Even though the 'holiday shopping season' now begins right after Halloween, it flies by more quickly each year. I loved all the Christmas episodes and specials on television as a kid, but they somehow made the wait even more agonizing. Today it's all a blur, but at least with DVD I can slow down and get a dose of yuletide cheer whenever I need it.
Let's examine some of the best Christmas episodes of the classic television era, a simpler time when the medium focused more on telling entertaining, heartwarming stories than shoving us all into stores to buy stuff. Incidentally, did I mention that most of these programs are available here at ClassicFlix and make great stocking stuffers?
The Dick Van Dyke Show , 'Alan Brady Presents': It's no surprise that one of the classiest sitcoms of all time delivers a classy Christmas episode. I love the premise: Mel Cooley convinces his brother-in-law/boss Alan Brady that it would be nice holiday gifts to let the talented people who work on his show perform on it. We're not talking about shuffling them in front of a camera to hum 'Silent Night.' No, Alan hands the entire show over to his writers and their families.
Apparently the only people who work on the show are Rob, Buddy, Sally, and Mel, who just happen to be The Dick Van Dyke Show regulars, and the only family members talented enough to participate happen to be Rob's wife Laura and son Richie. Can't they find a key grip that can carry a tune? Doesn't the show have a costume designer, a lighting technician, ANYONE else who'd like to be on camera?
Other than poor Rich's rendition of 'The Little Drummer Boy,' (it's sweet, but maybe they should have just let him do that old standby, a 'dramatic reading' of ''Twas the Night Before Christmas'), all of the segments are great entertainment, showcasing the gang's talents while keeping them in character. Rose Marie's solo number as Sally includes a Jimmy Durante reference. Rob's duet with Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) includes a nod to Van Dyke's Stan Laurel impersonation. In another fun routine, Rob conducts a vocal rendition of a special holiday song lauding the boss. The only negative I can say about 'Alan Brady Presents' is that when you hear the cast sing 'Al-an Bra-a-dy,' it'll be in your head until St. Patrick's Day.
Adam-12, 'Log 122 Christmas -- The Yellow Dump Truck': We move from the mean streets of New Rochelle to sunny Los Angeles. If you think snow is a prerequisite for Christmas cheer, this might not seem like your thing, but I assure you there is plenty of joy to go around.
Officers Malloy and Reed are delivering bags of goodies to underprivileged households in the community. One child named Harvey Ward just has to have a yellow dump truck. So, of course, the policemen embark on a thrill-packed journey through the streets while tracking the coveted toy, pressuring informants, storming suspected contraband toy warehouses, and roughing up toy smugglers along the way!
Well, actually, no, Malloy just walks into a store and buys the truck, but there is some suspense when someone steals Mrs. Ward's car with the truck still in the back. Finding the criminal isn't the problem, but if the truck is considered evidence, it will be impounded until after Christmas Day. The struggle to free the toy for Harvey is a triumph over the department's true number one enemy: bureaucratic regulations.
Also in 'Log 122' is a domestic dispute between the Buehlers (Bob Hastings and Eunice Christopher) over money. Mr. Buehler urges Mrs. Buehler to be thrifty, but when she orders a chicken for holiday dinner, she discovers he already got 'one of those special hams you have to send away for--.00, .25 a pound!' Her husband fires back that they'll 'get 5 meals out of that ham!' She then reveals something that might well get him carted off to the slammer: 'He's been soaking a fruitcake in brandy since Thanksgiving!'
The officers diffuse the situation and help the couple rekindle their love, but I fear tensions will only resurface next week when Mr. Buehler splurges on Chinese takeout for New Year's Eve. As someone who has long been immune to the charms of turkey dinners, I appreciate the bold stance executive producer Jack Webb takes by allowing Adam-12 to suggest ham and chicken are legitimate alternatives.
Dr. Kildare, 'Season to Be Jolly': On Christmas Eve, the young doctors are hanging decorations in Blair General Hospital at the behest of the public relations department. They're singing, laughing, and generally being festive when chief of staff Dr. Gillespie comes in and barks, 'What is with all this hooliganism?' They're lucky they weren't doing something really delinquent, like marbles or mumblety-peg.
Soon after, a broken-down, alcoholic department store Santa (Dan O'Herlihy) arrives in bad shape and gives Kildare a series of sarcastic responses to routine questions. Gillespie sees this, and all of the sudden he's Mr. Merry, enjoying the give and take and chuckling at the provocation of his young intern. Moments like this must make Kildare wish he had signed up for law school.
Of course, even casual viewers of Dr. Kildare know that Gillespie's heart is not two sizes too small, and that's evident when the veteran doc explores the patient's background to try to understand him. The remarkable thing about 'Season to Be Jolly' from a modern perspective is 1961 television's acceptance of religion. There is a good deal of basic theological discussion as we learn how this Santa became so troubled. You don't see this kind of casual, unironic discussion of spirituality in today's shows. It's tastefully done, in my opinion, sincere and sort of broadly Christian. I can't imagine anybody being offended by the episode, unless it's a female viewer lamenting that the shirtless doctor in the opening scene is Ken Berry and not series star Richard Chamberlain.
The Christmas spirit is strong at Blair General, and a rousing version of 'Joy to the World' is sure to win over any would-be Scrooges by the end, but it's hardly necessary. The series' theme song, 'Three Stars Will Shine Tonight,' is itself a stirring piece of music. When you hear that during the credits as you watch stills from this touching episode, well, you may be 'wiping the glitter out of your eyes' like I was.
Dennis the Menace, 'The Christmas Horse': While Dr. Kildare shows us Christmas as we want it to be, we turn to another classic show to show us Christmas as it really is. Yes, consider the gritty reality of this second-season installment of the adventures of Dennis Mitchell.
It begins with Dennis, after striking out with pleas for a BB gun and a loud siren, asking a department store Santa for the one thing he wants 'more than anything else in the world,' a horse. Dennis knows he's not talking to the real Santa. Mr. Wilson, we find out, is wearing the suit, and he's not very jolly at the thought of the Mitchell kid getting a horse. I have to wonder what kind of establishment would hire Mr. Wilson to play Santa. And why would a guy who is one step away from a straitjacket whenever his kid neighbor rings the doorbell take that gig? This store must have a pretty sweet employee discount.
On Christmas morning, Dennis and his friends engage in a pastime with which many parents are all too familiar: the ritual complaining about what Santa did and didn't bring them. Dennis got a record player, but no pony. Tommy got a microscope, but not an electric train (though his dad is sure having a blast with that microscope)!
Elsewhere, little Johnny Fleming DID receive a pony despite not asking for one. His dad explains that he does indeed want one. How does he know? Simple: HE always wanted one when HE was a kid! Mr. Fleming (Henry Beckman) can't understand why Johnny fears the animal. After all, when HE was a boy, he had to get a paper route just to get spending money, and his folks couldn't afford a horse.
Dennis naturally assumes that Santa brought Johnny the horse by mistake. After all, he messed up on Tommy's train set. Dennis trades his record player for Margaret's typewriter, and then trades the typewriter to Johnny for the pony. This clever episode reveals how different the perspectives of parents and their children are on Christmas presents, but it ends with a heartwarming resolution that makes everybody happy.
Mr. McGuire, who drives around town selling Christmas trees in a horse-driven cart, is retiring, and the 'deal' he makes to give Dennis his horse is a beautiful example of a grownup manipulating a child into getting--and appreciating--what he needs instead of what he wants. As McGuire, veteran character actor Ernest Truex makes this episode an all-time charmer. He just sounds like the holiday. Each time he opens his mouth, I hear sleigh bells ringing and I see Rockwellian visions of a bundled-up family singing Christmas carols on a brisk winter night. In fact, at the end the Mitchells and Wilsons perform 'Silent Night' in the cart, and even the blatant rear projection can't tarnish a truly heartwarming story.
Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends: The last arc of season 3 includes a Christmas episode of sorts with the original Bad Santa, or should I say Badenov Santa. Boris and Natasha (calling herself 'Alf Elf') pose as Santa and a helper in order to make lots and lots of money. It takes a long time to get to the funny sight of Boris Badenov in Santa Claus gear, so you might want to start the disc, bake some cookies, go out and spruce up the lights, and maybe finish up your shopping while you wait for the Christmas part.
If you stick around, you will see 'Aesop's Fables,' 'Sherman and Peabody,' 'Fractured Fairy Tales,' and countless interstitial bits in addition to an amusing story about, believe it or not, climate change. In this scenario, the North Pole accumulates so much ice that it tilts the Earth, making the tropical island of Riki-Tiki the new North Pole.
Since Rocky and Bullwinkle spending the better part of six episodes debating whether or not it's really getting warmer in Frostbite Falls would be pretty drab television, they set out to make it snow on Riki-Tiki and make the Earth tilt back to where it was. Hey, if you want verisimilitude, watch 'Sherman and Peabody.' If you want classic Rocky and Bullwinkle wordplay mixed with Badenov hijinks, plus an early example of 're-gifting' that ends the saga with a bang, you should see this storyline.
Father Knows Best, 'The Angel's Sweater': Patriarch Jim Anderson's sister Neva is in town for the holidays, and the kids aren't too thrilled about it. You see, Neva just isn't comfortable around children, and when an eager-to-please Kathy drops her suitcase, the overreaction confirms it. She snaps in a prim, mannered way, then quickly adds, 'No harm done. She just shouldn't have attempted it. No harm done.' Distraught, Kathy bolts to her room. Sure, it's overwrought, but we can still identify; who hasn't had an awkward holiday encounter with a relative?
Jim promises to calm everyone a 'big, fluffy Christmas egg nog.' I suspect his glass will have a little extra 'Christmas spirit.' Worse than the Neva-Kathy kerfuffle is the water leak that appears in the wall, forcing a desperate call to Mr. Fix-It, who delights Jim by making a house call on Christmas Eve.
The handyman sees the sulking Kathy and spins a yarn for her about a little girl in a snowy village looking for a special gift to provide as a church offering for the poor. Maybe I'm cynical, but I kept thinking, 'No wonder this guy's willing to come out on a holiday. He's going to charge Jim double time while he sits around and tells his daughter stories.'
His tale is a sweet one, and it may well be the series' gift to the cast. It lets them dress up and play the different characters of the village, with Elinor Donahue (Betty) as the angel who counsels little Katarina (Kathy, as played by Lauren Chapin). It must have been a nice break from the grind of the show for everyone to do something a little different. The villagers' formal speech patterns are a little stilted, but they're still more natural than Neva's earlier 'outburst.'
Kathy learns from the fable what the greatest Christmas gift is, and she shares it with a certain visitor in the house. No, it's not Mr. Fix-It, who demurs when Jim offers to pay him, then adds, 'I'll send you a bill.' I'll bet! You should have asked for a written estimate, Jim! Anyway, when the Andersons exchange a few presents on Christmas Eve, we get an emotional scene that makes me...Darn, there's that glitter in my eye again.
If this assortment doesn't fill you with cheer, there are countless other examples available. In previous columns, I have mentioned two of my favorite Christmas episodes, The Honeymooners 'Twas the Night Before Christmas,' and The Twilight Zone 'Night of the Meek.'. Another perennial classic is The Andy Griffith Show, 'A Christmas Story.' In fact, I could fill a whole nother column or two with classic holiday shows, but for now, let's save something for next year. After all, next year's Christmas season is just around the corner...
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.