Wednesday 16 December 2015

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Director: Steve Binder
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Of all the films I’ve reviewed for Weird Wednesdays, this is surely the most notorious, partly because it’s a tape trader’s dream. The first official Star Wars tie-in after the original movie, it was broadcast once on CBS in November 1978 and once in a few other English-speaking countries, before vanishing into legend. It has never been re-screened or given an official release, meaning that it’s circulated for years only in a variety of horrendous quality copies. Fortunately, a first generation copy surfaced a couple of years ago, recorded directly from that CBS broadcast on WHIO in Dayton, OH. It’s of vastly higher quality than any previous version I’ve seen, enough so that I finally sat down and watched the whole thing. What I found was that it’s pretty awful, though not quite as irredeemable as some would have it. There are points that are deliberately funny rather than just accidentally so. However, it’s so consistently off kilter that it’s an easy choice for Weird Wednesdays. What’s weirdest is that George Lucas allowed it to happen.

Today, we tend to look down on Lucas, who turned to the cinematic dark side and became everything he hated: the businessman over the filmmaker, known as much for Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians and licensed products as weird as severed wampa arm ice scrapers for your car windows as he is for creating the Star Wars universe. Back in 1978, however, he was admired not only for the original Star Wars movie but also for American Graffiti, which is a quality film that deserves to be remembered as more than a footnote in his career. People even enjoyed the unprecedented movie tie-in merchandising that Star Wars generated and I’m sure many of them regret ditching their 1978 toys after deciding that girls were more important. What people didn’t enjoy was this, which stunned audiences in roughly the same way that The Phantom Menace did 21 years later. Today, it’s hard to figure out who might have enjoyed it as it’s so inconsistent as to bore kids and make adults roll their eyes. No wonder it went down in legend.

The opening sets the scene magnificently. Everyone who fell in love with Star Wars and eagerly wanted more got an early Christmas present for about seventy seconds. Sure, the cockpit set of the Millennium Falcon looks a little flimsy but that’s really Han Solo and Chewbacca racing through space in an attempt to escape not one but two Star Destroyers. As they hit light speed, the holy words, ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...’ appear on screen to the joyous accompaniment of John Williams’s famous theme. I’m sure that, at this point, people were not too fussed about having to miss a week’s worth of Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk. The opening credits are horribly narrated but at least folk were going to see a host of original cast members: not merely Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher but Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and, well, R2-D2 as R2-D2. Quite why Kenny Baker would be so slighted, I have no idea, but it’s still promising. See, the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader!
It’s at this point that everything goes horribly wrong and never manages to recover. We’re going to see Chewbacca’s family: his wife, Malla, his father, Itchy, and his son, Lumpy. C’mon! Oh, and special guests: Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, the Jefferson Starship and Harvey Korman. And just in case that hadn’t sunk in, it immediately breaks for commercials and returns with what must be the weakest sponsorship screen ever. ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special, sponsored by General Motors, people building transportation to serve people.’ That was as catchy as an entire advertising department could think up? And Itchy and Lumpy? What sort of family did Chewie have? It might have helped if the five writers had explained that these were pet names, Malla being Mallatobuck, Itchy being Attichitcuk and Lumpy being Lumpawarrump. Then again, no. That would suggest that Star Wars made fun of ethnicities two decades before Jar Jar and Watto would delve into African American and Jewish stereotypes.

Fortunately, we can sit back and relax a little because the first nine and a half minutes of the movie are actually silent. As a classic film aficionado, this approach can’t help but remind me of the Dawn of Man sequence that begins 2001: A Space Odyssey and I have to respect the sheer balls of the producers for delivering almost ten minutes of banal but surely family friendly Wookiee dialogue entirely unsubtitled. Why they thought it might be a good choice, I have no idea, but maybe they’re silent movie fans, as the first variety performance, of an acrobatic troupe displayed holographically from some plastic device in Chewie’s front room, is highly reminiscent of what French cinemagician Georges Méliès was doing three quarters of a century earlier. Even this is kept silent, the intended announcements of ringleader Yuichi Sugiyama cut and replaced by electronic music. The tumblers are the Wazzan Troupe, the jugglers the Mum Brothers and the gymnast Stephanie Stromer. They’re all far better than this movie.

As I’m sure you haven’t guessed by now, the plot of the Holiday Special has to do with Chewie trying to return home to his home planet of Kashyyyk through an Empire blockade to celebrate Life Day with his family. What Life Day actually is we’re never too sure, even though we eventually get to see a bunch of Wookiees in blood red robes walking into a star, only to find themselves in a cave full of dry ice in which Princess Leia sings some soporific nonsense to the vague tune of the Star Wars Theme. Nobody explains how Luke, Leia and the droids magically make their way to this cave but, if it was that simple, why was it such a trek for Han and Chewie? Did they really need five writers to come up with plotholes like these? Then again, this must all be high entertainment on Kashyyyk, where the Empire apparently broadcasts routine dispatches to stormtroopers via every TV set on the planet, just in case. And you complained about Jersey Shore? The only reason Wookiees keep TV sets is because they double as communicators.
And yes, as communicators suggest, we do end up venturing back into the world of dialogue that isn’t in what is presumably the Thykarann dialect of Shyriiwook. Somehow that never achieved the popularity of Klingon among nerds. I wonder why. Thykarann Boggle must be a riot. Anyway, having the special centre on Chewie’s family means a number of things. One, the budget needed for the cast is cleverly contained: Mickey Morton, Paul Gale and Patty Maloney hardly commanded salaries like Hamill, Ford and Fisher were surely asking post-Star Wars. And why Chewie’s wife is played by a man and his son by a girl, I don’t want to know. Two, Chewie being late home for Life Day celebrations is a convenient way for Malla to reach out to everyone in the Rebel Alliance to ask about him and so provide them with much cheaper cameo slots. And three, we don’t see Kashyyyk in the first movie, so we can’t complain about how much cheaper it’s look here. Well, except that Chewie apparently lives inside a painting. That’s cheap.

Finally, there are plenty of opportunities to throw in variety performances and guest appearances without having to spend much money on sets. Most of them are televised, so they didn’t even need to fly people in to the same place. Jefferson Starship appear in the form of a holographic video used to distract a thug from the Empire, which basically means that they’re small and they glow pink throughout. Art Carney is a local trader who shows up initially via communicator but joins the main thrust of the story at Chewie’s as the only guest who takes part in the plot. Bea Arthur is Ackmena, bartender at the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina, her story oddly told as an official Empire broadcast to highlight Life on Tattooine. Harvey Korman appears as three different characters: in drag as Chef Gormanda, a four-armed parody of Julia Child, who Malla fails to keep up with; as a malfunctioning Amorphian android on an instruction video which makes precisely no sense; and as a complete moron in Mos Eisley who’s fallen hopelessly in love with Ackmena.

Worst of all is Diahann Carroll in what must surely be the most misguided scene in this misguided special, credited as Mermeia Holographic Wow. When Saul Dann, Carney’s rebel supporting trader, brings Life Day presents to Chewie’s family, we think he’s nice, but he brings weird presents. Itchy, Chewie’s father who looks remarkably like a furry version of the Cryptkeeper, is apparently a pervert, so he’s given a full size cyber sex machine that allows him to conjure up his fantasy, right there where his grandson’s playing. It is a private gizmo but many parents surely spent some acutely uncomfortable minutes wondering if their kids were imagining a geriatric Wookiee whacking off to a black chick in some nightmarish shared Star Wars bestiality fan fic experience. ‘I exist for you,’ croons Carroll suggestively. ‘I’m getting your message. Are you getting mine?’ ‘Ah, we’re excited, aren’t we?’ ‘We can have a good time.’ ‘I find you adorable’. ‘I am your fantasy.’ ‘Experience me.’ Trust me, I’m never going to see Paris Blues the same way again.
There’s no doubt that this section is the most wildly inappropriate part of this special. It’s so wrong that I can’t comprehend why anyone could ever have thought it a good idea to write it, shoot it or, once they’d seen it, leave the frickin’ thing in. When Nathan Rabin, the first head writer of the AV Club, wrote, ‘I’m not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine,’ he was surely thinking first and foremost about Diahann Carroll and Itchy the perverted Wookiee granddad. Hilariously, as relentlessly suppressed as this holiday special is, it’s officially canon, partly because the animated bit introduces the popular character Boba Fett for the first time, so we can’t ignore that Chewie’s dad is into bestiality, Luke Skywalker understood Wookiee before The Empire Strikes Back and Bea Arthur has more Star Wars dialogue than any other woman except for Carrie Fisher until the prequels showed up. That’s a heck of a factoid to use to upset nerds everywhere. What’s most hilarious is that she’s pretty good.

And that’s the real surprise here. Sure, this is an unholy mess, even for variety television, but it’s not the $115m unholy mess that was The Phantom Menace. Carrie Fisher has said that she has a copy to screen at parties, ‘mainly at the end of the night when I want people to leave,’ but I’d suggest that it’s not quite as embarrassing for its actors as that first prequel. Sure, it’s hardly a jewel in their filmographies, but the work they do in it is generally cameos or skits, not serious acting; nobody’s judging their talent based on this holiday special. However, actors of the stature of Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, whose talents were so spectacularly wasted in The Phantom Menace, have to live with millions of people knowing their work only from that billion-dollar grossing nightmare. Remember that Sir Alec Guinness, a legendary actor with classic after classic to his name, is known primarily today for what he describes as ‘fairy-tale rubbish’, albeit fairy-tale rubbish that made him rather wealthy late in life.

The only part that most see as a highlight is the animated segment, officially titled The Faithful Wookiee to keep in theme with the rest of the special, but known today as the introduction of bounty hunter Boba Fett. It’s a ten minute piece, produced by the Canadian animation studio Nelvana, best known today for children’s television shows like Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears, but George Lucas was a fan of their holiday specials and kept them onboard after this for Saturday morning Star Wars cartoon series in the eighties like Droids and Ewoks. It’s actually quite fun, as utterly stupid as it is, with Han and Chewie crash landing onto the ocean planet of Panna while searching for a mystical talisman that makes things invisible. Luke and the droids follow them, only to fall prey to Boba Fett, who seems to be a nice guy just trying to help. It’s primitively done but with some style, like a budget cross between Moebius and Carlos Ezquerra. Of course, I like it just because it forced the Holiday Special into being canon.
If The Faithful Wookiee is arguably the best segment and Mermeia Holographic Wow is clearly the worst, my favourite is probably the Life on Tattooine broadcast that unfolds in Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina in Mos Eisley, where a whole bevy of actors in recognisable alien costumes drink, enjoy the music of Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes and refuse to leave when the Empire imposes curfew and closes them down. Just as Art Carney treats the weak material in his scenes with respect, Bea Arthur does far more with her portion of the film than anyone perhaps expected. She’s funny in the early scenes with Harvey Korman’s lovesick Krelman, an alien who drinks by pouring alcohol into a hole on the top of his head, but suitably emotional when she buys a round for everyone and sings a song that’s half Jewish singalong belter and half cantina jazz. I have no idea why the Empire wants stormtroopers to see this or how Chewie can be a secret rebel when Wookiees watch cartoons about him, but I enjoyed both.

That’s not to say that I enjoyed the entire holiday special. Most of it alternates between being horrifying, unfunny and boring; it often manages to be all three at once. The cast are almost entirely ashamed of it, George Lucas has said that, ‘If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it’ and even the die hard Star Wars fans who have kept this alive on the grey market for 37 years are hard pressed to say good things about it. Yet, I’d suggest that it’s worth watching once, just for the experience and as a warning about how careful you should be when licensing your product. Sure, Lucas clearly wanted to make as much cash from his budding franchise as possible, so agreeing to such outlandish ideas as inflatable tauntauns, Darth Vader ponchos and Jabba play gel, but this was one step too far, even with a Kenner action figures advert to wrap up proceedings. Lesson learned: don’t license a television special and don’t license a Christmas album, but everything else is fair game.

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