Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Late Great Jeremy Lloyd

Jeremy Lloyd, the actor and writer who created Are You Being Served? and 'Allo Allo with David Croft, died on 22 December 2014 at the age of 84. He was being treated for pneumonia.

Jeremy Lloyd was born on 22 July 1930 in Danbury, Essex. He spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother in Manchester. When he was about 13 years old his father placed him in a home for the elderly. As an adult Mr. Lloyd supported his grandmother through nearly any job he could find. He dug roads. He sold paint. And he worked at the department store Simpsons in Piccadilly. The experience would provide the inspiration for Are You Being Served?.

Eventually Jeremy Lloyd took up writing. His first writing credit was for continuity for an episode of the TV show Six-Five Special in 1958. He also wrote episodes of New Look and Spectacular. In addition to writing Jeremy Lloyd also took up acting. He made his film debut in School for Scoundrels and that same year appeared in Man in the Moon.

The Sixties saw Jeremy Lloyd's writing career take off. He provided the idea for the 1961 Adam Faith film What a Whopper. He was a regular writer on the TV shows The Dickie Henderson Show, Mum's Boys, and Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. He also continued his acting career. He appeared in such films as Seven Keys (1961), Very Important Person (1961), Operation Snatch (1962), Crooks Anonymous (1962), We Joined the Navy (1962), Death Drums Along the River (1962), A Hard Day's Night (1964), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes (1965), Help! (1965), A Study in Terror (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966), The Assassination Bureau (1969), and The Magic Christian (1969). He was a regular performer on the TV show Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. He also appeared on such shows as The Rag Trade, ITV Play of the Week, Callan, and The Avengers.

Upon his return to England Jeremy Lloyd decided to create a situation comedy based on his experiences at the Simpsons department store. He sent the script for the programme's first episode, titled Are You Being Served?, to ITV. It was not long afterwards that he encountered David Croft, best known for creating Dad's Army and with whom he had worked earlier. David Croft was fascinated by Jeremy Lloyd's idea for a sitcom set in a department store and convinced him to get the script back from ITV.  Together they sold Are You Being Served? to the BBC. The BBC made a pilot and, being unimpressed by it, had no plans to make a series. Fortunately the BBC finally aired the pilot on the anthology series Comedy Playhouse where it proved popular with audiences. In the end Are You Being Served? would run for thirteen years and proved to be a hit not only in the United Kingdom, but in the Untied States, Canada, and Australia as well. The show would be adapted as the Australian series Are You Being Served, Australia and adapted as the failed American pilot Beanes of Boston.

In addition to Are You Being Served? Jeremy Lloyd also wrote the screenplays for the films Vampira (1974), The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976), and the feature film based on the sitcom Are You Being Served? (1976). He also wrote created the TV shows Whodunit? and co-created the shows Come Back Mrs. Noah and Oh Happy Band with David Croft. He also continued acting. he had a regular role on the TV show It's Awfully Bad for Your Eyes, Darling and appeared on the shows Shirley's World, Dear Mother...Love Albert, Funny You Should Say That, and Whodunit?. He appeared in the films Lady Chatterly Versus Fanny Hill (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976).

In the Eighties Jeremy Lloyd continued to work on Are You Being Served?. He co-created 'Allo Allo with David Croft. He also wrote an episode of Seacombe and Music. In the Nineties Mr. Lloyd created the Are You Being Served? spinoff Grace & Favour with David Croft. He also wrote the TV movie Which Way to the War and an episode of Omnibus. As an actor he made cameos on both 'Allo 'Allo and Grace & Favour. His last work as an actor was in the feature film Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict, released last year.

Jeremy Lloyd's immortality was long ago secured by the success of Are You Being Served?. The show proved to be one of the most popular Britcoms of all time. Are You Being Served? proved to be a hit in the United States, Singapore, and most of the Commonwealth. One would be hard pressed to find another British comedy that saw the success of Are You Being Served?.

As to why Are You Being Served? was a success, it was largely due to Jeremy Lloyd's talent as a comedy writer. He had a gift for creating wildly eccentric, yet loveable characters. Jeremy Lloyd's characters seemed real regardless of how exaggerated or strange they might be. Not only did Mr. Lloyd have a gift for creating memorable characters, but he also had a knack for farcical situations and double entendres. Only geniuses at comedy such as Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft could figure out new ways of working Mrs. Slocombe's pussy into episodes of Are You Being Served? (and, for those of you who haven't seen the show, it's not what you think....). Jeremy Lloyd was one of the truly great comedy writers of all time, and one who has left his mark on television throughout the Anglosphere.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Director Joseph Sargent Passes On

Joseph Sargent, who directed several hours worth of television shows (including Gunsmoke and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as well as such films as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), died at the age of 89 on 22 December 2014. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Joseph Sargent was born  Giuseppe Danielle Sorgente in Jersey City, New Jersey on 22 July 1925. During World War II Mr. Sargent served in the United States Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Following the war he studied acting at the Actors Studio in New York City. He moved to California to pursue his acting career in the early Fifties.

As an actor Joseph Sargent made his film debut in an uncredited role in Her First Romance in 1951. In the Fifties he also appeared in small roles in such films as From Here to Eternity (1953), Kathy O' (1958), Al Capone (1959), and Pay or Die (1960).  He made his television debut in an episode of I'm the Law in 1953. Throughout the Fifties Mr. Sargent guest starred on such shows as I Led 3 Lives, Death Valley Days, The Lone Ranger, State Trooper, Tales of Wells Fargo, Peter Gunn, and Gunsmoke. He made his debut as director with the film Street Fighter in 1959.

Joseph Sargent's acting career continued into the Sixties. He made appearances on such shows as Hong Kong, The Detectives, and  The Twilight Zone. He appeared in the film Tobruk (1967). It was in the Sixties that Mr. Sargent shifted from acting to directing. He directed several episodes of the shows Lassie, Mr. Novak, Gunsmoke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. He also directed episodes of Bonanza, Daniel Boone, The Fugitive, Star Trek, The F.B.I., and The Invaders. He also directed such television movies as The Sunshine Patriot and Tribes. In the late Sixties Joseph Sargent started concentrating on feature films. He directed the feature films The Hell with Heroes (1968) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).

The Seventies saw Joseph Sargent concentrating on feature films. Joseph Sargent was set to direct the film Buck and the Preacher (1972), but was fired when star Sir Sidney Poitier became unhappy with the film's point of view. Mr. Poitier then directed the film (the first feature he ever directed). Mr. Sargent's career was hardly hurt by the experience, as he would go on to direct some of the biggest films of his career in the Seventies: The Man (1972) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). He also directed the films White Lightning (1973), MacArthur (1977), Goldengirl (1979), and Coast to Coast (1980). Joseph Sargent still worked in television in the Seventies, although primarily directed TV movies. Among the TV movies he directed were The Man Who Died Twice, Sunshine, Friendly Persuasion, and The Night That Panicked America. He also directed episodes of Kojak and Longstreet.

In the Eighties Joseph Sargent concentrated primarily on television movies. He directed such TV movies as Freedom, Memorial Day, Choices of the Heart, and Day One. He won an Emmy for his direction of the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations Love is Never Silent and Caroline?. He also directed the mini-series Space. He directed the feature films Nightmares (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987).  He also returned to acting, with a bit part in the TV movie Ivory Hunters (which he directed) and The Love She Sought (which he also directed).

In the Nineties Joseph Sargent continued to concentrate on television. He directed the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations Miss Rose White and Skylark. He also directed such TV movies as Never Forget, Abraham, World War II: When Lions Roared, My Antonia, Miss Evers' Boys, and Crime and Punishment. He also directed the mini-series The Streets of Laredo.

Joseph Sargent continued to work into the Naughts. He directed the TV movies Bojangles, Salem Witch Trials, Out of the Ashes, Something the Lord Made, Warm Springs, and Sybil. His last work was the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Sweet Nothing in My Ear. He was 83 years old when he stopped directing.

As a film director Joseph Sargent's work was arguably a mixed bag. He directed two films that can be considered outright classics. Colossus: The Forbin Project is one of the great science fiction movies of the late Sixties, while The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the best action movies of the Seventies. Unfortunately much of Mr. Sargent's film work (Goldengirl, Jaws: The Revenge, et. al.) did not quite measure up to those two films. That having been said, Joseph Sargent excelled in the medium of television. The episodes of Gunsmoke and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. often had a cinematic feel about them, looking much more like feature films than episodes of TV shows. He also did excellent work in the field of television movies, directing some of the classics of the form. Sunshine, Caroline?, Skylark, My Antonia, and Crime and Punishment number among the best television movies ever made.

Quite simply, when provided with a good script, Joseph Sargent could do excellent work. He was particularly good about capturing the look and feel of a particular milieu. With The Taking of Pelham One Two Three he captured the look and feel of New York City perfectly. With My Antonia he created a convincing portrait of 19th Century Nebraska. With Crime and Punishment he convincingly recreated 19th Century Russia. When given a quality script, Joseph Sargent was quite capable of creating films that captured specific times and places quite well. And it was on television that he did this best work. He was truly one of the greats of the medium.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014

If you are a long time reader of this blog, then you will know that every Christmas Day I post classic holiday pin ups. This years is no different, so here they are:

From the number of presents it would seem Santa thought
Shirley Jones was a very good girl!
It seems Shirley Knight prefers delivering presents to
getting them!
Vera Ellen has a unique way of filling out her
Christmas cards!
Mitzi Gaynor really cleaned up on presents!
Meanwhile Anne Jeffries is someone's present!
Of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without Ann Miller!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Trimming the Tree In 1940s Films

Today most people in the United States put up their Christmas trees in early December, a time corresponding with what Christians would call "Advent". Some even put their trees up as early as the day after Thanksgiving or even earlier (although some of their neighbours might look at them oddly). That having been said, there was a time when the traditional time for putting up one's Christmas tree was Christmas Eve or, at least, the afternoon of the day before Christmas. Indeed, this is reflected in many of the classic holiday films of the 1940s.

While many of the classic Yuletide movies of the Forties have trees being trimmed on Christmas Eve, there are a few in which the event takes place a slightly earlier date. It would seem the late Forties was a time of transition, when many still put their Christmas trees up on Christmas Eve, but some were beginning to put them up earlier.

An example of a film in which the Christmas tree is trimmed on Christmas Eve proper is the 1944 classic Christmas in Connecticut. In the film cooking writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is coerced by her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) in hosting a returning war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), for Christmas dinner. Among the things that Miss Lane and Mr. Jones do on Christmas Eve is set up and trim the Christmas tree.

The classic It's a Wonderful Life was released a few years after Christmas in Connecticut in 1946, but the Baileys still trimmed their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. In fact, that Christmas Eve is also George Bailey's "crucial night", part of what might be the most famous climax in any Yuletide movie ever made.

The Bishop's Wife, released only a year after It's a Wonderful Life in 1947, shows that the time people set up their Christmas trees was beginning to change in the United States. At least several days before Christmas Eve, or perhaps more, Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) buys a tiny Christmas tree. When the bishop's wife of the title, Julia (Loretta Young), and the angel Dudley visit the Professor, he already has the Christmas tree set up and decorated in his home. While the Professor already has his Christmas tree set up well before Christmas Eve, however, Bishop Brougham and his wife Julia don't have their tree set up and trimmed until Christmas Eve (well, actually, it is Dudley who does the trimming...). From The Bishop's Wife it would seem that some people were already setting up their trees before Christmas Eve, while others were still doing it on the traditional date.

It is in a film released the same year as The Bishop's Wife that a Christmas tree is shown being trimmed before Christmas Eve. In It Happened on Fifth Avenue it would appear that the Christmas tree is set up and trimmed a few days before Christmas Eve, or at least a day before the traditional date. Like the Professor in The Bishop's Wife, then, this shows that people were trimming their trees at least a little bit before Christmas Eve.

While It Happened on 5th Avenue has the Christmas tree erected not long before Christmas Eve, it seems possible that in Holiday Affair (1949) the Christmas tree was set up and trimmed as much as two weeks before Christmas Eve. At the very least the Christmas tree is in place and decorated several days before Christmas Eve. This perhaps shows that towards the end of the decade many Americans were trimming their trees well before Christmas Eve, at times much more in keeping with modern custom.

It is difficult to say what precipitated the change in when Americans set up their Christmas tree, although if the movies are any indication it would seem to have begun in the late Forties at least. Of course, if the movies are also any indication, the practice of trimming the tree on Christmas Eve appears to have persisted into the Fifties and Sixties. In The Apartment (1960) on Christmas Eve, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) tells Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) that he has to get home and trim the tree. Regardless, the transition appears to have been complete by the Eighties. In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) buys a tree and sets it up a few weeks before Christmas (probably late November/early December).

Regardless of why the date most Americans trim their Christmas trees changed, the change was certainly reflected in American movies. What is more, it would seem that the Forties was the decade in which the change began to take place. After all, the tree is trimmed on Christmas Eve in Christmas in Connecticut in 1944, but by 1949 the tree is trimmed many days earlier in Holiday Affair.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" (1936)

During the Golden Age of Animation there several theatrical shorts with Christmas themes were made. Among the most remarkable was one made by Fleischer Studios in 1936, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year".

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was part of Fleischer Studios' Colour Classics series. The Colour Classics were so named because they were shot in colour at a time when many animated shorts were still shot in black and white. That having been said, the colour processes used for the Colour Classics would vary over time. The first cartoon in the series, "Poor Cinderella", was shot in the two-colour Cinecolor process. Following "Poor Cinderella" the Colour Classics from 1934 and 1935 were shot in two-strip Technicolor, as Disney  had an exclusive contract with Technicolor for their three-strip process. It was in 1936 that Disney's contract with Technicolor expired and the remaining films in the Colour Classics series (including "Christmas Comes But Once a Year") were shot in three-strip Technicolor. The Colour Classics series ended in 1941.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" centred upon an orphanage on Christmas Day. While the orphans are initially happy that Christmas Day has arrived, they are soon disappointed when their presents all turn out to be defective. Fortunately for the orphans Professor Grampy happens to be passing by the orphanage, and takes note of their sadness. As might be expected, Grampy comes up with his own solution.  By the time of "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" Grampy was already an established character in Fleischer Studios cartoons. A spry older man, Grampy was an eccentric inventor with a knack for Rube Goldberg devices. He first appeared in "Betty Boop and Grampy" in 1935 and spent the majority of his career appearing in Betty Boop cartoons. Although he started out as a supporting character in Betty's cartoons, there were a few times when his role was actually bigger than that of Betty. Regardless, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" marks the only animated short in which Grampy appeared without Betty Boop.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was shot using Max Fleischer's patented stereo-optical process. The stereo-optical process involved the construction of three-dimensional, live-action sets over which the cartoon characters were animated. This gave the cartoons shot using the process a look of depth lacking in cartoons shot using standard methods.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was produced by Max Fleischer and directed by Dave Fleischer. It was released on 4 December 1936. "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was later remade by Fleischer Studios' successor Famous Studios as "True Boo", a cartoon starring Casper the Friendly Ghost. In "True Boo" Casper makes presents for a little boy in essentially the same way Grampy did for the orphans in "Christmas Comes But Once a Year".

Like the other Colour Classics, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" would pass through various hands over the years. The Colour Classics were originally produced by Fleischer Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures. In 1955 Paramount sold the Colour Classics and all of the other Fleischer cartoons, except for the "Superman" and "Popeye" series, to television distributor U.M. & M. TV Corporation. U.M. & M. TV Corporation was bought out by National Telefilm Associates (better known by its initials NTA) in 1956. Since that time many of the Colour Classics, including "Christmas Comes But Once a Year", have entered the public domain.

For those who would like to watch "Christmas Comes But Once a Year", here it is:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Santa Claus on Film

A classic illustration of Santa
Claus by Haddon Sundblom

For well over a century Santa Claus has been an integral part of Christmas imagery in the United States. His image appears on Christmas cards, on Christmas decorations, and numerous other holiday related merchandise. Not surprisingly, Santa Claus has also appeared as a character in several motion pictures over the years. Even those films in which Santa Claus plays a central role as a character are so numerous that it would take a book to list them all.

Not only has Santa Claus appeared frequently on film, but he appeared so early in film history that it difficult to say what the first movie in which he appeared was. What must have surely been one of the earliest films featuring Santa Claus was film pioneer George Albert Smith's short "Santa Claus" from 1898. "Santa Claus" was very basic in its premise, portraying Santa Claus's visit to a house to deliver presents. That having been said, it was also very innovative. It included a sequence created using a double exposure process invented by George Albert Smith himself. Other shorts from the late 1890s were also very simple in their premise. American Mutoscope's 1897 short "Santa Claus Filling Stockings" is pretty much exactly that. Both R. W. Paul's 1898 short "Santa Claus and the Children" and Edison's 1900 short "Santa Claus's Visit" also portrayed Santa delivering presents.

Edison's 1905 short "The Night Before Christmas" was much more sophisticated than the films of the 1890s. The short shows Santa preparing for Christmas by feeding his reindeer, working on toys in his workshop, checking his list, making his midnight ride, and ultimately delivering presents (complete with Santa going down the chimney). Interspersed were scenes of a family preparing for bed on Christmas Eve. To achieve all of this the short utilised a combination of live action and animation. Edward S. Porter's " A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus" from 1907 was also much more sophisticated than the films of the 1890s. The short involved a boy proving to a poor little girl that Santa Claus exists by capturing the jolly old elf and taking him to her house!

One of the more interesting films from the Silent Era was made by explorer Frank E. Kleinschmidt, who actually filmed it on location in the wilds of Northern Alaska. In "Santa Claus" (1925) two children sneak out of their house to see what Santa does on the other days of the year besides Christmas. The short features Santa's workshop, Santa's reindeer (real reindeer, not ordinary deer standing in for such), Santa visiting Eskimos, and so on. Although shot on a low budget, its production values were very high and the cinematography extraordinary.

Disney's "Santa's Workshop"
Surprisingly Santa Claus himself was not the subject of too many movies in the 1930's, although he did put in a few appearances in various animated shorts. Among the best known of these is perhaps Disney's  Silly Symphony "Santa Workshop" from 1932. The cartoon essentially features Santa and his elves preparing for Christmas Eve (Santa checking his list, the elves making toys, et. al.), all set to a merry song. Disney also loosely adapted the classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" as an animated short in 1933. Warner Bros. also made animated shorts featuring Santa Claus. In "The Shanty Where Santy Lives", Santa Claus takes an impoverished boy to the North Pole. The 1934  Universal Pictures animated short "Toyland Premiere" featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit holding a reception for Santa Claus, complete with appearances from Frankenstein's Creature, Tarzan, Lupe Velez, Shirley Temple, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and Laurel and Hardy.

Santa Claus did appear in one significant live action film in the Thirties. Jolly Old St. Nick puts in a brief appearance in Hal Roach's 1934 adaptation of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland (now known as Parade of the Wooden Soldiers)
Even given the boom in Christmas that occurred in the latter part of the decade, the Forties were much like the Thirties in that Santa Claus did not appear that often in film. And like the Thirties, most of his appearances were in animated cartoons. Perhaps the most significant of these was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", directed by Max Fleisher for Jam Handy. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was not only historic as the first film adaptation of Robert L. May's creation, but it was also the final film ever directed by Max Fleischer. Released in 1948, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" pre-dated the song of the same name by a year, although the song would be added to the animated short's opening credits upon its re-release in 1951. Because of this "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is much more faithful to Robert L. May's original story than Johnny Marks's song or the later Rankin/Bass special. As anyone who knows the original story of Rudolph, Santa plays a significant role in the cartoon.

Santa Claus would also appear in Famous Studios' very first "Little Audrey" cartoon. In "Santa's Surprise" (1947), Audrey and four other children stow away on Santa's sleigh and go with him to the North Pole.  Santa Claus puts in a small appearance in the Warner Bros. short "Bedtime for Snifles", in which Sniffles attempts to stay awake to see Santa.

Of course, the period from about 1941 to 1951 could be considered the Golden Age of Christmas Movies given the number of classics released during that time. It was during this period that many, perhaps most, of the biggest Christmas movies of all time were released:  Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947),  Holiday Affair (1949), A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge, 1951), and The Lemon Drop (1951) were among the many holiday films released during the period. Surprisingly given the boom in Christmas movies that occurred in the Forties, particularly the late Forties, Santa Claus was not a major character in the vast majority of the films. A notable exception was one of the biggest holiday movies of all time, perhaps surpassed only by It's a Wonderful Life in popularity: Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

Miracle on 34th Street centres on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn), an elderly man hired by Macy's as that department store's Santa. To Kris Kringle, however, he isn't simply playing Santa Claus; Kris is convinced that he is Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street leaves the question of whether Kris is simply a delusional old man or the one and only, genuine Santa Claus open, but given the strength of Edmund Gwenn's performance I rather suspect that even the most sceptical viewers will be convinced he is the real thing. Miracle on 34th Street received great notices from critics at the time. It also picked up three Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn); Best Writing, Original Story; and  Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, which it inexplicably lost to Gentlemen's Agreement.

Miracle on 34th Street has been remade four times. The first time was as an episode of The Twentieth Century Fox Hour in 1955, with Thomas Mitchell playing the role of Kris Kringle. The second time was in a 60 minute television special that aired on NBC in 1959 with Ed Wynn playing the role of Kris Kringle. The third time was as a television movie in 1973 with Sebastian Cabot in the role of Kris. Another theatrical version was released in 1994 with Lord Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle. Sadly, while Lord Attenborough was wonderful in the role of Santa, as was Mara Wilson as the role of the sceptical little girl, any magic from the original was lost in the 1994 remake, largely due to a poor script and charmless leads (Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott). Even after all the remakes, the original Miracle on 34th Street remains the preferred version of many, perhaps most, people.

Like the Forties, Santa Claus as a character in films would be largely absent in the Fifties. Santa Claus does put in an appearance in  the Warner Bros. 1952 animated short "Gift Wrapped" in which he brings Tweety to Granny as a Christmas present. Quite naturally Sylvester J. Pussycat has other plans for Granny's new gift. A more significant appearance of Santa Claus on film, and one that is much more bizarre, is in René Cardona's 1959 low budget feature Santa Claus. In the film the Devil plots to turn the world's children against Santa Claus (played by José Elías Moreno). Today Santa Claus (1959) is not highly regarded, except perhaps as a camp classic (it even aired on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000).  Amazingly enough, it won the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959! Santa Claus also appeared in the obscure,  hour long fantasy film The Miracle of the White Reindeer (1960), about which there seems to be little information. Santa was played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the Drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.

Of course, the Sixties would see the advent of Rankin/Bass's television specials, many of which would feature Santa Claus (most notably the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Unfortunately, the decade would not be so kind to the Jolly Old Elf with regards to theatrical feature films. In fact, Santa Claus's best known appearance in a feature film from the Sixties is in a movie often counted among the worst ever made. In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) Martians decide to capture Santa Claus so that their children can have fun just as children on Earth do. The film was made on a shoestring budget (the Martians' guns appear to be modified Whammo Air Blasters) and mostly shot in an old aircraft hangar in Long Island. While Santa Claus Conquers the Martians rightfully deserves its bad reputation, it does have one big claim to history (and it's not simply Pia Zadora's film debut).  Reportedly Santa Claus Conquers the Martians marks the first time that Mrs. Claus ever appeared in a feature film.

Santa Claus played a major role in the 1966 feature film The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, which was based on Paul Tripp's book of the same name. The Christmas That Almost Wasn't has the bizarre premise of Santa Claus being behind on his rent and about to be kicked out of his own home. Santa (played by Alberto Rabagliati) goes to attorney Sam Whipple (played by Paul Tripp) for help. For many years The Christmas That Almost Wasn't was a bit of a holiday tradition on HBO.

The Seventies would not be much kinder to Santa Claus with regards to feature films. In Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) Santa (played by Jay Clark) tries to free his sleigh from the sand of a Florida beach. Interspersed, for no other apparent reason than to fill out the running time, is an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "Thumbelina". As might be expected Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is counted among the worst films ever made.

Fortunately Santa Claus would fare a little better in the Eighties, although the feature films in which he appeared were still far from classics. Santa Claus (1985), better known as Santa Claus: The Movie, cost an estimated $50 million to make. As might be expected with such a budget, Santa Claus: The Movie featured some incredible special effects, as well as very elaborate sets. David Huddleston also made for an appealing Santa Claus. Unfortunately that was the only things in which the film appeared to excel. Reviews of the film were largely negative (in his book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas Alonso Duralde counts it as one of the worst Christmas movies ever) and audiences were largely indifferent to the film. In fact, it lost money at the box office. Made for $50 million, it only made $23,717,291 in the United States.

Santa Claus's other significant feature film appearance in the Eighties would not be much better, and some might consider it worse. In Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Ernest P. Worrell (played by Jim Varney) must find a replacement for Santa Claus, who has grown too old to continue in the role. Like most of the "Ernest" films, Ernest Saves Christmas was not a hit with critics.

Since the Eighties Santa Claus has fared somewhat better in feature films. While the Nineties would give us the rather dismal remake of Miracle on 34th Street, it would also give us the critically acclaimed stop motion film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), perhaps the only film that can be enjoyed as both as a Halloween movie and a Yuletide movie. The Nineties would also see the release of The Santa Clause (1994), which was generally well received by critics and did well at the box office. It would be followed by two sequels,  The Santa Clause 2 (2002) and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006).

The Naughts saw the release of yet more films in which Santa Claus played a significant role: the comedy Elf (2003), the computer animated Polar Express (2004), and the comedy Fred Claus (2007). It also saw a horror/comedy movie in which Santa Claus was actually the villain. In the 2005 film Santa' Slay Santa Claus (played by professional wrestler Bill Goldberg) is demon/human hybrid who was sentenced to deliver presents to children for 1000 years. When the 1000 years were up, Santa simply went back to his old ways of slaughtering people.... Except for The Polar Express, it would seem the Naughts were not particularly kind to Santa in feature films...

So far the Teens have seen little in the way of movies featuring Santa Claus as a major character. Given the central role Santa Claus plays in the American celebration of Christmas, it would seem likely that at some point yet more films featuring Old St. Nick will be made eventually. Over the years Santa Claus has appeared in films with shoestring budgets, as well as big budget blockbusters. He has appeared in movies counted among the worst ever made and movies considered among the greatest of all time. Whether Santa's next appearance on film is the modern equivalent of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or Miracle on 34th Street, one thing is certain. Santa Claus won't be off the big screen for long.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Little Drummer Boy: The Rankin/Bass Special

Today when people under the age of 30 think of classic Rankin/Bass Yuletide specials, it is most likely to be the 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the 1969 cel animated  Frosty the Snowman. Those over 30 might think of other Rankin/Bass holiday specials as well, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. Among the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that might come to the minds of those over 30 is one that is largely forgotten today. While only those of a certain age might remember The Little Drummer Boy, in its day it was one of Rankin/Bass's most popular holiday specials. In fact, for a time it might have been second only to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in popularity.

Like Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy utilised stop-motion animation. And like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it was based on a popular song ("The Little Drummer Boy"). The song originated in 1941 as "The Carol of the Drum", written by Katherine Davis. Initially "The Carol of the Drum" met with little success. It was even recorded by The Trapp Family Singers in 1955 to little notice. In 1957 "The Carol of the Drum" was recorded by the Jack Halloran Singers for their album Christmas Is A-Comin'. Christmas Is A-Comin' was released on Dot Records.

It was Henry Onorati, a producer at Dot Records, who brought "The Carol of the Drum" to the attention of Harry Simeone.  Harry Simeone took Jack Halloran's arrangement and made further changes to it. He also retitled the song "The Little Drummer Boy". It was recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale and appeared on their 1958 album Sing We Now of Christmas, released on 20th Century Fox Records. The single by the Henry Simeone Chorale, "The Little Drummer Boy", proved to be an enormous success. It went to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958. In the Sixties alone it would be covered by such artists as the Ray Conniff Singers, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, The Supremes, and Joan Baez.

It was perhaps natural given the success of "The Little Drummer Boy" that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass would produce a special based on the song. The special The Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller, who had previously written Rankin/Bass's specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cricket on the Hearth, and Mouse on the Mayflower. It was directed by Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., and Takeya Nakamura. The Little Drummer Boy had a fairly big name cast, with Greer Garson serving as the narrator, Jose Ferrer as the villain Ben Haramad, and Paul Frees providing the voices of all three Magi. Child actor Teddy Eccles provided the voice of the lead character--Aaron, the little drummer boy. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association and debuted on NBC on 19 December 1968.

While The Little Drummer Boy proved to be popular, it was very different from the vast majority of the Rankin/Bass specials. For one thing, it dealt not with Santa Claus or a secular celebration of Christmas, but instead with the birth of Jesus himself. For another thing, it was a drama. Indeed, in some respects it deals with some rather grim subject matter for a holiday special. After Aaron's father and mother are killed by marauders and their farm burned to the ground, Aaron hates all people. His only sources of joy are the animals who survived the attack (a camel, a lamb, and a donkey) and the drum that his father gave him. The drum has the rather magical effect of making Aaron's animals dance whenever he plays it. Needless to say, events lead Aaron to Bethlehem and his encounter with the baby Jesus.

The Little Drummer Boy proved highly successful. For much of the Seventies it was not unusual for its annual airing to rank in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for the week. Indeed, often it ranked in the top five. The Little Drummer Boy proved so successful that Rankin/Bass produced a sequel, The Little Drummer Boy Book II, that debuted in 1976 on NBC. The Little Drummer Boy Book II takes place immediately following the events of The Little Drummer Boy, and involved Aaron helping Melchior of the Three Wise Men. The Little Drummer Boy Book II was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special, but did not prove to be nearly as popular as the original.

The Little Drummer Boy aired annually on NBC from 1968 to 1984. It was then picked up by CBS, who aired it from 1985 to 1988.  ABC then picked up The Little Drummer Boy. ABC ceased airing The Little Drummer Boy in 2006 and since that time it has aired on the cable channel ABC Family. Over the years The Little Drummer Boy has been heavily edited from its original form. Commercial time has increased dramatically since 1968, so that The Little Drummer Boy (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and other Rankin/Bass specials) airs today with a number of cuts. While I cannot be certain, it may have also been edited for content at some point. While my memory may be playing tricks on me, I seem to recall a scene which shows a silhouette of one of the marauders raising a knife to kill Aaron's mother that occurred immediately after Aaron's mother ushers him out of the house but before the house is shown to be burning.  Unfortunately, this brief scene appears in none of the versions available online, so I cannot be certain if it is my imagination or not.

As mentioned earlier, The Little Drummer Boy stands out from the other Rankin/Bass specials in that it is a drama and it also deals with a blatantly religious theme (namely, the birth of Jesus). Fortunately The Little Drummer Boy is done in such a way that it can be appreciated even by non-Christians such as myself. At its heart it is a story of a boy hardened by tragedy whose faith in humanity is restored by the kindness of others. Beyond its well-written script The Little Drummer Boy also boasts some of Rankin/Bass's best work. The sets are elaborate and exquisitely designed, while the stop motion animation displays occasional bursts of brilliance. What might be the best thing about the special is its music. In addition to "The Little Drummer Boy" itself, The Little Drummer Boy features the songs "The Goose Hangs High”, “Why Can’t the Animals Smile?",  and “One Star in the Night, all” by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. The songs number among the best featured in any Rankin/Bass special short of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Despite being extremely popular from the late Sixties into the Eighties, The Little Drummer Boy has largely been forgotten today. This is in many ways a shame, as it is actually one of the best of the specials ever produced by Rankin/Bass. It really deserves more than to be aired by ABC Family during odd times of the day. The Little Drummer Boy should be returned to a broadcast network, where many could see one of Rankin/Bass's more remarkable achievements and one of their more unique specials.