About Christmas TV History

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tony Randall

Happy Birthday Tony Randall! He may no longer be with us but I still like to celebrate the life of a great actor and human who's work has touched me. He has appeared in several Christmas programs.

One appearance of note is the Hallmark Hall of Fame musical production of The Littlest Angel from 1969 as Democritus. He offers advice to the young angel Michael, played by Johnnie Whitaker, though the little one is not ready for his wisdom.

My favorite is Randall in The Odd Couple's 1970 episode "Scrooge Gets an Oscar." Felix is directing a theatrical play of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for charity and wants to cast his roommate Oscar for the role of Scrooge, but Oscar is unhappy this Christmas and uncooperative. Oscar falls asleep in front of the TV but his ulcer is acting up and he experiences a nightmare where he’s escorted by Marley’s ghost showing him visions of Christmases past, present and future.

There is, I believe, a Christmas episode on The Tony Randall Show entitled "Case: O Come All Ye Wasterals" from 1976. However, I haven't seen it and as far as I can determine, it is still largely unavailable.

Randall also appears as the fireside host on the PBS special A Christmas Celebration: Send 'Round the Song from 1992. He appears in segments talking about the history of the Christmas music between performances by Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti and others.

And, Randall voiced the character of Mr. Grimm in the 1997 animated Christmas special How the Toys Saved Christmas. Mr. Grimm is the greedy store owner that wants people to buy the toys although the toys want to deliver themselves to children for Christmas.

These may be some of his more minor roles within his lengthy career but I'm grateful for the Christmas memories nonetheless.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Avengers

I'm not the only one who lives with Christmas in February--John Steed does in the 1969 episode "Take-Over" on the cult classic TV series The Avengers. In this episode, Steed explains that years before when he and a friend were prisoners in China together, they had made a calendar to mark their time. However, due to a miscalculation, they had been celebrating Christmas in February! Because of this error, they reunite each February at his friend's country estate to celebrate. The main plot of the episode begins when Steed arrives at his friend's estate only to discover strangers are occupying the home unaware that Steed is expected for his annual holiday. Nothing ruins a Christmas reunion like party crashers with another scheme for world domination!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Hard Nut

Flipping through the New York Times today I saw that the Mark Morris Dance Group is premiering a new show this week. My exposure to Mark Morris' choreography began with his 1991 production of The Hard Nut, a highly stylized interpretation of the traditional ballet of The Nutcracker.

If you love The Nutcracker, you'll appreciate this unique version's modern update from the 19th century ballet to the more contemporary 1960s and '70s. It also includes a story from the original E.T.A. Hoffmann narrative that the traditional ballet left out.

If you aren't into The Nutcracker, then there are still several things here worth experiencing. One of them is that illustrator/comics artist Charles Burns created the production design. I believe The Hard Nut originally aired on PBS but is now available on DVD.

Monday, February 15, 2010

DVR Alert: Phyllis

DVR Alert: the holiday episode of the 1970s series Phyllis airs this Thursday, Feb. 18th at 10am (EST) and again at 5pm on ALN (American Life Network).

Of course, Phyllis is just one of the three successful spin-off series from the iconic The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (There's Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant.) This Phyllis episode entitled "The Christmas Party," isn't yet available on DVD so this is a rare opportunity to see the holiday episode.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Big Lebowski update

If you are one of those people, you will know that tickets went on sale this morning for LebowskiFest 2010 in Los Angeles. LebowskiFest is the place for fans of the 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski to gather together, bowl a few games, drink White Russians, and quote your favorite lines--all while wearing a movie-inspired ridiculous costume.

Of course, I consider myself one of those people. We call ourselves 'Achievers,' however I'm not planning on making it to the LA event. But if you've seen my book, you well know that I included in the appendix an example Make Your Own Marathon of Christmas-themed programs that include the actors from The Big Lebowski. In honor of the upcoming LebowskiFest, it's time for an update to that MYOM.

The 2009 holiday season brought about a direct-to-video release for the Christmas special from the TV series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (If you've seen it, you already know why it didn't air on TV--there's a language issue and nudity. But I'll bet an edited version will eventually surface for broadcast.) It includes actor David Huddleston as Eugene Hamilton, Frank Reynold's former business partner that is coerced into playing the Jacob Marley role in Dee and Dennis' attempt to 'Christmas Carol' Frank into being a better person. I don't want to say too much here--it needs to be seen to be believed. But fans of The Big Lebowski will recognize actor Huddleston as the wheelchair-bound Lebowski in the cult film.

Dios Mio! In-N-Out Burger drive-thru workers
with Liam at LebowskiFest, Louisville KY 2008

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Valentine Carol

This weekend will be Valentine's Day which reminds me of the 2007 Lifetime Network, made-for-TV movie, A Valentine Carol which stars Emma Caulfield. Caulfield made a name for herself playing one of Brandon's girlfriends on the original Beverly Hills, 90210 and as Anya on another little TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In this movie, she plays Ally Simms, a successful romance talk radio host who is marrying her fiancé on Valentine’s Day. But Ally can also be insensitive and unsympathetic to other people’s feelings and needs for love. The ghost of her former radio host partner, Jackie Marley, warns Ally about the lack of love in her life and urges her to change her life. The ghost takes her to visit several past Valentine’s Day romances and Ally sees how she’s responded to the men in her life. In the Valentine’s Day present, Ally re-connects with her former boyfriends and begins to see what her fiancé Matt is really like--beyond his meeting the standards of her checklist requirements. And, in Valentine’s Day futures, she sees the consequences of her superficial advice and the cynicism played out in her own life. Ally must change her attitude this Valentine’s Day if she wants her marriage to be meaningful and to last.

This is an interesting Valentine’s Day-themed adaptation of the Charles Dicken’s novel A Christmas Carol. Ally serves as a Scrooge-at-love standin for the familiar Ebenezer character while her assistant, Gillian, is the Bob Cratchit character. One change is that there aren’t three separate ghosts for the journey through time--only Marley. Yet this is still a provocative re-interpretation.

The movie regularly airs each Christmas yet I can't find it on the schedule to air this Valentine's Day on Lifetime, or on any of it's ancilliary networks, such as Lifetime Movie Network. One would think that if a network invested in making a holiday-themed movie that they would bother to broadcast it around the holiday. But I'm not the first person to question the programming execs of TV networks. Nor the last.

TRIVIA: Perhaps the character name Ally Simms is a reference to Alastair Sim, the actor well-known for playing the arguably definitive Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Magnum P.I. Christmas

"Hello Santa? One phone cord, please."

I was reminded by fellow blogger, Made for TV Mayhem, that last week was Tom Selleck's birthday. What a wonderful opportunity to reflect on our favorite Magnum P.I. Christmas episodes.

1980's "Thank Heaven for Little Girls and Big Ones Too" sees Magnum hired by five little girls to find their school teacher who has gone missing with her boyfriend. Unfortunately, the investigation turns out to be a scam for the girls to steal a valuable painting from Master’s estate: a Gaugin painting from his time in Tahiti. If you look closely, you may recognize one of the little girls as the same actress who played the middle daughter Julie on TV's Gimme A Break.

And my favorite, 1983's "Operation: Silent Night." TC, Higgins, Rick and Magnum crash land their malfunctioning helicopter on a deserted island. Not sure how long they may be stranded, they each busy themselves with ways to be rescued. The men miss out on their holiday plans but this becomes the least of their problems when the small island is shelled by the Navy during a training exercise. Don't miss Magnum dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He also sings 'Silent Night.'

Selleck's hotness hit my radar when he appeared on The Rockford Files as the cock-sure, reoccuring character, Lance White. In 1979, I belonged to the James Garner Fan Club and the annual newsletter included a written profile and snapshot of the up-and-coming actor, Selleck. Hilariously, I used to carry around the snapshot photo in my wallet as a teenager--after Magnum P.I. made him a huge star--surprising my friends with the photo of my "newest boyfriend." I can't believe I still have THAT photo.

Joanna's boyfriend in 1983.

Additionally, Tom Selleck appeared in the TV special Jim Nabors' Christmas in Hawaii which aired in 1981. I've never seen it--anyone have a copy?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It's Groundhog Day!

I love Bill Murray in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day--who doesn't? But did you know that there are three, yes three other movies that adapt this same story structure for made-for-TV Christmas movies? Yes, three.

In 1996, there was Christmas Every Day, starring Robert Hays, Bess Armstrong and young hunk-of-the-month Erik von Detter. Here, 13 year-old Billy (von Detter) is having a miserable holiday--he’s not very good at basketball, he’s bullied in front of the girl he likes and his father is made unhappy by a business-minded uncle that wants to make drastic changes to their small community. But when Billy wakes up the next morning, he finds himself re-living Christmas day over and over again--just like the story in the movie Groundhog Day. At first Billy tries to stop his bullying by being an even bigger bully. On another Christmas day, he tries to make Christmas perfect--learning how impossible that project really is. What can Billy do to improve his Christmas except try his best to make it the most special day for everyone else around him.

In 2004, there was 12 days of Christmas Eve, starring Steven Weber, Molly Shannon and Stefanie von Pfetten. This movie is directed by Martha Coolidge. She has a previous significant Christmas TV connection: she directed the 1985 re-make of the classic episode "Night of the Meek" on the New Twilight Zone with actor Richard Mulligan playing the same role Art Carney made popular. Coolidge also directed one of my all time favorite movies, 1983's Valley Girl.

Businessman Calvin Carter is killed in an accident at midnight on Christmas Eve only to awaken in an otherworldly hospital room and told he has eleven more chances to re-live Christmas Eve and to get it right. This is a more clever interpretation of the film Groundhog Day. Though distracted by his business goals, Calvin is able on his last opportunity at Christmas Eve to live it as if it is his last day on Earth--and finds his priorities are finally straight. Wacky Molly Shannon plays Calvin’s angelic medical caretaker, Angie.

And, 2006 there was Christmas Do Over, starring Jay Mohr, Daphne Zuniga
Adrienne Barbeau and Ruta Lee. Lee is fantastic to watch as a non-traditional grandmother.

Spending a horrible holiday with his ex-wife, her new fiance and his former in-laws, Kevin (Mohr) finds himself more miserable than usual when his son makes a wish that every day were Christmas. Kevin re-lives each day as if it were his miserable Christmas all over again, unable to stop the cycle. That is, until he learns to let go of his selfish, mean-spirited behaviors and become loving and considerate again.

Is anyone eager to see a fourth version? Anyone?... Bueller?... Bueller?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Little Women

I've been looking back over all the filmed adaptations of the classic 19th century novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The book both begins and ends with significant Christmas scenes so many of the filmed adaptations do as well--but not all. Anyway, this much loved story usually has an amazing cast:
The 1933 version, directed by George Cukor, features Katherine Hepburn as the lead character Jo. She's easily convincing as the confident tomboy that pursues a life as a writer. The 1949 version, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, features actor June Allyson-- also a convincing Jo. However, it's more of a stretch to believe that Jo is the younger sister to Meg, here played by Janet Leigh (Allyson is actually 10 years older than Leigh). Elizabeth Taylor--yeah, that Liz Taylor--plays the snotty, superficial sister Amy. Watching a blonde Taylor in this role is most of the fun here. There's also the amazing casting of the 1994 version: Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as the sickly Beth, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis play Amy (Dunst is the very young Amy and Mathis takes over the role as Amy matures), Christian Bale as Laurie and Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer.

But my favorite cast is the 1978 TV mini-series adaptation. Meredith Baxter plays Meg, Susan Dey is Jo, Eve Plumb is Beth, Dorothy McGuire is Marmee, Greer Garson as Aunt March, Robert Young is Mr. Laurence and William Shatner is Professor Bhaer. Where do I begin? Baxter as Meg reminds me instantly of her role as Nancy on the '70s TV series Family another classic big sister role. Actress Susan Dey also played Laurie Partridge on The Partridge Family and may be a bit fragile looking for Jo but she pulls it off--better than Winona Ryder, I think. Eve Plumb brings great depth to the sickly Beth character. It reminds me that Eve Plump plays another dying character in a Christmas episode on Family Affair, in the 1968 episode "Christmas Came A Little Early." My favorite role for Dorothy McGuire is in the movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This film is not usually considered a Christmas movie but it does contain several significant holiday scenes and usually airs at Christmas time on TV. Of course, Greer Garson lent her voice to the Rankin/Bass animated Christmas classics, The Little Drummer Boy and its sequel. Actor Robert Young played the much beloved TV character of the father, Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best and Dr. Welby on Marcus Welby, M.D. And, William Shatner with an affected German accent plays Jo March's love interest, Professor Bhaer. That alone makes watching this adaptation worthwhile. Christopher Columbus!