When I was a kid, several things signaled the imminent arrival of Christmas. One was the appearance of the giant catalogs from the big retail stores, colorful guides chock full of toys to request from Santa. The other big harbinger of the holiday was the roll-out of the great Christmas specials on the broadcast networks. Sure, the colder weather helped build the mood, and Thanksgiving provided a nice launching pad, but it didn't really feel like Christmas until the likes of Charlie Brown and Rudolph took over the airwaves.
It's different today, of course. Stores barely finish disassembling their back-to-school displays before touting the holidays, and we don't have to wait for the networks to broadcast the classic specials because, thanks to DVD, we can get in the spirit year round. That means you may come home from the pool on a sweltering day and have your young child say, 'We haven't seen Frosty the Snowman in a long time. Can we watch that?' (True story). But it also means you don't have to miss any of your favorites. Let's take a look at some of the classic family Christmas specials available here at ClassicFlix, a mix of old standbys and a few under-appreciated DVDs deserving of closer attention.
A Charlie Brown Christmas: Even after dozens of viewings, I pick up something new each time, or at least I find a different aspect to appreciate. One year it's the variety of goofy dances the kids do when rehearsing the play. The next, it might be the devilish smile on Charlie Brown's face when he sarcastically thanks Violet for the Christmas card she didn't give him. These scenes and more help make this my favorite of all the seasonal specials and a personal must-see each Christmas Eve.
Fifty years later it remains a singular achievement that resembles nothing else on TV. The adaptation of numerous signature moments from the 'Peanuts' comic strip does justice to the work of creator Charles M. Schulz, but the transfer of the material to the medium also creates odd rhythms and pacing that feel as out of place today as ever -- and all the more lovable for it.
Most of all, I enjoy the quietness of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sometimes it's overt silence, like the hush that falls over the auditorium as Linus delivers his climactic speech about the true meaning of the holiday. Just as often, though, it's the pauses following the punchlines, like when Sally Brown exasperates her brother with a materialistic letter to Santa and says to the camera: 'All I want is what's coming to me. All I want is my fair share.' It just hangs there for a second, and the absence of a laugh track lets the audience fill that silence.
The often unpolished line reading of the child actors also creates wonderfully awkward interactions with the viewers. Is it possible that A Charlie Brown Christmas paves the way for the off-kilter but genuine comedy of later series like The Office? Ultimately this is a classic for several simple reasons: the charming animation, the memorable soundtrack, and the fact it remains funny after multiple screenings and frequent references throughout pop culture.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Another annual tradition in my household is also the pinnacle of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation classics. What amazes me now is all the merchandising of this version of the character. Perhaps Charlie Brown would have scoffed at all the swag this special has generated in recent years, but, boy, what I wouldn't have given as a child to have a Sam the Snowman action figure.
It's ostensibly the story of the plucky reindeer with a shiny nose, an expanded version of the saga we all know from the song, but Sam the Snowman steals the whole show. Sam's a snappy dresser (the timepiece on the chain around his waist is my favorite touch), a delightful singer (witness his soothing rendition of 'Silver and Gold'), and he's even courtly (note how he tips his hat upon meeting the viewer). Burl Ives' voice work combines with the amusing character design to make one of the best narrators ever. I dare say that when growing up, I almost thought Sam was as cool as Santa Claus.
Over the years I've come to notice and appreciate the melancholic undercurrent of the special, epitomized by the plight of the Misfit Toys who regret their lot in life, stranded together in isolation instead of played with by happy children. Similarly, the sweet 'There's Always Tomorrow' number sung by Clarice to Rudolph suggests the sadness they have to overcome. In many ways this show is as emotionally rich and moving as A Charlie Brown Christmas even while providing a whole lot of Christmas cheer and fun.
The Little Drummer Boy: The legendary Rankin/Bass studio created iconic productions like the timeless Rudolph, the beloved Frosty the Snowman, the memorable Santa Claus Is Coming to Town...and, oh, yeah, it did The Little Drummer Boy, too. This was always the Zeppo of Christmas specials. I don't know of any kids who made their parents rush home from a night of shopping because it was coming on the tube.
It deserves another look, though I understand why it never quite stuck. The title song is one of my least favorite carols; the repetition of the lyrics never did much for me, unless of course Bing Crosby and David Bowie were singing them. Unlike other 'toons of its type, it's not loaded with talking animals and wacky humor. The main character isn't exactly Mr. Sunshine. Young orphan Aaron hangs out with his animal pals not just because he loves them, but because he hates humanity. The half-hour has an abrupt ending that feels a bit rushed even with its powerful spiritual message.
Yet seen today as a grownup with less toy-crazy, more patient eyes, I appreciate the themes, the voice work of stalwarts like June Foray and Paul Frees, and the pure class Greer Garson brings as narrator. It's never going to supplant the Rankin/Bass legends, but it merits a shot at making your holiday rotation.
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: Alastair Sim and George C. Scott are fine thespians who deserve their acclaim, but to me the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge is Quincy Magoo. UPA's musical take on Dickens' oft-adapted A Christmas Carol is the most rewatchable due to the catchy songs and Magoo's' brilliant interpretation of the character.
It's easy to forget -- possibly because I think the scene was cut from many rerun broadcasts -- that this version of the classic tale begins with a montage of headlines touting Magoo's acting success as the old sightless wonder makes his way to the theater to perform in the play. Oddly, he doesn't seem to be nearsighted when he's on stage, and his Scrooge is just a skinflint who happens to be squinty, not a disaster-prone menace to society. Despite those clippings establishing his sterling reputation in Hollywood (they want him to remake 'The Sheik!'), everyone backstage is just grateful when he makes it to the theater on time. So, Quincy Magoo is unreliable but supremely talented when he does show up on the set.
One other thing that jumps out in the present day is how wrapped up Bob Cratchit is in belting his tunes with the family. I'm sure he's a hard-working, pious, decent sort, but, gee, if the Cratchits could somehow slice all that ham Bob serves up when he's singing, they'd never go hungry again. It's tough to blame him, though, or anyone in the cast, for taking such delight in the catchy songs. Can greed really be such a bad thing if it inspires a song as joyous as 'Ringle, Ringle,' sung by Scrooge as he enjoys his coins?
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: There is no doubt this is one of the most popular and enduring of all kids' holiday presentations, but it wasn't appointment viewing in my childhood. Whoville seemed a little creepy with its cult-like rituals and the mass singing of nonsense lyrics that suggested some kind of chilling secret code as much as they did Christmas. It wasn't that I approved of the Grinch's nasty scheme to steal the holiday away from the whole town, but it was hard for me to identify with the strange creatures who exchanged gifts like Flu Floopers and Gar Ginkers. Hey, I just wanted Star Wars and superhero toys, man.
Perhaps most off-putting of all was the roast beast that makes the Whos salivate. What the heck is roast beast, exactly? As a ham lover (but not a turkey guy), I always felt somewhat left out as everyone else drooled over Christmas turkeys. That weird-sounding roast beast reminded me that the whole holiday feast concept wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
With apologies to Bob Dylan, but I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now. As an adult, I look forward to watching Grinch each year with my own children, and I love the rhymes and the language. Boris Karloff's narration amuses me each time out. (A bigger disappointment than learning about Santa and the Easter Bunny was when I finally figured out it wasn't Karloff singing 'You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch'). I even enjoy the Whoville songs, and I think I understand their meaning even if I don't comprehend all of the words. You still won't catch me eating roast beast, though.
A Shari Lewis Christmas: Perhaps the crowd at your holiday gathering is so jaded it doesn't want to see Charlie Brown, Rudolph, or the others for the 500th time. Personally, I neither endorse nor even condone that kind of attitude, but I can suggest an alternative. I guarantee there's no way the average viewer who has seen Magoo a bunch of times is sick of the Christmas episode of 'Hi Mom,' which appears as a fascinating extra on S'More Entertainment's brilliant collection of Christmas episodes.
The disc contains three holiday-themed episodes of ventriloquist Shari Lewis' self-titled early 1960s television program. The notion of someone holding your attention by making two puppets on her hands talk to each other seems quaint today, but Lewis makes you care about characters such as Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse, and the simple but effective morals and messages make for compelling seasonal viewing.
My own young children didn't get into it when I showed them the DVD, but it was more because of the obvious age of the material than any of Lewis' efforts. That's my failing as a parent (I intend to start these kids on a healthy diet of The Goldbergs and Mr. Peepers to set them straight), but even if today's kids don't necessarily 'get it,' this underrated set is a treat for adults who enjoy television history. The humor is appropriate for children but often tilted ever so slightly for the parents, like when Charlie Horse makes a groaner of a pun and follows it with, 'These are the jokes,' and Lamb Chop replies, 'Will you keep letting me know?'
A delightful bonus is an episode of the morning show Hi Mom, with Lewis and several co-hosts offering segments on wellness, cooking, and other household hints. Not only do you see Lewis and her puppets, but you get to see a doctor advise viewers that he sometimes holds a baby outside the window on a cold note to help ward off croup.
All of these classic television specials provide an easy way to capture the Christmas spirit. The best not only fill me with holiday cheer, but make me feel better about life in general, which is a great achievement for any kind of TV entertainment. I hope these DVDs bring you the same pleasure, and I wish everyone in the ClassicFlix community Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
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.