About Christmas TV History

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gunsmoke Christmas (1971)

Sometimes I share about rare or forgotten Christmas TV programs.  Sometimes I discuss the latest, new releases that arrive on television screens each November and December.  And, sometimes I write about classic Christmas episodes of our favorite TV series.  Lately, I've been focusing on sharing the latter.  For many TV fans, it is a Christmas tradition to re-watch one or more classic holiday episodes each year to help inspire the Christmas spirit.  What about you--is there a holiday TV episode that you watch each year that instantly makes you feel like it's Christmas again?  What classic Christmas TV episodes did you grow up watching and now look forward to re-watching each year?  Is the 1971 episode "P.S. Murry Christmas" from the sixteenth season of the TV western Gunsmoke a favorite holiday story?

Miss Grundy runs the orphanage with a rigid hand while Spangler has a soft spot for the care of the children.

The only holiday celebration these seven orphans know is singing Christmas carols for the local governors' visit.

I know that the long-running, TV western Gunsmoke has an intensely loyal audience.  Even if you've never quite warmed to the charms of this series or to any other TV western, this Christmas episode stands above many others.  Let's review the plot.  A man named Titus Spangler (played by the great character actor Jack Elam) works as a caretaker at a rundown orphanage in Kansas.  Spangler is fired from his duties and, after hearing the children complaining about not having a happy Christmas, Spangler decides to take the seven orphans with him when he leaves.  Hopping a train, the runaway orphans and Spangler only make it as far as Dodge City.  Spangler knows the tyrannical, hard-hearted orphanage director, Miss Emma Grundy (played by Jeanette Nolan) will come looking for them. 

Miss Kitty reads the telegram from Miss Grundy to Doc, Festus, Newly, and others in town.

The cold weather, hunger, and a sick child forces Spangler and the orphans to seek help from others in Dodge City.  Miss Grundy has sent a telegram to Dodge City ahead of her arrival, and Spangler is arrested for kidnapping.  The crafty Spangler convinces the townsfolk that he's not such a bad guy after all--he explains that the children have never experienced a happy Christmas because Grundy is too stingy to offer the orphans a yuletide party, a decorated tree, or even gifts. 

In this light-hearted story, we see again and again how Spangler can easily extricate himself from any jail cell or means to keep him confined.  

Kitty immediately begins organizing the townsfolk into planning an elaborate Christmas party in the saloon for the seven children.  When the orphanage director Miss Grundy arrives in town, she demands that plans for the party are cancelled!  Not only does she want Spangler -re-arrested, but she forbids that the children be exposed to a Christmas party.

Miss Grundy insists that the children's hopes and expectations should not be raised by giving them a Christmas party this year when she knows she can't afford to give them a party next year.  But Matt Dillon disagrees.

Marshal Dillon learns that Miss Grundy is the legal guardian of all seven children and has the right to control their lives but he tries to speak with her about doing what's right for the orphans.  When Miss Grundy's mind can't be changed, Miss Kitty tries a little blackmail.  Kitty offers Emma Grundy some "medicinal" alcohol and arranges for the local judge to catch her drinking so she'll be shamed into loosening her purse-strings, or better yet, leaving her job.

Kitty and Emma talk while they drink...

While the two women share over a glass of Napolean Brandy, Kitty discovers that Miss Grundy may not be the scrooge she's been assumed to be.  It turns out that the local authorities have under-funded the orphanage that Miss Grundy operates.  Not only are the children responsible for building the county's coffins--yipes!--but the little extra money given at Christmas time by the governors, is saved by Grundy to buy the children food so they can eat the rest of the year.  What Spangler didn't explain is that he was fired for drunkenness.  And, Miss Grundy may be the children's only hope since no one else is looking out for them. 

Miss Grundy is caught drinking brandy--an immoral act which may cost her her job.

But it's too late!  The local magistrate catches Miss Grundy drinking and the orphanage director resigns her position.  However, Kitty has a new agenda--she wants to help the children year round and not just with this Christmas party! 

The orphans overheard Miss Grundy talking about her own disappointing Christmas experience as a child, and they offer her a gift that warms her heart!

The children agree that they won't attend the Christmas party unless Miss Grundy attends as well.  Of course, this story has a happy ending--would we expect anything less?

Hold onto your hats--Elam plays Santa Claus at the children's Christmas party!

BFFs Kitty and Emma enjoy more brandy in their cups of eggnog at the Christmas party in the saloon.

There are a couple of things that make this holiday episode outstanding.  One is the amazing cast.  Okay--Jack Elam is, of course, a great caretaker for these kids.  You recognize actress Jeanette Nolan--don't you?  She's had a lengthy, successful career in film and television.  I immediately recognize her as Dirty Sally--the title role from the short-lived spin-off of Gunsmoke.  (My mother used to successfully get me to behave myself when I was younger, explaining that I couldn't watch Dirty Sally if I didn't do as she instructed--a fact which is now both embarrassing and weird/creepy).  You'll also probably recognize most of the child actors who played the seven orphans as well. 

Patricia, the orphan with the cough, is played by actress/Oscar-winner Jodie Foster.

Tom is played by child actor Willie Aames--who also played Tommy on the series Eight is Enough.

Under that crazy blonde wig, you may recognize Erin Moran here as the orphan Jenny.  Moran also played Joanie Cunningham on the TV sitcoms Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi.

Doc, Festus, and young Jake.

Jake is played by Todd Lookinland--the brother of child actor Mike Lookinland, who everybody knows played Bobby on The Brady Bunch.  (Todd also appeared on The Brady Bunch--in the 1974 episode "Kelly's Kids" which was an attempt at a spin-off series which featured Ken Berry). 

Do you recognize actor Brian Morrison as Owen? He also played Phillip, Carol's son on the TV sitcom Maude.

Center is child actor Josh Albee playing the orphan Michael--he too has appeared throughout film and TV in the 1970s.

Left is actress Patti Cohoon--here she plays Mary.  Cohoon also appeared in many memorable roles throughout the 1970s--my favorite role is as a blonde Gloria Hickey on The Partridge Family.

Another thing that makes this Christmas episode of Gunsmoke stand out is that Miss Kitty and Marshal Dillon share a kiss!  The last shot of this episode is Kitty offering her greeting, "Merry Christmas, Cowboy" as she reaches to give Matt a kiss on his cheek.  Actor James Arness, in an audio introduction to this episode in the 50th anniversary DVD set of Gunsmoke, explains that this moment is the first on-screen kiss shared by these two much-beloved characters.  How Christmasy is that?

At long last!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rawhide Christmas (1961)

"...keep those doggies movin'...Rawhide!"  Thanks for the earworm, Frankie Laine.

I certainly can't go very far re-visiting classic Christmas TV episodes before I bump into a few westerns.  What are your favorite TV westerns?  The light-hearted fourth season episode, "Twenty-Five Santa Clauses,"  is a typical episode of Rawhide--one that includes the drovers stumbling across another individual who needs their help.   This time, Wishbone and Mushy meet up with a stranger in a Santa Claus suit, walking across the Texas prairie during the month of August.

Bateman is played by actor Ed Wynn.

After collapsing from heat exhaustion, Santa introduces himself as Bateman.  He was putting on the costume and wrapping gifts away from his family, when he got too far from the wagon and became lost.  He continues to explain that his adopted son Danny has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Bateman and his wife Mag have been traveling across the country to New York, hoping to get Danny medical treatments that may save his life.  Bateman and Mag have decided to celebrate Christmas early with Danny, knowing that they won't be able to afford medical treatments even if they do arrive in New York in time.

Bateman, Danny, and Mag (Anne Seymour) accept Wishbone's invitation to the cattlemen's camp.

Of course this sad story touches Wishbone and Mushy and they insist on helping Bateman and his wife.  The cattle men escort Bateman back to his wagon and look in on poor Danny.  Then Wishbone invites Bateman and his family to join him back at the camp where he and the other twenty five drivers would like to help by throwing Danny a Christmas party and giving him gifts.  Bateman, Mag, and Danny accept the generous invitation.

Though they've used Christmas to rip people off before, Mag begins to wonder if they should expose Danny to a happier, more inspiring holiday celebration.

Soon we learn this is all a ruse by Bateman, Mag--and even Danny.  This is a family that cons everyone they meet.  Although it is true that Bateman and Mag recently adopted Danny, the three of them survive by scheming and conning people to give them valuables.  In this con, Bateman is not only hoping for a few Christmas gifts from the twenty five cowboys--but he's also hoping to convince them to each donate at least one head of cattle to pay for the journey back to New York and for Danny's medical treatments.  However, Bateman plans to use the money from twenty five head of cattle to make the family flush for awhile.

Even Rowdy Yates (yes, that's Clint Eastwood!) is eager to help the dying boy celebrate one last Christmas.

Bateman's plan works.  When the cowboys meet Danny and his parents, they are filled with emotion and begin planning an elaborate Christmas party in August for the boy they believe is dying.  Although trail boss Gil Favor told the cowboys to move the herd across the river, those instructions are ignored so the men can prepare for Danny's Christmas.  Sure enough, a sudden rain storm swells the river and the cowboys are now stranded in the camp, unable to move the herd across the deep waters for several more days.  Though Favor is angry, the party plans move forward.

The cowboys enjoy Danny's company and his spirit--but Mag privately worries that if Danny pretends he's sick for too long that he may end up actually becoming sick.

Bateman is so pleased with himself that he gets a little greedy.  He mentions to Rowdy how beneficial it would be if someone was able to catch the wild stallion the cowboys can see off in the distance.  A wild stallion like that could be sold for a great deal of money--ensuring Danny would be able to afford the best medical treatments, guaranteeing his future health. 

In the foreground, Rowdy has fallen from the horse and is unable to move.

The doctor gives his unexpected diagnosis.

Rowdy really wants to help the young sick boy so he heads off alone with the dangerous task to catch the wild horse.  The next morning when Yates is still missing, the cowboys go looking for him--and he's injured!  He's fallen from the mustang and he needs the care of a doctor.  While the doctor is in the camp, he generously decides to look at poor, sick Danny--and Mag as well.  Now the cowboys learn the truth.  Rowdy will be fine if he takes it easy for awhile (phew!), Danny is as healthy as any other nine year-old boy, however Mag has a weak heart and isn't expected to live much longer.

The cowboys sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night" around the decorated Christmas tree.

It's not Christmas unless Santa makes a visit, arriving on a wooden "sleigh" pulled by two "reindeer."

Bateman and the twenty five cowboys continue with the Christmas party in August as planned--this time, they are giving Mag one last celebration to make her happy.  This light-hearted story doesn't offer any punishment for Bateman and his con game--certainly losing his wife is painful enough.  The cattle drivers show their goodwill by offering Danny his first Christmas celebration, one with a family, and a glimpse of happiness he's never experienced before. 

Though the episode's story takes place in August, I've seen it broadcast on TV at Christmas time along with other yuletide episodes.  It certainly captures the holiday spirit.

Bateman and Mag decide to make the most of their remaining time together--and go straight with their young son Danny.

I'll be rolling out a few more blog posts on favorite Christmas episodes from TV westerns in the next couple of weeks.  Got a favorite of your own?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dobie Gillis Christmas (1960)

Dobie wants a gal he can call his own...

This spring I've been re-watching the classics.  While I spend quite a bit of my time following new shows--Mad Men, Justified, and Glee among many others--I also appreciate that Christmas is about tradition which means returning again and again to the holiday episodes of the past.  Which classic TV Christmas episodes do you find meaningful enough that you watch them year after year?

The exaggerated, teen comedy series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis created several Christmas episodes, however the second season's "Jangle Bells" is the one that stands out to me.  You should know by now that I'm drawn to TV adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  How well do you remember this classic Christmas episode?

School teacher Mr. Pomfritt (William Schallert, center) narrates the classroom production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Zelda plays the Ghost of Christmas Future (Sheila James, left), Dobie plays the Ghost of Christmas Past (Dwayne Hickman, right), and Chatsworth plays Scrooge (Stephen Franken, middle).

In this episode, Dobie is invited to two parties on Christmas Eve.  The confused teen is torn between making influential connections at the extravagant, luxurious party hosted by the wealthy Chatsworth Osborne Jr. or supporting his kooky friend Maynard and attending his party, one with far fewer guests in a less-than-luxurious garage.

Mr. Gillis' advice consists of empty cliches and conflicting aphorisms.  What's a boy to do?

Dobie decides to take a nap before the parties....

Dobie’s father offers no helpful advice and Zelda pressures Dobie into thinking he needs to focus on planning for his future with Chatsworth’s crowd.  Feeling overwhelmed, Dobie lays down to rest and has a dream where he is Dobie Scrooge visited by the ghosts of Christmas past and future (both played by Maynard).

The Ghost of Christmas Past visits with Dobie.

The ghost shows Dobie Scrooge a scene from his past when he and Maynard were four years old.  Dobie once again sees how much his odd friend Maynard needs him.

Dobie also sees a future where he and Zelda are married and wealthy.   However, the future also reveals that when a hungry waif resembling Maynard comes to the window, Dobie will send his butler to chase the urchin away.

Dobie awakens from his dream but the teen remains confused about what he should do.  Since Zelda is expecting him, Dobie escorts her to Chatsworth's party where they are served caviar and champagne.

Friends Zelda and Chatsworth are convinced they know what's best for Dobie.

Everywhere he looks at the Osborne family party, Dobie sees the Ghost of Christmas (Maynard).

Though Zelda is eager for Dobie to rub elbows with the powerful and influential people at the party, Dobie is miserable.  Finally, Dobie announces that he's leaving the Osborne party because his best friend Maynard needs him tonight.

Poor Maynard waits all night but it looks like no one is coming to his Christmas party.

That is, until his best friend Dobie finally shows up.

Sure enough, back at Maynard's garage, the dizzy beatnik is spending Christmas alone.  When Dobie finally arrives, he brings with him his parents and Zelda--and the party gets into full swing when Dobie begins singing the non-holiday song "Love Me As I Love You."  (If you know more about this song, I'd love to hear it).  Eventually carolers join the party in the garage--it's Chatworth and his party guests come to share Christmas with Maynard as well.

A party needs entertainment so Dobie sings while Zelda accompanies him on guitar.

Inspired by Dobie's explanation at Chatsworth's gathering about friendship, the party moves to Maynard's garage.

Who doesn't love a happy beatnik at Christmas?

This comedy episode certainly takes great liberties in its interpretation of Dickens' literary tale.  But that's okay--television has a long history of borrowing A Christmas Carol and adapting it to fit the ever-changing medium.  Before any of you traditionalists forget: television is also responsible for the faithful, critically-acclaimed 1984 George C. Scott movie, as well as keeping the successful theatrical versions (1999's Patrick Stewart movie and 2004's Kelsey Grammer musical version) alive and available for a wider audience too.   I think there's room enough at Christmas for faithful adaptations as well as the highly-interpreted, way-out comedy versions too--even children's versions.   I see it as part of the humanity inherent in Dickens' original words.  People are continually drawn towards what remains truthful and authentic in the original text and they look forward to reconnecting with it (and themselves) each holiday season in a very wide variety of ways including comedy, high drama, and even as parody.

Remember another TV Christmas with Bob Denver?  Click the link to re-visit my review of the 1964 Gilligan's Island Christmas episode.

My favorite part of the "Jangle Bells" episode:  Maynard's hep patter during Dobie’s Dickens dream sequence:
“Abba Dabba Doo Doo,
This will suit-cha,
I’m now the Spirit of
Christmas Fu-tcha.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Flying Nun Christmas (1967)

The Christmas episode of The Flying Nun is available in first season DVD release.

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 Flying Nun holiday episode entitled "Wailing in a Winter Wonderland?"

The aged Sister Olaf is not strong enough to return to Norway.  The other sisters fear this may be her last Christmas.

In the first season episode, Sister Bertrille (played by Sally Field) pulls Sister Olaf's name from the grab bag in a holiday gift exchange between the nuns.  The elderly Sister Olaf is originally from Norway and has been living and working in Puerto Rico for many years.  Sister Olaf's holiday wish this year is for a white Christmas--an impossible dream since she's unable to leave the islands.  But Sister Bertrille is determined to make Sister Olaf happy.  After speaking with the man in charge at the weather bureau in San Juan, Sister Bertrille gets the idea to seed the clouds above the convent with dry ice.  Using her special gift of flight, Sister Bertrille speculates that maybe she can create a miraculous white Christmas after all.

If you're familiar with this series, you know Sister Bertrille frequently explains that her ability to fly is just a matter of simple physics.  I guess causing it to snow when it's sunny and eighty degrees must also be a simple explanation of science?!

Sister Olaf (left) is played by actress Celia Lovsky, and Sister Jacqueline (right) is played by Marge Redmon.

On Christmas Eve, Sister Bertrille takes flight and distributes pellets of dry ice throughout the clouds high above the convent.  Sure enough, Sister Olaf sees the snow falling from the sky surrounding the convent and the senior sister is moved by emotion.  Sister Bertrille's good will also has an unintended consequence--the winds carry her further than the convent and she ends up causing a brief snow storm over the city of San Juan as well.

In addition to pleasing Sister Olaf, the snow also brings smiles to children's faces at the San Tanco convent.

However, the tourists in the island's hotels feel their tropical destination has been spoiled by snow!

Though the children of Puerto Rico seem to enjoy the unusual treat, the tourists who have come to the islands to escape wintry weather begin leaving in droves.  Business-owner Carlos Ramirez suspects his friend Sister Bertrille may have something to do with this most unusual event and he confronts her with the harsh reality of snow in San Juan:  her efforts have ruined business and perhaps even Christmas for the residents of the city.  With the tourists flocking to the airport to leave, none of the residents will be able to earn the money they were counting on to pay for their holiday celebrations.

Sister Bertrille continues to try to make everyone happy. 

The unexpected showers of dollars bring tourists out of the airport and back to the city!

Using her charm, Sister Bertrille convinces Carlos to collect money from the more wealthy business owners for her to distribute emergency funds to the residents of the island, so everyone can still afford a merry Christmas.  Knowing most residents won't accept a handout, Bertrille decides to "distribute" the cash without offending anyone.  Back into the clouds, Sister Bertrille takes flight to hand out the money and offer everyone a second chance to save Christmas.  During a montage of images of Bertrille flying and scattering money from the clouds, viewers can hear the song "I'm So Glad I Can Fly."  Fans of the series may remember that several episodes in the first season offer these musical moments, and a collection of songs including "I'm So Glad I Can Fly" were released on a soundtrack album.

Although "Deck the Halls" is a very popular, traditional carol, I'm surprised the nuns didn't lead the children to sing a more sacred holiday song.

Not found on the soundtrack album is another song from this episode.  In a somewhat brief musical moment, the nuns gather with the children and sing the Christmas carol "Deck the Halls." 

Fun Fact: actress Shelley Morrison plays Sister Sixto on The Flying Nun--and the maid Rosario on Will & Grace.

Did you know the actress who played Sister Sixto from The Flying Nun later went on to play Rosario on the hit sitcom Will & Grace?  The TV series Will & Grace went on to create five holiday episodes featuring story lines that relate to both Hanukkah and Christmas.

Do you enjoy watching classic TV? How often do you watch Christmas episodes made in the 1960s?