Christmas is the time of year when most of us allow ourselves to become nostalgic, yearning for happy moments from our childhoods--and even our collective pasts. We feel a sense of nostalgia for our own past, but also for the past that we didn't experience. The 19th century is long gone, but it is emotionally satisfying and comforting to see Victorian costumes and recreations of the stone-cobbled streets of London during the month of December each year. Christmas TV entertainment is one of the ways we indulge ourselves in cultural holiday memories.
One of the joys of watching the Christmas installment Happy Holidays from Bing and Frank, from the short-lived variety series The Frank Sinatra Show is that it's nostalgic. Frank welcomes crooner Bing Crosby as his musical guest in this special color episode. You didn't have to see this episode when it originally aired on television in 1957 to feel the nostalgia of it. There are layers and layers of cultural Christmas memories in this episode. Let's see how many you connect with.
|Sinatra actually shares a writing credit for the song "Mistletoe and Holly," a song introduced on his 1957 album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.|
Frank opens the show singing the song "Mistletoe and Holly" while casually trimming a Christmas tree on a very hip, fashionable bachelor apartment stage set. His good friend Bing Crosby drops by the apartment, bearing an armful of gifts, and the men greet each other while singing a chorus of Irving Berlin's song "Happy Holiday."
|What gifts do Frank and Bing exchange? Copies of their latest Christmas LPs, of course.|
Frank and Bing exchange punchlines and then duet with a jazz arrangement of "Jingle Bells."
|Over a cup of red punch, the friends sing a swingin' arrangement of "Jingle Bells."|
Hearing a group of carolers singing "Deck the Halls" outside the front door, Bing and Frank step outside to join them in song. Next thing they know, Frank and Bing find themselves in period costume as they join the group strolling through Merrie Old England in a Victorian London setting.
|Bing and Frank's voices occupy the lead with the carolers' voices serving as background.|
|Crane shot of the Merrie Old England set.|
Frank and Bing join the carolers in singing the traditional carols "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," and "O Come All Ye Faithful." As the carolers roam the streets, the residents and shop keepers hand out drinks, fruits, coins, and baked sweets to them.
|The Christmas party and singing continues for the two friends back at Frank's apartment. Here, Bing solos on "Away in a Manger" while seated on the couch in front of the elaborate Christmas tree.|
Frank and Bing return to the apartment (back in their modern clothing) where Frank seats himself at the piano and sings “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Next, Crosby solos on "Away in a Manger" and the two men duet on the reverent tune "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
|Frank enjoying the uptempo jazz arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."|
This is followed by two more lively songs; Bing sings "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Frank counters with a swingin’ version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Seated in front of the fireplace, Frank and Bing together sing "The Christmas Song."
|LOVE the floor lamp (left background) and open fireplace (foreground).|
The final performance is "White Christmas" sung by Bing Crosby as he looks out a window. Ol’ Blue Eyes even joins Crosby on his signature tune. When the song ends, the men sit down to eat Christmas dinner as the credits begin to roll.
|Near the end of the song, Frank joins Crosby in the final tune "White Christmas."|
Frank Sinatra himself directed this episode, and each of the song performances (except the ones during the Merrie England segment) are a long take. This means there's no edits or cuts during a song. They don't make TV like this anymore! In the opening number "Mistletoe and Holly," while decorating the Christmas tree, Frank drops one of the ornaments but he keeps whistling while he bends over to pick it up off the floor! The song and the decorating continues despite the gaff. The music conductor for the series and this episode was Nelson Riddle. Riddle and his orchestra (off screen) provide background instrumentation for all of Bing and Frank's performances, except during the caroling segment where there was no accompaniment.
|The song continues as Frank bends over to pick up what he's dropped. The performances in this TV episode are recorded in one take.|
It just doesn’t get any better than this. This magical TV moment is so swingin’ Old School cool, it keeps your eggnog chilled. It's impossible to imagine a modern day equivalent of this magical Christmas moment; these are two of the biggest musical celebrities of the 20th century. And here they come together for a half-hour to entertain with old and new Christmas tunes, a brief moment captured on film that we can watch over and over again, year after year.
|Frank and Bing duet on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with Frank seated at the piano.|
Pay special attention to the story presented here. In the opening, Frank is singing to himself while he decorates a Christmas tree in his apartment. It is as if the television cameras are spying on a private moment when two old friends come together to celebrate Christmas together. This takes place, we are encouraged to believe, in Frank's own home--a place so quintessentially 1950s, it looks like a wonderful, vintage museum. Christmas TV variety shows quite often take place on a set made to look as if it is the star's own home. Think Judy Garland's 1963 Christmas show as well as many others. Hosting a Christmas show from a domestic setting is an interesting (and effective) way of creating a warm, inviting yet personal feeling. It's like we're seeing Frank at home with his best friend Bing--a warm and fuzzy fictional account of how Frank spends his holidays.
I also love all the drinking! Not only do the two men share a glass of punch during "Jingle Bells," but they also inbibe while caroling door-to-door on the streets of London.
Returning to the layers of nostalgia in this episode. How many references to Christmas culture can you identify? Frank and Bing exchange copies of their own real-life Christmas albums--do you own a copy of each? The old friends greet each other singing the song "Happy Holiday," a song first introduced in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby. Frank and Bing step back in time to carol in Merrie Old England, a way of participating in Christmas as popularized by Charles Dickens. The two friends together sing "White Christmas," not only Crosby's best-selling signature tune but one he introduced in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. The popularity of the song also inspired the creation of the movie 1954's White Christmas--which also starred Bing Crosby. Have you seen both movies Holiday Inn and White Christmas? TV viewers watching in 1957 would have picked up on all of these nostalgic references.
|Crosby and Sinatra step outside the apartment to greet the carolers as they sing "Deck the Halls."|
As viewers in the 21st century, this TV episode evokes further nostalgia for our more recent past. It's a look at the 1950s, not only seen in the decor of Frank's amazing apartment but also heard in the jazz arrangements of the Christmas songs performed. Let us not forget the presence of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby themselves--two of the biggest performers of the 20th century, in the middle of their long reign over popular culture. We continue to hear their Christmas songs played on the radio each December. And, how many other Christmas TV variety shows have you seen set in what looks like the home of the star? This 1957 Christmas TV episode is available for viewing on DVD under the title Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank. Let me know what you think of it.
This piece about the Christmas episode of The Frank Sinatra Show is a part of a series about TV variety shows organized by the Classic TV Blog Association. Please check out the other posts in the blogathon at the following link: http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com/
Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. She is currently updating and expanding the encyclopedia for a 2021 release. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com
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