About Christmas TV History

Friday, September 30, 2011

Donna Reed Show Christmas (1958)

Silent film star, actor/director Buster Keaton isn't known for slapstick comedy as much as his brilliant physical feats and deadpan humor.  I think I've seen The General more times than any of his other films.  Steamboat Bill Jr. is the film with the famous scene where the wall of a building falls over him and he escapes injury because he's standing in the precise spot to clear a second-story window.

Keaton in 1927's The General.
 In Sherlock Jr. one can see the now legendary scene where he is pushed to the ground by a gush of water spilling from an overhead water tank.  This scene is legendary because it has been revealed to be the shot where the actor actually broke his neck when he fell onto the railroad tracks due to the weight of the water.

Keaton had a revival in the late 1950-early 1960s.  He appeared in several comedy films and worked in television.  He even had a role in three of the American International Pictures beach movies in the 1960s with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.  One of the aforementioned TV appearances that he made was a 1958 Christmas episode of The Donna Reed Show.

The first season episode entitled "A Very Merry Christmas" sees the Stone family matriarch frustrated with herself and others this holiday.  She notices her children Jeff and Mary are both keeping score on the cost and number of gifts they have received from their friends.  Donna is also hurt by the paperboy, mailman and delivery man's unappreciative responses to her holiday gifts of fruitcake.  When she learns that the hospital (where her husband Alex works) has left the work of organizing the children's ward Christmas party all to Charlie the janitor, she gets involved.  Here, Charlie the good-hearted janitor is played by Buster Keaton.

Keaton as Charlie the janitor
While Buster Keaton doesn't have much of an opportunity to show off much of his physical comedy, he does have a significant amount of screen time and dialogue.  (He does comically walk into a door--so there is one small moment of physical humor!)  If you didn't already know who Keaton was, you may not even know from this episode that you're watching a comic legend.  But for those of us who recognize Keaton, this special Christmas episode offers a nostalgic reminder of the happy hours spent watching his films.

In the final scene at the Christmas party, Charlie, now wearing a Santa suit, is emotionally touched by the little bit of happiness he's brought to the children spending their holiday in the hospital.  As his (and our's) eyes fill with tears, we can see that sad, little funny man again tilting his head with that stoic face just as he did so many times in our favorite silent films.

Hand me the box of tissues, will ya?

This episode is available for viewing on the first season DVD set of The Donna Reed Show.  It is also available in the collection of holiday comedy episodes called Merry Sitcom!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Three Stooges Christmas (1949)

What kind of Three Stooges fan are you?  Do you like Shemp or Curly?  This 1949 short film entitled "Malice in the Palace" features Shemp along with Moe and Larry as each don disguises as Santa Claus and ride in a horse-drawn sleigh across the sand.  This installment takes place in the Far East, at the desert Cafe Casbahbah, as the Stooges play three waiters who search for the 100-carat diamond from King Rootin-tootin’s tomb.   One of my favorite scenes is where the restaurant patron has a bowl of spaghetti dumped over his head and his waitor Shemp cuts the long noodles that droop over his face, as if trimming bangs that cover his eyes.  It's so ridiculous--yet practical.  In a later scene, I like the map with all the crazy names of countries--a common schtick but always hilarious.  Did you notice that Jerkola is just east of Staywayoff?

 If anything makes me feel like a kid again, it's watching the Three Stooges!  "Why I oughta----"  I think I even had Moe's haircut when I was in elementary school.  Not on purpose anyway.

These theatrical release short comedy films are not only available on-line but at Netflix (See "Three Stooges Collector's Edition").  The Three Stooges short films are also currently airing on Saturday nights on AntennaTV starting at 11pm (EST).  I often find these Christmas short films, like The Three Stooges and others, used as interstitial filler throughout the month of December on various cable networks. 

Sorry about the ads.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Laurel & Hardy Christmas (1929)

My encyclopedia Tis the Season TV is a collection of Christmas-themed TV episodes, specials and movies.  The nearly 800 page book contains thousands of entries that span the last century of filmed entertainments--from silent film shorts originally released into theaters to contemporary sitcoms and primetime dramas starring the latest Hollywood celebrities.  But one of the things I loved most about writing and compiling the encyclopedia was discovering the small gems that few others seem to talk about when they discuss Christmas entertainments.  Everyone loves Rudolph, the Grinch, and A Charlie Brown Christmas---of course.  But are you aware of the wealth of possibilities of what else has been produced?  By examining film and television history using the lens of Christmas-themed materials, you can actually experience a unique cross-section of American life and entertainment.

In a small series over the next week or so, I'm going to highlight several overlooked Christmas-themed short films and a couple of TV shows that feature vintage physical comedy masters.

The silent film comedy duo Laurel & Hardy are neither forgotten nor rare but I fear that future generations will overlook these masters of physical comedy.  I've overheard young people who dismiss anything filmed in black and white.  I don't imagine these same folks appreciate silent films either.  But they should.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy star in "Big Business," a twenty minute short film made by MGM in 1929 in which the two men attempt to sell Christmas trees door-to-door.  The two salesmen have a rough time convincing people to buy their trees and get doors slammed in their faces until the solicitors decide they won't take 'no' for an answer.  In typical fashion, mayhem ensues.  I don't want to spoil the entire story but my favorite scene is Stan's outrageous behavior with the piano in front of the policeman.

The film is available for viewing on Netflix.  It is currently streaming under the title "Slapstick Masters."  If you click on the "Big Business" episode, the Laurel & Hardy short film begins at approximately 1:08:30. 

You can also watch "Big Business" on Hulu under the title The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy.  Or, below:

Up next: Part 2 -- The Three Stooges.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

25 Most Hilarious Holiday TV Moments (2010)

We've all seen these countdown shows.  They usually include video clips and sassy commentators.  I was lucky enough to be asked to be one of those talking heads on a program created for the TV Guide Network which aired last holiday season. 

In the immortal words of Mike Teevee, "Am I coming in clear?"

I was flown to New York City for the taping of the TV special in October 2010.  I arrived at the studio space in the early morning, even before much of the crew came in, although my time before the camera wasn't until later in the afternoon.  I spent most of the day watching several other participants being interviewed, providing their commentary for the camera, before my turn in the chair.  It was an interesting lesson to watch how these shows are created and produced.

One of the other women, Dawn Yanek, was very efficient and professional at her interview.  I marveled at her ease speaking before the camera.  I spoke to her briefly after her interview and she was very pleasant to me.  Several months later while watching Law & Order: SVU,  I saw her in the episode's opening--Dawn played a woman in the story who found the dead body! (It's a 2009 episode entitled 'Baggage').  I'm very jealous!

After a long day of waiting for my time in front of the camera, I finally had my chance.  Much like my History Channel interview,  I spent more than an hour talking about my favorite moments from these 25 hilarious holiday clips.  After all the editing and compiling of all the participants, I have quite a bit of face time in this TV special.  I am very pleased with the results even if I think I need to smile more.  Just a few short years ago, I never would have imagined I would be discussing Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, Larry the Cable Guy's Christmas Special, Family Ties, weird holiday public service announcements from CBS, The O.C., Family Guy and naming the members of KISS on a national TV Christmas special!

Robert Indiana sculpture outside the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indiana, December 2010
25 Most Hilarious Holiday TV Moments debuted in December 2010 when I was traveling on book tour promoting my two books.  The Sunday night it premiered, I happened to be in Indianapolis, IN awaiting a book signing scheduled the following day.  My hotel didn't get the TV Guide Network in their cable package in the rooms--don't EVEN get me started about how bad and limited the TV channel options are in hotel rooms!  Anyhoo, I spoke to the concierge in the hotel I was staying at, asking for a recommendation for a nearby sports bar or the like that would have TVs to watch for patrons.  She was the most awesome concierge ever because she spent the WHOLE day on the phone calling around to bars, restaurants and other hotels trying to find a business that would allow me to come over and watch myself on TV.  Frustrated, I had to wait another two weeks until I returned home to see how the show turned out.

Notice the fingers? I'm counting off the names of the members of the rock band KISS who gave their voices in the 2000 Christmas episode of 'Family Guy.'

But I didn't have much trouble finding when the special aired because they repeated it often, sometimes several times a day--through January 2011.  Hahahaha.  There were times I was flipping through the channels and freakishly heard my own voice before I knew it was airing again.  I am hoping that this popularity means that 25 Most Hilarious Holiday TV Moments will air again at holiday time 2011.  I've got my fingers crossed!  I hope you like it too.  An edited version that highlights my appearances in the special is available for viewing on my channel TistheSeasonTV on Youtube.  Or, you can watch it below.

an edited piece that highlights my participation

If you missed my previous discussions, here are the following links to my other TV appearances:  The Real Story of Christmas on the History Channel and Teen Focus on Cleveland, OH cable access television.  If there is a casting agent for any of the Law & Order franchises reading this, I want you to know that I am available to appear in any upcoming episodes to discover a dead body on the street.  Please contact me immediately.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Waltons Christmas Reunion

 This morning on Facebook, I heard about this amazing upcoming event!  In honor of the 40th anniversary of the TV movie The Homecoming, Loew's Theatre in Jersey City, NJ is hosting a screening of the film along with eight of the actors from the TV series for a Q&A panel discussion. This December event is surely a must-see opportunity for Christmas TV fans.  As a kid growing up in the 1970s, THIS movie was what we looked forward to seeing every year on TV. 

I saw this photo and the announcement on the facebook page, Mary McDonough's Autobiography: Lessons from the Mountain.  Thanks, Mary!  

Are you as excited as I am about this event?  It's 85 degrees today but I've got the Christmas spirit!