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 complete film short 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.

                         
 

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