About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

O.Henry's Full House (1952)

When you think of great literary works that have inspired Christmas entertainment, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is usually the first thing that comes to mind.  But Dickens wasn't the only great author to be inspired to write timeless human tales that capture the Christmas spirit.  Lately I've been thinking about the great American author O.Henry and two of his short stories that continue to endure within Christmas entertainment.  Over the next several weeks, I thought I'd share several of my favorite adaptations of O.Henry's two most popular Christmas stories.

The 1952 black and white, theatrical release film O.Henry's Full House is a convenient place to start.  This film consists of five vignettes, each adapted from a popular O.Henry short story and helmed by a successful Hollywood director.  The five vignettes are The Cop and the Anthem, The Clarion Call, The Last Leaf, The Ransom of Red Chief, and The Gift of the Magi.  It is the first and last segments that I'm most interested in discussing here.

The literary quality of this production is made clear by the participation of author John Steinbeck as the narrator who introduces each segment.

The film's first segment is The Cop And The Anthem which stars Charles Laughton as Soapy and David Wayne as Soapy's friend Horace.  The segment is directed by Henry Koster.  Christmas trivia: director Henry Koster also directed the 1947 Christmas movie The Bishop's Wife starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven.  And, Koster directed 1949's Come to the Stable starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm--another popular movie at Christmas time because its family-friendly story centers on a pair of nuns looking to establish a children's hospital.

The distinguished hobo Soapy (left) explains to his friend Horace that he feels its time to move indoors.

Are you familiar with the story of The Cop and the Anthem set at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century in New York City?  Soapy, a genteel bum (think: erudite homeless person that values his freedom from having to work for a living) recognizes that his nights spent sleeping in the park are getting colder as winter approaches.  Talking to his friend Horace, Soapy decides to get himself arrested so he can spend the next 90 days in prison--with a free bed and hot meals--to escape the chill of winter.

Soapy after having eaten a very expensive meal at a posh restaurant.

Soapy's first criminal act is stealing a man's umbrella from under his arm.  But the victim refuses to call out to a policeman on the street, revealing he had stolen the umbrella and fearing that Soapy may be the umbrella's original owner.  Shrugging his shoulders, Soapy moves on to commit another crime.  Next, the hobo goes into a fine restaurant and eats a very expensive meal.  When he receives his check and admits he has no intention of paying, the owner looks to avoid any trouble and refuses to call the police.  Moving on, Soapy spots a policeman on the street bending over and he rushes forward to kick the officer!  Once again thwarted, Soapy slips on a banana peel and falls to the ground where the kind officer bends over to help the hobo back on his feet.  Getting more desperate, Soapy picks up a horseshoe in the street and throws it through a store window!  His friend Horace runs down the street to avoid any trouble but the store owner and the policeman run after him despite Soapy's loud insistence that he broke the window!

Yes, THAT beautiful woman on the street is indeed Marilyn Monroe!

Still hoping to get his 90 days, Soapy spots a beautiful woman on the street and decides to cause a scene.  Breaking the rules of polite society, Soapy approaches the female stranger, compliments her beauty and offers her a drink.  Instead of being accused of being a masher, it turns out the woman is a prostitute and appreciates the friendly offer. 

Soapy wanders down the street and hears music playing in a church.  Inside the church, he reconsiders his day's efforts and decides to rededicate himself to a living a better life.  Inspired to make something of himself, Soapy steps outside the church and begins going through his pockets looking for the business card he knows he has with a man's name who once offered him a job.  It is at this moment that poor Soapy has the attention of a policeman who arrests him for loitering.  In court, the judge takes one look at Soapy and sentences him to 90 days in jail for vagrancy.

Recognize British actor Charles Laughton (Soapy)?  He also played Captain Bligh in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable.

This sort of twist ending is a story device O.Henry used again and again.   Poor Soapy spends all day trying to get arrested so he can continue to live his care-free life as a bum.  Once he changes his mind and decides to try to be an upstanding citizen and get a job, he's arrested and thrown in jail!  Though the O.Henry's Full House version of the tale doesn't really acknowledge the holidays, the original short story takes place at Christmas time. 

Della and Jim, the poor but happy lovers in The Gift of the Magi.

The fifth vignette in O.Henry's Full House is the holiday classic The Gift of the Magi which stars Farley Granger as Jim and Jeanne Crain as Della. This segment is directed by Henry King.  We're all familiar with the story of The Gift of the Magi, right?  Again, it's the turn-of-the-twentieth-century in New York City, newlyweds Jim and Della have just enough to live on but not enough to afford buying each other Christmas gifts.

If Della sells her hair, she may lose her beauty--will Jim still love her if she's unattractive?

Della can't imagine Christmas time without giving a gift so she sells the only thing she has of any value: her long hair.  With that money, she buys a fancy watch fob for Jim to use with his prized possession, a pocket watch.   When Jim comes home from work on Christmas Eve, he sees how she's cut her hair and he offers his Christmas gift: a set of expensive combs to use in her long hair.  Della offers Jim her gift of the watch fob only to learn that he sold his pocket watch in order to buy the combs.

Jim and Della share a laugh after realizing the result of their gift exchange.

Though this familiar story has been told and re-told dozens of times over the years, we shouldn't forget its meaning.  O.Henry's story embodies the spirit of the adage "it is better to give than to receive."  Their sacrifices, made out of love, cause Jim and Della to laugh from joy--because they each gave as they wanted--and not cry from disappointment because the gifts are now useless and impractical.  The Gift of the Magi is like other O.Henry stories in that it features a twist ending but in this case the twist results in the characters experiencing something emotionally greater than any gift they could have given each other.  


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Rhoda (1974)

"Hiya, Joe!"
Welcome to the Valerie Harper blogathon!  A group of pop culture bloggers came together to celebrate and pay tribute to the life and career of actress Valerie Harper.  When I heard that Amanda By Night from Made for TV Mayhem was putting this together, I knew I wanted in.  I'm the hugest Harper fan--and I absolutely LOVE that I'm not the only one.  Of course, I wanted to share my passion through a holiday episode and I chose one from the first season of Rhoda entitled "Guess What I Got You for the Holidays."

"...New York, this is your last chance!"  Rhoda began in 1974 as a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Joe speaks with his employees about his difficulty in collecting his debts and how to pay his bills without any money coming in.

In this episode, Rhoda is excited for the holidays this year: she’s married and she has a little money saved up.  However, her husband Joe is very depressed.  His demolition company New York Wrecking is struggling for contracts and he has debts that need paying.  Rhoda gives him her savings so he can pay his debts and relieve some of his stress.  There’s even an ongoing joke--Rhoda keeps trying to get Joe to cry, either as stress relief or to express his joy at her beautiful sacrifice.

Joe and Rhoda spend a lot of time in this episode trying to solve their emotional troubles together.
While this episode doesn't depict an elaborate holiday celebration, I still like it for what it is.  Rhoda clearly states that she's excited to have the opportunity to give Joe all her money--she's never had money saved before and now that she's married, she sees it more as their money.  And she likes it that way.  For Rhoda, the holiday sacrifice seems to be a fulfilling way she not only gets to express her love to Joe but prove to herself how much she loves him.  If that's not in the holiday spirit, I don't know what is.

Rhoda and Brenda wrap gifts--for Hanukkah or Christmas?

Though you may not even notice while watching this episode, Rhoda doesn't even mention Christmas--nor Hanukkah.  We see establishing shots of New York City decorated for the Christmas season and we see Rhoda with shopping bags and discussing with her sister Brenda what gift they should give their mother.  But there's no Christmas tree in the apartment--and no menorah either.  I think either would be perfectly appropriate with the rest of the episode's storyline.  But the holiday--whichever she's celebrating--kept in the background doesn't make this storyline any less romantic or complete.

If anything, this holiday moment is a bittersweet one as we watch Rhoda giving so freely, trying very hard to express her love for Joe, while we know the marriage will eventually crumble.  But for this one precious holiday in her marriage, Rhoda has her generous gift to give.

Carlton the Doorman asking if Rhoda received the gift he left on her doorstep.
A little Christmas trivia:

Did you know that Lorenzo Music the man who provides the voice to the off-screen character Carlton the Doorman is also the voice of the animated cat in 1987's classic A Garfield Christmas?

Joe's demolition company New York Wrecking includes Mae (above) played by actress Cara Williams.

A little more Christmas trivia:  Actress Cara Williams, who plays Joe's employee in this episode, can also be seen playing Raggedy Ann in the 1961 episode "Freddie and the Yuletide Doll" on The Red Skelton Show--an Christmas episode with a long legacy and one of the most heartwarming of Skelton's pantomime sketches.

Williams and Skelton as Raggedy Ann and Freddie the Freeloader in "Freddie and the Yuletide Doll."

If you love Valerie Harper as much as I do, I encourage you to check out the other posts in this blogathon which celebrate Harper's life and career.  Click HERE for the link to Amanda's site, Made for TV Mayhem with the master list of the other participating blogs.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Upcoming Valerie Harper Blogathon

Coming next week: Valerie Harper Blogathon!

"Valerie Harper has been a small screen mainstay since the early 1970s. She won our hearts with Rhoda and has remained there through numerous made for TV movies, her series Valerie and several guest appearances. Always a beautiful and welcome presence, several bloggers are celebrating her life and career from March 19th – 22nd. Please stop by madefortvmayhem.com for updates and links and feel free to write something yourself.  Just post a link in the comments section at madefortvmayhem.com.  Next week the blogathon is all about Valerie, so put on your favorite headscarf and join in the fun!"

Thanks to Amanda at Made For TV Mayhem for organizing this tribute.  My post on a holiday episode of Rhoda will go up on Wednesday, March 20th.

Other Participating Blogs:

Craftypants Carol - http://craftypantscarol.blogspot.com/
Go Retro - http://goretro.blogspot.com/
How Sweet it Was - http://howsweetitwas.wordpress.com/
Kindertrauma - http://www.kindertrauma.com/
Made for TV Mayhem - http://madefortvmayhem.blogspot.com/
Michael's TV Tray - Michael's TV Tray - http://michaelstvtray.tumblr.com/

Monday, March 11, 2013

One Day At A Time (1976)

Sadly, Bonnie Franklin passed away March 1st, 2013.

Though actress Bonnie Franklin has had a long career (I love spotting her in episodes of the mid-1960s, teen series Gidget), she is probably most closely associated her with her role as single mother Ann Romano on One Day At A Time.   In tribute to the actress' career and popularity with TV viewers, I'd like to share my favorite holiday episode from One Day At A Time, 1976's "Happy New Year."

Remember the theme song lyrics?  "This is it, this is life, the one you get--so go and have a ball...."

This second season episode participates in the holiday tradition popular in TV sitcoms to create a show within a show.  In an attempt to re-create the popular structure and entertainment of a musical variety show, sitcoms sometimes create musical revues in a show-within-a-show format.  Viewers get treated to entertainment of the highest quality with complete songs as well as dance numbers and comedic acts, performed by their favorite sitcom characters.

If you've read my latest book Merry Musical Christmas Volume 1, you know I discuss the tradition of holiday musical revues in sitcoms in great length.  Examples of some of the best of these include the Christmas episodes of Car 54, Where Are You?, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laverne & Shirley, Good Times, The Facts of Life, Benson, and even the drama/comedy series Ally McBeal and the outrageous South Park.  One of the reasons this One Day holiday episode is a favorite of mine is because it too is one of these musical revues.  I just love seeing actors breaking from their usual roles to show off their singing and dancing skills!

Schneider's jokes are so old, the old folks know them all!

In "Happy New Year," Ann and her daughters Barbara and Julie, decide to join their neighbor Ginny in entertaining a few lonely, elderly people on New Year’s Eve.  Organizing a variety show, they ask Schneider to serve as the joke-telling emcee.

(left) Mackenzie Phillips as Julie imitates singer Kiki Dee--while (right) Valerie Bertinelli as Barbara entertains as Elton John.

For the first musical number, Barbara and Julie performing the duet "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart" dressed as Elton John and Kiki Dee.  Barbie makes a perfect Elton John with the purple top hat, rhinestone studded sunglasses, and silver platform boots with rainbows on the toes.  It's very 1970s! I still own my original 7" record of this hit song in my collection.

A clip of this performance was later used in the series opening credits.

Bonnie Franklin shows off her tap dancing skills to the tune of "On the Good Ship Lollipop" from the 1934 movie Bright Eyes with Shirley Temple.

Ann performs a song and dance routine dressed as Shirley Temple!  Anyone else remember that this original Shirley temple song performance in the 1934 movie Bright Eyes takes place in the aisle of a airplane--on Christmas day?  Love that movie!

Love those dimples!

Ginny (Mary Louise Wilson) works the crowd during her performance.

And, cocktail waitress Ginny Wrobliki sings the love song standard "Mr. Wonderful."

Dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, Schneider joins Ginny during her song to dance.

Together everyone sings "Auld Lang Syne."

After the performances, the cast and the audience count down the clock at midnight and ring in the New Year together. 

Unfortunately, this holiday musical revue episode of One Day couldn't be included in Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1 as it is too rare--it's not yet released on DVD and was not airing on any network in the States at the time of publication.  Hopefully, we'll all see this series come back on TV soon.  What's your favorite Bonnie Franklin TV memory?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Family Affair Christmas (1968)

Do you remember the kaleidoscope opening sequence--and instrumental theme tune?

One sitcom in the 1960s, where TV viewers sought an escape. was Family Affair--adorable twins Buffy and Jody were the ideal young children.  Do you remember this series' set-up?  Orphaned 6 year-olds Buffy and Jody, and their teenage sister Cissy, go to live with their bachelor Uncle Bill and his gentleman's gentleman Mr. French in an apartment in Manhattan.  After some adjustment by the adults as well as the children, the family settles in to learning how to thrive together.  It's a very gentle series--and one of my favorites from my childhood.  Do you remember the Christmas episode?

l to r: Cissy, Buffy, Uncle Bill, Mr. French, and Jody.

The third season produced the episode "Christmas Came A Little Early," first airing in November 1968.  Young Buffy is asked by her schoolteacher to drop off homework for another classmate named Eve.  Eve is too sick to go to school--she only participates in class by means of an audio box on the teacher's desk.  Buffy has heard Eve many times through the speaker box but she's curious to meet Eve whom she's never seen before.

Bedridden Eve Bowers is played by actress Eve Plumb.

The two little girls hit it off and quickly become good friends.  Looking to help Buffy's new friend, wealthy Uncle Bill calls in a few favors from a doctor he knows and has Eve's condition looked over by a specialist.  Turns out, Eve is quite sick and there's nothing anyone can do for her.  Trying to protect his young niece, Uncle Bill asks Buffy to stop visiting Eve.  But Buffy won't hear of it.  Buffy knows that her friend needs her most when she's not feeling well. Warning: you may want to get a box of tissues handy before continuing to read!

Uncle Bill tries to explain to Buffy that Eve probably doesn't want visitors.

Later, Uncle Bill explains to the whole family that they will be celebrating Christmas early this year.  He's involved in another over-seas building project and fears he may be called away--so they agree to celebrate the holiday early in order to be together.  Uncle Bill suggests that Buffy invite her friend Eve to the Christmas party and the young girl reminds her uncle that Eve can't leave her bed.  So Uncle Bill generously suggests they bring their party to Eve's house so everyone can have fun together.

Eve attends the Christmas party in a wheelchair.

Mr. French plays Santa Claus for the children.  Actor Sebastian Cabot is Kris Kringle again in the 1973 TV movie version of Miracle on 34th Street.

The children easily embrace celebrating Christmas early.  Mr. and Mrs. Bowers and the Davis family gather together to decorate a Christmas tree and open gifts.  Eve declares the Christmas tree to be the "most beautiful, most wonderful" tree she's ever seen.

Eve loves the doll Santa gave her.

After the party, we hear Uncle Bill talking to Mr. French discussing how well the evening's Christmas party went.  But Uncle Bill hears Buffy crying from her bedroom.  Without talking, Uncle Bill holds Buffy while she cries.

I warned you about the tissues, didn't I?

Certainly adult viewers get what's going on here:  this is Eve's last Christmas.  Though Uncle Bill had tried to protect Buffy from knowing the details, the little one had figured it out all on her own.  Without further explanation, I think the youngest of children watching this episode's story may not understand the painful reality here--but it's clear enough for the rest of us.  It doesn't matter how many times I've seen this gut-wrenching episode, watching it again ALWAYS makes me cry. hard.

Buffy's brother Jody (Johnnie Whitaker) enjoys Eve's company as well.

You may recognize actress Eve Plumb--she also played middle sister Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch.  I've been watching The Brady Bunch my entire life--not only do I love it but I'm sure I have internalized every episode and line of dialogue as well.  That may very well be one of the reasons it's so painful to watch this Family Affair episode!

Something you may not realize is that there are several more Christmas stories with very similar plotlines.  A nearly identical plot is repeated on the TV series Road to Avonlea in the 1995 episode "Christmas in June."  The 2011 GMC original TV movie The Heart of Christmas is about a community coming together to help a family celebrate one special last Christmas together with their young son who has leukemia. 

More common are similar stories about dying or disabled children that are miraculously healed by Christmas time.  Most notable are the the animated programs The Tiny Tree from 1975 and Magic Gift of the Snowman in 1995.  And, the 2010 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie November Christmas sees a terminally ill child survive what others believe is one last Christmas.

Death and dying Christmas stories are far more common that I ever expected before I began formally researching and watching Christmas TV programming a little more than ten years ago.  I have come to speculate that some viewers appreciate or are drawn to the cathartic effect of stories about grieving in Christmas entertainment.  Surely we all experience loss in our lives--and Christmas may be a time when we more deeply feel that loss.  Do you agree?  Do you have better insight on the popularity of sad stories we watch at Christmas time?  Share it in the comments below--I'd love to hear what you think.