About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

From the Big Screen to the Little Screen, Part 1

There have been many Oscar winning (and nominated) films that inspired made-for-TV sequels and even TV series based on the same characters. I've recently noticed how often these TV extensions of the Academy honored films are Christmas programs or include Christmas episodes. Here are just a few that I've decided to highlight:

The 1963 Oscar nominated movie for Best Film of the Year was Lilies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier as the GI that comes across a group of immigrant nuns in the desert that are trying to build a church. In 1979, a made-for-TV sequel was broadcast entitled Christmas Lilies of the Field now starring Billy Dee Williams as the GI that returns to the church he helped build in the desert and the ambitious nuns that are now looking to erect a schoolhouse.

The 1967 Oscar winning movie for Best Film of the Year was In the Heat of the Night starring Rod Steiger and again, Sidney Poitier. To refresh your memory, this powerful film is about an African-American, Philadelphia homicide detective that finds himself in a small racist town in Mississippi having to work with an uncooperative and inexperienced sheriff's department to bring a murderer to justice.

Of course, this film inspired a television series that began it's incredible eight season run in 1988, starring Carroll O'Connor and Howard E. Rollins Jr. in the iconic roles. This series includes two Christmas episodes--1989's "My Name is Hank" and 1990's "Blessings." The first episode centers on a murdered convenience store worker and a stranger in town--a young man from Viet Nam who claims to be the offspring of a former U.S. soldier, perhaps even Chief Gillespie's son. The second Christmas episode is a clip show, nostalgically referring back to earlier stories from previous episodes--an appropriate Christmas sentiment.

The 1970 dark film about a military hospital and its staff, M*A*S*H, was Oscar-nominated movie for Best Film of that year. It too inspired a long-running TV series based on the same characters. The television series includes five holiday inspired episodes:
1972's "Dear Dad" where Hawkeye narrates a letter he's writing home to his father describing his Christmas in Korea.
1978's "Dear Sis" where Father Mulcahey narrates a letter he's writing to his sister describing the war from his perspective.
1980's "Death Takes a Holiday" in which the hospital staff try to keep a brain dead soldier alive past midnight in order to spare his family the legacy of knowing their loved one died on Christmas. And, Winchester learns about charity when his expensive box of chocolates he donates to the orphanage is in turn sold on the blackmarket.
Another episode from 1980, "A War for All Seasons" includes significant New Year's scenes in a narrative that begins on New Year's Eve 1951 and concludes on New Year's Eve 1952--showing a full year in the camp and how its residents rely on the Sears and Roebuck mail order catalog. Don't miss seeing Klinger dressed ridiculously as Baby New Year and Col. Potter as Father Time at the New Year's party.
1981's "Twas the Day After Christmas" sees the camp experiencing a new holiday tradition--the British custom of Boxing Day. In the spirit of the season, the officers offer to switch roles with the enlisted men for one day.

If you're a die hard M*A*S*H fan--and why wouldn't you be?--you should try to catch the 1983 holiday episode of the spin-off series After M*A*S*H, entitled "All About Christmas Eve" where it's Christmas time in the General Pershing Veterans Administration Hospital. Soon-Lee and Max announce to their friends that they are expecting their first child and Miss Cox gets a little too drunk on egg nog at the staff Christmas party.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sally Field

March is still with us and I'm honoring Academy Award winners (and nominees) by discussing their connection with Christmas TV programming. Actress Sally Field has won two Oscars for Best Actress--in 1979's Norma Rae and 1984's Places in the Heart.

Before she appeared in the Oscar-winning role of the union supporter, Field starred in a made-for-TV movie that takes place at Christmas entitled Home for the Holidays. This 1972 horror/thriller is directed by John Llewelyn Moxey and executive produced by Aaron Spelling.

If you ever thought your family was trouble at Christmas...here, four sisters return home after many years absence when it is believed that their step-mother is poisoning their father. It had been rumored that their step-mother Elizabeth (played by Julie Harris) had poisoned her first husband and now their father (Walter Brennan) believes that Elizabeth is killing him too. Though the sisters despise Elizabeth, the claim seems too outrageous to believe until one by one each of the sisters dies or disappears. The true horror of this story to me is that actress Julie Harris, just 17 years prior, had been playing the romantic lead to James Dean (in 1955's East of Eden) and now is partnered with the aged, crotchety Walter Brennan. But Sally Field plays the youngest sister Christine--she's the screamer!

Speaking of Places in the Heart, the captivating child actress Gennie James that plays the role of Possum Spalding in that film can be seen in two Christmas-themed movies, A Smoky Mountain Christmas and with a larger role in The Christmas Gift. Both movies are from 1986.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Robert Downey Jr.

There are sooo many connections between the Oscars and Christmas TV programming, I have barely scratched the surface. But I choose to highlight Robert Downey Jr. because of his extraordinary performance in the holiday episode of Ally McBeal. Of course, Downey was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in 1992's Chaplin. In the episode "Tis the Season" in the fourth season of the legal dramedy, Downey plays Ally's melancholy boyfriend, Larry. Here, he sings two holiday songs: the Joni Mitchell classic 'River' and the perennial favorite, 'White Christmas' while seated at the piano. Though the storyline establishes Larry as struggling emotionally at Christmas time, his musical performances communicate this melancholia even more so. As an actor not known for his singing, he conveys real emotion and real feeling with his performance. Though this series features musical performances in most of the annual holiday episodes--who could forget the third season episode with Ally singing 'Santa Baby?'--Larry's sadness as felt through his songs stands out above the others.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DVR Alert: Stroker and Hoop

Set your DVR to watch the Christmas episode of Stroker and Hoop from 2005 entitled "I Saw Stroker Killing Santa Claus a.k.a. A Cold, Dead, White Christmas." I discuss this crazy, er...uh classic episode in The Christmas TV Companion on page 100-101 in the section about the more unusual animated adaptations of Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol.

Saturday, March 20th at 11 pm (EST) on Cartoon Network.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Oscar Winner: Mo'Nique

Congratulations to last week's Oscar winner, actress/stand-up comic Mo'Nique.

She is also special to me because of the Christmas episode "Secret Santa" of the TV series, The Parkers. In this 2001 episode, the guests all cancel on Nikki’s annual tree trimming party yet she keeps her Christmas spirit. Even after they are all accidentally locked in at the department store on Christmas Eve, Nikki is still able to inspire them to share a wonderful evening together. The following morning on Christmas, Nikki comes to realize that the store’s security guy, Walter may have locked them all in on purpose to give Nikki the Christmas Eve she longed for--one surrounded by her friends. Could he be the real Santa? The highlight of this episode is Mo’Nique herself in a Santa Claus suit, filling in for the store’s Santa and surprising her friends. I wish I had a photo of that for my blog!

Congratulations, again, to one of the the hardest working women in show business.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chuck Jones

Continuing with my tribute to the Oscars in the month of March, I turn my attention to Academy Award-winner, animator Chuck Jones. He won the 1966 Oscar (with Les Goldman) for the Best Short Subject, cartoon for the 1965 piece The Dot and The Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics. This is an extremely charming cartoon and a must-see if you don't already have it completely memorized--and why don't you?

Jones has also made an immense stamp on the culture of Christmas animation. He, of course, directed and produced the holiday classic 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

But he also directed, produced and wrote for: 1979's Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales (specifically the Road Runner sequence.)

1978's Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper. The character of the coyote is very familiar looking.

1973's A Very Merry Cricket (which was a follow-up to the popular Cricket in Times Square.)

Jones also received credit for the character design of 1981's A Chipmunk Christmas, the most well-known Alvin and the Chipmunks TV holiday programs.

Fans of this great man delight in actually seeing the legendary animator in his small appearance in the 1984 holiday film Gremlins. Jones plays 'Mr. Jones', the man sitting next to Billy at the bar with whom he exchanges a few words about his illustration, near the beginning of the movie.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Partridge Family and The Oscars

I've been inspired by Turner Classic Movies network to create my own holiday-inspired tribute to the Oscars during the month of March.

You may be familiar with the 1971 Christmas episode of The Partridge Family from the second season entitled 'Don't Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa.' The bus breaks down on the way to the family’s Christmas concert in Las Vegas. The Partridges take shelter in a nearby ghost town where an elderly prospector named Charlie entertains the children with a Christmas story about this town 100 years ago. This western fantasy features the cast in the roles of the story told by Charlie, with Reuben playing Mean Sydney, the villain in a black hat who steals the town’s silver Christmas bell, Laurie as the schoolmarm, Shirley as the saloon girl, Danny as Little the Kid--a wannabe hero, and Keith as Sheriff Swell, who carries a guitar instead of a gun. This episode features the Christmas classics "Winter Wonderland" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" which both appear on The Partridge Family Christmas Card album.

I mention this episode because it also includes another song--the one Keith as Sheriff Swell is repeatedly singing throughout the episode. Used as a humorous running gag, Keith annoyingly sings his dialogue to the tune of...wait for it...the theme from the movie High Noon, the 1952 Oscar-winning song “Don’t Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.”

Actor Dean Jagger who plays Charlie is also an Oscar winner--as Best Supporting Actor in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High and of course, Shirley Jones is an Oscar winner too--as Best Supporting Actress in 1960's Elmer Gantry.

C'mon Laurie, Get Happy!