Monday, December 12, 2016

Forgotten TV Christmas Specials

Here are 3 TV specials from 1969 to 1977 that I don't see listed in the regular holiday line up.

There are a number of Holiday TV specials that I remember that seem to have disappeared. It's hard to believe that any TV show can disappear what with all those cable channels, so please correct me if I'm wrong. I think these specials are pretty much gone from the broadcast and cable spectrum:

THE HOMECOMING - with Patricia Neal, Richard Thomas and Edgar Bergen. This 1971 TV movie was the pilot for the series THE WALTONS. Based on North Carolina TV writer Earl Hamner's book of the same name, he narrates the story of his Father missing on Christmas Eve. The movie has the requisite good and not so good child actors, and there are different actors as some of the Walton adults (with Patricia Neal doing a fine, very fierce Eugene O'Neill take on Mrs. Walton, as opposed to the TV series's star Michael Learned's mellower characterization). I got a kick out of Edgar Bergen, who plays grandpa in the pilot, listening to Fibber McGee in one scene.

Maybe the movie is too much of a downer. These are poor people who can't afford anything and the reason Dad is missing is because he has to commute many miles to where the jobs are. Downtown Walton's Mountain has no industry.

Someone has uploaded the movie, which includes location shots in Jackson, Wyoming, standing in for Walton's Mountain. It will probably disappear soon.

 (1969) - with Johnny Whitaker, Fred Gwynne and E.G. Marshall as God. This was a real star-studded (Cab Calloway, Tony Randall, John McGiver, George Rose, Connie Stevens, James Coco) 90 minute live action program, taped (yes, it's on videotape) at the height of Johnny Whitaker's child star power. This was a major production at the time, even though the money was not spent on film or decent quality effects. (Warning: Heaven is really badly chroma-keyed.) There was even an album released. Yes, Herman Munster sings on it! But I digress ....

SPOILERS for THE LITTLEST ANGEL follow after the program, in its entirety, presented by KPVM.

My opinion: The reason for this special not being aired today (although you can get it on DVD) is for the one scene where Johnny Whitaker, who fell off a cliff chasing a white dove and died, returns home in ghost/angel form and tries to hug his mom. Now, no one knows he is dead yet, and his Mom can't see him. It's all very nightmarish, with little Johnny crying, and Mom not hearing him because, you know, the kid's DEAD and all.

At the end, when greedy God has all of his presents, there's Whitaker, staring happily at the dove; a happy, dead kid whose now-grieving Mom is down on Earth. Not the stuff of cheery TV specials that inspire one to go buy Chinese junk at Walmart.

A COSMIC CHRISTMAS - a 1977 special, inspired in equal parts by the Bible and STAR WARS. With pretty darn gorgeous animation and character design by Canadian animation studio Nelvana, this 22 minute prime time special caught the attention of George Lucas, who worked with the company on several STAR WARS projects, including the now-unseen STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (except online and its many bootleg copies).

COSMIC CHRISTMAS has some hammy dialogue. The aliens land and ask, What is Christmas? What is Bethlehem? All of the adults are pretty corrupt and disgusting. Some of the animation and little character moments seem like a nod to Bakshi's best work (this is a good thing). All of this is fine with me. Above is the entire special, which is unavailable on DVD.

Like I said, please feel free to correct me if these are on TV this year. Or if you have your own missing holiday specials to add, like Ed Asner's THE GATHERING or THE SNOW GOOSE or OPUS AND BILL: A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK.

-- Edited from an entry from eight years ago today.

1 comment:

DBenson said...

Old enough to remember "The Littlest Angel". It was based on a popular children's book, a very short and simple story about a small modern-day boy in heaven. It's remarkably similar to "The Juggler of Our Lady", with almost the same ending.

The Terrytoons short of "The Juggler of Our Lady" was brilliantly simple, funny and moving. "The Littlest Angel" was bloated and embarrassing. The original book focused on the boy and some generic angels. Television imposed the musical comedy numbers, the heavenly bureaucracy, the guardian being threatened with banishment to an unpleasant part of heaven (even as a kid I had theological issues with that), the boy's presumably living family, and cluttery plot mechanics.

Looking at some Youtube clips I can see it was, by contemporary standards, professional. The fatal flaw was that a big "spectacle" awash in glitz and pretension was a jawdroppingly wrong approach for the deliberately humble material -- beyond even the parody "Christmas Carol" TV exec Bill Murray oversees in "Scrooged".

I remember Whitaker appearing in the Macy's parade, riding an outsized hobbyhorse in full angel costume. He began to lipsync a song, then had to stop and grab his falling halo while his voice rolled on without him.

I miss when TV did more musical plays, both original and revival. They were hit or miss, but now and then you'd get something like "Cinderella" (the classy Julie Andrews version) or even "Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde" (Kirk Douglas sings, dances, and transforms).