Saturday, December 24, 2022

"The Changing of the Guard": The Twilight Zone Christmas Episode That Didn't Air at Christmas

Donald Pleasance as
Prof. Fowler
Perhaps because he was born on Christmas Day, Rod Serling had a particular gift for writing Christmas stories. He wrote the classic 1964 TV movie A Carol for Another Christmas, not to mention Christmas episodes of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Curiously, what in my opinion is the best Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone did not originally air at Christmastime. Instead, "The Changing of the Guard" aired in the spring, on June 1 1962.

"The Changing of the Guard" centres on elderly Professor Ellis Fowler (Donald Pleasance), who teaches English Literature at Rock Spring School, a Vermont prep school. It was at Christmastime that Professor Fowler learns he is being retired after 51 years of teaching, although he will receive free housing and a salary from the school for the rest of his life. Professor Fowler then grows depressed, feeling that he has made no impact in his life and that his lessons have come to nothing. He then decides to kill himself on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, an event occurs that makes Professor Fowler realize just how much good he had done as a teacher.

It is no secret that Rod Serling sometimes drew upon his own life in his writing, His Playhouse 90 episode "The Velvet Alley," as well as such episodes of The Twilight Zone as "Walking Distance" and "A Stop at Willoughby" both featured semi-autobiographical elements. I have to wonder if this isn't the case with "The Changing of the Guard." Certainly, the quote that Professor Fowler reads from a plinth of a statue of Horace Mann comes from Rod Serling's life. "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity" is the school motto of Rod Serling's alma mater, Antioch College. Horace Mann, Antioch College's first president, made the quote at the school's first  commencement. I also have to wonder if the character of Professor Fowler wasn't drawn from one of Rod Serling's professors or perhaps wasn't drawn from several of his professors. Here I want to stress that I have never read anywhere that this was the case. Regardless, Ellis Fowler is one of Rod Serling's best realized characters.

Of course, much of this is due to Donald Pleasance's performance. Donald Pleasance was only 42 years old when he appeared in "The Changing of the Guard," yet he is utterly convincing as Professor Fowler. We know Professor Fowler has been teaching for 51 years and the headmaster (Liam Sullivan) states that he passed the usual retirement age long ago. At any rate, Donald Pleasance is entirely convincing in the role and it remains one of the best  roles he ever played on television.

Ultimately, while "The Changing of the Guard" aired in June rather than December, for me it remains the best of The Twilight Zone's Christmas episodes. It is a better written and better performed episode than "The Night of the Meek," the show's first Christmas episode. And while "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" is arguably a better episode, its ties to Christmas are less powerful than "The Changing of the Guard," making "The Changing of the Guard" the better episode to watch for the holiday.

Indeed, "The Changing of the Guard" deals with Christmas themes of rebirth and redemption. In many ways, it can be considered a blend of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and It's a Wonderful Life. "Changing of the Guard" also features many of the trappings of the holiday, from Christmas trees and other Christmas decorations to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" performed by carolers (some of Professor Fowler's students). Ultimately, it would seem to be very difficult to come away from watching "Changing of the Guard" without feeling a good deal of holiday spirit.

While "Changing of the Guard" may have first aired in June, today many television outlets (MeTV among them) choose to air it at Christmastime. There should be little wonder why. While there are other Twilight Zone Christmas episodes, I would argue it is the best.

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Rankin/Bass Christmas Special Frosty the Snowman

In American television history, as of 2022, there have been only two Christmas special that have aired every year without interruption on one of the broadcast networks. What is more, both were produced by Rankin/Bass Productions. The first is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted on December 6 1964. The second is Frosty the Snowman, which debuted on December 7 1969. While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted on NBC and would later move to CBS, Frosty the Snowman is the only Christmas special to have aired every year on the same network. It debuted on CBS and has remained on that network ever since.

In 1969 Rankin/Bass Productions was not yet the premier producer of Christmas television special that they would be in 1970, but they were already well on their way. Upon it debut in 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would become one of the most successful Christmas specials of all time. In 1968 Rankin/Bass followed the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with another special based on a Christmas song, The Little Drummer Boy. With the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, it was quite natural that Rankin/Bass would produce another Christmas special based on a holiday song.

Frosty the Snowman was based on the song by Walter E. Rollins and Steve Nelson song of the same name. It had been a huge hit for Gene Autry in 1950, reaching no. 7 on the Billboard pop singles chart that year. "Frosty the Snowman" would be covered by man other artists. In 1950 alone it was covered by Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, and Guy Lombardo in addition to Gene Autry. Given the song's success through the years, it must have seemed to Rankin/Bass to have be obvious fodder for a television special.

While Frosty the Snowman was based on a song much as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy were, Frosty the Snowman differed from the other two specials in one important regard. While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy were produced using Rankin/Bass's stop-motion process known as Animagic, Frosty the Snowman was produced using tradition cel animation. It was not Rankin/Bass's first cel-animated. Their 1967 Christmas special Cricket on the Heart (based on the Charles Dickens novella of the same name) was their first special that used cel animation. It was followed by Rankin/Bass's 1968 Thanksgiving special The Mouse on the Mayflower, which also produced using cel animation.

The animation for both The Cricket on the Hearth and The Mouse On the Mayflower had been provided by Japanese animation studios. This would also be the case with Frosty the Snowman, whose animation was produce by Mushi Productions. If the name "Mushi Productions"sounds familiar, it is because they were the animation studio founded by the legendary Osamu Tezuka. By 1969 they had already produced such classic anime series as Astro Boy. Princess Knight, and Kimba the White Lion. By 1969 Osamu Tezuka had already left Mushi Productions in 1968 and formed a new company, Tezuka Productions.

While the animation was provided by Mushi Productions, the character designs and backgrounds were created by an American. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass wanted Frosty the Snowman to have the look of a Christmas card. To this end they hired Paul Coker Jr., a greeting card artist who also had also provided art for Mad magazine starting in 1961. Paul Coker Jr. had earlier did uncredited work on the Rankin/Bass feature film The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967) and his first credited work for Rankin/Bass on The Cricket on the Hearth. After Frosty the Snowman, Paul Coker Jr. would work as production designer on several more Rankin/Bass specials, including Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Frosty's Winter Wonderland, and yet others.

Frosty the Snowman
was written by Romeo Muller, who had also written the teleplays for the Rankin/Bass specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cricket on the Hearth, The Mouse on the Mayflower, and The Little Drummer Boy, as well as the screenplays for the Rankin/Bass feature films as The Daydreamer (1966) and The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967). Romeo Muller expanded upon the plot of the song, in which a snowman comes to life after an old silk hat, in which "there must have been some magic in,"  upon his head. In the special it snows on Christmas Eve. The local children, among them Karen, build a snowman and place an old silk hat on his head that had been thrown away by inept stage magician Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe). Unfortunately for Frosty (Jackie Vernon), as the children named the snowman, it begins to warm up and so Karen accompanies Frosty the North Pole in the refrigerated car of a train. They are pursued by Professor Hinkle, who wants the hat back after learning it had some magic in it. Here it must be pointed out that, despite being played at the holiday season, the song "Frosty the Snowman" makes no reference to Christmas.

The special was narrated by Jimmy Durante, who had recorded his own version of the song "Frosty the Snowman" in 1950. The voice of Frosty was provided by comedian Jackie Vernon. Professor Hinkle was voiced by Billy De Wolfe, a character actor who had appeared in such films as Blue Skies (1946), The Perils of Pauline (1947), and Lullaby of Broadway (1951). In the original version of Frosty the Snowman, the voices of the school teacher, Karen, and the other children were all provided by legendary voice actor June Foray, then as now best known as the voice of  Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha Fatale on Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. For reasons that remain unknown, after the special originally aired, child actress Suzanne Thompson replaced Miss Foray as the voice of Karen while child actor Greg Thomas replaced Miss Foray as the voices of the other children. Legendary voice actor Paul Frees (the voice of Boris Badenov on Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show) provided the voices of a traffic cop, a ticket taker at the train station, and Santa Claus.

The success of Frosty the Snowman would lead to two sequels produced by Rankin/Bass. Frosty's Winter Wonderland aired in 1976 and provided Frosty with a wife (a snowwoman the children make for him). Like the original special, it took inspiration from a holiday song, in this case "Winter Wonderland" by Dick Smith. Frosty's Winter Wonderland was followed in 1979 by a feature length sequel to both Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and unlike Frosty the Snowman and Frosty's Winter Wonderland, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July used Rankin/Bass's stop-motion process Animagic. It was marked the first and only time Frosty appeared using Animagic rather than cel animation. Billie Mae Richards returned as the voice of Rudolph, while Jackie Vernon returned as the voice of Frosty.

A third special is not a sequel to the Rankin/Bass special Frosty the Snowman, although it is often mistaken for such. Frosty Returns was a half hour special produced by Broadway Video and long time "Charlie Brown" special animator Bill Melendez for CBS. The animation style is entirely different from that of the Rankin/Bass specials, while the voice of Frosty is provided by John Goodman. Furthermore, Frosty Returns makes no reference to the earlier Rankin/Bass specials. One thing odd about Frosty Returns is that it makes absolutely no reference to Christmas, with the post centred around a winter carnival. Despite having no connection to the original special beyond being based on the same song, CBS usually airs Frosty Returns back to back with Frosty the Snowman.

A direct-to-video feature released in 2005 has a bit more of a connection to Rankin/Bass's Frosty the Snowman. The Legend of Frosty the Snowman was produced by Classic Media, who still own the rights to the original special. The character design of Frosty closely copies Paul Coker Jr.'s original, while the character of narrator Old Tommy (Burt Reynolds) greatly resembles the original special's antagonist Professor Hinkle.

Aside from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman is the most successful animated Christmas special of all time. At no point in the 53 years since it debuted has it not aired on American broadcast television each year. Indeed, at no point in the past 53 years has it not aired on CBS. After decades on the air, there appears to be no sign that Frosty the Snowman will ever cease airing on television. It seems likely people will still be watching it fifty years from now.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The 70th Anniversary of The Holly and the Ivy

When many think of classic Christmas movies, they may well think of a film made in the United States. It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and others all originated in Hollywood. Even so, the United Kingdom has produced its share of Christmas classics. What many considered the best film adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Scrooge (1951--also known as A Christmas Carol) originated in Great Britain. Another British Christmas classic is The Holly and the Ivy (1952). With a cast that includes Sir Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, and Margaret Leighton, it was released seventy years ago today, on December 22 1952.

The Holly and the Ivy (1952) centres on a widowed English parson (Sir Ralph Richardson) who has devoted his life so much to his congregation that he has neglected his children's emotional well-being. Everything comes to a head over the Christmas holiday, when his family returns to the parsonage.

The Holly and the Ivy was based on the play of the same name by Wynyard Browne. The title comes from a tradition British folk Christmas carol, "The Holly and the Ivy." Produced in 1950, the play proved to be a hit at the box office. It was then natural that the play would be adapted for film. Producer Anatole de Grunwald wrote the screenplay for the film, and it was directed by George More O'Ferrall,  a director best known for his work in television. The movie was produced and distributed by British Lion.

The Holly and the Ivy was produced on a modest budget, but features a well-known cast nonetheless. Sir Ralph Richardson, who played Reverend Gregory, had already appeared in such classic films as Things to Come (1936), Anna Karenina (1948), and The Fallen Idol (1948). Celia Johnson, who played the parson's eldest daughter Jenny, was best known for her work on stage, but had appeared in the classic film Brief Encounter (1945). Margaret Leighton, who played the parson's younger daughter Margaret, had appeared in Under Capricorn (1949). The cast included such notables as Denholm Elliott, John Gregson, Margaret Halstan, and Maureen Delany, as well as the First Doctor on Doctor Who, William Hartnell, in a small role.

The cast of The Holly and the Ivy rehearsed for three weeks before shooting began. Shooting the film only took fourteen days. What is more, the film was shot in sequence, which may well have helped the cast develop the characters as the film's plot unfolded.

Despite the play's success and a good deal of critical acclaim, the film version of The Holly and the Ivy did not do well at the box office following its release in the United Kingdom on December 22 1952. The Holly and the Ivy was released in the United States two years later, in 1954. While it was well received by critics, it did not do very well at the box office here either. It was picked up by NBC Films for television distribution, who in 1955 sold its distribution, along with other British films, to Clift TV films, who in turn sold the distribution rights for The Holly and the Ivy and three other British films to WCBS.

It would be through television that The Holly and the Ivy would finally find its audience. Although it remains better known in the United Kingdom than the United States, it has developed a following among American classic film fans. While it may not have as high a profile as some classic Christmas movies, the performances of its cast and the well-written screenplay has made it a favourite of many at Christmastime.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The 54th Birthday of Vanessa Marquez

Today Vanessa Marquez would have turned 54. She was born in Los Angeles County on December 21 1968 and grew up in Montebello, California. For those of you who might not know who Vanessa Marquez was, she was an actress best known for playing Ana Delgado in the classic film Stand and Deliver (1988) and Nurse Wendy Goldman on the hit TV show ER. She was also a regular on the first season of the TV show Culture Clash, starring the comedy troupe of the same name, and she had a recurring role on the TV show Wiseguy. Vanessa Marquez guest starred on such shows as Tequila and Bonetti, Seinfeld, Nurses, Melrose Place, and Malcolm & Eddie. She appeared in such movies as Blood In Blood Out (1993), Twenty Bucks (1993), and Father Hood (1993).

For me Vanessa Marquez wasn't just a famous actress. She was also my dearest friend. We met through Twitter as original members of TCMParty, the loosely affiliated group of Turner Classic Movies fans who live tweet movies on the channel using the hashtag "TCMParty," as well as live tweeting episodes of Mad Men. We soon learned we had a good deal in common, from a love of the movie Star Wars to the TV shows Star Trek and The X-Files. Very soon we were in touch very nearly every day through social media and eventually texts and phone calls. Vanessa and I became very close. As for myself, I was in love with her.

There was very little Vanessa and I ever disagreed on, although one thing was that she thought she was only cute at best, while I maintained she was beautiful. Over the years I have collected a few head shots of Vanessa from her career as an actress. I submit some of these head shots as proof that she was indeed gorgeous.

This first photo is from Vanessa's last years on ER. Her last movie before this photo was taken was Hit Me (1996), originally titled The Ice Cream Dimension.

This photo is from the same photo shoot as the above photo.

This is another photo of Vanessa from the same era. I am guessing it may be from the same photo shoot as the first two.

This head shot of Vanessa is from 1993, the same year that she appeared in the movies Blood In Blood Out, Twenty Bucks, and Father Hood.

This is a head shot of Vanessa from 1991. At this point her only credits were Stand and Deliver (1988), Night Children (1989), the TV movie To My Daughter, the TV show Wiseguy, the Wonderworks TV movie Sweet 15, and the TV movie Locked Up: A Mother's Rage.

This is the oldest head shot of Vanessa that I have. At this point in her career, her only credits were Stand and Deliver (1988), Night Children (1989), the Wonderworks TV movie Sweet 15, and the stage play Demon Wine. This would have been about 1990.

I realize I may be biased, but I honestly think Vanessa Marquez was incredibly beautiful. Of course, she always much more than a pretty face or even a talented actress. Vanessa was sweet, warm hearted, open, intelligent, and she possessed a great sense of humour. She cared deeply about her friends and had this uncanny ability to remember the smallest details about them. She was always swift to defend her friends and worried about them if they were sick. She was happy when things were going well for them and sad when things weren't. In the end Vanessa meant more to me than anyone else in my life, and I miss her to this day. While I miss Vanessa terribly and I am still grieving her over four years after her death, her birthday is still a happy day for me. It marks the anniversary of the birth of the one person who means more to me than anyone else. My life would have been much poorer had I not known Vanessa Marquez.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Babes in Toyland (1961)

When most people think of a movie version of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, they probably think of the 1934 film starring Laurel & Hardy, also know by the title of a 73 minute, edited version of the movie, March of the Wooden Soldiers. While Babes in Toyland (1934) may remain the best known version of the operetta, it was in 1961 that Walt Disney Productions released their own version of the operetta. In fact, Babes in Toyland (1961) is historic as the first live action musical ever released by Walt Disney.

Walt Disney had considered adapting Babes in Toyland much earlier than the late Fifties. In the early Thirties, when Walt Disney was considering various stories for his first animated feature film, among the things he considered was an adaptation of Babes in Toyland. He ultimately settled on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the subject of his first feature film, and it would be Hal Roach Studios that would adapt the Victor Herbert operetta, the famous 1934 Babes in Toyland.

It was in May 1955 that Walt Disney announced the studio would produce an animated featured film based on Babes in Toyland. By October 1956 Walt Disney had decided that Babes in Toyland would not be an animated feature, but instead would be a live action musical. At the time Bill Walsh was set to produce and Sidney Miller was set to direct. It was set for release in 1957. Ultimately, this would not come to pass and the Babes in Toyland project would be delayed for for a few years. It was announced in August 1959 that the project had been restarted. Legendary animator Ward Kimball was set to direct the live action feature, while Mel Leven would write new lyrics for Victor Herbert's songs.

While Mel Leven would remain with Babes in Toyland, Ward Kimball would not. While Walt Disney was on vacation in Europe, Mr. Kimball set about casting the film, something which actually required Mr. Disney's approval. The publicity department realized that the studio's rights to Babes in Toyland were set to expire with the year, and as a result placed ads in the Hollywood trade papers, something which also did not please Walt Disney. As it was, Ward Kimball and Walt Disney came to disagreements over casting. Ward Kimball had one particular actress in mind for the role of Mary Contrary, while Walt Disney wanted Annette Funicello. Ultimately, Walt Disney removed Ward Kimball from the film and assigned Jack Donohue to direct the film.

Babes in Toyland would be Annette Funicello's first starring role in a feature film. Ray Bolger was cast as Barnaby, the villain of the film and the first villain he ever played in his career. Tommy Sands was cast as Tom Piper, Mary's love interest. Walt Disney had wanted Dean Jones for the role, and according to Annette Funicello, Michael Callan and James Darren were also considered for the role. The roles of villains Gonzorgo and Roderigo were filled by two veterans of Disney's television series Zorro, Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon respectively. Ed Wynn was cast in the all important role of The Toymaker, while Tommy Kirk was cast as his assistant Grumio.

Babes in Toyland departed from the plot of Victor Herbert's operetta a great deal, much as the 1934 version had as well. Only some of Mr. Herbert's music remained, and even then it was sometimes altered a good deal. While Babes in Toyland (1961) was released at Christmas and is often thought of as a Christmas movie, the holiday only plays a role in the plot towards the end of the movie. In some ways this should be no surprise, as Christmas plays no role in Victor Herbert's original operetta. Christmas doesn't play a role in the 1934 film version either (unless one counts a summertime visit from Santa to The Toymaker), despite having been released at Christmas and being shown repeatedly on television during Christmas time.

As it turned out, Walt Disney may have regretted departing from the operetta so much. Babes in Toyland opened on December 1961 to reviews that were indifferent at best and hostile at the worst. To make matters worse, audiences appear to have agreed with the critics. In the early Sixties it was rare for a Walt Disney movie to do relatively poorly at the box office, but Babes in Toyland bombed at the box office. Ultimately, the only thing anyone had good to say about the movie was the "March of the Toys" sequence that formed its climax, complete with stop-motion animated wooden soldiers.

It would be the wooden soldiers from Babes in Toyland (1961) that would prove to be the movie's most lasting impact. Almost immediately they would become a part of Disneyland and would figure in the park's holiday celebrations. They have remained a part of Disneyland's holiday celebrations ever since, as well as those of other Walt Disney Resorts. They would even appear in the stop-motion nursery sequence in Walt Disney's much more successful live-action musical, Mary Poppins (1964).

Babes in Toyland  (1961) would air in two parts on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour on December 21 and December 27 1969, and it would appear on television a few times since then. In 2002 it was released on DVD and in 2012 it was released on Blu-Ray. It is currently available on the streaming service Disney+. 

With Babes in Toyland (1961) Walt Disney had wanted to create a film that would match The Wizard of Oz (1939). At the same time, one had to think he hoped Babes in Toyland (1961) would become a holiday tradition. While it failed at both, Babes in Toyland remains important in the history of Walt Disney. It was the studio's first live-action musical, paving the way for Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and others. It would also be the first time Annette Funicello played the lead in a feature film (she had appeared in a supporting role in 1959's The Shaggy Dog). Furthermore, the toy soldiers featured in the film have been a part of Walt Disney parks ever since. Babes in Toyland (1961) may not be regarded as a classic even today, but it was an important film nonetheless.

Monday, December 19, 2022

TCM Remembers 2022

I have to be frank. This years TCM Remembers is one of the harder ones to watch. We lost some beloved stars this year. I made it to Nichelle Nichols before I teared up, but if I hadn't started tearing up then, I might have done it when they reached Larry Storch, Marsha Hunt, or Paul Sorvino. By the time they reached Dame Angela Lansbury and Sir Sidney Poitier at the end, I seriously doubt many Turner Classic Movies fans wouldn't have teared up at some point. Of course, for me their choice of song did not make it any easier to avoid crying. This year's song is "The Night We Met" by Lord Huron. It is one of the best songs ever used in a TCM Remembers, but for me the problem comes down to the fact that Turner Classic Movies used Lord Huron's "When the Night is Over" for TCM Remembers 2018, the one that included my beloved Vanessa Marquez. Ever since then I cannot hear Lord Huron without crying.

I have only watched this year's TCM Remembers a few times, but I think I have only caught one omission, although it is a really big one. For some reason they did not include Betty White. While Betty was best known for television, she did appear in movies as well. I was actually expecting her towards the end, along with Dame Angela Lansbury and Sir Sidney Poitier. I have to think they will include her later.

Anyway, get some tissues ready, because here is TCM Remembers 2022.