Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas

Premiered December 4, 1977.

Emmet Otter (Jerry Nelson) and his mother Alice (Marilyn Sokol) live on the river in the town of Frogtown Hollow.  They are very poor and rely on odd jobs and doing other people's laundry to get by.  Emmet uses his late father's tools to make repairs, while  Alice sells baked goods and does laundry in her washtub.  But they love each other and love to sing. 

Emmet & Alice sing "The One Bathing Suit."
When Emmet and Alice go shopping in Waterville, they pass a music shop.  Emmet spots a guitar in the window and tells his mother that he wants it for Christmas.  It costs $40, more than Alice has to her name.

The otters observe a group of toughs known as the Riverbottom Gang.  They're led by a bear named Chuck (Frank Oz) and they wreck havoc in the music shop.

The Riverbottom Gang, led by Chuck the Bear.
Emmet's friend Wendell Porcupine (Dave Goelz) tells Emmet of a talent show that will be held on Christmas Eve.  Wendell says Emmet is a good singer and that the winner gets $50.00 in prize money.  Their friends Harvey Beaver (Jim Henson) and Charlie Muskrat (Richard Hunt) suggest that the four of them form a jug-band and ask Emmet to play washtub bass.  Emmet isn't sure about that, because it would require him to put a hole in his mother's washtub, thereby ruining her laundry business.

Charlie, Harvey, Emmet & Wendell talk about forming a jug-band
At the same time, Alice is considering entering the contest.  She'll need a nice outfit to wear onstage and is forced to hock Emmet's tools to pay for it.  Unbeknownst to her, Emmet has put a hole in her washtub so he can join the band.  This means both of their livelihoods have been endangered.

Alice Otter discusses the upcoming talent show with her friend Hetty Muskrat (Eren Ozker).
The competition begins and Emmet's band mates are optimistic.  The other contestants aren't very talented and Harvey is confident that their band will win easily.

"Carrots, the Dancing Horse," one of less successful acts in the talent show.
But they're surprised when they see Alice singing on stage.  It gets worse when another contestant sings the song they were planning to perform.  They hurriedly rehearse a new song for the show.

Alice sings "Our World" at the talent contest.

The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug-Band performs "Brothers."

The talent show seems to be over, but a last-second entry arrives--the Riverbottom Gang, performing as a rock band called The Nightmare.

Riverbottom Nightmare Band!

Will Emmet's band or Alice win the contest?  How will they survive without their washtub and tool chest?

J.A. Morris says:
It's very difficult to be objective about Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.  I first saw it when aired on ABC in 1980 and I've been a big fan ever since.

The band rehearses the song "Barbecue."
The songs are all very catchy and Emmet and Alice are very sweet and sympathetic.  It stands with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas as something I must watch every holiday season.

Emmet brings home the "Christmas Branch."
It's basically a retelling of O. Henry's "The Gift Of The Magi", with washtub and tools standing in for watch and hair.  But unlike that story, Emmet and his mother sell the things that help them make ends meet.

Emmet uses his tool chest to rebuild a fence.
I want to give some kudos to the two leads in this special.  Jerry Nelson gives Emmet an innate sweetness and gives the title otter an endearing speaking and singing voice.

Nelson also performs Stanley Weasel, villainous guitarist for the Nightmare band, who is as nasty as Emmet is nice. It's a tribute to Nelson that it took me years of viewing before I noticed both characters were voiced by the same person.

Marilyn Sokol is also great as the voice of Emmet's mother Alice.

Her lovely singing voice on "Where The River Meets The Sea" and "Our World" has brought tears to my eyes on just about every viewing of this special.  Sokol is a highly accomplished Broadway and TV veteran and has won an Emmy and an Obie award for her work in other shows.

J.A. Morris meets Emmet & his mother at the Smithsonian.
While the Riverbottom Gang are decidedly bad animals, it's to the credit of writer Jerry Juhl that they are funny characters.  Their song at the end of the talent show is a very good rock n roll song.  You'll find yourself tapping your foot and headbanging even you don't really want them to win.

Chuck on stage.
This special is available on DVD and can be streamed on Amazon and iTunes.  The special in its current form is different from the original version in several respects (my co-blogger goes into more detail in her review below).  You can read more about the various edits at the Muppet Wiki.

Alice meets Harrison Fox (Henson), Mayor of Waterville and MC of the talent show.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is one of the greatest productions Henson and his troupe of Muppeteers ever made and is highly recommended.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 candy canes!

RigbyMel says:

I also find it impossible to be objective about this special.   Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is one of my all-time favorite holiday programs.   I love it for many reasons - the wonderful puppeteering (which allowed the Henson workshop to practice and develop techniques they would go on to utilize in various feature length Muppet movies),  the beautifully designed naturalistic sets, and the sweet story, for starters.  

The Waterville Town Hall all ready for the Christmas Eve talent contest
This special is based on a (now long out of print) picture book of the same title by Russell and Lillian Hoban. My family had a copy of the book and I have fond memories of my parents reading it to me when I was small.   I was excited when I learned of the Muppets adaptation, which I think I first saw on HBO in the early 1980s.

Here's the cover of the original book  (I still have my battered and be-stickered copy). 
Henson and company do a great job of adapting the Hobans' story and illustrations.   The additions of giving the River Bottom Gang/Band more things to do as well as more personality and dialogue is welcome.

The Riverbottom Nightmare Band wails out their number during the contest.
Also, Kermit the Frog makes an excellent host in the original version of the special.  He both introduces and wraps up the action, tying things together nicely.

Kermit gets harassed by the Riverbottom Gang at the beginning of the original version of the special.
Sadly,  Kermit is not currently allowed to appear in present releases of the special on DVD, due to copyright issues.   (Dear Disney and Henson folks,  please can we get it together enough to make this happen sometime in the not too distant future?)

Kermit would like to be restored to the home video releases of the special, please!
Music is very important in a story that centers on a talent contest and Paul Williams' music and words are spot on.   They are fun, clever and folksy without being twee and the Riverbottom Nightmare Band's self-titled song is an amusing mash-up of 1970s glam rock awesome.

Harvey Beaver plays washboard and kazoo!
The musical highlight of the program for me is "When The River Meets The Sea" a sweet and tender gospel-tinged ballad that is sung twice during the course of the show.     I suspect that Jim Henson rather liked this song as well as it appears on the John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together album, which was released in 1979.    It was also performed by Jerry Nelson and Louise Gold during Henson's memorial service in 1990.

Goofy dancing rabbits in the talent show.
Although this special makes no mention whatsoever of either Jesus or Santa Claus,  it has a generous spirit and heart that melds perfectly with the Christmas season.   Emmet and Alice Otter's sacrifices wind up paying off in unexpected and heartwarming ways.

Sadly,  when I mention Emmet Otter to most people, they stare at me blankly. That is a shame since this special is utterly charming and deserves to be much better known, with or without the inclusion of Kermit.

RigbyMel has a moment with Emmet and Alice Otter in a special exhibit at the Smithsonian during 2006. 
If you love Christmas and the Muppets, you owe it to yourself to watch Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas and get the songs thoroughly stuck in your head!

RigbyMel's rating:

4 candy canes!!!!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Carol For Another Christmas

Premiered 28 December 1964.

Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is a wealthy business man and war veteran who doesn't care about anyone else.

His nephew Fred (Ben Gazzara) visits him.  Fred is upset that a professor from the university where he works lost his credentials to teach abroad due to Grudge's interference.  Fred's project is shot, a year's work down the drain.  Grudge doesn't believe in cultural exchanges and refers to Fred's work and politics as the "domestic and international orders of the bleeding heart".

Fred visits his uncle, Daniel Grudge on Christmas Eve.
Fred reminds Grudge that they both cared deeply for Grudge's son,  Marley.  He died on Christmas Eve while fighting in a war.  Fred questions why mankind still allows such dying to happen. Grudge says missiles and bombs will bring peace.  Fred leaves.

As soon as his nephew has left, Grudge sees a ghostly presence at his front door.

Grudge finds himself on  a ship transporting dead soldiers.  He's greeted by a man in a soldier's uniform (Steve Lawrence).  This  man turns out to be the Ghost Of Christmas Past and it's 1918.  The ghost and Grudge talk about the millions of soldiers killed in various wars.  The ghost suggests that diplomacy would prevent lots of unnecessary carnage.  Grudge doesn't think talking to other countries is worthwhile, saying wars will never stop. The ghost asks what harm there is in trying to prevent wars.

Grudge and the Ghost Of Christmas Past visit Hiroshima.
The ghost the brings Grudge to "a foreign place" he had "a feeling about at one time": Hiroshima.  Grudge was there in 1945, shortly after the bombing.  Grudge from the past visits a makeshift hospital ward where some school girls horribly burned and blinded by the bombing are being cared for and he is very insensitive.  Grudge doesn't care that victims were school girls, not soldiers.  A WAVE named Lt. Gibson (Eva Marie Saint) is shocked by the horrors and disgusted by Grudge's attitude.  Present-day Grudge doesn't seem to have been much moved by the Ghost of Christmas Past's visitation.

Grudge proceeds through a doorway and finds a man in the dark, sitting at a long table filled with food who identifies himself as the Ghost Of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle).  He shows Grudge people starving in a prison camp.  Grudge is repulsed by the fact that the ghost is feasting in view of the starving people. The ghost points out that there are starving people all over the world whether or not they are right in front of you.  He asks Grudge how he justifies his "selective morality" and uses Grudge's own words against him.

Finally, Grudge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw) and is shown a post-apocalyptic nightmare world.  He is shocked to see his town's meeting house destroyed and burnt out. Nations have dropped nuclear bombs on each other and civilization seems to be pretty much at an end.  Grudge asks why the UN didn't step in to stop that.

Robert Shaw as the Ghost Of Christmas Future.
The Ghost replies that "we dropped out...or they dropped out."  A rowdy crowd of survivors enters the burnt out town hall carrying a man on their shoulders who calls himself  the "Imperial Me" (Peter Sellers).  He is an insane dictator who preaches a gospel of looking out for yourself at the expense of everyone else that may still be alive.

The Imperial Me addresses his subjects.
Grudge's butler Charles (Percy Rodrigues) shows up.  He pleads with the crowd to consider an alternate course of mutual cooperation without which (what's left of) the world will end.  The crowd laughs and roughs up Charles.  Imperial Me charges him with treason and Charles attempts to escape.

Grudge wants to know where he is in this future world.  Did he die before it got this way?   He then asks if the world that he's been shown is the world as it must be, or the world as it might be?

Grudge wakes up on Christmas morning.  He has a bit of a rapprochement with Fred and goes to have breakfast in the kitchen with his butler, Charles.    Perhaps the visits from the spirits have helped Grudge to learn that "there must be involvement" if the world is to save itself.

J.A. Morris says:
A Carol For Another Christmas is a fascinating product of its time.  It was funded by Xerox and was intended to promote the diplomatic goals of the United Nations.

The special was written by Rod Serling, who was famous for hosting The Twilight Zone and for writing many of its most memorable episodes. This special feels a lot like an extra-long episode of that series.  You expect Serling to pop up on screen and announce "Daniel Grudge doesn't know it yet...but he's about to spend Christmas the Twilight Zone."

This is both good and bad.  The Twilight Zone was sometimes heavy-handed in delivering its messages.  That's the main problem with A Carol For Another Christmas. The other thing that gets old is that the ghosts all give speeches that go on a few minutes too long.  

But this odd Dickens adaptation has other qualities that make it worth watching.

I found it interesting partially due to the fact that I have a history degree, with a concentration on Cold War studies.  Its message, while somewhat awkwardly delivered, is essentially saying diplomacy will prevent nations of the world from destroying each other.

Sellers fans should seek out A Carol For Another Christmas.  His performance as Imperial Me brings lots of life and excitement to the "Christmas Future" portion of the special.  Sellers was one of the most gifted comic actors of his time, but he rarely played serious roles.  He is so downright scary here, that I almost forgot that this is the actor who was famous for portraying the bumbling Inspector Clousseau.  It's worth noting that Sellers and Sterling Hayden also both appeared together in another film earlier that year that dealt with Cold War politics, the classic Doctor Strangelove.

Robert Shaw is also good in his role as the Ghost of Christmas Future.  I thought he was the strongest of the film's three Ghosts.    

I should mention that A Carol For Another Christmas is much darker than the average Christmas special.  Grudge visits the site of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and observes children who are dying from radiation poisoning.  This is a powerful scene and is one of the more effective moments of the special, but is not recommended if you're in the mood for lighthearted holiday fare.

A Carol For Another Christmas is a flawed special, but it is worth watching because of the moment it represents in World History and for Sellers' riveting performance.

J.A. Morris' rating:

2 and a half candy canes.

RigbyMel says:

To my mind,  A Carol For Another Christmas is an interesting Cold War artifact, but that doesn't necessarily make for great general audience viewing.    The message is very well meaning, but muddy and as a result comes off as a bit hollow when all is said and done.    It is also presented in a VERY heavy-handed manner and would benefit from a bit more showing than telling in its narrative structure.

Even though there are lots of dramatic possibilities in any variation on A Christmas Carol,  I think that many of those chances are a little wasted and that Grudge's transformation is a little too small to be satisfying.

However,  the involvement of a great writer like Rod Serling and great actors like Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers save A Carol For Another Christmas from being unwatchable.

It is interesting to note that this special is a bit of a rarity,  having only been shown on network television one time in 1964 and not again until it resurfaced on Turner Classic Movies in recent years. It is unavailable on disc, but seems to be cropping up regularly in TCM's December schedule in recent years.

It's not great, but it is of interest, especially if you are a fan of Sellers, Serling or history.

RigbyMel's rating:

2 candy canes


Friday, December 26, 2014

The DuPont Show With June Allyson: "A Silent Panic"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on the excellent Christmas TV History blog run by our friend Joanna.   We thank her for including us as guest bloggers and strongly encourage our readers to pay her site a visit!  -   RigbyMel and J.A. Morris


Premiered December 22, 1960.

The DuPont Show was an anthology series that ran from 1959 to 1961 and was hosted by actress June Allyson

A man known only as "Benson" (Harpo Marx) is employed as a "mechanical man" (sort of a human wind-up toy) in a department store's Christmas window display.

A man is shot dead outside the store window.

 During one of his performances, a crowd gathers in front of the window to watch.  One of the spectators is gunned down, the two hit men who shot him escape. Benson is the only witness to this crime.

Benson is brought in for questioning by the police, but there's a problem.  He is deaf, mute and can't help identify the gunmen.  This frustrates the police.

Benson acts out the murder for the police.

The killers want to take Benson out of the picture, so they stake out the department store.

Benson notices them on his way to work and a chase ensues.  He hides at a warehouse until dark.  Daniel, the night watchman (Ernest Truex)  sees him and offers him shelter.

Daniel is a lonely widower and is glad to have company for the night.  He loves to talk and calls the deaf Benson "the best listener" he's ever met.

The gunmen notice activity at the warehouse and pay a visit.  Daniel gives them the runaround, but they rough him up, believing he will lead them to Benson.  Benson escapes and tries to get help in hopes that the police will come to rescue Daniel. 

J.A Morris says:
I'm a huge fan of the Marx Brothers and "A Silent Panic" is something I've been aware of for years.  But beyond a brief clip in a documentary, I'd never seen any footage until it was released on DVD last summer as part of The Marx Brothers TV Collection.

Benson is questioned by the Lieutenant (Bert Freed).

 This is Harpo Marx's first dramatic performance.  He was getting pretty old at this point (72 when it was broadcast).  But signs of his old impish character are still on display, especially during the scene where he walks to work.  It's a wonderful performance, Marx conveys so much emotion here with facial expressions and a few gestures.

While it's certainly a "Christmas" story, the holiday makes its presence felt in subtler ways.  The soundtrack features bits of "Hark The Herald Angels Sing", "Jingle Bells" and "Good Christian Men Rejoice."   The interactions between Benson and the night watchman are very touching, there is lots  of Christmas "good will" being shared between these men.  You might say their Christmas present is finding a new friend.

If there's anything to criticize, the story is a bit slight.  We never learn anything about the victim of the shooting, the hit men or why they killed him.  At one point, the police ask Benson's boss if Benson is illiterate.  The dialogue sort of dances around the answer.  With the exception of Benson, none of the characters are given names.  All the names listed in this review were taken from IMDB. But on the whole, it's a good story.

Benson runs through the snow and escapes to the warehouse.

In his memoir, Harpo Speaks, Marx says that whenever he had trouble remembering someone's name, he would call them "Benson."  So I'm guessing his character's name was sort of an inside joke.

Some background on the rest of the cast and crew:
It should be noted that "A Silent Panic" was directed by Arthur Hiller.  During his 50+ year career, Hiller directed many tv episodes and films, including Love Story and The Americanization Of Emily.

Daniel, the kindly nightwatchman is portrayed by Ernest Truex, who was a prolific actor in film and television. His career began in 1913, his credits include the screwball comedy classic His Girl Friday.

Ernest Truex as Daniel

Benson's employer Popper  is played by John Banner.  A few years after "A Silent Panic," Banner became famous for playing the bumbling Sgt Schultz on Hogan's Heroes.

John Banner (left) as Popper.

 "A Silent Panic" is a poignant Christmas tale of lonely people finding friendship under unusual circumstances.  It features a wonderful performance from Harpo Marx near the end of his career.  This show is recommended and is must-see for fans of the Marx Brothers.  I also recommend The Marx Brothers TV Collection, it would make a great Christmas gift for fans of Harpo and his brothers.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 and a half candy canes.

RigbyMel says:

"A Silent Panic" is quite an interesting holiday rarity.   As J.A. Morris points out, the story itself is somewhat slight, but it's quite an endearing tale anyway, due to the acting.     The script and the actors interpreting it do a lot more showing than telling.

We see the kindness of  the night watchman as he shares his meal with the frightened Benson.  Harpo Marx's skillful performance as Benson communicates the character's whimsy and worry without ever uttering a word.  (Benson is sort of the ultimate in "show, don't tell" characterization!)   The holiday message of being kind to one's fellow man comes through loud and clear without coming across as twee.    I also quite enjoyed checking out the "holiday downtown of yesteryear" decorations and sets.

"A Silent Panic" is well worth checking out if you have the time and inclination this holiday season.

RigbyMel's rating:

3 candy canes.