About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life (1995) and Peter Capaldi

The most exciting news this holiday for TV nerds like myself is the 2013 Doctor Who Christmas special, "The Time of the Doctor."  In this new episode, TV viewers will say goodbye to actor Matt Smith as the Time Lord re-generates into his newest incarnation with Peter Capaldi taking over as the new Doctor.  I've been a big fan of Capaldi's for a long time--he appeared in Prime Suspect (one of my favorite shows, a British-made police drama starring Helen Mirren).  But honestly, the first thing I think of when I think of Peter Capaldi--is the short film Franz Kafka's Its A Wonderful Life both written and directed by Capaldi. 

This 22 minute comedy won the Oscar for Best Short Film, Live Action in 1996

The writer Franz Kafka (played by Richard E. Grant) sits at his desk trying to trying to imagine the first line of his new book, with the character Gregor Samsa transforming into a gigantic......what?

This Academy Award-winning short film dramatizes the anxiety-filled writer Franz Kafka struggling to come up with the opening line of his novel The Metamorphosis on Christmas Eve. 

Looking at a bowl of fruit, Kafka considers Gregor Samsa awaking to find himself turned into a.....banana!

Unsure what character Gregor Samsa will change into, the writer Kafka is continually distracted by people in the hallway outside his door and the holiday celebration going on in the apartment below. 

Fueling his paranoia and fear, Kafka meets a man scurrying on the floor in the hallway outside his apartment.  This frightening man is a blade sharpener--looking for his lost pet, Jiminy Cockroach.

Unable to focus on his work, Kafka eventually confronts the noise from downstairs.  The threatening raucous music is coming from a lovely party being held by innocent girls dressed in white gowns celebrating Christmas.

Another unwanted distraction--a woman attempts to deliver a novelty costume to Kafka unaware she has the wrong address.  What costume is she delivering?  It's a giant cockroach!  Recognize this woman?  it's Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey!!)

Though not a retelling of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, this stylized comedy is worth seeking out.  Don't miss the end where the cockroach, played by Crispin Letts, sings the hopeful tune “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life,” an ironic end to Kafka's twisted holiday experience.

What if....Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself a giant insect?  Kafka's eventual inspiration is hilarious if you've read The Metamorphosis.

The frustrated writer is pushed to his mental limits...until his friendly neighbors show him a bit of kindness.  It's truly the best. Christmas. ever for the Jewish Kafka, in this ironic comedy film.

And, don't forget to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special "The Time of the Doctor" premiering on Wednesday, Dec. 25th, 2013 at 9pm(ET) on BBC America.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Child's Christmas in Wales (1987)

This post is part of the Christmas Movie Blogathon hosted by Family Friendly Reviews this weekend.  Click on THIS LINK to visit the Family Friendly Reviews' master list of all the participating essays on Christmas entertainment in this blogathon.

Have you even heard of this TV special?  I originally saw it on PBS.

I wanted to share about the 1987 TV special A Child's Christmas in Wales--even though many people have never heard of it.  Maybe, precisely because many people have never heard of it.  Even if you won't find it airing this year amongst your many favorite Christmas TV favorites--it is easily found on numerous, almost generic, Christmas movie collections on DVD being sold at WalMart and similar retailers.  I'd like the opportunity to share with you the specialness of this hour-long TV special--and why you shouldn't overlook it.

Old Geraint is played by the underrated actor Denholm Elliott.

If the title sounds at all familiar, maybe you recognize that this TV special is adapted from a short story/prose poem by the same title written by one of the great modern poets, Dylan Thomas.  (It's also possible that you've heard the story before--Dylan Thomas originally read it on radio broadcasts which he regularly participated in).  Much of the original story is found in this TV special--it is heard as the words of the story's narrator, Old Geraint, as he shares his memories of Christmases past with his grandson Thomas.  Elevating this TV program into art, Dylan Thomas' original lyrical words and grand imagery are used in the narration by Geraint.

Old Geraint gives his grandson an antique snow globe and begins to share his own personal Christmas memories from his youth.

The TV special has a short introduction with a family gathered together on Christmas Eve, decorating the tree. Young Thomas is allowed to open one special gift--a snowglobe containing a miniature Welsh village-- and the grandfather, Old Geraint, begins to share his memories of the Christmases of his youth spent in Wales.  We then cut to many filmed scenes depicting turn-of-the-twentieth-century Christmas moments as narrated by Old Geraint as a child.  There are scenes of snowball fights, the extended family gathered together for Christmas dinner with blazing puddings, roasted chestnuts, and Christmas crackers.  The narrator discusses the joyful anticipation of waiting for the postman to make his daily holiday deliveries, and about Christmas presents--both useful ones like scarves and hats, as well as "useless ones," such as toys and candies.

One of the memories Geraint shares is enjoying Christmas dinner with the whole family.

Another precious memory is receiving lead soldiers for Christmas and fantasizing about the military men waging battles. (This segment in the TV special is stop-motion animation as the soldiers appear to move about in formation).

While some of these Christmas memories are general reminiscences about Christmas traditions, others are very specific experiences.  There’s a story of the fire brigade called to a neighbor's home to extinguish a smoky chair lit from an abandoned tobacco pipe.  There's also another story of a group of young boys who go caroling and end up frightening themselves when they sing at the door of a stranger's home and hear a weak and fragile voice on the other side of the front door join them in song. 

Old Geraint also shares about his family's tradition of singing together at Christmas.  Doesn't everyone have an amusing uncle that loves to sing funny songs?

One Christmas long ago, Geraint recalls telephoning the local fire department to help a neighbor extinguish an upholstered chair that had caught fire from a forgotten tobacco pipe.

Though the scenes described above may not sound anything but ordinary--that is exactly the point of Dylan Thomas' story and this TV special.  Even Geraint expresses that his childhood experiences were quite ordinary ones--typical of the times and probably much like other peoples' Christmas traditions.  The joy of this hour-long TV program lies not necessarily in the stories themselves but in the act of remembering and sharing these memories with younger family members.

While sharing his Christmas memories, Geraint gets out the family album to share old photos with Thomas.

Just as Geraint acknowledges, your family's experiences may be ordinary ones but they are special to you and those you share them with.

This TV special (and original prose story) celebrate the Christmas tradition of recalling years past.  The belief that "Christmas is for children" doesn't just mean actual children, but also that Christmas is about returning to one's own childhood experiences to re-live those pleasant, joyful holiday moments from the past.  What I love about A Child's Christmas in Wales is that it is a reminder that some of our most cherished Christmas experiences include the tradition of reminiscing itself.  We should allow ourselves to indulge in recalling wonderful and warm holiday memories, and to share this tradition with the young ones in our lives.  Reminiscing is as much a part of Christmas tradition as decorating the tree and singing carols.

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

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bewitched Christmas (1967)

This post first appeared as a part of Dickensfest at Holiday Film Reviews.  Many thanks to JA Morris and RigbyMel for inviting me to participate in Dickensfest--a tribute to Dickens' most popular work A Christmas Carol in honor of the 170th anniversary of the book's release.  You may remember that JA Morris and RigbyMel have guest blogged for me here during my Christmas in July celebrations in 2011, 2012 and 2013

The fourth season episode "Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here" on Bewitched is the second of a total of four Christmas episodes made during the series' run.  This particular episode has some common story elements with the other Bewitched Christmas episodes, and I fear that its legacy has been overlooked.  Maybe I can convince you to take another look at this under-appreciated magical Christmas installment--that includes a much imitated Dickensian spin.

"Christmas is just another day to me," says a Scrooge-like Mr. Mortimer.

In 1967's "Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here," Darrin Stephens finds himself being asked to work late into the night on Christmas Eve--although he's already promised to help his wife Samantha decorate the Christmas tree.

Working late on Christmas Eve, the insensitive Mr. Mortimer obligates his butler Hawkins to continue serving as well.

A new client, the very business-minded Mr. Mortimer is insisting that the details of his advertising campaign can't wait until after the holidays.  When Darrin refuses to work any later, Mortimer follows him to the Stephens' home insisting Darrin continue working or he'll cancel his $500,000 account.

"There's a time for soup and there's also a time for sugar plums!"  Darrin insists that Mortimer's instant soup business can wait.

Later that evening, Darrin tries on his Santa costume he'll use in the morning for his daughter Tabitha.  Meanwhile, Sam speculates on what's wrong with Mortimer.

Sam feels badly for Mortimer and his lack of holiday spirit.  She's sure there's something she can do to reach him and she hatches a plan to inspire Mortimer's belief in Santa Claus.  While Darrin is sleeping in bed, Sam decides to use her magic to take Mortimer on a nighttime journey.

"Think of me as the Spirit of Christmas," says Sam as she awakens Mortimer on Christmas Eve.

There's no Polar Express here--Mortimer is going to take a ride on a witch's broom to the North Pole!
Sam flies into Mortimer's window and awakens him from his bed.  She confesses she's a witch and explains to the angry and confused man that she's taking him on a journey to the North Pole to introduce him to the real Santa Claus. 

With the elves feverishly working in the foreground,  Mr. Mortimer is unimpressed when he meets Santa Claus (background).

At the North Pole, Mortimer is confused and upset and demands to be taken home.  Santa Claus agrees to drop Mortimer off at home when he passes by on his annual trip around the world.  On this long journey with Santa, Mortimer recognizes the home of his butler Hawkins.

Sam and Mortimer see Hawkins dancing around his Christmas tree.

Looking through the front window of Hawkins' home, Sam and Mortimer notice how happy the put-upon butler behaves when he's with his own family.  Mortimer remarks that he's surprised about Hawkins' happiness given that his employee doesn't have much money.

Character actor Charles Lane plays Mr. Mortimer.  Lane made himself a career out of playing curmudgeons.

On Christmas morning, Sam, Darrin, and Tabitha are celebrating Christmas together and opening their gifts when there's a knock on the front door.  It's Mr. Mortimer who explains that he experienced a horrible nightmare last night and has had a change of heart about cancelling his ad campaign.  Sam goes along with his nightmare theory--pretending she doesn't know about his experiences last night.

Darrin in his Santa suit, Sam and Mr. Mortimer--all happy on Christmas morning.

Mr. Mortimer would like to continue working with Darrin after the holidays are over.  He'll have to wait until his butler returns anyway--he sent Hawkins and his family away on an all-expenses paid vacation.  The implication is that Mortimer now appreciates that money can't buy happiness and he regrets punishing Darrin for putting his family first before business.  When Mortimer sees Tabitha under the Christmas tree playing with a one-of-a-kind doll he saw at the North Pole, he's no longer sure what he experienced last night was a nightmare after all.

What sort of Christmas magic occurred last night after all?

What stands out to me in this holiday episode--despite the distracting Santa Claus and North Pole elements--is that this story is structured like an adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Mortimer is focused on the importance of money, he has a lack of holiday spirit, he demands Darrin work on Christmas, and on Christmas Eve while in bed Mortimer is visited by a guide calling herself "The Spirit of Christmas."   For many of us, Santa Claus represents our belief in Christmases past.  Mortimer also visits a Christmas in the present--when he witnesses Hawkins' joy with his family.  And, Mortimer feels transformed by his night time journey, deciding to give gifts to those he's wronged and righting the future for his ad campaign.  The episode's story is a little muddy, but I believe Dickens' original elements are all clearly here.

Is Sam behaving arrogantly by taking it upon herself to teach Mortimer a life lesson?  Probably.  But we love Samantha anyway.

What makes this episode different from typical adaptations of Dickens' A Christmas Carol is that Samantha stands in for the three spirits of Christmases past, present, and future.  Even more precisely, she takes it upon herself to teach Mr. Mortimer a lesson about the holiday spirit by gaslighting him into thinking he's experiencing a supernatural journey during the night of Christmas Eve.  Well, Mortimer is taking a supernatural journey--by way of her witchy magic.  However, instead of a ghostly Jacob Marley character who wants to warn Scrooge about his upcoming painful fate in the afterlife--Sam decides she knows better for Mr. Mortimer and takes it upon herself to teach him a lesson about life.  It's actually kind of arrogant of Sam--but we'll forgive our favorite TV witch, this once!  I think the TV writers found an interesting and clever way to incorporate the much-beloved storyline of A Christmas Carol into this series without turning Sam (or any of the other regular characters) into the vilified Scrooge character.

Bo, Daisy, and Luke Duke each take a turn speaking across the top of the jug to create a spooky voice transmitted on the CB radio, hoping to scare Boss Hogg into transforming his life on Christmas.

I point out this interesting A Christmas Carol story development because I've seen it many times.  As someone who writes about Christmas entertainment, I've seen quite a few television versions of A Christmas Carol where the series' hero takes it upon him/or herself to gaslight an adversary into learning a lesson, usually inspiring the Christmas spirit.  Do you remember any stories like this?  How about the Six Million Dollar Man's 1976 episode "A Bionic Christmas Carol?"  It's also an element within The Dukes of Hazzard's 1980 episode "The Great Santa Claus Chase."  And, it has been done on the 1984 Christmas episode of Highway to Heaven, the 1996 holiday episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, and the 2009 Christmas episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, among others.  There are more episodes to add to this list--can you name one? 

Col. Steve Austin disguises himself as Santa Claus and shows his adversary visions of his Christmases past, present and future on The Six Million Dollar Man.

I chose to share this particular episode of Bewitched and discuss this unique television spin on Dickens' original tale because I believe this 1967 episode is the first of its kind.  Do you know of an earlier example than this 1967 episode of someone being gaslit into receiving the Dickens treatment?  Let's discuss it. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

TV Confidential and more

I just wanted to let you know about a few interviews I've recently done.  This week I'll be joining the gang at TV Confidential discussing our favorite and no-so-favorite Christmas TV experiences.  That radio show airs Wed. Dec 18th-24th.  Click HERE for their website and the schedule of when and where it airs.  After that it will become available for listening as a downloadable podcast.  You follow TV Confidential on facebook, right?  Just in case you don't, here's the link.

I also recently did an interview with Jim Inman for his radio program The Bloomington Review out of Indiana.  That radio program is now available as a podcast as well.  Click HERE for the link to that show.

screen shot of the website's header.

And, just in case you missed it last week--I was also interviewed by book author/pop culture expert Caseen Gaines for the website The RetroistClick HERE for the link to see that interview again.  I discuss my thoughts on what makes a good Christmas TV special and the successes and failures of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special

I also appeared on the talk show RadioOnceMore.com on their Wednesday night live show a week ago.  My interviewer and host was Johnny Holmes--a wonderful man and Christmas TV fan I met this past year at Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia ConventionRadioOnceMore is a warm community of nostalgia fans--if you don't already follow them on Facebook, here's the link.  Thanks to all the listeners who sent in comments by way of fb, email, and the telephone.  It was great responding to your feedback and questions.  The two-hour talk was a fun trip down Memory Lane as we discussed topics ranging from the 1971 Christmas TV movie The Homecoming to 1962's Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol to the many, many Rankin/Bass animated Christmas classics, and even 1977's Christmas TV movie The Gathering.  I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Stingiest Man in Town (1956)

DVD cover

This past year I've delivered a presentation about the many TV adaptations of Charles Dickens' classic literary tale A Christmas Carol to several audiences.  One of the TV productions I mention that sparks the most discussion is 1956's The Stingiest Man in Town--a lavish, feature-length musical production that was originally broadcast in color.

The Stingiest Man in Town was originally broadcast as an installment of The Alcoa Hour.

In addition to an amazing cast, this elaborate production features special video effects, several group dance sequences, and falling snow effects--all coordinated during a live production!  The wonderful music for the three act production--written by Fred Spielman with book and lyrics by Janice Torre--was also recorded and sold as an album.  In its day, The Stingiest Man in Town was received with high praise from TV viewers and critics alike.  Until very recently, it existed only in viewers memories--until a kinescope was discovered and it was released on DVD just a few years ago.

The only kinescope (filmed copy of the live production) that exists gives us a black-and-white version of the original color broadcast. 

One of the details of this particular production that stands out in people's minds is the unforgettable portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge by actor Basil Rathbone.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Basil Rathbone--the man who many viewers so closely identify with the movie role of Sherlock Holmes (he appeared in fourteen films as Holmes!)--will impress you as a singing Scrooge.
Basil Rathbone as Scrooge sneers at his nephew Fred's good holiday cheer.

You may also recognize Vic Damone in the cast playing Young Ebenezer.  In this scene from Fezziwig's party, Young Ebenezer sings "Golden Dreams" opposite Belle, played by opera singer Patrice Munsel.

Collaborators Spielman and Torre were well known for their musical writing in Hollywood over the Broadway stage.   (They were also responsible for the song "Merry Christmas" sung by Judy Garland in the 1949 movie In the Good Old Summertime--a re-make of the 1940 holiday movie The Shop Around the Corner).  You'll fall in love with the music from The Stingiest Man in Town--each of the songs easily stand on their own.  In true musical fashion, most of the story unfolds through the musical performances with only brief segments that include spoken dialogue.

The four carolers (which includes the narrator)--who also play the four beggars--are the singing group The Four Lads.

In Act I, the songs include “A Christmas Carol” sung by the narrator, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas” sung by nephew Fred, “Humbug” sung by Scrooge and Fred, “The Stingiest Man in Town” sung by Mrs. Dilber, the Four Beggars, and Hawkins, “A Christmas Carol (Reprise)” by the narrator, “I Wear a Chain” sung by Jacob Marley and Scrooge, the instrumental “Country Dance” which is taken from “An Old-Fashioned Christmas,” and the Golden Dreams Sequence consisting of the songs “Golden Dreams” and “It Might Have Been” sung by Young Ebenezer and Belle.

The opening includes a large group sequence with plenty of dancing, as we hear "An Old-Fashioned Christmas"--a song we'll hear again and again.

Forgive my screen shot from a kinescope:  superimposed ghostly figures frighten Scrooge during his visit from Jacob Marley during the song "I Wear A Chain."  Special effects created during a live production are just some of the fine details that went into making this one of TV's finest holiday moments.
My favorite scene: during the Golden Dreams sequence, we see a beautiful metaphor realized as Young Scrooge amasses his fortune in gold bricks that eventually grow too tall for him to reach his fiancé Belle. 

In Act II, the songs include “A Christmas Carol (Reprise)” sung by the narrator, “The Christmas Spirit” sung by the Spirit of Christmas Present and Scrooge, “Yes, There Is A Santa Claus” sung by eldest daughter Martha Cratchit to Tiny Tim, “One Little Boy” sung by the Spirit of Christmas Present, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas (Reprise)” sung by Fred and Betty, and “The Birthday Party of the King” sung by nephew Fred.

During Scrooge's visit to the Cratchit home with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he overhears daughter Martha (Betty Madigan) sing a song of hope to her young brother Tiny Tim, "Yes, There Is A Santa Claus."

Later, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to his nephew Fred's home where we hear him sing a more sacred song "The Birthday Party of the King" while standing next to a miniature Nativity set (right).  Fred is played by singer Johnny Desmond.

In Act III, the songs include “A Christmas Carol (Reprise)” sung by the narrator, the instrumental “Concerto Inferno (Devil’s Ballet)" during which the wretched souls dance in the cemetery, “Mankind Should Be My Business” sung by Scrooge, “The Christmas Spirit (Reprise)” sung by Scrooge, Mrs. Dilber, and Hawkins, “One Little Boy (Reprise)” sung by Cratchit and Scrooge, “Yes, There Is A Santa Claus (Reprise)” sung by the Cratchit family, and the finalé “An Old-Fashioned Christmas (Reprise)” sung by the ensemble.

Another elaborate production number is the "Concerto Inferno (Devil's Ballet)" with a group of wretched souls writhing throughout the cemetery and around Scrooge's tombstone.

Scrooge pleads with the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come for a chance to change the future in the song "Mankind Should Be My Business."  Yes, Rathbone sings in this TV special.

An animated version of this 1956 TV musical was produced by Rankin/Bass in 1978.  The voice cast of Rankin/Bass' The Stingiest Man in Town includes Tom Bosley as the narrator B.A.H. Humbug, Walter Matthau as Scrooge, Theodore Bikel as Marley’s Ghost, Robert Morse as the young Scrooge, Dennis Day as the nephew Fred, Paul Frees as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and, Charles Matthau--Walter's real-life son--as the boy on Christmas morning.  The animated adaptation also draws upon the music written by Spielman and Torre.  Have you seen the Rankin/Bass version too?

Do you enjoy musical versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol?

A music collector's dream:  the soundtrack album.