Tag Archives: Christmas

NUTCRACKER FANTASY (1979)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky despised his own “Nutcracker Fantasy.” Forced into being a populist composer when careers in music were extremely rare in Russia, Tchaikovsky hated much of his own music, which masked a much darker personality: a self-loathing gay (it’s likely that he committed suicide) and a manic depressive. Yet behind that veneer of populism is an unorthodoxy. Leonard Bernstein found a soulmate in Tchaikovsky, conducting his music as if it was Mahler. When conductor Thomas Beecham arrived for orchestra rehearsal, he asked what was on the schedule. When someone answered “Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique,” Beecham quipped, “Let’s do what we can to cheer it up.”

When it comes to films with a Tchaikovskian theme, two come to mind in unmasking the dark-hued musician that classical fundamentalists prefer whited out. One is the infamous Black Swan (2010). The other is 1979’s criminally forgotten Japanese animated Nutcracker Fantasy (directed by Takeo Nakamura), which bypasses sugar plum fairies in favor of something spawned from a combination of , , and L. Frank Baum, along with slivers of Tchaikovsky and E.T.A. Hoffmann.  The result is authentic bizarreness amplified by considerable beauty (and vice versa).

Young Clara (Melissa Gilbert) is visiting her Aunt Gerda (Lurene Tuuttle) and Uncle Drosselmeyer (), a clock maker and doll maker. Clara falls in love with uncle’s Nutcracker doll and requests it as a gift. Reluctantly, with his wife’s prompting, Drosselmeyer gives Clara the doll. We soon discover the reason for his reticence.

Still from Nutcracker Fantasy (1979)An army of rats prize the doll and steal it from Clara. Chasing the thieving rodents, Clara comes to blows with two-headed rat queen Morphia (Jo Anne Worley). Although the nutcracker comes to life to protect Clara, she still loses the battle and wakes up with a fever. She dreams again, entering the kingdom of the dolls by passing through Drosselmeyer’s grandfather clock; it is hardly a peasant trip, as the dolls are at war with Morphia.

The nutcracker is now Franz (), the captain of the guard, and he’s trying to restore the princess (who looks like Clara) back to her old self. The King’s wise men try to break Morphia’s curse, but they suck. So, Clara tracks down the Queen of Time (Eva Gabor) for assistance in breaking the evil spell.  No problem, just destroy the “nut of darkness,” AKA Morphia’s heart. How the hell do you destroy a nut of darkness? With a pearl sword, of course, which Queenie happens to have handy.

A war breaks out, the enemy mice are slaughtered and, it turns out, they were children kidnapped by the creepy Ragman. A tad angry, the captain kills Morphia, but she curses him before croaking, turning him back into a nutcracker. Morphia’s rat son sets out for revenge, but Clara sacrifices herself, saving her nutcracker and thus breaking the evil spell.

That is as good as a synopsis as I can give, because if it sounds like a hodgepodge, it absolutely is. Characters like the Ragman are built up and dropped, and there are loopholes and inconsistencies aplenty. But who the hell watches something like this for coherency anyway? Yes, there are dull stretches, but you will not give hoot or a holler one, because the three-dimensional characterization of Clara, animation, music (which bizarrely includes animated ballerinas morphing into live action ballerinas and then disappearing), and superb voice acting across the board are dazzlingly impressive. Gilbert, Worley, and Gabor give what may be their most impressive performances, and Christopher Lee gets to sing (he actually voices several characters), sounding damned fine.

By, the way, I suppose I should add that it’s weird as hell, and far preferable to all the saccharine Nutcracker productions we’ve all been sadistically subjected to. Why would anyone ever want to watch another Nutcracker in the place of this one? I’d like to think Pyotr finally had his revenge.

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (1966) AND A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965)

Chuck Jones’ 1966 adaptation of ‘ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a rarity: a film that both surpasses the source material and is itself flawless—which is why the 2000 live-action remake was a pre-certified disaster.

Chuck Jones made his name with “Looney Tunes” and although he had a lot of competition (Tex Avery foremost), Jones, with his modernist sensibilities, was the best of the lot. Wisely, Jones filters Dr. Seuss’ seditious surrealism through his own pop aesthetics, bringing to the tale superior narrative pacing (it moves like quicksilver), wry wit, expertly judged tension, a gift for expressiveness, and the narration of , voice acting of June Foray, and raspy singing of Thurl Ravenscroft.

The story is a variation of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” but  that’s just a springboard for Seuss, Jones, and company.  With his melodious British lisp and résumé in Gothic fairy tales, Karloff is a masterful storyteller, perhaps the best in animation since Bing Crosby narrated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1949). Voicing the Grinch, Karloff snarls delightfully, and as the narrator he is an impeccable bedtime story host. Balancing those two makes for his last great role, one that ranks with the Monster, ImhotepHjalmar Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.

Still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)Casting Karloff was an intuitive coup. Jones, like and , was astutely aware of the connection between Christmas and Halloween. Both come from the Church; one uses the “seen” symbolism of horror as a counter to “unseen” divinity of the second. And of course, both involve children. June Foray is a delight in her small role as Cindy Lou, who could be no more than two. Her sense of wonder is authentic—never saccharine—staring right through the Grinch’s nastiness with big anime eyes (that predate anime). She actually has us rooting for her, as opposed to child stars who we might have been tempted to wish death on (e.g., the tyke in Son of Frankenstein). Ravenscroft makes an art out of insulting the title character in song—which must have been a first—and his work steered the short into a rightly deserved Grammy win for best soundtrack.

Although secular, its anti-consumerism message is as subtle as the Grinch himself—and is still needed today, before we have yet another Black Friday trampling death at Walmart.

Charles Schulz fully embraces the religious tradition in tackling the same anti-consumerism message in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the preceding year. There’s little doubt that Schulz’ “Peanuts” series eventually became tiresome and repetitive (remember, “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown”?) but, with the perfection of this and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” perhaps the great comic strip artist deserved to be allowed to coast. Again, it’s no surprise that these parallel holidays brought out the best in Schulz. The bald-headed, existential Charlie Brown waxes angstfully over the hypocrisy of false Christmas Capitalism, until blanket-toting Linus takes on the role of a Lukian sage to set Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder, and Snoopy right. Curiously, Linus later mixes up that “unseen” of Christmas with the “seen” of Halloween by waiting for a Great Pumpkin that never arrives, but that’s part of the the sublime, idiosyncratic beauty of Schulz’ best characterizations. The Peanuts gang are children, yes, but they have adult-like complexities and inconstancies, too.

Still from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)Smartly, director Bill Melendez chose actual children to voice the Peanuts gang and deliver that Gospel of Luke message. What  could have been rendered agonizingly pretentious or overbearing proselytization is instead filled-to-the-brim with simplistic, joyous charm. There’s nothing at all contrived or bullying about the message which seeks (it doesn’t demand) a Christmas that isn’t shorn of a Christ child.

The musical ribbon that ties it all together is supplied by that tragically short-lived jazz miniaturist Vince Guaraldi who, like Haydn before him, finds a wealth of exhilarating fun in sanctity.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

This fifty-four year old made-for-television holiday film has recently generated controversy on Twitter, proving that self-professed liberals can be just as obtuse as conservatives. The controversy was over the “bullying” in the Arthur Rankin/Jules Bass stop-animation. Its message is blatantly anti-bullying. Yes, Santa is a jerk at first and guilty of being bigoted and short-sighted, but hey, the narrator clearly states “Even Santa realized he was wrong,” and he makes amends. Gee, I thought the gospels and Charles Dickens all rather made the point that Christmas was also about admitting mistakes, learning from them, forgiveness, etc. However, happy-happy, joy-joy pseudo New-Agers seem to prefer everything whitewashed. Forget those dullards and the inherent silliness of Twitter users because this is possibly, along with Batman Returnsthe most delightfully weird holiday film of all time; and given that it’s from Rankin and Bass, that’s saying a bit. It’s doubtful that Rankin and Bass truly grasped their own weirdness, which makes it all the better.

None other than “Big Daddy” (of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Burl Ives, is our gospel narrating (pre-“Frosty”) snowman. He lets us know there’s a castle on the left here in the North Pole. Santa’s kind of like King Herod; a bit bitchy,worrying himself skinny about something, but even he’s not sure what.

Meanwhile, Rudolph is born in a cave, kind of like a reindeer Jesus, and there’s Mary and Joseph in the guise of Mr. and Mrs. Donner (I guess she doesn’t get a name). Rudolph is so smart he begins talking right after his birth, but he’s also “gifted” in having a shiny red nose, which agitates Donner to no end. How could he have fathered a misfit? Santa pays a visit to the new family and, upon seeing that blinking beak, lectures the newborn Rudolph about fitting in. 

Back at the castle, Hermey1 is an elf who hates making toys and singing. But that’s what elves are supposed to do. Not Hermey; he wants to be a dentist. He’ll never fit in. “Why I am such a misfit?” is the the anthem of both Rudolph and Hermey.

At the reindeer training, the yearlings, including Rudolph, his new friend Fireball, and potential GF Clarice are all introduced to jerk redneck reindeer in a baseball cap, Comet. Naturally, things screw up when Rudolph’s shiny noise is discovered. No more reindeer games for him.

Like a savior cast out, Rudolph goes it alone… until he bumps into runaway Herbie. Cue song change from “Why am I such a misfit?” to “We’re a couple of misfits.” Together, they go out into the wilderness with the threat of Satan (in the guise of a bumble abominable) not far behind.

TStill from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1964)hings get wackier still when our heroes meet prospector Yukon Cornelius. His anthem is “even among misfits, I’m a misfit.” He’s a boisterous mess, unable to decide between silver or gold, pea soup or peanut butter, and his presence makes no sense, rendering him the coolest character in the whole film. Yukon is perfectly voiced by familiar character actor Larry D. Mann, who was part of the Canadian Air Force team that liberated the holocaust death camps (his testimony is on YouTube).

With the predator Bumble closing in, our trio of misfits make a pit stop at the island of misfit toys, lorded over by a flying lion (!) named King Moonracer. A Charlie in the Box, a train with square wheels, a spotted elephant, a water gun that squirts jelly, an ostrich-riding cowboy, a boat that can’t stay afloat, and a doll named Sue, whose deformity is a tad ambiguous, are among the inhabitants. 

Herbie gives the Bumble a root canal, Yukon  sort of dies and resurrects, Santa gets fat again, Rudolph is the savior he was born to be, everyone learns the lesson of bullying, and the misfit toys get rescued. The end. 

This is a long way from the simplistic song made popular by singing cowpoke Gene Autry, and one would be tempted to ask WTF were Rankin and Bass thinking if it weren’t such a hoot. If we included made for TV Christmas movies here, I’d have likely obsessively pushed for its inclusion on The List. Rudolph was an enormous success. Unlike twitterers, 1964 audiences didn’t give a hoot or a holler about its weirdness, taking it all in stride, and the path was paved for many more Rankin and Bass oddities/blessings to come. At least one of those will be covered this month, but next week: a
Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff combo. 

STOCKING COAL: THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978)

With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by ), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector of movie goers in 2017, except for the formula-craving fanatics who were preferring something akin to the pedestrian Rogue One. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in declining to subscribe to expectations of franchise assembly line lovers, has refreshingly provoked butthurt nostalgists, and revealed what a lot of people already knew: the wrongheadedness of fandom, seen at its silliest and most cult-like in petitions to remove the film from “the canon” and Twitter threats cast at the director.

Still from the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)Of course, the jolly old elf has delivered us a few genuine clunkers over the last seventeen hundred years, among the most notorious being the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” (directed by Steve Binder, best known for the 1968 ‘Elvis Comeback Special”). It’s a made-for-television abomination that George Lucas and company have desperately tried to keep buried, but like bed bugs at night—the damn thing just wouldn’t go away. It’s a good thing too; ’tis the perfect present for infantile palettes. Since its release, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” keeps cropping up in bootleg copies. The late even attempted to deny its existence and dismissed it as an urban legend, which only fanned the flames of demand. Despite her protestations, there she is, along with many of the original cast.

Not even the endurance tests of The Ewok AdventureHoward the Duck, Willow (1988), or The Phantom Menace (1999) can prepare one for the cringe-inducing ineptitude of the “Holiday Special.” After the 1977 film took the world by surprise, Lucas, knowing that the Empire wouldn’t be striking back for another two years and fearful that audiences had short term memories, unwisely agreed to CBS’ request for a holiday variety show, utilizing original cast members and footage spliced in from A New Hope (although it wasn’t called that at the time). As hard as it may be for some to fathom, this is Star Wars on the level of the most unwatchable Z-movie productions. Wretched in unparalleled proportions, its too embarrassing to be worthy of a genuine laugh.

Fleeing an imperial starship, Han Solo and Chewbacca jump into hyperspace so they can arrive in time for a Wookie holiday called “Life Day,” because Malla (Mrs. Chewie) is pining for her hubby back on the home planet (represented by a shitty drawing of a house straight out of “Swiss Family Robinson” meets “The Jetsons”). Being a stay-at-home mom, Malla wears an apron as she watches a TV program with Harvey Korman in drag as a kind of intergalactic Julia Childs octopus teaching us how to cook a cake: “Beat, stir, whip, beat, stir, whip.” It might have been amusing at a quarter of its length.

What is “Life Day?” Although the entire special is about this Wookie holiday, who the hell knows what it’s about? Apparently, it’s close enough to Christmas and/or Thanksgiving to warrant this special. Malla, anxious for Chewie to get his ass home for the holidays, calls a Luke Skywalker adorned in eyeliner. Of course, Malla just oinks. Fortunately, Luke speaks oink and assures her that her Wookie man meat will be home soon.

Han, Luke, and Leia are minor characters, with the special focused on Chewbacca’s family. Itchy (Chewie’s dad) is an argument for euthanasia. Lumpy, the Wookie rugrat, watches circus holograms while stoned out of his gourd on opium, then runs around the hut playing with a toy storm trooper spaceship. Itchy plays with it too. Gramps doesn’t seem to like Lumpy; but Luke never shows up to translate, so it’s anybody’s guess.

Art Carney stops by as Trader Saundan. He comes from Planet C. We can only assume there’s a planet A & B. Art brings presents; so, perhaps he’s a bit like Santa. He gives Malla a hologram of Jefferson Starship (this is in-between the band’s cool Jefferson Airplane phase and their fingernails-down-a-chalkboard Starship phase, although the band is already devolving here). Itchy receives a hologram sex doll of Diahann Carroll as the  Swan Woman (she has a silver thingamajig on her head, but at least she sings better than Starship). Disconcertingly, with one had on his crutch and the other on a remote control, Itchy clearly gets aroused (he oinks a lot). With all the maudlin “Leave it to Beaver”-style Wookie mugging, it’s an uncomfortable mix.

Bea Arthur, as Ackema, the bitchy cantina owner, is essentially a dancing Maude in space. The rest is a mix of cheap animation (which marks the first appearance of Boba Fett), a couple of storm troopers, some footage of Darth Vader, and a WTF finale of red robed Wookies in the sky, as Fisher sings execrable lyrics to John Williams’ Star Wars theme while Han coos over her. This is easily the weirdest entry from the Star Wars universe, but this is a case of weird being something best avoided. Think of it as Star Wars doused in sentimental maple syrup mixed with buttermilk. Lucas’ name is nowhere to be found in the credits, and he has consistently maintained that he had nothing to do with the special. He doth protest too much, methinks.

311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

AKA Santa Claus vs. the Devil

“Be off, my reindeer, and fly through the heavens as fast as you can go. May my palace of gold and crystal enjoy peace, and Jesus, the Son of God, join us on Earth so that we can all have joy and goodwill.” – Santa Claus

“This is weird theology.” Crow T. Robot,Mystery Science Theater 3000, Episode 521″

DIRECTED BY: René Cardona,  [as Ken Smith]

FEATURING: José Elias Moreno, José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’, Lupita Quezadas

PLOT: From his outpost on a cloud high above the North Pole, Santa Claus attempts to fend off the demon Pitch’s schemes to poison the minds of the world’s children against him. Santa spends Christmas Eve sidestepping Pitch’s attempts to derail his rounds. With the help of the wizard Merlin, a collection of child laborers from around the world, and a team of nightmare-inducing wind-up papier-mâché reindeer, he fights to win back the soul of a poor little girl who badly wants a doll.

Still from Santa Claus (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the 1959 San Francisco International Film Festival.
  • Cardona’s remarkably prolific career (he helmed more than 100 films) ranged from literary adaptations to genre classics such as Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy.
  • Produced in Mexico, the film was purchased by American K. Gordon Murray, the so-called “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” who found financial success re-editing and dubbing foreign children’s films into English and releasing them to an American public starved for something to do with their kids.
  • Murray turned a profit through a careful schedule of limited releases, which artificially manipulated the supply and demand, turning screenings into scarce opportunities. The high density of holiday television broadcasts also added to the film’s coffers.
  • Featured in season 5 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Years later, Rifftrax–featuring Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy from the MST3K installment––took its own shot at the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: So many to choose from (as you will see in a moment), but the vision I find most difficult to shake is Father Christmas monitoring his acolytes on Earth through the phantasmagoria of eavesdropping devices that make up his Magic Observatory, including an ear attached to an oscillating fan, an eye on an accordion tube, and a pair of very disturbing giant lips.

THREE WEIRD THINGS  Parade of child nations; Santa’s lip machine; cackling clockwork caribou

FIVE MORE WEIRD THINGS (to make 8 for Hanukkah): Interpretive dance from Hell; boxed parents; dream doll ballet; Santa’s rearguard assault; the Cocktail of Remembrance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Santa Claus seems the results of a cross-border game of telephone: the basics of Santa’s mythology are all there, but the end product is something wholly different and unusual. The attempt to infuse an essentially commercial construct with deeply held moral codes produces a strange sort of alchemy, generating earnest feelings within a deeply unsettling presentation.


English-language trailer for Santa Claus (1959)

COMMENTS: Look, Santa Claus is weird. The guy, I mean. A preternaturally jolly man with a fortress hidden away in the farthest Continue reading 311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)