Tuesday, December 31, 2019

An Aeolus 13 Umbra Christmas

by G. Jack Urso

Christmas is likely my favorite holiday. The opportunity to share our blessings with our friends and family, and the needy, is a life-affirming experience — especially for those of us living in the Northern latitudes with the accompanying short days and long, dark, cold nights. Being a child of the 1960s and 70s, many of my Christmas memories are intertwined with the annual holiday TV specials and films from that era. Over the years, I have posted a number of articles and uploaded various film and video clips of the holiday season. As with Halloween (see An Aeolus 13 Umbra Halloween), all related articles and films have been compiled in one post.

All videos hosted on Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channels.

1966 CBS Seasons Greetings: Animation by R.O. Blechman: These classic CBS commercials by artist R.O. Blechman remind the viewers of the simple and charitable meaning of the Yuletide season.
A Contemplative Christmas Soundbook: Full album recordings of George Winston’s December (1982) and Anonymous 4’s On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols & Motets (1993).
Charlie Brown Down: The tragic passing of Peter Robbins, who voiced Charlie Brown for the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), reminds us that Christmas is not always happy times and good memories.
J.T.: An Urban Christmas Carol (1969): This little-seen 1969 CBS holiday special takes a gritty look at the hard-scrabble life in New York City ghettos, and a street cat stands in as the Christ-child.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964): Starring a young Pia Zadora, this wonderfully bad Christmas movie also features the first film appearance of Mrs. Claus, Ralph the Doorman from The Jeffersons, and in a bit of sly political satire, Santa mistakes one of his reindeers' names as Nixon. 
Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (1951): The classic film version with Alastair Sim.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past: A personal reflective essay on growing older and celebrating a family tradition when the family is no longer there.
The Night Before Christmas (1968): An early animated TV version of the classic Christmas poem.
The Night the Animals Talked (1970): A rarely shown, but fondly remembered, musical version of a Norwegian folk tale.
The Snow Queen (1957): This Soviet film is familiar to a lot of Baby Boomers who first saw it in the 1960s and 1970s. The American release starred the voices of Sandra Dee as Gerda and Tommy Kirk as Kay. Not a Christmas special per se, but it's winter theme and lesson of selfless love fits in perfectly with the season.
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978): Many have heard about it, few have seen it, and probably with good reason, but definitely worth a look for hard-core Star Wars and 1970s fans.
Two Christmas Carols: The 1970 musical version with Albert Finney (my favorite) and the Academy Award winning 1971 animated film short with Alastair Sim revisiting his classic 1951 film performance.


Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (1951)

by G. Jack Urso
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
The 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge starring Alastair Sim is a well-regarded classic and a must-see for fans of Charles Dickens’ ghostly tale of terror and redemption, counting myself foremost among that group. Including all the film, TV, animated, radio, stage, and audiobook versions, the number of adaptations is nearly countless. Among my favorites are the 1970 musical version with Albert Finney, the 1971 animated version (also starring Alastair Sim), both of which have been previously uploaded to the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel (to view these films, see separate article, Two Christmas Carols). The complete 1951 film is provided above from a supporting Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

There is little I can add to the many reviews of this film. Younger viewers may tend to pass on it, but the acting is truly impressive. Not only does Sim provide a convincing portrayal of Scrooge from his 20s through old age, but also the transition from penny-pinching miser to generous benefactor. Yet, what fleshes out the film are performances by the supporting players. Patrick MacNee, he of John Steed Avengers fame, appears in a couple short scenes as young Marley, using his Saturnine looks to effectively portray both cunning and shrewdness with just a handful of lines. My favorite scene comes towards the end of the film when Scrooge visits his nephew Fred’s home on Christmas Day. Sim not only silently shows Scrooge’s insecurity and fear of not being accepted, but the young maid (Theresa Derrington) silently shows her awareness of Scrooge’s change of spirit and assures him it's OK, all with the exchange of a few quick, wordless glances.

In all its many incarnations, the lessons of A Christmas Carol remain the same. First, who we are is as much the result of how we are nurtured as children as it is due to the decisions we make as adults. Second, there is little point to wealth unless it is shared with the most needy and vulnerable among us. Rich or poor, we are all in this world together. We are all the Christ-child in the manger — and we are all the Magi.


Friday, December 27, 2019

The Night Before Christmas (1968)

by G. Jack Urso
From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
The Night Before Christmas is a 1968 animated Christmas special based upon the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” later better known by the first sentence of the poem, “Twas the Night before Christmas.” First published anonymously in the Troy [NY] Sentinel, December 23, 1823, the poem was later credited to Clement Clarke Moore (though there is some disagreement on that point by literary scholars). Rather than present an honest exploration of the author's life, which might have proved uncomfortable since the anti-abolitionist Moore owned slaves, the film instead creates a fictional narrative wherein Prof. Moore’s daughter is afflicted with illness and he writes the poem to comfort her.

The show was produced by Playhouse Pictures, which produced a number of animated commercials in the 1950s and 1960s, including for Coppertone and Ford, and was directed by Jim Pabian, whose long career in Hollywood animation stretched from 1933 to 1973. He also served as an artist for Dell Comics in the 1940s and 1950s. The music is provided by Ken Darby and Norman Luboff with ensemble pieces sung by The Norman Luboff Choir and various soloists filling in for the characters’ singing voices.

Voice acting for the adult roles is provided by veteran character actors whose names may be unknown, but their faces quite familiar to Baby Boomers. Olan Soule, who plays Prof. Moore, has over 266 roles to his credit, appearing in most of the popular TV shows of the period, but may be most familiar by his recurring roles in such series as My Three Sons and Dragnet as well as the voice of Batman on The All-New Super Friends Hour and Challenge of the Superfriends. Hal Smith, Dr. Sawyer in the show, is best known to TV viewers as Otis, the town drunk, on The Andy Griffith Show (where Soule also had a recurring role) and racked up an astounding 303 roles from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s. Mrs. Moore is voiced by Barbara Eller, whose career spanned from 1952 through 1970, and, like Soule and Smith, appeared in many of the highly-rated shows of the era.
Olan Soule and Hal Smith.
I have some memories of watching The Night Before Christmas through about the early 1970s. There’s a certain over-saturated saccharine sweetness about it, and like the songs by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in The Night the Animals Talked (see separate article) the music is “serviceable but otherwise forgettable.” The most remembered segment from the program is the retelling of the actual poem itself, which manages to hit every mass media iconic Christmas image, including the Coca-Cola incarnation of Santa Claus, rather than the Dutch Saint Nicholas version Moore had in mind. Unfortunately, in place of a dramatic reading, here the poem is given a choral arrangement that has a sort of dreamy quality about it, but in retrospect distracts from Moore's wonderful verses and phrasing.

The Night Before Christmas was released on VHS in 1990 by New Age Video and on DVD by Warner Video in 2013. The show hasn’t aged well and can be more kindly regarded as a relic of its era rather than an annual “must-see” for Christmas special aficionados; nevertheless, it remains fondly remembered by a small group of Baby Boomers. Regardless of the relative artistic merit of an individual production, Boomers revisiting these old programs are brought back to their childhoods, when our parents were still with us, our families together, and the promise of Christmas Day almost too exciting to contain. That in itself is a kind of Christmas magic that cannot be wrapped up, but only experienced.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Night the Animals Talked (1970)

by G. Jack Urso

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

The Night the Animals Talked is a 1970 animated musical special that aired on ABC TV from 1970 to 1973. Based on a Norwegian folk tale, the premise involves the stable in Bethlehem where Christ was born. The light of the star that leads the Magi to the Christ-child shines upon the animals and gives them the gift of human speech. However, in gaining the ability to talk like humans, they also begin to show very human foibles, such as racism, segregation, pride, and vanity, among other sins. As the animals begin to act more like human, the story takes on a certain Animal Farmesque quality. The film is available above from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

The music by the famed duo of lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne includes the songs "A Parable," "It's Great to Communicate," "The Greatest Miracle of All," "Let's Not Behave Like People," and "A Place Like This” is typical of other children’s specials of the era such as the Rankin/Bass Productions classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy. As notable as Cahn and Styne are, the songs are serviceable but otherwise forgettable.

The Ox reminds the animals that although they may talk like humans,

they do not need to act like them.
The Italian animation companies Gamma Film and Erredia 70 provided the artistic talent and technical direction and supervision. There are no “big names” providing the voice talent, but nonetheless includes a number of little-known, but accomplished voice and character actors including Frank Poretta, Joe Silver, Patricia Bright, Len Maxwell, and Paul Dooley, the latter of whom remains active as of this writing.

Executive Producer David Gerber had a long career in Hollywood from the 1960s through the mid-2000s and served in that role in many of the era’s iconic shows, including The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nanny and the Professor, Police Woman, Police Story, and many more. Director Shamus Culhane is a legendary Hollywood animator whose career ran from 1924 to 1980 and includes work on such films as Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), Dave Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels (1939), as well as Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and Woody Woodpecker shorts and helming Marvel’s animated Thor TV series (1966).

ABC TV promotional spot.
Humans aren’t prominently featured in the film. Joseph and Mary are only seen as shadows or distant figures, and the Christ-child is not seen at all — the story is told entirely from the animals’ perspective. This puts the viewer in the animals' seat and gives us an outsider’s view of ourselves and a society filled with division and hate.

At first, the animals are reluctant to allow Joseph and Mary to share their space. If their human owner won’t show them any charity, why should they? And if they do let just a few in, soon more will show up and crowd them out! The Ox, however, serves as the voice of conscious and laments how the gift of human speech has turned them all too human and chides his stable mates, “We have enough room, if we want to make room.”

The real emotional hook to the story comes with the birth of the Christ-child and the animals realize that in Christ we are all equally loved — a realization that comes too late for them to share before their gift of human speech begins to fade away. My mother, who grew up on a farm in Sicily, loved the film as much as I did and we were always saddened at this point. In the end, however, although the animals lose the gift of speech they retain a greater understanding and tolerance of each other.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of great racial strife in America and this special is a fine example of showing how the message of Christmas has a universal and timeless appeal. Unfortunately, given the racial strife that persists in America and other parts of the world, the message of The Night the Animals Talked remains relevant today.

Putting aside their differences, the animals join together to see the Christ-child,

brought into this world in the most humble of places.
Along with the gritty 1969 Christmas special, J.T. (see separate article), which features an animal as a pivotal plot device and also only aired for a few years before disappearing from the broadcast airwaves, these programs never quite became as enshrined as Christmas classics like the various entries by Rankin/Bass Productions. Both programs were also later distributed to schools in the early-mid 1970s. The online independent film guide FilmThreat reports that McGraw-Hill distributed copies of The Night the Animals Talked to schools in 1975 (J.T. also saw some distribution to public schools about the same time). The copy shown above is likely from one of the McGraw-Hill 16-mm prints. For reasons unknown, there has been no DVD release of the special, so the quality is not the best.

Nevertheless, both films teach the same lesson — our love for the most vulnerable among us, animal or child, is what makes the world a better place. May it always ever be that way.