About Christmas TV History

Monday, January 27, 2014

Partridge Family Christmas (1971)

Did you know that the title of this 1971 Christmas episode is a reference to the 1958 hit song "Don't Bring Your Guns to Town," sung by country music icon, Johnny Cash?
Although I blogged about this Christmas episode before, it was four long years ago.  I thought I'd update the essay and add some photos.  This classic episode deserves more attention anyway--did you grow up watching The Partridge Family on television, like I did?  Do you remember the second season episode "Don't Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa?"

The children are devastated when they realize they may have to spend Christmas stranded in the desert.

In this holiday episode, the family's tour bus breaks down on Christmas Eve in the desert on the way home after a performance in Las Vegas.  The Partridges take shelter in a nearby ghost town where an elderly prospector named Charlie entertains the children with a Christmas story about this once well-populated town, 100 years ago.

Luckily, they aren't alone.  A friendly resident of the town offers the family shelter until they can get the bus fixed.

After hearing Chris remark that he's worried that Santa Claus won't be able to find them in the desert, Charlie begins to share a story to address Chris' fears.

This western fantasy features the cast in the roles of the story told by Charlie, with Reuben playing Mean Sydney, the villain in a black hat who steals the town’s silver Christmas bell, Laurie as the schoolmarm, Shirley as the saloon girl, Danny as Little the Kid--a wannabe hero, and Keith as Sheriff Swell, who carries a guitar instead of a gun.

Keith (David Cassidy) plays the role of Sherrif Swell.  He wanders around the town, singing to its residents--much to their chagrin.

Laurie (Susan Dey) plays the role of the town's schoolmarm.

Mother Shirley (Shirley Jones in center) plays Belle, the town's saloon owner--she sells only lemonade and lollipops!  And, Chris (Brian Forster) and Tracy (Suzanne Crough) play young townsfolk.

The story's villain is Mean Sydney who is so rotten, he steals the town's bell.  This role is made even funnier when it's played by the push-over Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden), the band's manager.

As Charlie tells it, this town was once afraid that Santa Claus wouldn't be able to find its residents in the desert.  They purchased a shiny silver bell and rang it every midnight on Christmas Eve.  Until one year, the dastardly Mean Sydney stole the bell.  After several attempts by Belle, the schoolmarm, and the Sheriff fail to convince Mean Sydney to give back the bell--a hero arrives in town to save the day.  Little the Kid offers to play cards with Mean Sydney in order to win back the town's silver bell and hopefully save Christmas.

You guessed it!  Danny (Danny Bonaduce) plays the hero Little the Kid.

Little the Kid challenges Mean Sydney to a poker game for the town's silver bell.
 The silly story ends with Little the Kid unable to win back the bell by midnight Christmas Eve.  However, when the townsfolk walk into the city's center, they discover that Santa Claus (and Christmas) had arrived despite their fears.  Someone suggests that it may not have been the bell that brought Santa to the town each year after all but perhaps the residents' holiday spirit.  And, Mean Sydney learns a lesson about giving.

Santa Claus didn't forget about the town even though they didn't ring the bell.

Any summary can't capture the silliness and word-play in the dialogue that makes this episode so special.  I'm not the only one who thinks this episode is out of the ordinary.  According to Joey Green's book The Partridge Family Album, Shirley Jones, David Cassidy, Brian Forester, and Dave Madden all name this Christmas episode as their favorite one.  (Most of them explaining that it was fun to do a fantasy episode outside of their regular characters). 

Mean Sydney taking on Little the Kid.

This episode also includes the song "Winter Wonderland" by the Partridge Family performing in Las Vegas.

I have to admit, I still love the music from this series.  Every episode in the series includes music--this one opens with the Christmas classic "Winter Wonderland" and ends with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  Making these songs even more special--they both appear on the 1971 album The Partridge Family Christmas Card.

I own this album on CD and on vinyl--but sadly, I've lost the original pull-out Christmas card.

Interestingly, this episode also includes another song--one Keith as Sheriff Swell repeatedly sings throughout the episode.  Although it is not usually considered a Christmas song, this classic western tune adds more flavor to the western fantasy storyline. Used as a humorous running gag, Keith annoys everyone around him by singing his dialogue to the tune of the theme from the Western movie High Noon, the 1952 Oscar-winning song “Don’t Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.”

Actor Dean Jagger as Charlie.

Do you recognize the actor who plays Charlie the storytelling prospector?  He’s actor Dean Jagger who also plays General Waverly in the 1954 movie White Christmas.  How’s that for holiday provenance?

The entire family sings the holiday greeting "Merry Christmas" to the tune of "Don't Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" one last time, as they break the fourth wall, addressing TV viewers at home.

In the story’s end, the Partridges break the fourth wall to wish the audience a Merry Christmas.  What's your favorite TV sitcom or drama that includes holiday music?  Is your favorite mentioned in my latest book Merry Musical Christmas Vol. 1: The Best Christmas Music in TV Sitcoms and Dramas?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gilligan's Island Christmas (1964)

The first season of this sitcom was shot in stunning black and white.

With the hundreds of hours of new holiday programming generated each November and December, it's so easy to forget about the classics.  Sometimes we can lose track of our Christmas spirit unless we actively incorporate the past into the present.  How long has it been since you've seen the Gilligan's Island holiday episode?  With the title "Birds Gotta Fly, Fish Gotta Talk," it's easy to lose track of this first season Christmas installment.  But this classic episode is still seen each holiday season as the 1960s TV comedy continues to entertain into the 21st century (the series is currently airing on Me-TV).

On the island, the castaways' tree isn't a fir tree but rather, a bamboo one.

In this episode, the castaways are celebrating Christmas on the island by decorating a tree and discussing their fantasy Christmas wish lists.  Their hearts warm when Gilligan expresses that his wish is for the group's rescue off the island.

The seven castaways head to the beach to await the rescue boats.  As they are waiting, they reminisce about their first days stranded on the island.

It is then that the castaways hear a news broadcast from the radio that explains that a rescue ship is headed for an uncharted island after survivors from the SS Minnow have been spotted by a Navy weather device.  Gilligan's Christmas wish is going to come true and the castaways begin to pack and prepare for their eventual rescue.  The bulk of the episode's story are flashback scenes to the castaways' first days on the deserted island.

On their first moments on the island, the survivors discover that the damage to the SS Minnow will not allow them to head back out to sea.

In an attempt to keep Gilligan out of trouble, the Skipper sends his Good Buddy away from the valuable radio and transmitter--to catch fish on the beach.

The flashback scenes contain a story within-a-story of Gilligan complicating matters after the castaways wash up on shore after the SS Minnow was caught in a storm.  (Consult the series' theme song lyrics for the complete story of how the castaways found themselves on the island).  The flashback footage shows Gilligan being Gilligan--he falls through the holes in the damaged boat which reveal how un-seaworthy their boat has become.  The Professor and the Skipper decide to work with the radio devices to see if they can contact a passing ship to organize rescue efforts.  To keep Gilligan from causing more trouble, they send him to the edge of the water to try to catch fish for dinner.  But Gilligan's fishing rod casting snags the radio and the transmitter--hauling both electronic devices into the ocean! 

Is that marching band music?

Eventually, Gilligan catches a great many fish and piles them on the beach.  He's caught off guard when he can hear the voice of an exercise class instructor coming from the pile of fish.  It turns out that one of the fish has swallowed the radio--and perhaps one of these other fish has swallowed the transmitter?  Each of the castways begins talking into the fish carcasses to see if they can locate the transmitter as well. 

Ginger speaks into a fish to see if the transmitter is inside.  I guess this is where the meaning of the episode's title comes in, "...Fish Gotta Talk."

As the gang reminisces about their first days on the uncharted desert isle, they hear the latest news update on the radio.  The castaways spotted earlier have indeed been rescued!  However, they are not survivors of the SS Minnow as anticipated but rather ANOTHER group of castaways who have been stranded for eleven years on another uncharted island!  Our gang is disappointed that they won't be home for Christmas this year.

Santa Claus shows up on the beach of their uncharted desert isle.

Does Santa look a little familiar?  Hey WAIT A MINUTE--where's the Skipper?

In the final moments of the episode, as the survivors are sitting around their campfire on Christmas Eve, the group is approached by Santa Claus!  Though the group is feeling down about not being rescued (yet again), Santa reminds them to feel grateful for what they do have.  He explains that they are lucky to not still be lost at sea, on an island with food and water supplies, and he reminds them about their friendships.  As the castaways' mood shifts, Santa disappears, and the Skipper enters the campsite carrying fire wood.  Now the survivors are left to wonder about the true identity of their midnight visitor.

What did I miss? says the Skipper. 

While flashback episodes are often seen by TV viewers as lesser storylines--created by recycling clips from previously seen episodes--these clip shows are often used as Christmas storylines.  I believe that if a series is going to create a clip show, why not make it a holiday episode?  Isn't this the one time of year that we all indulge ourselves in our memories of the past?  Certainly TV characters might engage in the same nostalgia.  Yet, some clip shows are better than others.  Remember the 1956 Christmas episode of I Love Lucy?  In that meaningful clip show, we are reminded of several of the series' past highlights including the episode in which Lucy tells Ricky that she's pregnant, the episode of Little Ricky’s birth, and a clip of Lucy singing off-key during a barbershop quartet performance.  However, an example of a Christmas episode that clearly suffers from the recycling of clips is 1978's "Retrospective," (often airing as Parts 1 and 2 in syndication) from the series Diff'rent Strokes.  The hour-long holiday clip show is only the eighth episode in the first season, thus the recap covers all seven of the previous episodes!?  It often seems like a viewer's waste of time to reminisce about such a short period of time.  How do you feel about clip shows?

Another cool detail:  castaway Thurston Howell III (center of photo) played by Jim Backus is also known as the voice of Magoo in the Christmas animated classic Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

It should be noted that the Gilligan's Island Christmas clip show is a little different.  The flashback scenes that construct this clip show are recycled from an unaired pilot (seen only by network execs) that was shot during the Fall of 1963 in Hawaii.  According to series creator Sherwood Schwartz in his book Inside Gilligan's Island, the execs wanted the first episode of the series to begin with the castaways looking for a way off the island.  (Since viewers know that the castaways are already stranded--courtesy of the opening theme tune lyrics--execs claimed an explanatory episode was not required).  Using the previously shot footage from the pilot in this Christmas episode, TV viewers finally get a look at what happened in the first moments when the the seven survivors first find themselves stranded on the island.  How cool is that?