Appellate Judge Tommy Becker wants the Kravitz family to know he turned out just fine.
"We're here for…Tommy Becker."—Gladys Kravitz picks the lucky orphan on Bewitched
Like the holiday itself, the TV series Christmas episode is a time-honored tradition. Sometimes, we get bona fide, instant classics—who can forget Mary Richards' lonely holiday night as the only staffer at the WJM newsroom or Art Carney's turn as a miraclized department store Santa in The Twilight Zone's wonderful "Night of the Meek?" Even the less iconic episodes—often riffs on A Christmas Carol or dilemmas about finding the right gift—offer the kind of easy comfort and familiarity that make the holiday seem somehow complete.
Shout! Factory is giving us Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics from TV's Golden Age, a collection of six holiday episodes from popular 1960s era shows. It's pretty randomly assembled and comparable to the 6-9 p.m. block of programming that TV Land offers up every Christmas Eve.
• Father Knows Best:
"The Christmas Story" (1958)
The Andersons are the quintessential sitcom family, and their nonadventures were popular with TV audiences for six years. In this episode, patriarch Jim (Robert Young, The Enchanted Cottage) bemoans how commercialized and impersonal Christmas has become. On a whim, he takes the family out to cut down a tree (old-fashion style) and gets the caught in a blizzard. Seeking refuge at a nearby shuttered lodge, they encounter an odd old coot named Nick who seems awfully eager to have the family stay for the holiday.
• The Donna Reed Show:
"A Very Merry Christmas" (1958)
The Stones are another typical American family, only with an Oscar-winning actress in the lead. In this episode, matriarch Donna (Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity) bemoans how commercialized and impersonal Christmas has become. On a whim, she visits her doctor husband at the hospital and discovers "true meaning" via some neglected moppets and a kindly janitor.
• McHale's Navy: "The Day They Captured Santa"
A wacky WWII PT boat in the Pacific theater. When McHale (Ernest Borgnine, The Wild Bunch) and his men try to surprise some orphans by dressing up as Santa and the elves and delivering presents, they inadvertently sail into an ambush by Japanese soldiers. Can these merry and bright hucksterers slip out of the POW experience?
• Bewitched: "A
Vision of Sugar Plums" (1964)
Ordinary housewife Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery, A Case of Rape) is really a witch (a good one), but only a few people know about it. Taking in orphans for the holidays is the order of the day—neighbors Abner and Gladys Kravitz actually take in an especially appealing child named Tommy Becker—but the Stevens get stuck with the boorish Michael (Billy Mumy, Lost in Space), who insists Santa is a myth. Will a trip to the North Pole to meet The Man himself change the boy's mind?
• That Girl:
"Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid" (1966)
A perky single (with a boyfriend) girl tries to make it as an actress in New York City. In this flashback episode, Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas, Thieves) recalls one Christmas she spent holed up at a boarding school with a little boy whose actor parents never have time to spend holidays with him.
• The Flying Nun:
"Wailing in a Winter Wonderland" (1967)
Sister Bertrille (Sally Field, Norma Rae) is a nun in Puerto Rico whose slight frame and winged headdress allow her to be airborne when the winds are right. For the convent's Secret Santa, Sister Bertrille draws Sister Olav, a dying Norwegian nun whose Christmas wish is to see the snow fall. So our flying nun grabs some dry ice and a strong headwind and salts the clouds, creating an impromptu blizzard in San Juan. Unfortunately, she's too successful, and the unexpected white-out drives tourists from the island, causing the economy to collapse and the locals to become so poor that they have to eat their own children to survive. Will the little sister be able to fly herself out of this one?
As a bonus, this disc features an episode from an obscure Robert Young dram-com, Window on Main Street. Young plays a widower and writer who moves to a small town—though not so small that it doesn't have a stately residential hotel, a shopping emporium, and an endless supply of blandly eccentric and big-hearted characters. In this holiday episode, "Christmas Memory" (1961), Young's character, Cameron Garrett Brooks, is buoyed by a janitor-turned-department-store Santa, but he can't help thinking about his dead wife. This very nearly botches up Christmas for his matronly new lady friend, but of course, fate intervenes.
Shout! Factory's subtitling this disc as Christmas Classics from TV's Golden Age is a little heavy on the hyperbole. The "Golden Age" of television is generally a reference to the '50s, with its influential drama series such as Playhouse 90 and The US Steel Hour. While Father Knows Best might qualify as a "Golden Age" sitcom by dint of premiering in the early '50s and running as long as it did, it hasn't aged as well as I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. The '60s—when most of these programs aired—is actually the only decade that I've never heard of referred to as a "Golden Age" for anything television.
That doesn't mean the shows represented here aren't "classics" in at least some sense of the word, and with the "newest" one here—The Flying Nun episode—being more than 40 years old, these certainly have historical and archival value.
What stands out here is the almost complete absence of cynicism. Yeah, there are a few potshots about commercialism (including references to pink Christmas trees) and how the holiday has lost that warm and fuzzy thing, but in the end, the warm and fuzzies return and everybody's singing carols. It's endearing how much "goodwill" flows freely through these episodes, each of which would be a cautionary tale if told through post-millennia sensibilities. The Father Knows Best episode gives us "Nick," a grizzled loner with an odd way of dealing with people who'd be right at home in a Rob Zombie film; here, he's happily tucking pre-pubescent girls into bed and inviting a Brillcreamed teen boy out to the woods for some fun, and nobody bats an eye. Bewitched—the best of these, by the way—offers up this odd Orphanage as Holiday Rent-a-Center motif, with childless couples picking out cute orphan boys, taking them home for the holiday, showering them with gifts and attention, and then dumping them back at the gruel-and-pickpocket institution on the 26th. Both That Girl and The Donna Reed Show use neglected kids as feel-good props (That Girl a bit more gracefully), The Flying Nun makes hay from the economic ruin of the working class, and McHale's Navy finds hidden laughs in the threat of Japanese POW camps.
But "thought-provoking" was never what these sitcoms were about, and they're cozy and nostalgic, and funny because of how familiar they've become. We get low-key guest shots from Buster Keaton, Wallace Ford, Cecil Kellaway, Chris Shea, and beloved character actor John Fiedler. The jokes are silly, you know going in that everyone's going to have their "best Christmas ever," and good for them—and for us. This is the kind of DVD you pop in while trimming your tree, wrapping presents, or as background when you've got friends or family over for holiday party.
The shows look alright, though far from pristine, but no worse than if you were watching them on TVLand or another syndie channel. Audio is fine, and the only "extra" is a bunch of trailers for other DVD sets.
Nothing remarkable here, but pleasant holiday comfort fare.
Ho Ho Ho, not guilty, yo!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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