About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Glee: Extraordinary Merry Christmas (2011)

Glee Christmas 2011: Chris Colfer as Kurt Hummel with Chewbacca
 This year's Glee Christmas episode included Artie directing his very own holiday TV special for his local PBS station.  He decided to take his inspiration from 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special and 1963's Christmas special from The Judy Garland Show.  How awesome is that?  Not only did Artie insist on filming his variety special in black and white just like The Judy Garland Show but he incorporates costumes of the characters from the Star Wars Holiday Special.  Have you seen these two classic Christmas TV specials?

The Judy Garland Show's Christmas Show (1963).  Left: Mel Torme, Judy and Jack Jones.
The holiday episode of the short-lived variety series, The Judy Garland Show, stars singers Jack Jones and Mel Tormé, as well as Garland’s children, Joe, Lorna and Liza. The show opens with the camera looking through the windows of a home, focusing on the maternal Miss Garland singing the melancholy ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ while affectionately grasping Joe and Lorna. Of course, this is the memorable song that she made popular in the 1944 movie, ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ Judy invites the TV cameras into her home for this Christmas TV special, to share the holiday with her family as her good friends, Jack Jones and Mel Tormé informally drop by. Both young Joe and Lorna adorably sing off-key songs, and a seventeen year-old, Liza Minnelli is here entertaining too--the best is her song and dance jazz number to ‘Steam Heat.’ 

Liza Minnelli with her mother Judy in 1963's Christmas Show
Garland and her children sing and dance ever so casually, as if improvising, yet the choreography and the off-stage orchestration suggests otherwise.  In fact, all the entertainment appears informal--as if a natural extension of the singer’s lifestyle, yet it’s so perfectly conceived and painstakingly arranged, it can’t be that natural.  Twice when a team of stylized Santa Clauses raucously bursts through Garland’s front door to dance in the middle of her living room, the audience is once again reminded of how choreographed this improvised moment truly must be. 

Despite her professional demeanor, Judy really seems to be uncomfortable, at times appearing to be forcing the Christmas spirit.  She seems distracted and fidgety, not really focused during the entire show.  And later, tension can be felt when Garland sits at the piano to sing with Tormé the song so synonymous with the holiday that it’s often overlooked that Tormé himself co-wrote it--‘The Christmas Song.’  Harmonizing along side the ‘Velvet Fog,’ Judy accidentally flubs a line and Tormé reacts jovially, laughing and making the aside comment, “Close....” But there is clearly some friction when Judy purposefully alters the next line to add a lyric from her signature tune ‘Over the Rainbow’ on top of his masterpiece.  The first lyric change was a mistake but she’s clearly manipulated the lyrics vengefully the second time. 

Judy (center) with son Joe (left) and daughter Lorna (right)
Although she shares the stage with her children, with everyone singing and enjoying each other’s company, at the end of the show when Judy sings ‘Over the Rainbow,’ you can feel the same uncomfortable feeling, much like the opening in ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’  Judy has to belt out another of her signature songs, which undermines the small, intimate moment she’s sharing with her children.

However, even when Judy isn’t at her best, she’s still better than most.  This explains why her Christmas special remains a very popular vintage favorite.  This installment is currently available for viewing on DVD.

1978's Star Wars Holiday Special is a two-hour long TV special featuring much of the cast from the original film, including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, as well as Chewbacca, Darth Vader, the Stormtroopers, C3-PO and R2-D2. Airing only once, this special became the stuff of legend:  creator George Lucas ignores its existence; fans debate the rumors that it was the worst thing to ever air on TV, let alone the fact that it was a disappointment for  Star Wars disciples.  For years, bootleg VHS copies floated around college dorms.  Then, it was sold illegally on internet auction sites.  Recently, it has become more accessible because of its instant availability over the internet. But this has only served to prove to a wider, more curious audience with expectant high hopes just how incredibly awful it truly is.

Chewie with his family: wife Malla, son Lumpy and father Itchy.
Within the mythos of this galaxy far, far, away, they do not celebrate our Christmas but their own holiday called Life Day.  When the story starts, Han Solo and Chewbacca  are delayed from returning for the Life Day celebrations on the Wookie planet, Kashyyyk,  because they are forced to battle Imperial ships along their route.  Meanwhile, Chewie’s family grows more worried with each passing hour of his absence, distracting themselves with mindless activities.  His son Lumpy watches various entertainments on a hologram display.  His wife Malla continues to prepare the holiday meal and watches a cooking demonstration on a video screen while Chewie’s aged father, Itchy, concerns himself with more ‘adult’ pursuits--indulging his fantasies with a virtual reality contraption, they call ‘a Mind Evaporator.’ Luke Skywalker checks in by way of a video screen as does Princess Leia to greet the Wookie family on the holiday, adding to growing tensions that Chewie and Han haven’t arrived yet. 

Eventually, Darth Vader sends orders to catch the rebels by setting up a blockade around Lashyyyk, making it even more challenging for Chewbacca and Han Solo to return on Life Day. The Imperial guard turn up at the Wookie home and ransack the place looking for confirmation of their rebel sympathies, but Lumpy keeps himself busy watching an animated segment about his father and his friends on an adventure. When Chewbacca does finally return home, the family gathers to celebrate Life Day, where they each raise an orb to transport themselves to some enigmatic, celestial plane, reuniting with Luke, Han Solo, C3-P0, R2-D2 and Princess Leia, who sings a song about the holiday’s meaning.

Bea Arthur at Mos Eisley's cantina in Star Wars Holiday Special
In the tradition of television holiday spectacles, there are musical numbers and special guest stars, including: Art Carney, who plays the pro-rebellion, trading post owner and visitor to the Wookie home; comedic actor, Harvey Korman, appears in several roles, including the cooking instructor, transmitter assembly teacher and a fawning customer in the cantina.  Singer/actress Diahann Carroll appears as the sexy, fantasy singer in Itchy’s Mind Evaporator; 1970s rock band Jefferson Starship (featuring Marty Balin) performs on a hologram display; and, singer/actress Beatrice Arthur appears as the bartender at Mos Eisley’s cantina and performs a boozy song.

This TV special is the first introduction of the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a character who goes on to appear in the later films and captures the imagination of many Star Wars fans.  He can be found in the animated segment which was originally made by Canadian animators, Nelvana.

For more about both of these classic TV specials, see my book The Christmas TV Companion (2009) available for purchase on this blog or at Amazon.com.

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