Sunday, December 18, 2011

Forgotten Holiday Specials

Christmas is a week away and the networks have been airing their usual holiday chestnuts like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I couldn’t wait for these holiday specials to air on TV because then I knew Christmas really was on the way. I remember lying on the white shag rug in the living room with my younger brother, glued to the huge TV set while Charlie Brown and his friends broke into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to inaugurate the holiday season. Back in the day our TV set was actually a piece of furniture, a massive thing that also had a stereo (we'd play over and over again my Dad’s Christmas album, with its selections of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “A Christmas Song,” by Nat King Cole [is there any other version worth listening to?]). The stereo was in fact in mono, so the sound had a tinny quality to it, but even that tinniness added something unique to the experience. When we turned the volume up real loud, Charlie, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Snoopy and all the others sounded as if they were actually in my living room. With our white aluminum Christmas tree sparkling in the background (hey, it was the ‘70s!), it wasn’t hard to get into the Christmas spirit.

But while these four specials have become the pinnacle of all animated holiday specials, I also remember the less popular, but no less charming cartoons that seem to have fallen by the wayside since and are no longer aired on TV. Now, that might have something to do with changing styles and attitudes. It’s a given that Christmas specials, especially the older ones, have a treacly quality to them that make them out-of-fashion in today’s era of hipster cynicism. Whatever the reason, I miss some of these specials. The only way I can view any of them now is on Youtube, but that isn't quite the same. I’ve listed some of these specials for today's blog. It’s not a Top Ten list, so there is no particular order in their arrangement. They’re just a list of specials I remember (or in some cases even vaguely recall) from my childhood.

Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol

This holiday special originally aired in 1962, which makes it the first animated Christmas special for TV (take that, Charlie Brown!). And with its Broadway pedigree (lyricist and composer Jules Styne and Bob Merrill wrote the music), it boasts some of the most memorable songs. They used to play this on TV as regularly as they used to play It’s A Wonderful Life, back before NBC won exclusive rights to the movie. But unlike Frank Capra’s traditional holiday film, Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol hasn’t aired on TV in decades, which is a shame. While not exactly the most faithful adaptation of Charles Dicken’s classic novella (it actually switches the chronology of The Ghost of Christmases’ Past and Present), it still hits all the right notes. While the animation is passable, the songs and voices are excellent.

Santa and the Three Bears

I vaguely recall watching this when I was a kid. But when I watched this a couple of years back online, parts of it came back to me like a pleasant, but vague memory of childhood's past. A sweet tale about a couple of bear cubs who discover Christmas, Santa and the Three Bears has a charm that is all but missing in most recent holiday specials. The two cubs are as cute as can be and Nana bear is voiced by Jean Vander Pyl, most known for voicing Wilma Flintstone.

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas

The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas is a cute entry from the 1970s with Tom Smothers, Barbara Feldon and Artie Johnson doing voice duties. Ted E. Bear, an employee at a honey factory, had always believed there was such a thing as Christmas. But being a bear and living in Bear Town, he had no way of knowing since he and the other bears hibernate during the winter. Determined to find out if the rumors are true, Ted leaves for the city to find out about Christmas. Based on the children’s book by John Barrett, this animated holiday special is about as rare as the others on this list. I don’t think I’ve seen it aired on TV since the 1970s. There might be a good reason why not. After all, it is a bit dated (lots of references to astrology). However, as I wrote before, it is cute and the ending, when Ted finally finds out about what Christmas is really about, is a heart tugger.

A Christmas Carol

This 1969 special by Richard Williams is one of the few animated short films that attempts to faithfully adapt Dickens’ novella. What makes this special so distinctive is its impressionistic animation. Some of the scenes are gorgeously rendered, bringing to life a Dickensian style that is so suited to the tale. It also captures some of the more darker aspects of the story, such as the frightening visit from Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas future. Alistair Sim voices Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yogi Bear’s First Christmas

Yogi Bear and Boo Boo celebrate Christmas at Jellystone Park with an assortment of friends like Cindy Bear, Snaggletooth, and Huckleberry Hound. Hardly a classic, but this syndicated animated special played a lot on TV when I was young, so it hardly seems like Christmas without it.

Fat Albert’s Christmas Special

The Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was a given in my household. At the time it was the one of a few animated TV shows that featured black characters doing regular things, like learning important life lessons and all that. So when this holiday-themed special aired in 1977, we were all over it. Sure, it has all the cliches: allusions to the birth of Jesus; Scrooge-like figure who needs to learn the meaning of Christmas, etc. Still, like Donnie Hathaway’s perennial classic “This Christmas,” Fat Albert’s Christmas Special was a nice alternative for those of us who wanted a little soul in our Christmas holiday specials.

Yes, Virginia, There is A Santa Claus

There are actually two versions of this classic tale: the original 1970s special and a remake done recently in CGI. I’ve never seen the CGI version and have no interest in doing so. My memories of the original are too strong. It’s not like the animation was great or anything. In fact, it was pretty subpar for 1970s standards (and that’s not really saying much since 1970s TV animation wasn't exactly a stellar period). Still there’s something real and heartfelt about this little special. Based on the real life story of Virginia O’Hanlon, a little girl in New York who wrote to the editor of the New York Sun to ask him if Santa Claus really existed, this special brought to heart the reply that O’Hanlon eventually received, one that has become a classic, true Christmas tale.

The Snow Queen

Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Snow Queen is about two children, Gerta and Kay, who are separated one snowy evening by the evil Snow Queen. After infecting his heart with a sliver of cold, the Snow Queen whisks young Kay on her reindeer-driven sleigh to her castle of ice. Young Gerta travels far and wide and meets a cast of characters to rescue her friend from the evil queen. This classic animated tale is neither holiday-themed nor an American TV production, but was rather produced in the Soviet Union during the 1950s. Every year, the local stations in my area would play an English-dubbed version during the holidays. I became enchanted by this tale, but also with the gorgeous animation. It isn't played on TV anymore, as far I can tell, but it has developed a devoted following among fans who have either seen it on TV years ago or who have watched it since on VHS or DVD.

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