By Kevin Derby
Word Count: 2100
Summary: Kevin delivers a tongue-in-cheek summary of the holiday movies of his childhood.
On the last Christmas afternoon of the 20th century, my younger brother and I sat mesmerized in front of the TV watching Krull. Now, Krull is not one of the better sci-fi/fantasy films of the 1980s, even with a cast including Freddie Jones, Liam Neeson, and Robbie Coltrane, and a sweeping score by James Horner. The plot is too rushed and little time is left to develop the villains and the two leads. While Lysette Anthony looks fabulous as Princess Lyssa in her gowns and amazingly 80s hair, the studio executives decided to dub her voice over and made an English teenager sound like a middle-aged American woman on her fourth cocktail and taking a break from playing the slots in Reno with her third pack of Camels.
To its credit, Krull is so over the top in its absurdity that it never bores the audience and it remains a fun film. On that Christmas, watching Krull for the first time since our childhood, my brother and I were enthralled by Bernard Bresslaw’s performance as Rell the Cyclops. Strangely enough, a cyclops of all things holds the movie together and we grew far more emotionally invested in Rell than any of the other characters. We joked about the film and started quoting it repeatedly. To this day, my brother and I do not shake hands. We simply grab each other’s arms and, in unison, bellow, “Each to his fate!” to one another like they do in the movie. Watching Krull on Christmas became an odd holiday tradition since—for reasons only known to cable TV executives—the movie was shown on Christmas for a few years thereafter.
Of course Krull has nothing to do with Christmas, but the same can be said of most holiday specials and programming. Still, Krull—a movie featuring a cyclops, armies that take over the universe with polearms, bandits who are actually good-hearted, and a blind seer—captures all of the strangeness of many of the shows that are supposed to get us ready for the holidays.
Even mundane holiday programming can turn weird. Many years ago, my younger brother and I watched a special featuring pianist Giovanni Marradi, whose last name vanished when he is on the stage. The show opened with a surprisingly thin Santa Claus standing in front of a blue screen on which stock images of snow-covered mountains, wintry forests, and sleds full of people were shown.
Things only got worse when Santa opened his mouth. “Hey kids,” Santa muttered, clearly exasperated by talking with his fake beard on. “You know what Santa wants for Christmas? A Giovanni video!”
Santa faded out and was replaced by Giovanni at the piano with his flowing hair and a somewhat cruel smile. While Giovanni—by now, my brother and I were calling him “the poor man’s Yanni”—started offering pleasant if somewhat forgettable takes on Christmas standards, my eyes were drawn to the walls of the room he was playing in. Apparently Giovanni needed to contemplate medieval warfare to get in the Christmas spirit. Along the walls were an impressive array of weapons ranging from swords and axes to maces and flails (my teachers told me playing “Dungeons and Dragons” would never help me in life, but it certainly prepared me to identify the strange objects on Giovanni’s wall!). Giovanni did not explain the arsenal or offer us any hints of why he was playing in an armory. It’s jarring to hear “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night” while staring at halberds and spiked maces.
After each performance, Santa would reappear in front of the awful stock images. While Giovanni played his music, Santa was apparently hanging out with Princess Lyssa at that place in Reno, bumming a few Camels off her while keeping Jack Daniels company. As the show went on, Santa showed signs of being outright apathetic. “Hey kids, wasn’t that great?” he mumbled. “Let’s show another Giovanni video.” Viewers were taken back to the front lines of the Lombard-Byzantine conflicts in Italy, back in the eleventh century, as Giovanni played Christmas songs in front of weapons that could have been used in that war.
Santa would occasionally shake off his apathy and get hostile with the audience. “Hey kids, wasn’t that great?” he repeated, still muttering into his fake beard. “I know a lot of you want toys for Christmas, but do you know what you should want? A Giovanni video! Let’s see another one!” And it was back to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” being played in the armory.
While utterly baffling, the Giovanni special is, sadly, par for the course. Considering how many Christmas specials there are, it’s amazing how few of them actually capture the spirit of Christmas and simply descend into weirdness.
Take the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials which were a childhood staple for many Gen Xers including, alas, this one. Sure, there are some classics from Rankin/Bass such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. In recent years, The Year without a Santa Claus has grown in popularity, thanks in large part to the Heat Miser. While he certainly has a catchy song, the Heat Miser personifies how strange Christmas specials can get. Living in a volcano and controlling hot weather across the globe, the Heat Miser has little to do with Christmas despite trying to blast one of Santa’s reindeer and two of his elves out of the sky. Ah, the spirit of Christmas!
The Heat Miser, no pun intended, is just the tip of the iceberg. Rankin/Bass also made The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. Real catchy title there, Rankin/Bass. Early in this special, an orphaned shepherd boy is struck by lightning and blinded. In case viewers aren’t aware of what happened, a nun looking out the window watched this and offered color commentary to this horrible incident. Just to be sure viewers understand what happened, the awful moment is replayed again as we are treated to seeing a little boy get hit by lightning one more time.
Even the Rankin/Bass team seemed to lose sight of Christmas. Jack Frost has far more to do with Groundhog Day, of all things, than Christmas. Unfortunately, Bill Murray doesn’t even appear, though Buddy Hackett does. While Santa makes a cameo in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, so do a militaristic clock (yes, you read that right), a Benjamin Franklin imitator called “Sev” who leads the isle of 1776, Frank Gorshin hamming it up as a knight, and Red Skelton as Father Time. By the time Rankin/Bass decided to make a special that stretched more than an hour and a half in 1979, they had almost totally lost sight of Christmas as we few, we unhappy few, who have suffered through Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July can attest.
At least Rankin/Bass went on with a bang. The last Rankin/Bass special was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, based on the book by L. Frank Baum, and we’re not in Kansas anymore or the North Pole, for that matter. Originally shown in 1985, there are simply not enough words in the English language to explain this utterly bizarre special which defies millennia of human storytelling. The show begins with the introductions of a series of various immortals who process towards a meeting while a chorus bellows lyrics out of a Wagnerian epic. Of course, these lyrics have nothing to do with Christmas so, naturally, they open up a special on the holiday. The full song is included below. If you decide to sing along, be sure you’re accompanied by a full crew of a Viking longship, since that’s apparently what the song needs.
Ora e sempre
Today and Forever
For ages and ages to come
‘Till the last trumpet sounds
Born in our present state
Never were babies we
Live where no mortal has lived
With a nobility
Yet none humanity
We have no children or kin
Ora e sempre
Today and Forever
For ages and ages to come
To the first cracking of Doom!
As the chorus continues to thunder about “the last trumpet” and “the first cracking of Doom,” the likes of the Commander of the Wind Demons; her Majesty, the Queen of the Water Spirits; the Lord of the Sleep Fays; the Master of the Sound Imps; the Grand Duke of the Light Elves and his daughters the Princesses Flash and Twilight; the Protector of the Knooks; and the King of the Ryls all march out with proper introductions and fanfare. Each of these characters is lovingly introduced and brought out on stage. Despite this, none of them have any importance in this story whatsoever. In fact, most of them do nothing the rest of the special besides listen to a fellow immortal droning on about Santa Claus. Even as the creators of the show decide to unload Chekov’s gun by sidelining all of these immortals, the Great Ak, the master woodsman of the world, declares that they must decide whether Santa Claus should live or die!
The Great Ak proceeds to offer the council of silent immortals–one of whom later pulls out what appears to be a light saber for no apparent reason during a heated moment—a biography of Santa Claus featuring his green-haired stepmother, a lioness, orphans singing about how they want toy cats with yellow green eyes, the laughing valley of Ho Ha Ho, and the Awgwas, an evil army of goblins. Naturally enough, the Awgwas steal all the toys that Claus—not Santa yet—makes for children. This leads the Great Ak to be diplomatic with the Awgwas in a scene that descends into conversations about the law and sovereignty in this fantastic setting. Very few children enjoyed the heavy emphasis on politics in the Star Wars prequels. I imagine even fewer of them enjoyed King Awgwa lecturing the Great Ak on the limits of his powers.
Viewers can be pardoned if they are reminded of the federal government’s relations with Native Americans in the 19th century as they watch The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. For much of the show, the Great Ak stresses the needs for peace and the folly of war. However when King Awgwa engages him in the give and take of diplomacy, the Great Ak gets so enraged that he instantly declares war and marches off to grab an axe which would have looked nice hanging up on Giovanni’s wall. Great Ak and his followers promptly slaughter the Awgwas and an array of allied monsters in a strange battle. Following the massacre of the Awgwas, the Great Ak boasts to Claus that all of their foes “have perished.” As viewers wonder what any of this has to do with Christmas, the immortals decide to make Santa Claus an immortal, but he can only give toys to children once a year, apparently to commemorate the Awgwas genocide.
My brother and I stumbled across this special many years ago when the Family Channel—which turned into the Fox Family Channel, then ABC Family, and now FreeForm—started the insane and inane “25 Days of Christmas.” Originally this block of holiday programming actually showed Christmas specials before wildly veering off to run awful made-for-television films and the various Batman and Harry Potter movies which, of course, have little to do with Christmas (well, outside of Batman Returns). These days, the “25 Days of Christmas” is getting back to its roots, though they are going overboard in showing the Toy Story films this year.
Of course, there are plenty of good Christmas specials which are rightfully considered classics, including the best of the Rankin/Bass shows. A Charlie Brown Christmas holds up well after five decades and is one of the few times the Gospel actually makes it on network television, though the less said about It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales, and I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown, the better.
These days, the network executives simply throw up their hands to show A Christmas Story or even Jingle All the Way for 24 hours straight. While that might be a safe bet, it’s also pretty boring. I think I would rather spend 24 hours watching a cyclops playing piano in a room full of weapons and grimly reminding us about the gruesome fate of the Awgwas.