Get Reel: Tuning in to Christmas holiday specials
Holiday television movies warm hearts with Christmas cheer
The 1960s didn't just produce arguably the best rock 'n' roll music of all time. The decade also produced the best made-for-TV Christmas movies of all time. That statement is not open for argument. It's a fact.
Subsequent decades have released their share of TV Christmas films, but most of these look like lumps of coal by comparison. "A Very Brady Christmas," anyone? Or how about the laughably bad "Star Wars Holiday Special"?
For hairsplitters, many of these productions could be simply labeled "programs" or "Christmas specials." Who cares? While they may not have the length of a typical film, they demonstrate the quality that could rival many of their longer cinematic brethren.
The top five are must-owns for everyone who has ever decked the halls or sang "Joy to the World." While these holiday shows have an obvious religious connection -- the holiday does celebrate Jesus Christ's birth -- they do deal with universal issues, so much so that they could be appreciated by all faiths. You don't need to know a creche from a creek to know that commercialization has crept into our culture like an insidious weed, and that it needs extracting. Ditto for prejudice. People who look different from the rest of the madding crowd can face a heapin' helpin' of scorn. So can reindeers.
In other cases, people who are consumed by greed only see the light after facing a few trials and tribulations. Or getting run through a gauntlet of ghosts who don't exude much of Casper's friendliness.
Even a misanthropic boy can find love for his fellow man after giving a simple gift. Goodness, just typing a reference to "The Little Drummer Boy" and my eyes start to well up. Weeper alert: This critic turns into a sobbing pile of mush during most of these shows.
Without any further ado, here are the 10 best Christmas films or programs or specials ever made as chosen by yours truly and colleagues. The first five represent the cream of the crop.
"A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS" (1965) - This cartoon featuring the well-known characters from Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip is simply an animated masterpiece. Disillusioned by how the material world has cheapened the holiday season -- his own dog is competing in a decoration contest -- Charlie Brown searches for the true meaning of Christmas. A stint as the director of the school Christmas pageant doesn't turn out well nor does his purchase of a puny Christmas tree.
Leave it to Linus to help set Chuck straight with a moving quotation from the Gospel. "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Amen to that.
The fabulous music of Vince Guaraldi only heightens the pleasure experience. Great dance scene, too. "Who hasn't imitated the guy who just switches his head from one shoulder to the other?" asked one colleague.
"DR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS" (1966) - Pay no attention to the horrendous 2000 film, this is the version to see. Narrated by horror film legend Boris Karloff, the show focuses on a green monster bereft of holiday cheer. His heart has a size problem. Annoyed by the holiday spirit displayed by the Whos in Whoville, the Grinch decides to stop Christmas from coming by stealing all their presents and holiday trappings. He even absconds with the roast beast!
His plan goes awry when he discovers the Whos don't need presents and trappings to celebrate the joy of Christmas. The cute-beyond-words award, of course, goes to Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than 2.
The show features the inspired animation of Chuck Jones -- the man behind such Warner Bros. classic cartoons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Road Runner. It also contains the wonderful song, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," sung by an uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft.
"RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER" (1964) - Based on the popular song by Johnny Marks, this show deals with more than stormy weather messing up Santa's gift distribution plans. At the heart of the story is the heartbreak resulting from discrimination and intolerance. Rudolph, with his glowing red nose, is on the receiving end of abuse.
Rejected and dejected, Rudolph leaves home only to encounter more pariahs, including an elf who would rather be a dentist than a toymaker. A journey to the Island of Misfit Toys reveals more discontent as the place is populated by flawed and discarded toys. Who wants a Charlie-in-the-box?
The appearance of the Abominable Snow Monster adds a sense of dread to the proceedings. Fortunately, humor arrives in the guise of the irrepressible Yukon Cornelius.
Once again, superlative music gets showcased with Burl Ives, as Sam the Snowman, singing "Silver and Gold" and "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas."
"Rudolph" also features stop-motion animation provided by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. You'll hear more from this dynamic duo later.
Anyone who grew up watching this show probably remembers the sledding Norelco shaver seen in the opening ad.
"MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL" (1962) - My introduction to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" was not through any of the live-action versions, starring the likes of Reginald Owen and Alastair Sim, but this cartoon starring the visually impaired Mr. Magoo. In this show, he has no trouble seeing, but as Ebenezer Scrooge he is blind to the wonders of Christmas. Jim Backus, who later played Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island," provides the voice of the miserly Scrooge in a voice-over lineup that includes Morey Amsterdam and Jack Cassidy.
The music in this show is supplied by songwriting stalwarts Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Anyone who doesn't get a little choked up during "All Alone in the World" has humbug in their hearts.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Styne and Merrill offered the song "People" for "Magoo" but the animation had already been completed so it was too late to include it. They instead put the song in "Funny Girl." Barbra Streisand says thank you.
The scene where the Ghost of Christmas Future confronts Scrooge scared the eggnog out of me when I was a child. I can still see the Ghost's bony finger pointing at Scrooge's gravestone. Thanks for the nightmares, Magoo.
"THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY" (1968) - Another Rankin/Bass production, the plot has already been mentioned. Greer Garson narrates this tale with voice-over work provided by Jose Ferrer and cartoon veterans Paul Frees and June Foray. The former provided the voice of Boris Badenov and the latter the voice of Rocky on "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," among many others.
Certainly one of the darker Christmas stories -- Aaron becomes an orphan after his parents are murdered by bandits -- "Drummer Boy" eventually lightens up. In the meantime, it has plenty to say about humanity. It's also one of the few cartoon specials of this era to actually include Jesus' birth in the story.
On the music front, "The Little Drummer Boy" just happens to be one of the greatest Christmas songs ever penned. Again, that opinion is not open for debate.
Baby boomer alert: As someone who grew up in the 1960s, I saw these productions when they were first released, so nostalgia clearly plays a factor in my appreciation of them. Subsequent generations surely have their childhood favorites too, but they'll likely agree it's tough to beat the aforementioned Fantastic Five. And don't call me Shirley.
The remaining shows aren't exactly chopped fruitcake.
"FROSTY THE SNOWMAN" (1969) - Yet another Rankin/Bass production. This one is narrated by Jimmy Durante with voices provided by Billy De Wolfe, Jackie Vernon, Frees and Foray.
Based on the popular song of the same name, the program shows how Frosty came to be and how, with a little help from his friends, he manages not to melt into a large puddle.
"AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS" - IMDb lists four versions of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera classic about a crippled shepherd boy who meets the three wise men on their way to see Jesus. Having not seen all four shows, I can't make a recommendation. Just see one or at least buy the CD and listen to the glorious music. Sadly, Menotti died earlier this year.
"THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS" (1974) - Yet another Rankin/Bass production. This one, featuring the voices of Mickey Rooney and Shirley Booth as Santa and Mrs. Claus, respectively, was recommended by colleagues who have fond memories of the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser. By 1974, yours truly had gone cold turkey on television after years of addiction, and thus never saw this show.
"SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN" (1970) - Yes, it's Rankin/Bass again, and once more Rooney provides the voice of Santa. Fred Astaire narrates this tale. Again, another colleague recommendation. She loves Burgermeister Meisterburger.
Hodgepodge time. Colleagues also recommended "NESTOR, THE LONG-EARED CHRISTMAS DONKEY" (1977), "A CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION" (1987) with the California Raisins, "'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS" (1974), "YOGI'S FIRST CHRISTMAS" (1980) and "THE HOMECOMING: A CHRISTMAS STORY" (1971).
The good news is that many of these productions have been rerun on television and continue to be rerun this time of year. Thus, a whole new generation of children can grow up with a hankering for razzleberry dressing and a knowledge that Christmas isn't just about gifts.
Blog alert: Now you don't have to wait until the second Sunday of every month to read the cinematic pontifications of yours truly. I now have my own blog, also called Get Reel, in which I write about anything and everything concerning movies. The blog also gives readers a chance to respond to my rants. If the responses aren't too obscene, I'll put them on the blog, and then we can let the virtual dialog begin.
Here's the blog's address: http://blogs.townonline.com/getreel