Judge Neil Dorsett thought this holiday disc would go really well with the changing fall colors.
Muggsy: Hey Freddy, what's that?
The great Red Skelton's show ran for thirty years. That's thirty Halloweens, thirty Arbor Days, and thirty Christmases. Passport Video has grabbed a couple of shows produced for two of those Christmases, seemingly at random, and included them on this holiday greeting disc.
The first episode is an adaptation of O. Henry's "The Cop and the Anthem." Skelton's character Freddy the Freeloader has big plans for the holidays: he's going to get himself arrested and thrown in the clink, where it's warm and there are three meals a day. When his first plan—quite a good one—fails due to the charity of a restaurateur, Freddy embarks upon a series of schemes to get himself arrested, each more aggressive than the last. Intermittently he encounters his pal Muggsy (Allen Jenkins) who must eventually flee when one of Freddy's vandalisms attracts an angry mob to Muggsy instead. Freddy has a life-changing moment, though, when he hears the Mitchell Boys' Choir perform "O Come All Ye Faithful." This show is pretty entertaining, as Skelton creates a string of elaborate gags to angle in on the O. Henry story's conclusion. Skelton's clownish persona dominates the show and leads the audience on a pleasant one-hour ride. His delivery is always smooth and professional, and the support players are all right along there with him. This is a fairly solid hour of 1950s-era television.
The second episode, "Freddy and the Yuletide Doll," is tougher going. Presented entirely in pantomime on an elaborate single set, this one appears to have been a regularly scheduled episode of The Red Skelton Show. Freddy is alone in a park on Christmas Eve as the festivities of young folk pass by around him. Freddy can only floss his brain with an icicle for comfort. But when a young woman leaves behind a Raggedy Ann doll from her pile of gifts, Freddy becomes lost in his imagination and the doll comes alive. Carol Williams performs as the doll, which is basically like watching Lucille Ball goof around without talking. This segment is quite random, mostly a collection of silent (with some Foley) sight gags followed by the lengthy dance sequence with the doll. The whole thing is accompanied by a group of singers in the style of Christmas records of the day. While this type of thing has its adherents, the show burned through its conceit fairly quickly. By the time the doll came around, it was pretty lost in sugary treacle, which is fine for an old Christmas special, but it had also slowed down to a snail's pace. There must be better examples of Skelton's Christmas shows that could have filled this slot.
While neither of these is a live show (and the second carries one of those really, really overused laugh tracks that grates heavily on the nerves, but wouldn't have been so achingly familiar at the time of course), both are old enough to carry a lot of live TV remnants, such as the title cards for each act of the play. Of course, Skelton's own history spans the entire world of broadcast entertainment, so holdovers may be as much a part of his own show's personal character as they are a simple artifact of the times. The black haloes around characters, which would normally be associated with live TV telecine records, are occasionally present, but the shows seem to be film-sourced with their laugh tracks and sophisticated editing. God only knows how many layers of transferring are involved here.
Not surprisingly, then, the shows look terrible. The entire presentation is a gray-and-white washed out mess, which might have looked that bad in its own time if you lived too far from the station. But with a film source, it follows that there must be a better way to get a look at this material than a forty-times-dubbed-over syndication tape. And probably there is, given the myriad of Skelton collections available on DVD. The sound is not as bad, but not great. "Cop and the Anthem" has a rough feel to its sound, but "Yuletide Doll," which had no recording of actual events onscreen but used a prepared tape with a lot of music, fares a little better. Both are listenable.
The menus are animated and accompanied by a tune which is, exactly, the words "It's Christmastime, it's Christmastime" sung to the tune of the opening bit, "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale," from the Gilligan's Island theme. This short "tune" repeats until you destroy either your DVD player or yourself. No extras are included.
The ultimate low judgment on this disc doesn't reflect Skelton's abilities at all. What it reflects is the poor quality of the disc overall, the crappy choice of second episode when there were numerous other Skelton Christmas specials, and the generally cynical idea behind such discs. Everyone knows that Grandma isn't going to buy this disc for herself, and that outside of the family's visit, she'd never bother to watch it. This is a "gift idea." It'll sit there at drugstores again this year, hoping for that moment when a little kid is desperate for a gift to her grandparents, and mom's around to say, "Hey, I remember them watching Red Skelton a lot." Yeah, that's all well and good. But if the grandparents really liked Skelton and would watch a disc if presented one, or if anyone's looking for a way to look at Skelton and learn something, pony up the extra $15 and get one of the numerous box sets of the Skelton Show. It'll go a lot further than this short change.
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Studio: Passport Video
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