About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Ralph Bakshi Christmas

Ralph Bakshi at ComicCon in 2008

Christmas in Tattertown is a half hour animated TV special from Bakshi Animation. Of course, Ralph Bakshi is the legendary animator that made Fritz the Cat, Lord of the Rings and Cool World to name a few. This Christmas special was an original pilot for a series which never got picked up. And so it spends more story time developing characters than it does exploring Christmas. However, this piece features a 1920 and '30s cartoon look and style much to the delight of modern animation fans. This program has the distinction of being the very first original animated TV special made for Nickelodeon.

Debbie and her two dolls Dog and Muffet fall into a book that leads them to Tattertown, an enchanted place where lost and forgotten junk ends up. Debbie’s dolls have come to life and Muffet discovers that she has her own will to do as she pleases. Debbie busies herself collecting all the lost Christmas items throughout Tattertown to make a Christmas celebration. But Muffet is organizing an army against Debby and the residents of Tattertown. With her spider friend dressed as a reindeer, Muffet dresses as Santa Claus to crash the Tattertown Christmas celebration until she bumps into the real Santa Claus! Debbie inspires the junk in Tattertown with the Christmas spirit by playing an old phonograph record of Bing Crosby singing ‘White Christmas.’

Look for the jazz saxophone named Miles that serves as the story’s narrator. And, Mr. Tannenbaum, an evergreen that runs the Tattertown comic book store that becomes Debbie’s Christmas tree speaks with a New York Jewish accent.

Very recently this rare TV special became available for viewing on Youtube. Here it is in three parts:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Do You Remember...Scrooge (1935)

He's so miserly, he won't buy a comb for the office!?

What's your favorite filmed adaptation of the Dickens' book 'A Christmas Carol?' Most critics quibble between the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim and the 1984 version with George C. Scott. But viewers' favorites usually depend upon which version they grew up watching.

The 1935 version entitled Scrooge starring Seymour Hicks has become more popular in recent years. For decades it was ignored by broadcasters who preferred to air either the 1938 or the 1951 versions on television. The former is a theatrical release with Reginald Owen playing Scrooge. This version was known as the first Hollywood adaptation of Dickens' book. The 1951 Sim version replaced the earlier American version on television. But in the last handful of years, the 1935 version has also become easy to find on TV schedules each December.

The actor Seymour Hicks who portrays Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1935 version had performed the role many times before--on the stage as well as in an early silent film version. In fact, this 1935 version is the first feature-length filmed adaptation produced with sound. Over the years, this film like many others, has suffered from being edited and cut down, running as short as 60 minutes. However in the last few years, the uncut 78 minute full length version has become easily accessible for viewing.

The trimmed down scenes include:
~~the two charity collectors' scene in the beginning may be entirely absent
~~there’s a significant portion of the Cratchit family Christmas dinner during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present cut short
~~the party at his nephew Fred’s house during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present may be entirely absent
~~a much longer scene depicting the sadness of the Cratchit family upon losing Tiny Tim in Christmases Yet to Come is missing
~~there are several minutes of footage from scenes of Christmas morning missing including Scrooge shaving, going to the poulterer’s shop, snow falling on his head, meeting up with the charity collectors and Scrooge joining the Cratchit family at church.

These above moments collectively amount to seventeen minutes of footage cut out. That's quite significant considering how popular and well-known this story is to the average viewer.

However, the 1935 version has its own distinctive style of storytelling and contains scenes not seen in other versions. One such is the depiction of how Scrooge spends his Christmas Eve. In this scene, he is seen alone, patronizing a very simple tavern for his evening meal that is cross-cut with a very lavish holiday party and dinner for London’s wealthiest residents. In another, the ghost of Jacob Marley is invisible and only heard by Scrooge. Another is that the Ghost of Christmas Past is seen as an ethereal spirit, a stylized special effect rather than a traditional actor in a costume. Similarly, the Ghost of Christmas Future is depicted merely as a shadow. Ebenezer has visions of his Christmases past but doesn’t physically journey to the past as he does in most other filmed versions. Scrooge’s past does not include visions of his school days and his sister Fan as it does in the original book. Rather, Scrooge's visions of his past begin with Belle ending their engagement. And, on Christmas morning, the charwoman brings Scrooge his breakfast and his excited behavior causes her to fear he’s gone mad. This scene is not in the original book. Neither is the final scene of the movie where Scrooge joins the Cratchit family at church.

TRIVIA: the great Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans appears in the small role of a poor man requesting an extension on his debt during Scrooge’s vision of his Christmas Past. TV junkies may recognize Evans as the actor who played Samantha's father on the 1960s TV series Bewitched.

Of course, watch the 1935 version yourself. Let me know what you think. Below is the uncut, full length unedited version. Or, you can watch it at Archive.org.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Michael Cera

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Actor Michael Cera must be having a wonderful week, feeling at the top of his career and receiving praise for his new movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. He is everyone's favorite actor to embody the awkward, geeky young man inside all of us.

But I know him for his work in Christmas programs too. If you ever want to be a Cera Completist, you must see Stolen Miracle, the 2001 Lifetime TV movie that seems to never go away. This crime drama/Christmas movie airs year round as well as every December in Lifetime's holiday movie marathons. Inspired by a true story, this story unfolds on Christmas Eve in the hospital maternity ward when a woman posing as a nurse walks out with someone else’s newborn. Sgt. Jane McKinley has to leave her family celebration to join the investigation and search for the missing baby. Child actor Michael Cera plays Jane’s young son Brandon who misses his mother at Christmas.

2001 Lifetime movie

Of course, Cera also played George-Michael on the subversive comedy TV show Arrested Development. This series produced two Christmas installments: 2003's 'In God We Trust' and 2004's 'Afternoon Delight.' My favorite is the latter. The Bluth company office Christmas party is a disaster when Michael (played by Jason Bateman) and his niece Maeby (played by Alia Shawkat) sing karaoke together to the inappropriate lyrics of the song ‘Afternoon Delight.’ Not to be outdone, George-Michael (played by Cera) and his aunt Lindsay (played by Portia de Rossi) at the banana stand Christmas party apparently unaware of the sexual meaning of the lyrics, sing the same song ‘Afternoon Delight’ and completely gross out the partygoers.

Father Michael, son George-Michael, grandfather George Bluth Sr. on Arrested Development

Michael and Maeby singing 'And the thought of lovin' you is getting so exciting!'

I can't hear that song anymore without thinking of this classic TV Christmas moment and giggling. Oh great, now that song is stuck in my head...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Happy Birthday Jay North

Jay North was a very popular child actor in the late 1950s and 60s appearing on many TV shows. Most people remember Jay North in the title role of the TV series Dennis the Menace. The three Christmas episodes of that TV series easily recapture the excitement and wonder of childhood seen through the eyes of that curious and mischievous boy, Dennis. The holiday episodes include:

1959's "The Christmas Story"
1960's "The Christmas Horse"
1961's "The Fifteen Foot Christmas Tree"

At the end of each of these Christmas stories, it was a TV tradition to have Jay North as Dennis sweetly sing an off-key version of 'Silent Night.' His parents as well as the neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Wilson usually sing the second chorus with him. Despite Dennis' earlier trouble-making or maybe because of it, this moment is always a tender reminder of the joy of youth and Christmas.

All three of these Christmas episodes are currently available to watch on Youtube. Here are the first parts:

"The Christmas Story"

"The Christmas Horse"

"The Fifteen Foot Christmas Tree"

However, my favorite Jay North Christmas TV moment is his guest appearance on the 1958 episode "Eight Cent Reward" on the Western TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive which starred Steve McQueen. Yeah--THAT Steve McQueen. Jay North plays little Laddie the boy who hires bounty hunter Josh Randall to track down Santa Claus for him. I love how Randall cannot say no to the little boy so desperate to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas. Let me know what you think of it!

"Eight Cent Reward"

Monday, August 2, 2010

Los 3 Reyes Magos

In a recent review of my book, The Christmas TV Companion, the reviewer commented about my discussion of the unusual appearance of the Devil as a character in Mexican-made Christmas stories. Since that book was written, I have discovered ANOTHER amazing holiday film that includes the Devil: Los 3 Reyes Magos from 1976.

This Mexican-made feature length animated movie tells the familiar story of the Nativity from the perspective of the Three Wise Men. As the three kings Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar make the journey to Bethlehem, they are challenged by Murcio, a minion of the Devil who wants to prevent them from spreading the glorious news of the birth of the child who will be King. After Murcio fails to stop them, the Devil himself posing as Prince Olbaid, tries to trick the kings and stop them from reaching Bethlehem.

Whether you watch this classic on the Epiphany, otherwise known as Three Kings Day in January, or at Christmas time, this is a rare treat. With amazing visuals and action/adventure sequences, this animated tale is unlike any other. There are gorgeous highly stylized segments of Mary and Joseph being turned away from inns on their journey to Bethlehem. These segments may contain little animation but they are musical portions with fantastic imagery. These musical segments serve as a break between action sequences, cross-cutting between Mary and Joseph's journey and the Three Kings travels from their distant lands.

Murcio tries to cancel the Christmas celebration at Bethlehem (not Whoville).

The Devil’s minion, Murcio has more than a passing resemblance to the Grinch. Some times he takes on the appearance of a bat but he also has horns like a demon. He's not grumpy like the Grinch but he does undergo a transformation at the end of the story at the stable in Bethlehem.

The Devil himself, also known as Prince Olbaid (that’s Diablo spelled backwards) looks like the lead singer in a glam band.

Prince Olbaid: I WANNA ROCK!

My favorite action sequences appear in the middle when King Melchoir while traveling through a canyon on horseback is threatened by a snake sent by Murcio. The constrictor ends up wrestling with Melchior’s horse before being stopped by a knife in his throat. And, King Balthazar traveling through the African jungles atop an elephant is beckoned into a swamp by a beautiful singing mermaid. Balthazar follows her into the water where she is transformed into seaweed and pulls the king to the water’s depths where he has to survive a hungry crocodile.

This is Part Five which contains the scene with King Melchior and his horse battling the snake!

In Part Six, King Balthazar battles the mermaid and a crocodile!

This one-of-a-kind story has a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon feeling about it. But the action sequences are not like most other holiday animation. The closing credits claim that this is the first animated feature film made in Latin America. And, the writer/producer/director of this holiday fantasy, Adolfo Torres Portillo, is also credited with the story for the 1959 Mexican classic film Santa Claus which also features the Devil in its story.

I watched Los 3 Reyes Magos as a rental from Netflix--which has subtitles for non-spanish speakers like myself. However, the whole thing is available for viewing on Youtube in ten parts.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Made for TV Mayhem Reviews My Book

I ended my Christmas in July celebration with a *BANG!*

I received another book review this time from Amanda at Made for TV Mayhem. She writes an awesome blog about made-for-TV movies and horror films. Click here to see the review.

I convinced her to guest blog for me in July--she wrote the emotional review about the Rankin/Bass classic Nestor, the Long Eared Donkey. Last year, she wrote about the TV Christmas special A Mouse, A Mystery and Me and the year before, she wrote about the 1974 Christmas-themed disaster TV movie Terror on the 40th Floor.

I was honored that she asked me to guest blog for her this past month as well. I wrote this review of the 1977 TV movie The Gathering.

Thanks so much to Amanda for the fantastic review and the opportunity to write for her blog. And for those readers looking to discover more TV moments from the past--stay close to this blog and Made for TV Mayhem. And, this upcoming November look for my next book Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials and TV Movies.