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.

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