, Como joyfully lifts his drink to sing "I Saw Three Ships."

The Duke joins in to sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

At the Williamsburg tavern, Canova performs "We're Cooking a Holiday Meal" in the kitchen with the cooks. Now wearing period garb, Wayne and Como join the background singers in a medley, singing "Boar's Head Carol," "Here We Come A-wassailing," "I Saw Three Ships," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

The choir walks by candlelight to church at Williamsburg.

Another annual TV tradition: Como's smooth-as-silk version of "Ave Maria."

A candlelight procession enters the Williamsburg house of worship for the show's finalé of sacred music, including "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Joy to the World." Perry Como's last song is also his finest, performing "Ave Maria."

Portions of this 1978 variety special can be seen on Christmas Around the World with Perry Como, an official DVD release with several clips from Como's '70s and '80s holiday specials.

A moment of joy and laughter.

Fans of John Wayne may know that he also appeared on Bob Hope's 1976 Christmas TV special. During the holidays, I prefer to watch John Wayne in 3 Godfathers, the 1948 Western directed by John Ford. See my discussion of that movie again here. If you're drawn to early American and patriotic Christmas specials, I recommend watching the 1982 TV special Andy Williams' Early New England Christmas, shot at the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont.

Do you have a favorite Perry Como Christmas TV special? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Perry Como statue in Canonsburg, PA. September 2017.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983)

Were you watching when this Christmas TV special debuted in prime time on December 5, 1983 on ABC?

You know I watch a lot of TV, right? This summer, I've been watching M*A*S*H in reruns again--and I was reminded of the 1983 Christmas TV special The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Actress Loretta Swit appears in both. I previously wrote about the 1980 Christmas episode of M*A*S*H--read that discussion again HERE.

While re-watching the 1983 special, I felt nostalgic for the live action, hour-long narrative Christmas stories on television that were popular in the 1970s and '80s. Remember The Stableboy's Christmas (1979), Mr. Krueger's Christmas (1980), A Child's Christmas in Wales (1987), and A Mouse, A Mystery and Me (1987) which cleverly combines live action and animation? The hour-long, narrative TV specials aren't as common as they used to be--although we still see newly created musical specials and the longer format Christmas TV movies. Do you fondly remember The Best Christmas Pageant Ever?

Loretta Swit as Grace Bradley

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was adapted from the 1971 best-selling novel written by Barbara Robinson, who wrote the script for the TV special. In this story, preparations for a children's Christmas pageant are being made at a small community church. When the pageant's director is laid up in the hospital, a substitute must be found and Mrs. Bradley feels obligated to fill-in the role. The community worries about the future of the pageant but Mrs. Bradley reassures everyone that the pageant will go on, just as it does every year.

All six of the disorderly Herdmans

However, six members of the Herdman family show up at the auditions and insist on taking the lead roles in the Nativity story. You see, the Herdmans are known to throughout the community as dirty, messy, and rude children who also smoke, steal, push and shove, and intimidate everyone. Bossy Imogene Herdman declares she's going to play the Virgin Mother Mary role and no one objects. She also insists her brothers play the three wise men, another brother will play a shepherd, and her little sister will be the angel, and no one has the guts to disagree. The inexperienced Mrs. Bradley finds herself in the difficult situation of having to stage the pageant dominated by a group of unruly kids!

This comedy is clever enough for adults but entertaining to children as well.

Members of the community--the same ones who didn't volunteer to take over when the first director fell ill--are worried that the pageant will be ruined with the Herdmans in it. But Grace is committed to her new role as the director and she thinks she can do a good job. She also fears the community may not attend if the main roles are taken only by the Herdman children. Grace decides to press forward.

The undisciplined Herdmans have their own ideas about how the Nativity story should be told.

As Grace instructs the children in their roles for the pageant, the Herdmans challenge her at every turn. Grace's description of Mary as quiet, gentle and kind falls on deaf ears. When the director explains the Angel of the Lord, one of the Herdman children remarks that the character sounds like a comic book super hero. The more she talks, the more Grace realizes the Herdmans aren't familiar with the Nativity story and so she walks them through the details in the Bible, explaining terms such as swaddling clothes, manger, frankincense and myrrh. Grace wonders if this context and understanding will be enough to motivate the children to behave during the pageant itself.

TV viewers get to hear the Bible story along with the Herdman children.

There's a touching moment when we see Imogene come to a better understanding of her role as Mother Mary before the pageant begins.

Turns out, most of the children's "mistakes" actually make the pageant more precious and enjoyable.

On Christmas Eve, the community fills the seats in the church--many fearing the annual event will be ruined, while others are eager to see the disaster. The rowdy kids end up pulling off the production, even if there remain a few non-traditional moments. TV Viewers are treated to the entire production--warts and all.

The show must go on!

Another touching moment includes seeing one of the Herdmans ditching a traditional gift of the magi for a more meaningful one--an entire ham. A most precious gift from a family member that is used to receiving charity donations for their holiday meals.

In the end, the parents in the community praise the pageant as one of the best and most moving experiences of the season. The other children in the community (including Grace's two offspring), who were pushed to the margins of the pageant, learned a thing or two about themselves and the holiday spirit. TV viewers looking to immerse themselves in the original story of the Nativity get a taste of that too.

Fairuza Balk as Beth Bradley, Grace's daughter.

Another cool thing about 1983's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is that actress Fairuza Balk appears as Grace's daughter, the story's narrator. You may have seen the cult film actress in later projects including the movies The Worst Witch and Return to Oz. She also played the out-of-control Nancy in the movie The Craft, among many other memorable roles.

If you haven't seen it in a long time, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is easy to find on DVD. Have you seen other Christmas specials or movies that incorporate a pageant or production of the Nativity story? Got a favorite? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Perry Como Statue: Canonsburg, PA

What does Canonsburg have to do with Christmas TV history? Do you like Christmas music/variety specials?

With summer winding down, I decided to hit the road again and enjoy a day trip. I wanted to stop at another site that connects to my love of popular culture and headed myself toward Canonsburg, Pennsylvania--just south of Pittsburgh. Canonsburg is the hometown of crooner Perry Como, and the city has erected a wonderful tribute to him in their downtown. I felt I needed to see it for myself.

Perry Como's career is intertwined with Christmas TV history. His first TV appearance was on Christmas Eve 1948.

I read online that the statue was located in downtown Canonsburg but I was worried about finding it. Turns out, it was quite easy to find! The statue is quite large and stands in a lovely landscaped courtyard in the city's center.

What's your favorite Christmas song by Como? I think my favorite is "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays."

The cement statue depicts Como holding a microphone. I thought this was a wonderful way to remember him. In addition to the statue, I found that the tree-lined main street of downtown Canonsburg featured grate covers around each tree with a Perry Como chart-topping hit song molded into each one. I ended up walking the full length of the street--on both sides--looking at each grate to note the song titles and the years each reached number one on the charts.

Once in Canonsburg, I also learned that the city is quite proud of another hometown son that made the hit parade--Bobby Vinton! I couldn't resist getting my photo with the street sign marking Bobby Vinton Boulevard.

Bobby Vinton Boulevard is also the location of a McDonald's restaurant that honors both Perry Como and Bobby Vinton with displays of memorabilia, photos, records, and more. That location was my stop after seeing the downtown statue.

Inside the restaurant, there is a lifesize, bronze statue of Como (and one of Vinton too). The walls are lined with displays of Como's recording career, photos, framed record cover albums, high school yearbooks, and more. Bet you never had a Quarter Pounder among Como memorabilia like this before!

Bus your own tables and reflect on a local boy who made good!

Across from the cash registers at McDonald's, I found a framed 7" Christmas record.

Among the framed Perry Como photos on the walls of McDonald's, I also found one from his later Christmas specials (bottom right). Remember the 1970s and '80s Christmas TV specials Como used to make each year from a different exotic, international location?

The McDonalds felt like a mini-museum. A back room even included a barber chair from one of the shops where Como used to cut hair before he left Canonsburg to become a professional entertainer.

plaque next to barber chair display.

As mentioned previously, the McDonalds also includes photos, records, displays and memorabilia honoring the singing career of Bobby Vinton as well. For our interests here, Vinton released several Christmas albums--got a favorite Bobby Vinton Christmas song?

Lifesize bronze bust of Vinton in the McDonalds in Canonsburg.

Click to enlarge--this chart covered an entire wall at McDonald's.

My day trip was a nice break from my routine. Christmas TV history is all around us, if we look for it. Have you ever traveled to a pop culture site too? Tell us about it in the comments below.

To revisit some of my past essays about Christmas pop culture destinations, check out the following links:

Dean Martin's hometown of Steubenville, OH
Rosemary Clooney's home in Augusta, KY
The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA
It's a Wonderful Life Museum in Seneca Falls, NY
Lucille Ball's birthday celebration in Jamestown, NY
A Christmas Story House & Museum in Cleveland, OH

Added October 2017: discussion of 1978 TV variety special Perry Como's Early American Christmas. Click here for link.

Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701