THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978 - color)
Coming up short on the usual unusual Christmas fare, this year I've decided to turn my eye upon one of the most infamous (though largely unseen) Christmas* specials in television history... That this coincides with the release of a new STAR WARS movie is purely coincidence. I was just looking for something with a Christmas theme to work with. The new film had slipped my mind completely (give me a break, I don't have any commercial television anymore).
(*Technically, this aired it's one and only time just before Thanksgiving, 1978. Still, the commercials included a pitch to give the kiddies STAR WARS merchandise for Christmas, and the whole affair is generic enough that it can be viewed any time.)
With the coming of THE FORCE AWAKENS, the public has been reminded that there was a time when STAR WARS was something people got excited about (normal people, I mean, as there has been a rabid fanbase in place since the very start). It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the whole thing was fresh and exciting, and the desire to be a part of it all was genuine.
It all began in 1977. The time was just right for a feel-good adventure film, and that's exactly what a young director/writer named George Lucas delivered when his new space opera opened.
Following the lead of 1968's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, most genre films of the 70's were known for their overall nihilism and visions of dark, oppressive future landscapes where all hope had been long abandoned. At the time of STAR WARS' release, the last thing anyone really expected was a traditional (if visually stunning) fable of good triumphing over the forces of evil. It was exactly what the movie going public needed, and wanted. The film was a massive success, breaking box office records the world over, making overnight superstars of its cast, and catapulting George Lucas to the most powerful position in Hollywood.
Lucas, according to (constantly re-adjusted) legend, originally conceived STAR WARS as a story so massive that he could only afford to film the first third of it. With the boxoffice success of his first portion, he was in a position to assure the next two films would indeed be made. Lucas then changed his story to include a trilogy of films set before his opus. Thus, STAR WARS was re-issued under the title STAR WARS: EPISODE IV -A NEW HOPE. The casual observer was greatly surprised to see this subheading amended to the now famous opening text crawl.
Lucas fiercely clung to his property, insisting upon remaining free of studio interference, although he did pioneer the kind of mass merchandising tie-in promotion almost unheard of prior (only PLANET OF THE APES springs to mind as a similar flurry of product tie-in when the entire series was re-issued around 1975 or 6). One thing George didn't consider was a television special. One of the networks commissioned one, however, and Lucas gave his okay. Beyond that, he wasn't really involved, although he would take an active role once the special hit the tube.
In November of '78 we find the assembled cast and numerous props and left-overs pressed into service for today's subject. Although the ratings were huge, it was to air only one time before Lucas killed it. What the network no doubt hoped would be a popular seasonal affair was yanked because Lucas found the results so horrifying. (In a sense, one can understand his reaction. If the EPA itself had been in charge, I doubt the results would have been as disastrous.)
Lucas has since tried to erase any memory of the special from public consciousness, so the show was never released to the medium of video tape (where one can only assume it would've done massive business) or the newer format of DVD. Fortunately, someone managed to record the whole thing the night it aired.
While you can sorta understand George's feelings on the matter, since the show was quite terrible, his hysterics have caused the special to become much more interesting than it otherwise would've been. In his zeal to have the show destroyed, George has actually given it a much larger life than it would have if allowed to play out as planned -where it would've been seen a couple of times every year until the mid 80's, and then it would've been completely forgotten.
Lest you think Lucas' actions an anomaly, he has quite a history of demanding his films be seen HIS way and in no other form. Near the end of the century, he used computer generated effects to soup up his original trilogy of films and re-issued them as STAR WARS: THE SPECIAL EDITION. Most fans preferred the original versions, and were quite eager to buy them on the DVD format. Unfortunately for them, Lucas demanded his original cuts no longer be seen.
The best thing George ever did for his fans was to sell his property off to Disney. Being far more consumer-friendly, the Mouse has decided to issue the real cuts of the films on BluRay. The films have required complete restoration, however, as Lucas let the negatives rot once he had his Special Edition edits in the can. SO maniacal was Lucas' actions that he reportedly had people buying the laserdisc versions off of Ebay in order to have them destroyed! I can't confirm any truth to that, but it should be noted he'd earlier set about similarly destroying all traces of the famed Holiday Special....
For what it's worth, Lucas did embrace the television format following the successful releases of the sequel films THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI. The third entry brought in the whimsical Ewoks, loved by kids and hated by most every other human being. These characters were spun off into a pair of live-action TV movies, as well as a Saturday morning cartoon series (there was also a cartoon series focused on the robots called Droids).
(There's also tell of an actual Christmas special produced in the early 80's, reportedly concerning a pair of rebels accidentally left behind on the ice planet Hoth. I can't confirm if this one ever actually existed, though.)
After selling his franchise to Disney, Lucas supposedly no longer has any say on the matter. Making one wonder if The Star Wars Holiday Special will be officially released, possibly as an extra feature in the STAR WARS pack. The original master was destroyed by Lucas, reportedly, but there is the bootleg version still floating around...
With STAR WARS now under Disney control, a new sequel has been announced for Christmas release. No doubt the mixture of excitement and curiosity will make it a massive blockbuster. How the film itself is pulled off will determine whether the franchise is still cool, or a dead horse. Hopes are riding high on the guy who managed to breath new life into the equally dead STAR TREK franchise, director J.J. Abrahms.
Back to '78, though, and the STAR WARS phenomenon is still fresh. The country, and the world, is breathlessly excited to see further adventures with their favorite space heroes. Ads have been running for months, and all the key players are involved. This should be good...
Following a short prolog that sets things up, we open with a typical cast rundown proudly announced by the unmistakable voice of popular game show host Art James. Hamill, Fisher, and Ford are here, which itself is pretty amazing. On the other hand, none of them will spend that much time on screen. Ford, who has the most footage here, reportedly didn't want to do the show but was talked into it. Fisher did the show, on the demand that she be allowed to sing (she has since decided that her performance was terrible). Hamill, meanwhile, had recently been in an auto accident! The story goes that he had just finished extensive facial reconstruction surgery, and indeed, something about him looks a little odd here. Nothing you can put your finger on, but he doesn't look quite the same as he did in the movie.
None of them have really said much about the special since it's single airing. Reportedly, Ford never even saw the thing. Fisher, meanwhile, was uncharacteristically gifted a copy by George Lucas as a thank you present after she recorded a commentary track for the first film's DVD release. Fisher has joked that she likes to play it at the end of parties, so as to clear the house!
Other returns from the movie include Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO (with "R2D2 as R2D2"), and James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. Actual Vader footage is lifted from the movie (reportedly excised footage).
The touted special guest stars are indicative of the era, obviously. Bea Arthur will sing a song, as will musical guests Diahann Carroll and The Jefferson Starship. Art Carney lends his support in a meaty bit part, and Harvey Korman will play multiple roles throughout. Those familiar with Korman's work can only stare in stunned amazement at how unfunny he is here. For what it's worth, though, Art Carney, old pro that he is, comes off quite good.
Now, given the line-up, title, and general 70's-ness of all this, you'd probably expect -as I did- that this affair will be a one hour variety show with a space theme. That would be the obvious route, but the producers have a far grander idea in mind, which is basically to make the first STAR WARS sequel! Although played mostly for humor, what we get here is essentially an actual movie. Unfortunately, the thing that kills it is also the only bit that Lucas himself really provided. He thought the show should focus on a Wookiee family, and so it does.
(And actually, this is fairly interesting for those who know of George's original plans for the Wookiees. His initial thought was to have the Wookiees be a more or less primitive people who lived in tree-houses and didn't have overmuch technology. It was originally the Wookiees that were supposed to rise up against the Empire in THE RETURN OF THE JEDI. Having made Chewbacca a mechanic, however, George felt audiences might not buy the Wookiee as being so primitive. He quickly came up with the Ewoks as a replacement race. What we see of the Wookiees here is much more in line with Lucas' original vision. They have more technology than do the Ewoks, but their dwellings are very similar.)
Needless to say, this was a bad idea. It means long sections where not much is happening beyond domestic scenes acted out by Wookiees, and those naturally are largely pantomimed! That this long, eventless section kicks off our show is the biggest problem, and it really doesn't recover until the last quarter.
The main focus will be Chewbacca's family. His wife, Malla, their son, Lumpy (!), and Chewy's father, Itchy (!!!) will be the characters we spend the most time with. I'm thinking the original audience expected we'd be seeing action centered around the rebel headquarters, or at least something more directly involving Luke Skywalker. But no, we'll be spending the evening with the Wookiees...
Before we meet them, however, we're somewhat cruelly teased with a space scene in which Han and Chewy are aboard the Millennium Falcon being pursued by Imperial Star Destroyers. (This is mixed in with footage lifted from STAR WARS, as you might expect.) Basically, the exposition is that Han has, per tradition, promised to get Chewy back to his family in time to celebrate the Wookiee holiday of "Life Day." Han intends to make good his word, although the Empire isn't making things easy for him.
Much of the rest of the next two hours will be spent watching Chewy's family growing increasingly concerned because he's running late. During all of this, we see how the Empire has the galaxy under it's oppressive thumb. In a weird bit, the show plays out like a drama set just before the Second World War, with Wookiees/rebels standing in for the Jews/Brits, and the Empire in place of the Third Reich. This actually makes a good deal of sense, but it's probably the last thing I expected from something called The Star Wars Holiday Special!
As we look in on Chewy's family, we're treated to our first indication of trouble. They live in a big tree-house and, sadly, this visual looks more like something from a Sid and Marty Krofft show than it does STAR WARS. This remains true even as we cut inside, since this is shot on video. Malla is making her holiday meal, Itchy is carving a model spaceship -supposedly for Lumpy- and the Lump is running around being a typical kid. He annoys the elder folk until he's made to take the trash out.
While out on the porch, Lumpy wastes some of his time -and ours- by climbing up onto the safety railing and balancing himself. The tree house seems to be 50 feet or more up in the air. This sort of sets up a bit that pays off much later in the show, but it sure seems pointless this early into things. Come to think of it, it still seemed pointless after all was said and done. I suppose it's a realistic 'kid' moment, but it really offers nothing of interest.
Malla watches a TV cooking show hosted by a multi-armed female creature being played by Harvey Korman. The first of three bits Korman will have, this is without doubt the worst. It may've been funny on paper, but it sure doesn't translate to the screen that way. Basically, s/he talks the viewers through the best way to cook "Bantha Surprise." This requires alternating stirring, whipping, and beating the food, and the timing on these actions increases so Korman acts and speaks faster and faster. There's no payoff, either. Malla simply stops watching the show after having trouble keeping up with Korman.
Lumpy wanders back inside and Itchy distracts him with a holographic projection table (as, admittedly, established in the movie, so Chewy having one of these sets at home is actually pretty credible). Itchy plays holographic circus scene, and Lumpy sits attentively watching alien tumblers and jugglers. Really, the scene defies description. Like everything else here, it also runs way too long and is more annoying than entertaining. I really can't think of words to accurately convey it.
Malla, having checked the public data banks for recent spaceship arrivals, checks in with the local trader, Sondan (or Saun Dann, as he is labelled elsewhere). As Sondan is played by Art Carny, things really pick up at this point. Carny, of course, was an old pro, having equally distinguished himself at this point with both comedic acting and dramatic character bits. Here he combines both as a trader working under the Empire while secretly supporting the rebellion. Not much in this special really works, but Art is in top form, and effortlessly breezes through.
We meet Sondan in the show's first of a very few genuinely amusing bits, as he tries to wait on an Imperial officer who has come into his shop. It's during this that Malla reaches him, and Sondan assures Malla that Chewy is on his way.
Even so, Malla remains worried about Chewy's delay (and we'll cut back to the Falcon to find that Han has found himself right in the middle of an Imperial patrol). Malla will use her secret video-phone to contact a couple of characters actually from the movie. First, Malla and Itchy talk to Luke Skywalker. Luke and R2 are tinkering with a problematic engine, and a poor connection threatens to overheat during the scene.
Long story short, Han left some time ago and he should've arrived by now. Malla is worried, but Luke tells her to perk up, knowing that nothing could keep Chewy away from Life Day with his family. Malla indeed cheers up a little, and Itchy has been giving her more or less the same advice.
This, and one brief off-to-the-side, one-line bit toward the end, is really all we get from the top-billed Mark Hamill. He isn't given much to do, but he isn't bad either. Hamill had a knack for playing sincere likability, and it pulls him through this.
In a later scene, Princess Leia will contact Malla in order to reach the still-absent Han and Chewy. For no reason at all, C-3PO is with her. This leads to a tiresome bit where the Wookiees will speak and 3PO will translate for the Princess, even though she's not having the hardest time understanding what the Wookiees are saying.
Before that, though, Sondan drops by with Life Day presents for his favorite Wookiees. Lumpy gets a fancy computer/translator/modulator doohickey. When he later sets to assembling this device, we get our second appearance from Harvey Korman. Potentially the most humorous, Harvey plays what amounts to a robot in an instructional video. The gag is that he's constantly running down. On paper, it's hysterical stuff. On video, it really doesn't live up to our expectations. It, like everything here, feels like it was improvised at the last minute. That basically sums up the problem with the whole show.
Sondan has brought a couple of items for the adult Wookiees, too. Malla receives a sort of toaster-sized 3D television-type thingie. On this will appear the musical offering from The Jefferson Starship. For Itchy, Sondan has something a little more disturbing...
Off to one side of the room is a seat with a virtual reality helmet. Sondan plugs a special program into this and Itchy then watches what amounts to a weird form of pornography. The program Itchy is watching translates the user's ideals and desires into an interactive character. Weirdly, for an aged Wookiee like Itchy, this means a hot young human female in the form of Diahann Carroll... Okay... Either way, it's a means of doing another musical number.
While Sondan is on scene, Han and Chewy fly in. Unfortunately, the family finds an Imperial troop standing at their door. For the next segment of the show, an Imperial officer and his men will search the house for any trace of rebel activity. Lumpy is ordered to stay out of the way and keep quiet. He does this by donning some headphones and watching a secret rebel transmission WHILE IMPERIAL TROOPS ARE SEARCHING HIS HOUSE!!! I think we can see why Lumpy never re-surfaced in later sequels!
At any rate, this transmission relates a recent development in the war, and is in the form an animated cartoon. It's universally agreed that this cartoon is the best thing here, and I'm assuming is even considered canon since Han apparently makes a throw-away reference to it's events during THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
The film's cast is on hand to voice all their respective characters, however crudely they are depicted. What really makes this segment important to the history of STAR WARS as a franchise is that it marks the world's introduction to bounty hunter Boba Fett. The character has more visibility here than he did in the following two sequels, thus explaining why anyone outside the hardcore fanboy base even knows who he is. After seeing the cartoon, I finally get why the character is so popular.
The cartoon, in short, concerns the Alliance's quest for a mystical talisman. Han and Chewy have recovered this artifact, but it has somehow been sabotaged by the Empire. Human beings suffer a sleeping sickness upon contact with the object, so Chewy discards it after crash-landing on a planet with vast, jelly-like seas. Luke and the droids set off to find the downed Falcon and run across Boba Fett, who knows of a serum cure for the sleeping virus. Boba and Chewy go into the city and acquire this serum (sold over the counter like Bayer, oddly enough), but R2 manages to intercept a communication between Boba and Darth Vader. His cover blown, Boba rockets off, but promises the rebels haven't seen the last of him. And that's true, he appears somewhat peripherally in both sequels.*
(*Actually, Fett appears in footage shot for the original film, but said footage was cut before release. The scene in question was also to introduce audiences to Jabba the Hut, monstrous gangster so memorably shown in THE RETURN OF THE JEDI. Story goes, George didn't have a design for Jabba yet, and the part was just played by an actor they intended to replace with an effect in post. When Lucas released his Special Edition cut, he placed this scene back into the film, adding as originally intended an effect Jabba -in this case, a really bad computer generated cartoon.)
Back to the Wookiees and the troops. Sondan is more or less forced to leave before a transmission comes through on the public television channel. Mandatory viewing for all members of the Empire is a supposed expose of less enlightened life on Tatooine, "that we may feel better about our selves by their example." So, this is set up as the Empire's version of Nazi propaganda against the Jews. Again, that sort of makes sense, but it feels really weird...
What this really means, of course, is an excuse to duplicate the cantina scene from the movie, as the camera finds itself inside a bar operated by Bea Arthur. Harvey Korman has his third bit in this scene, as a love-sick bar patron. Bea has a couple of mildly funny lines, but the scene is really just another excuse for a musical number.
Arthur sings a song to the bar's patrons as an Imperial curfew is put in place. Not exactly dynamite stuff, but it is amazing the number of masks, monsters, and make-ups they managed to get from the movie. It's like everything used in the movie was immediately put in storage for this very purpose. There's even a giant rat prop reportedly left over from THE FOOD OF THE GODS!
Lumpy uses his new gizmo to fake an alert causing the troops to return to base. The Officer commands one of the stormtroopers to stay behind, and said trooper catches on to Lumpy's trick. The trooper chases Lumpy out onto the porch just as Chewbacca returns to the scene. The soldier manages to hold Chewy at bay, but Han sneaks up on him and manages to throw the guy over the railing.
Han greets the family before taking off. Then Sondan drops by one last time and covers for Han by reporting to the Empire that the missing trooper looted the house and took to the hills. Sondan wishes the family well and takes off. Again, not much here works, but Art comes off really well.
Up till now, the show has been really lame, but has made a degree of sense. Now we go completely off the track! There's really no deciphering these events, so I'll just describe them....
The family take up little shiny globes and hold them above their heads.
Then they're suddenly wearing red robes.
Then they're marching through outer space in a line with dozens of other Wookiees, walking into a star!
Back from commercial (complete with pitch for Kenner STAR WARS toys) and the robed Wookiees are all standing around on a mist-covered rock formation. What's more, R2-D2 and C-3PO are on the scene. Then Leia, Luke, and Han show up!
Basically, the men stand by as Leia wishes the Wookiees well. Then she sings a song in tribute to peace or something. The melody of this tune is the film's main theme, so it's kind of interesting to hear it connected with words -however generic they may be.
The song concluded, the music picks up into a more impressive march as we see Chewbacca looking into the camera. This scene segues into a series of clips from the movie supposedly meant to be a flashback sequence of some sort. One last look at Chewy and we break for yet another commercial.
Back for one last bit, we see Chewy's family back in the living room of their cool treehouse. They sit at a table where they've placed their shiny globes as a centerpiece. Then they bow their heads in prayer and we end our show. Stay tuned for Flying High, up next on CBS!
While a huge mess, this does fill in some of the gaps in the STAR WARS mythos. For one thing, it establishes that there is television in this universe, but it's under the control of the Empire. Thus, the show does provide some shading to the franchise.
Awful as it was, the show was a hit with viewers -the one time they got to see it. And you can pick up on why. The STAR WARS phenomenon was still fresh, and you can feel that excitement (maybe not from the special itself, but you can still feel it coming off of the original audience). Now that there's a new movie coming out, there is again a sense of excitement from more than just the hardcore fanbase. How it pays off will be interesting to see. Myself, I won't see the film until it hits home video, so I'll have to spend the next several months turning away anytime someone mentions the film before I get a chance to see it!
MERRY CHRISTMAS, ALL!