Monday, December 31, 2018

The Star Wars Holiday Special

by G. Jack Urso 
The Star Wars Holiday Special's, first, and only, broadcast on November 17, 1978, on CBS, is an infamous entry in the Star Wars canon. The plot centers around Han Solo getting his faithful Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca back to his home planet Kashyyyk for the Life Day celebration. Of course, Imperial troops are after them and the bulk of the story shifts between the search for the two rebels and small vignettes of everyday life on the Wookie home planet. Widely regarded as an embarrassing flop, the show has nonetheless acquired a cult following. Two segments and the complete program are provided below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Various problems quickly emerge. First, the special is modeled as a variety show — a then-popular format near the end of its lifetime on American TV. Layered with songs, dance, humorous sketches, and not-so-witty one-liners, the result feels like your grandparents' version of Star Wars. The special effects typify late 70s video and computer technology. Blue screen chroma key effects are rather obvious. Instead of custom-built futuristic-looking computer housings, off-the-shelf systems are used, like repurposed commercial desktop computers, or cassette tape players disguised as data playback decks, with a little electronic flash to jazz it up, resulting in very cheap-looking stage props.
The special features several set pieces, including Harvey Korman in two short segments where he plays an alien chef and a malfunctioning robot. The alien chef bit is the better of the two items, showcasing Korman’s knack for accents and broad comedy; however, the malfunctioning robot bit is just painfully slow and unfunny. On a side note, famed fashion designer Bob Mackie, who previously worked with Korman on The Carol Burnett Show, did the costumes for the special. Ralph McQuarrie, tasked with making the preliminary concept drawings for Star Wars, did the illustrations. Also, James Earl Jones gets his first on-screen credit as the voice of Darth Vader.

Diahann Carroll sings "This Minute Now" to Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, in a virtual reality set-up (who seems to be enjoying it just a little too much). The Jefferson Starship shows up as a hologram performing “Light the Sky on Fire,” which, notably, is Marty Balin's last recorded performance with the group until 1993, having departed the band in October 1978 (see clip below). Bea Arthur (Maude, The Golden Girls) plays a bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina, trading banal dialogue with an enamored alien barfly played by Harvey Korman before closing out the segment with an entirely forgettable song. Carrie Fisher solves the age-old question of “Are there lyrics to the Star Wars theme?” and immediately makes us regret the answer. To her credit, however, the young Fisher has a surprisingly pleasant singing voice, apparently having inherited the vocal cords of her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.

Other segments include holographic circus acrobats played by the Wazzan Troupe Dancers and Art Carney fumbling about trying to put Imperial troops off the scent of Han and Chewy. Bruce Vilanch, one of the writers, in a December 2008 Vanity Fair article, noted that Lucas insisted that no subtitles be used with the Wookies, which meant that someone who spoke English had to be around in every scene in order to repeat what the Wookies said in their own language. This slowed down the action and dumbed-down the story, as if that were even possible.

Of course, the stand-out segment is the animated sequence introducing Boba Fett to the Stars Wars universe (see below). The impact was immediate and fans couldn’t get enough of the grim, mysterious, cunning bounty hunter. While Darth Vader is a great villain, he’s the sort of character you save for the epic showdown. Fett fills in the space in-between, providing a sense of danger and threat to the protagonists without overusing the primary antagonist.

George Lucas, whose participation in the production was minimal, was so embarrassed by the final result that he disowned the program and once famously said that if he could destroy every copy, he would. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your opinion, fans who videotaped the program on early VCRs preserved the show and shared bootlegs at conventions, where I first came across it in 1992 after having seen it on TV during its only broadcast in 1978. Despite all that, and probably a little to Lucas’ chagrin, the program has secured such a unique place in the hearts of Star Wars fans that it is considered a canonical work.

For me, The Star Wars Holiday Special holds a nostalgic place. It aired exactly two weeks before my mother moved us out of the family home after the divorce from my father. In her rush to move, and recognizing the realities of going from a house to a small apartment, she left almost all of my toys behind, including my precious Stars Wars figures, as well as many other relics of my childhood. In that sense, our experiences can raise a simple piece of overblown pop culture ephemera, such as The Star Wars Holiday Special, into something a little more significant than if judged on its artistic merits alone.
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Two Christmas Carols

by G. Jack Urso

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a ubiquitous part of the holiday season; so much so, in fact, that it is easy to overlook the power of this simple story. Two of my favorite iterations of this classic tale include the 1970 musical version Scrooge, starring Albert Finney, and the 1971 animated version, A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim recreating his role from the superlative 1951 film version, also titled Scrooge. Both are available below form the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

For me, the exuberant musical version Scrooge (1970) is a must-see for the holiday season. Though receiving mixed reviews at the time of its theatrical release, this version received wide airplay in the 1970s and 1980s, consequently gaining many Baby Boomer fans.  Albert Finney and Alec Guinness star as Scrooge and Marley, respectively, and fans of British TV and film will notice many familiar faces, including Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape and Upstairs, Downstairs), Roy Kinnear (Help!, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and The Three Musketeers), and  Anton Rogers (The Prisoner, May to December, and Upstairs, Downstairs). The choreography is tight and a number of songs, including “A Christmas Carol,” “December the 25th,” “I Like Life,” “Happiness,” and “Thank You Very Much,” linger long in the mind well after the film is over.

The film was nominated for several Academy and Golden Globe awards and was later turned into a stage production in 1992 starring Anthony Newly in the title role. The full version is available below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
1971’s animated A Christmas Carol is a brief 25 minutes, but all the essential elements from the book are covered, reminding one just how short a story it is. The animation can be both whimsical and dark, and, indeed, this is a darker version of Dickins' story. At its heart, A Christmas Carol is more of a ghost story than a traditional feel-good Yuletide tale. In fact, the full title of the book is A Christmas Carol. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas; yet, despite that, it has an optimistic and life-affirming message.

As the film progresses the imagery grows more disturbing, evocative of Edward Gorey's work in tone, if not in composition. This is apparent in such scenes as when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come visits and is so intense that it may frighten some younger viewers. Alastair Sim ably demonstrates that he is the quintessential Ebenezer Scrooge, and his performance provides the character with depth, nuance, and subtlety. The legendary Chuck Jones, of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes fame, lends his hand as executive producer. First released on TV, which I remember seeing, it was given a theatrical release and won a 1972 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (which led to the rule banning programs first broadcast on TV from Oscar consideration). This is as much an underrated classic as ever there was one and deserves much wider appreciation by the general public. The full version is available below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
That both these films date back to the earliest years of my childhood, it is no wonder that I recall them so fondly. As Christmas is for children, each year we can revisit our youth by enjoying the tales told to us as children. For more great Christmas programs, please visit these other Aeolus 13 Umbra articles: CBS Seasons Greetings (1966): Animation by R.O. Blechman and J.T.: An Urban Christmas Carol.

Jonny Quest: Time is Running Out

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel:

Jonny Quest promo that ran on the Boomerang cable network channel in the mid-2000s.