Howdy Doody’s Christmas

TitleDebuted in 1951

8 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody and Clarabell the Clown are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. When Santa doesn’t show up at midnight, they take a rocket to the North Pole and discover that Ugly Sam has captured Santa, believing him to be a bandit. While Bob and Clarabell struggle with Sam, Howdy frees Santa so he can make his Christmas ride.

Fun Fact: Clarabell the Clown is played here by Bob Keeshan, who later went on to star in his own show as Captain Kangaroo.

My thoughts: The Howdy Doody Show ran from 1947 to 1960 and set a format for children’s programming that many future shows emulated. Buffalo Bob Smith originated the character of Howdy Doody on radio and there are several fascinating stories around the creation and evolution of his puppet incarnation. My favorite involves the puppet’s creator angrily stealing it from the show, forcing them to fabricate a story that Howdy Doody was helping the presidential candidates on the campaign trail. This Christmas episode hasn’t aged well, so it all comes across as feeling very amateurish, a little like a show being put on in someone’s backyard. Dayton Allen, as Ugly Sam, particularly hams up his performance and seems to have one eye on the camera most of the time. Allen went on to do a lot of voice work, providing the voices for Deputy Dawg and Lancelot Link (Secret Chimp), which were favorites of mine when I was a kid. There’s really not much to this one, but it’s cool to watch from a historical point of view, though, since it really did have a profound influence on the future of television.

Clarabell

Clarabell knows your darkest secrets.

Bob and howdy

Howdy Doody is blissfully ignorant.

Dogpile on Sam

I don’t think I want to know…

Gagged Santa

Dang, Santa! Cookies and milk aren’t enough and now you’re eating your own hat?

Individual Superlative: Genre Overload – The show has a Western theme, a circus theme, a science fiction theme and a Christmas theme. Maybe Howdy Doody needed to slow his roll a little.

Want to Watch it? Howdy Doody’s Christmas is available on YouTube

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

titleDebuted in 1974

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon is teased by her friends for still believing in Santa Claus and she writes a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, asking if Santa is real. Her parents and friends share their thoughts on the situation and she worries that the editor will not answer her. The editor is unsure how to respond but after sharing a nice dinner with the family of a local paperboy, he writes a heartfelt letter affirming Santa’s existence.

Fun Fact: The voice of Virginia O’Hanlon was provided by Courtney Lemmon, daughter of classic film star Jack Lemmon.

My thoughts: This special got its start after the real Virginia O’Hanlon passed away in 1971 and some of her friends got together to write the story of her famous letter. The story was optioned for this special and was so well received at the time that it won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special. The animation was done by Bill Melendez, who also did the animation for the Peanuts specials. This is pretty obvious, though, seeing that the specials are very similar in style. What stands out about this one, though, are the ethnic stereotypes that abound, from the exaggeratedly oversized lips on the African American girl to the ‘faith and begorrah’ Irish cop to the Chinese boy whose ‘most honorable father’ runs a Chinese restaurant. And then there’s Pee Wee, who has a bizarre voice and only says, “me too.” And the freakishly proportioned bodies of the show’s women, who sport measurements that probably run around 48-12-48. Many moments of character animation take them out of their scene and show them against a marbled background, which is weird. The sentiment of this special is touching, as is the true story that it’s based on. But the warmth is wrapped up in a peculiar package that only could have come out in the early 70’s.

mr-church

Mr. Church is mighty suspicious of young Tommy.

ohanlons

One of many bizarre moments when characters laugh at something that’s not really funny. Here, Mother has just called them in to dinner. Hilarious.

teacher

Oh, those proportions!!  And why are their necks so LONG?

young-grasshopper

Most Honorable Father appears to have some junk in the trunk.

Individual Superlative: Most Cutthroat Joke – Absolutely the most ‘what just happened?’ moment in this special is when Mr. Church asks his secretary for a razor and she makes a slashing motion across her throat and says, “Oh, Mr. Church, you’re not going to…” before he interrupts her to assure her he just needs a shave. I just can’t wrap my contemporary mind around anyone thinking this was ever a funny joke that was okay for a children’s special.

Want to Watch it? Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus is available on YouTube.

Mr. Krueger’s Christmas

title

Debuted in 1980

25 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Willy Krueger is an apartment building custodian who lives with his cat in the building’s basement and on Christmas Eve, he fantasizes about being a well-respected gentleman in a fine house, helping to decorate the giant Christmas tree in Temple Square and conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A group of carolers visits him and he invites them to stay, but they only sing one song. He envisions himself in Bethlehem and kneels to talk to Jesus, thanking him for being his constant and best friend, and then two of the carolers return and ask him to join them.

Fun Fact: James Stewart said that conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was a lifelong dream of his that he finally got to live out in this film.

My thoughts: This special was produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and features classic movie legend James Stewart as Mr. Krueger in one of the last roles of his fifty year career. (He only did two things after this and one of them was voice work on An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.) I’m a huge fan of his and think his performance here is really wonderful. The director has said that Mr. Stewart felt very strongly about the film, worried about the over-commercialization of Christmas and fearing that the real meaning of the holiday was getting lost in the shuffle. When he is imagining himself conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, there’s a moment at the end of the song when the choir applauds him and that was apparently spontaneous and unscripted. The ending is a little over-saccharine, with the little girl caroler telling him she loves him (even though they literally just met) as they are heading off to join the carolers and there’s a voiceover (from WKRP’s Gordon Jump) reminding us that Jesus loves us, too. But you have to expect that in a special like this and it’s worth watching if you’re a Jimmy Stewart fan.

snow-haze

In this (very blurred) vision, he is sleigh-riding while the choir is all around him singing Sleigh Ride.

dancing

What would a Christmas tree lighting be without dancers wearing HUGE skirts?

clarissa

Is Clarissa about to smile sweetly at Mr. Krueger or fire demonic bolts from her eyes?

mittens-on-the-tree

Somebody else’s forgotten mittens are the saddest tree decorations ever.

Individual Superlative: That Voice, Though – I grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV and hearing Jimmy Stewart say ‘Merry Christmas’ is like an injection of nostalgic Christmas warmth. He says it a lot here.

Want to Watch it? Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is available on DVD and YouTube.

A Garfield Christmas Special

titleDebuted in 1987

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Jon goes to the farm to spend Christmas with his family and indulge in all their holiday traditions. Garfield watches it all unfold with his customary sarcasm. But when Grandma confides in him that she misses her late husband, he summons up some Christmas spirit and brightens her holiday with the gift of Grandpa’s lost letters to her.

Fun Fact: Julie Payne, who provides the voice of Jon’s mother in this special went on to voice Liz, who was Jon’s girlfriend in the Garfield and Friends series.

My thoughts: I absolutely love this special and it was a must-watch every year when our kids were little. Although it’s mostly a comedy, what it really celebrates is family and all the little inside jokes and silly traditions that make being together so wonderful. Yeah, that sounds cheesy, but most families that I know have at least one or two really ridiculous holiday customs that are as sacred to them as Christmas bacon is in our house. (Mmmm…Christmas bacon.)  Jon and Doc Boy behave like little boys here, asking for a bedtime story (Binky, the Clown Who Saved Christmas) and waking up way too early to open presents. Garfield creator Jim Davis based this special and these characters on his actual family in Indiana and it really strikes a chord with those of us adults who still welcome the holiday every year with childish enthusiasm. Lou Rawls performs a few of the special’s songs and they are just awesome. Several scenes were cut (and one new scene was added) when the show was re-aired and the new version is the one in general release. Watching this brings back memories of Christmas with our kids, but also takes me back to Christmas when I was a little girl.

dream

This costume indicates a top level commitment to the holiday.

grandma-laughing

Everything you need to know about Grandma’s laugh is written on Garfield’s face.

oooooooh

Christmas tree lights produce the same reaction as fireworks.

story-time

I feel like this when I read books to my grown-up kids.

Individual Superlative: Most Memorably Named Brother – Jon’s brother’s official name is David Doc Arbuckle, but everyone calls him Doc Boy, much to his dismay. I may forget everything I was ever taught in school, but when I’m 90, I will probably still remember that Jon’s brother is named Doc Boy.

Want to Watch it? Garfield: A Garfield Christmas is available on VHS, DVD, iTunes, Amazon and YouTube.

Snow Foolin’

TitleDebuted in 1949

6 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: It’s the first day of winter and a mountain of snow falls in the forest. The animals respond by putting on their fur coats, engaging in winter sports and having a snowball fight. A mother hen encourages a sing-along of Jingle Bells and the lyrics appear onscreen for everyone to join in.

Fun Fact: The smoking penguin that goes ice skating by is a caricature of Willie the Penguin, who was the mascot for Kool cigarettes at the time.

My thoughts: The Screen Songs shorts got their start in 1929 and were produced by Fleischer Studios and then by Famous Studios through 1951. I’m not old enough to remember when these played in theaters, but I remember seeing them on TV during the various hours of cartoon programming when I was a kid and I was always in awe of the idea of a whole theater full of people singing along with a bouncing ball. This seems to be the only Christmas themed sing-along short (yes, I realize the song is not really about Christmas, but it’s part of the holiday canon so it counts), which is surprising, as Christmas carols would seem like a natural choice for something like this. There are a couple of chuckles in the animated montage that precedes the song, but it’s mostly just a lot of filler. My favorite thing in the montage was during the scenes of animals skating on the frozen pond, when they showed that fish were skating upside down on the bottom side of the ice.

Coffee Turtle

This turtle brought to you by Keurig.

8 the hard way

When you’re not good enough to do a figure eight.

Snowball cannon

Many a snowball war was won or lost on the strength of an elephant cannon.

One horse open sleigh

Sing along, kids!  Just follow the bouncing snowball!

Individual Superlative: Bring This Back! – Considering the success they have had recently with sing-along features in the theater, I think they should resurrect the Screen Songs series. Anyone with me? No? Just me? Okay.

Want to Watch it? Snow Foolin’ is available on YouTube.

Beetle Bailey: A Christmas Tale

Title

Debuted in 1963

6 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: After the Camp Swampy Christmas party, Sergeant Snorkle thinks he’ll be spending the holiday alone with his dog, Otto. General Halftrack shows up to invite him to spend Christmas at his house. After dinner, Sergeant Snorkle reads ‘The Night Before Christmas’ before he falls asleep, causing him to dream about Santa and an elf, portrayed in the dream by the General and Beetle Bailey.

Fun Fact: The Beetle Bailey comic strip has been running continuously for 65 years, making it one of the oldest comics still being produced.

My thoughts: When the Beetle Bailey comic strip started, Beetle was a college student. In 1951, he enrolled in the Army and the story became centered around his activities at Camp Swampy (based on cartoonist Mort Walker’s experiences at boot camp). This Christmas episode is one of only 50 animated shorts produced about these characters and it’s pretty run-of-the-mill. Beetle is portrayed (as usual) as bumbling and clumsy and Sergeant Snorkle is a little meat-headed. There’s a moment when General Halftrack shows Snorkle the gold whistle he received during his former days as a soldier in the battle of San Juan Hill. When they wake up on Christmas morning, he gives Snorkel the whistle as a gift. Then the short ends with a march into the kitchen for breakfast (led by Ms. Halftrack) where they all give a literal shout out for Christmas.

Snaggletooth

Sgt. Snorkle seems a little gooey-eyed here. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Midair salute

Wait, Army dogs can hover in midair?

Tangled in lights

Oh, Beetle, you bumbling nincompoop.  Leave the lights for someone competent.

Bugler

Mrs. Halftrack is not afraid to cut you if you don’t come to dinner on time.

Individual Superlative: Most Intimidating Military Wife – General Halftrack’s wife could beat the crap out of pretty much anyone on the military base. I have to think she was the Army’s secret weapon.

Want to Watch it? A Christmas Tale is available on DVD and YouTube.

Christmas Comes But Once a Year

Title

Debuted in 1936

8 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: The children in the orphanage are excited to play with their new toys on Christmas morning, but most of the toys are secondhand or poor quality and they all break. The kids go back to bed in tears and Grampy (the inventor) hears them crying as his sled is passing the orphanage. He sneaks in through the window and uses all the things he finds in the kitchen to build new toys, resulting in a merry Christmas for all the children.

Fun Fact: This short features the only appearance of Grampy outside of the Betty Boop cartoon series.

My thoughts: I saw this cartoon before ever seeing any of the Betty Boop cartoon shorts, so this is where I saw Professor Grampy for the first time. His trademarks are his cheerfulness and his ability to create inventions in a Rube Goldberg style from ordinary items (although you kind of wonder how they are going to ever cook in that kitchen again after he repurposes all the kitchen tools for toys). It makes him a pretty likeable character, especially here, when we get to see him save the day for all these poor orphans. One noteworthy feature of this short appears in both its opening and closing, when the image becomes 3D and appears to move. This is done through the use of a stereoptical camera, which featured three dimensional sets that could be rotated past the horizontal camera. The end result is pretty impressive, especially for 1936. (An abbreviated version of this short appears in Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas.)  I really like this one a lot and am a particular fan of its theme song, which is fun and really catchy.

Happy kids

Is this an orphanage or a kewpie doll factory?

Grampy thinking

Don’t feel bad, Grampy.  My light bulb rarely comes on either.

Snow machine

His snow making machine involves soap, a cheese grater and a fan. I may try this.

3D tree

It’s a 3-D Tree!

Individual Superlative: Orphan Clones – All the orphans (except for the youngest baby) look exactly alike, with differences only in hair & pajama color. All these kids have the same baby daddy! Someone call Maury!

Want to Watch it? Christmas Comes But Once a Year is available on YouTube.