Saturday, December 20, 2003

Holly Jolly Christmas Specials

I watched Christmas specials while baking cookies today. I don't have cable, so the specials were all video copies, some recorded as far back as 1987. Since many were among my very favorites and they're still fresh in my mind, I thought this would be a great time to list my all-time favorite Christmas specials. Not Christmas movies (we'll do them later this week) - Christmas specials, usually no longer than 90 minutes.

Those of you who recall 50s and 60s specials will find some, but not all of them here - I grew up in the 80s, and many of the shows I recall could only have come from that decadant decade.

In no particular order...

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: I missed this two years in a row when I was in college, after which I broke down and bought my own copy. It's too cute to miss. Like most of the Rankin-Bass specials, it's a tad dated ("We have to get the women back to Christmastown") but a lot of fun, with a delightful score that includes the subject line song. Recent restoration (including a song and the "peppermint mines" sequence) was a big help.

Trivia: Burl Ives would narrate a second, traditionally-animated Rankin-Bass holiday special, "The First Easter Rabbit," in the 1970s. I don't know if it's on video, but I do know it ran on cable in the early 90s, as my parents have it on tape somewhere.

A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown: Of course, I couldn't leave off the classic 1966 tale of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, jazz, and that little tree. It's probably the most famous animated Christmas special ever filmed (and usually the first the networks run during December). Linus gets my vote for the best line, but not from his famous sermon. When Lucy threatens her younger brother in order to get him to memorize his lines for the pageant, Linus nervously observes "Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous." ; 0 )

You may be surprised to see the second Peanuts Christmas special on this list, since it's usually not regarded as well as the original. I don't think that's quite fair. The Media Center where I worked at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, for some reason, had a copy that I watched every Christmas I worked there. It's more fragmented than its predecessor and starts slow, but the Christmas pageant finale with Marcie, Peppermint Patty (who missed the first special), and Sally is hilarious. "Hockey Stick!"

Trivia: According to my mother, the pink alumnium Christmas trees Lucy and Violet mention weren't merely a creation of the writers. Apparently, metallic trees in odd colors were the "in thing" in the early-mid 60s.

A Garfield Christmas Special: I have no idea why the networks have ceased running the hilarious Garfield specials, including this classic tale. Jon drags an initially reluctant Garfield and Odie to his parents' farm, where we meet his younger (and only) brother Doc Boy and his awesome, rockin', down-to-earth Grandma. Granny is the savior of this special - her wisecracks keep it from getting too sugary, and her lonliness for her husband provides a touching subplot.

Trivia: David Lander, the voice of Doc Boy, was Squiggy on the 70s-80s sitcom "Laverne and Shirley."

Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas: The first Muppet Christmas outing to not use the Muppet characters (except for narrator Kermit the Frog) has my vote for best music from any holiday special, including the catchy "Barbecue" and the gorgeous folk ballad "When the River Meets the Sea." (Jim Henson Workshops, if you're reading, you've GOT to put the soundtracks for this and your other Christmas specials on CD!) This is a simple but sweet tale not far removed from "The Gift of the Magi" - a mother otter and her son sacrifice what means most to them when they enter a talent contest in a near-by town. Ma sings another showstopping ballad, "In Our World" - her son organizes the titular band.

Trivia: The special is based after the children's book of the same title by Lillian Hoban.

The Christmas Toy: Here's the other Muppet special I recall, from 1986 (though I taped it off of Nickelodeon about five years ago). It's something of an early take on "Toy Story." Rugby the egotistcal tiger cub thinks he'll be his little girl's Christmas present again this year, just like he was the year before. It takes meeting a Buzz Lightyear-like female action figure and the near-loss of his friend Mew the Cat Toy to make him realize that friendship - human and otherwise - is the most important part of the season. The music doesn't quite match the earlier special, with the exception of the bouncy "Try the Impossible" and Rugby's song to the (supposedly) lost Mew, "Old Friends, Dear Friends."

Trivia: "The Christmas Toy" and "Emmett Otter" were filmed for cable. "Emmett Otter" was made for (and run for many years on) HBO.

The Year Without a Santa Claus: I watched this one a lot on Fox (now ABC) Family Channel when I was in college and fell in love with it. I'm going to get around to buying the video one of these days. Most people watch this one just for those battling siblings of the seasons, the Heat Meister and the Snow Meister. As much as I like those two, I'm here for the whole package. Shirley Booth (one of my favorite comediannes!) is a wonderful Mrs. Claus. This one loses points for a pedestrian music score - only a nice rendition of "Blue Christmas" in the finale holds up.

Trivia: I believe this was the first Rankin-Bass holiday special to be narrated by a woman.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: New to my favorites list. Some of my older friends recommended this version of the famous Charles Dickens novella for its delightful music. I bought a copy last year and wasn't disapointed, even though I'm not a fan of Mr. Magoo. Magoo's antics fit surprisingly well with a scaled-down, musical version of the tale of the redemption of that arch miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge. The animation is limited, but the script sticks surprisingly well to the original story and the much-talked-about music is as fantastic as my friends claimed. I was particuarly charmed by the lovely, meloncholy ballad "Winter Was Warm" and the rousing "We'll Have the Brightest Christmas." No wonder, as it was written by real-life Broadway songwriters Jule Styne and Robert Merrill, fresh off of "Funny Girl." Jim Backus (the long-time voice artist for Magoo) has able support from June Foray, Morey Amsterdam, and then-Broadway juvenile Jack Cassidy.

And what the heck is "razzleberry dressing?"

Trivia: This was the very first network Christmas special, released in 1963.

Mickey's Christmas Carol: Not a musical (though I do wish Disney would commercially release the beautiful opening song, "Oh What a Merry Christmas Day," on CD), but just as delightful as Mr. Magoo's rendition. It matches the Bill Murray "Scrooged" as the funniest Christmas Carol on record. The counter-casting of Goofy as Jacob Marley works surprisingly well, and Ferdie (one of Mickey's nephews) is too adorable as Tiny Tim! Mickey makes a beguilling Bob Cratchet as well...but, as a Donald Duck fan, I would liked to have seen more of his nephew Fred!

Trivia: Alan Young started doing the voice of Uncle Scrooge in this special, released theatrically in 1983. He also does the voice of Scrooge McDuck in the early 90s Disney cartoon "Duck Tales" and the more recent "Mickey Mouse Works" and "Mickey's House of Mouse."

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: I've never seen the Jim Carrey version of Dr. Seuss' timeless tale of an oddball burglary gone wrong, and I have no desire to. I'm afraid the animated version is too heavily implanted in my subconcious for even Jim Carrey in a green fuzzy suit to make much of an impression. One of the first specials I looked forward to seeing every year. The grouchy, noise-hating Grinch tries to remove all of his neighbors the Whos' holiday decorations, only to learn there's a lot more about the spirit of the holiday than trees, toys, and roast beast. This bitter story that turns sweet is ably assisted by the late Chuck Jones' expressive characters (especially Max the dog!) and the ghoulishly gentle narration of Boris Karloff.

Trivia: I swear I heard a version for a couple of years where Walter Matthau dubbed over the narration (if you run into it, run away from it - I like Matthau, but it can't hold a candle to the original). Thurl Ravenscroft, who sings "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," is the voice of Kelogg's Tony the Tiger.

And let's not forget nods to my two favorite TV series "special holiday episodes." American Movie Classic's (AMC) Remember WENN and ABC's Perfect Strangers may be two very different examples of the sitcom formula at its finest, but they do have one thing in common - excellent Christmas episodes. Strangers was around long enough to get two in, "A Christmas Story" from 1986 and "The Gift of the Mypiot" from 1988. "Mypiot" was cute, but I love "Christmas Story." It was actually somewhat reminicent of Charlie Brown - Larry Appleton is terribly upset when he can't get home for Christmas, so his immigrant cousin Balki Bartokomous does his best to remind his cousin of the Christmas spirit. The finale, with just the two cousins, a special gift, and a tree as forlorn as Chuck's, is one of the quietest and sweetest moments of the entire series.

Trivia: Actress Belita Moreno can be seen as two different characters in both episodes (she's Edwina Twinkicetti in "A Christmas Story" and Lydia Markham in "Gift of the Mypiot").

The 1996-1998 cult dramady Remember WENN also sported a memorable holiday episode, 1996's "Christmas in the Airwaves." It's Christmas 1940, and perpetually struggling radio station WENN is ready to celebrate - if their grieving owner and her nasty accountant will allow them to. The witty, warm script, wonderful music ("You Make It Christmas" was nominated for an Emmy in 1996), and fun cast make this one of the best WENN episodes ever.

Trivia: AMC released this and three first-season episodes on video. The set hasn't been sold in years, but there may be copies avalible on eBay.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Oh Christmas Tree

Mom brought over my Christmas boxes this afternoon while I cleaned and dusted my apartment, and I put up the tree tonight. I love decorating the tree. It's been one of my favorite parts of Christmas since I was a very small girl. My parents gave me my own tree last year as an early Christmas present. I adore that tree. It's just the right size for me - I don't need a stool to put the star on top! I thought of "A Christmas Story" as I put on the star. "That star is crooked!" "That star is perfectly straight!" (BTW, as far as I can tell, yes, my star is straight. : 0 )

I bought several boxes of balls last month, and Mom gives all of us new ornaments for our own trees every year. Last year, I got a really cute bear carrying shopping bags, and a glass gingerbread man wearing a chef's hat. Many of my ornaments have bears on them, from the big bear-topped ornament I recieved from Mom a few years ago to the Yogi Bear (with a pic-a-nic basket full of candy canes) I got at the North Cape May's After-Christmas sale in 1999.

Yes, my tree is fake, but not for the usual reasons. I don't care about the tree shedding, since my carpet is dark and thin and wouldn't retain needles. I don't trust a real tree around my ancient heater.

I'm going to try to finish decorating tomorrow before work or on Thursday. The tree and outdoor wreath are up, but I have other things that need homes - a tiny tree I put with my Sailor Moon and Pokemon toys, garlands I hang over the windows, a white garland that's wrapped around the top of the baker's rack/video shelves, my Christmas bears, various knick-knacks.