About Christmas TV History

Monday, January 31, 2011

Big Love Christmas

The Henrickson family ice skating at Christmas

Last night's episode of the HBO hit family drama brought it's first Christmas episode "Certain Poor Shepherds." This is Big Love's fifth and final season of the melodrama about the polygamous family. I've watched this show since its beginning--I love the ensemble cast which includes Chloe Sevigny as Nicky, Mary Kay Place as Nicky's mother Adaleen, Grace Zabriskie as Bill's mother Lois, Bruce Dern as Lois' husband Frank, Harry Dean Stanton as the prophet Roman Grant who is also Nicky's father, and even Sissy Spacek played a regular character last season. And of course, Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin as Bill, Barb and Margene. There's a whole lot of crazy happening on that show and it's fun to watch it unfold each week.

Margene, Bill, Barb and Nicky--too bad the fourth didn't stick around!

On last night's episode, the Henrickson experienced--no surprise--an unhappy holiday. Nicky's mother, Adaleen, and Bill's mother, Lois, both joined the family for Christmas but each brought the burden of their own dramas: Adaleen is nearing sixty years old but pregnant from bizarre fertility treatments and Lois has recently been officially diagnosed with dementia. The family is still reeling from Bill's recent election win of Utah's Senate and his public disclosure of their secretive polygamous lifestyle. But amongst all the dramas, conflicts and obstacles to a peaceful Christmas, Margene emotionally erupts to reveal a secret that seems to challenge not only Bill's public image but the foundation of the Henrickson marriages. We'll have to keep watching to see how this plotline plays itself out.

Though the Henrickson's polygamous family doesn't look like most of our families, they still experience a troubled and difficult Christmas not too unfamiliar from many of our own Christmases. Hopefully, your holidays aren't made difficult by too many wives and too many lies. But our compassion for the Henricksons in this episode may come from a very human understanding about how the melodrama often doesn't take a break conveniently for December each year. This episode also reminds us of the multiple car collision on the highway that you slow down to watch and can't take your eyes away from.

One final comment: this is becoming more and more common--have you noticed? Christmas-themed episodes are being broadcast for the first time not just at holiday time but throughout the year. This Christmas Big Love episode is being first released in January and last season's Mad Men Christmas episode was first released in the summer (August, I think). As cable shows continue to grow in popularity, no longer bound to the old traditions of Fall schedules and Winter replacement line-ups, we're seeing more and more holiday-themed episodes running year round. So keep your eyes open and let me know when you see a Christmas episode released outside of December.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Littlest Angel

In January, I was shopping in Cleveland, OH in a very cool vintage shop and found this LP. I probably paid too much but I don't care. This is the soundtrack to one of my favorite Christmas TV specials, The Littlest Angel. This two-hour special was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production based on the popular children's book authored by Charles Tazewell. It is also a musical and features songs sung by Johnny Whitaker, Fred Gwynne, Tony Randall, Connie Stevens and Cab Calloway, among others.

In The Littlest Angel, child actor Johnny Whitaker plays the young angel Michael who doesn’t like Heaven very much. The unhappy eight year-old angel is homesick, he doesn’t know how to fly and he’s much younger than the other angels. His guardian angel, Patience, tries to help him get flying lessons and to fit in so he can enjoy paradise, but to no avail. Michael is eventually allowed a brief return to his earthly home to retrieve his favorite box of things which includes: a dog collar, several broken birds eggs, a couple of river stones, a feather and a butterfly. Once he’s back in Heaven, all the other angels are busy preparing for the birth of God’s son and planning their gifts. While the other angels have made precious gifts befitting royalty, Michael has nothing to offer except his favorite box of treasures. Although he’s embarrassed by its inadequacies, he humbly shares his most prized possessions. However, God is pleased with Michael’s generosity and turns the humble gift into the bright Star of Bethlehem.

the album's back cover

If you can get over the fact that Michael is a homesick little dead boy who is unhappy with being sent to Heaven, then the story can be sweet. This version of the popular Christmas story was originally produced on videotape and so it lacks the image quality of a filmed production. However, the casting is superb and more than makes up for the low image quality and budget chroma-key special effects.

Moreover, who would have known that actor Fred Gwynne, fondly remembered for his patriarchal role as Herman Munster on the 1960s TV series, The Munsters, would have a lovely singing voice? (Anyone who has seen the Christmas episode of Car 54, Where Are You? which also includes Gwynne singing--that's who!)

This is one of my favorite Christmas specials because it includes Johnny Whitaker--whom I adored as a child. I've always had a thing for Whitaker, Billy Mumy and Danny Bonaduce. Yeah, the red-heads were all over television in my childhood. But I'm also a *huge* Tony Randall fan. So I had to buy this album, at any price, when I found it at that vintage shop in Cleveland.

the back cover of the album unfolds to reveal these pop-out images from the TV special

The cast of The Littlest Angel includes: Johnny Whitaker as Michael; Fred Gwynne as Patience; Tony Randall as the philosophical angel, Democritus; music legend Cab Calloway as the angel Gabriel; actress Connie Stevens as the Flying Mistress; James Coco as Michael’s father; and E.G. Marshall as God.

This Hallmark Hall of Fame production was rebroacast in 1970 and 1971 however it can now easily be found on cheaply produced dollar DVDs.

Part 1 of The Littlest Angel

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Andy Warhol...and Christmas?

Those of you who were following my adventures while I was on book tour in November and December know that I spent a great deal of time between book signings at art museums around the country. Without any planning, I ended up with an amazing experience dominated by the works of Andy Warhol.

It's true I've been a huge fan of the complex pop icon since the mid-1980s. Perhaps I saw so many Warhols in the various museums I visited because I was attracted to them. Would I have seen just as many works of Henri Matisse or Mark Rothko paintings if I had been looking for those? Probably not. I was blessed to have been scheduled on my book tour to appear in two cities where their museums where holding special, temporary exhibits featuring the works of Andy Warhol.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw "Warhol: The Last Decade" an exhibit focused on Warhol's body of work after he stopped his filmmaking and returned to painting. These included many more celebrity portraits and his paintings with Jean-Michel Basquiat among others.

I also saw the Indianapolis Museum of Art's "Andy Warhol Enterprises" exhibit which focused on the commercial and business aspects of Warhol and his work. This included his early career work in advertising and window dressing to his prints of dollar bills and consumer products as well as the construction of himself as a commercial product becoming a model and spokesperson in advertisements in the 1980s.

Andy Warhol's Santa Claus from his Myth series

While I did not see the above print of Santa Claus, I did see many other Warhol pieces. I'm not sure I can remember them all now but in Columbus, Georgia, I saw his portrait of President Jimmy Carter's mother entitled Miss Lillian. In Richmond Virginia, I saw Triple Elvis (which is really large!) I also saw several Brillo boxes and Single Elvis at the Akron Art Museum over Thanksgiving when I stopped at home for the holiday. The Akron Art Museum was also hosting the exhibit "Who Shot Rock n' Roll?" a collection of photographs of rock n' roll performers. This exhibit also included a photo of the Velvet Underground with Andy in the composition! I felt like I was seeing Warhol everywhere. And of course, the two major exhibits in Baltimore and Indianapolis.

Thus you understand my passion for Andy Warhol and why I am so excited to include the cult film Silent Night Bloody Night into my books.

A very low-budget horror film, it was unleashed into theaters in 1974. This is your typical Christmas horror movie about incest, ax-wielding serial killers and escaped mental patients. What is atypical about this film is that it features cult film actress Mary Woronov as well as Ondine and Candy Darling who were notable Andy Warhol associates during the 1960s and regulars at The Factory, Warhol’s creative epicenter.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see Warhol's Screen Tests which included Ondine and Candy Darling at the Indianapolis exhibit. If so motivated, I wonder what kind of Christmas movie Andy Warhol could have made?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Morrissey...and Christmas?

One of my best Christmas gifts this year was Simon Goddard's new book Mozipedia. I just can't put this book down! There's more here than anyone should ever want to know about Morrissey and The Smiths yet it's my favorite new thing.

Something I've learned from this book is that while Morrissey takes the view that Christmas is 'very annoying,' (see Mozipedia p. 72 under the listing Christmas), he has also claimed two popular Christmas-themed movies as those among his favorite films. They just so happen to be two of my favorite movies as well.

According to p. 72 of Mozipedia, Morrissey lists Christmas in Connecticut as one of his favorites. No wonder, this 1945 film starring Barbara Stanwyck has been a Hollywood classic for decades. I previously wrote about Barbara Stanwyck's participation in Christmas programs on this blog. Click on the link to read that posting again --> Barbara Stanwyck.

Check out the original trailer for 1945's Christmas in Connecticut

And, according to p. 245 of Mozipedia, Morrissey also names 1942's The Man Who Came to Dinner on the list of his favorite films. This too is a classic Hollywood film that is still popular enough to be shown every year on Turner Classic Movies channel--as is Christmas in Connecticut. Though actor Monty Woolley plays the title character in The Man Who Came to Dinner, it also stars Bette Davis in a rare comedic role. I wrote about this movie last year. Click on the link to read that posting again --> The Guest That Would Never Leave.

The original trailer for 1942's The Man Who Came to Dinner--though it doesn't reflect the chaos and fun of the storyline.

I have to listen to the Smiths' song 'Cemetry Gates' again (it's on The Queen is Dead album). Apparently the lyrics refer to this movie--so says Mozipedia.

What did you get for Christmas?