Do the things they call “TV series” today have Christmas episodes? I wouldn’t know, because you couldn’t pay me to watch new television. The last time I tried, it was some CBS Medical Center Meets Doogie Howser, M.D. mash-up, featuring an autistic savant hero who head-ciphers in Hemo the Magnificent graphics (I went straight for the gin bottle…). Why play Russian roulette with your limited holiday time? You know what’s easier when you need your Christmas TV fix? Get a disc of pre-selected old-timey television favorites, like Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age, from Shout! Factory.
By Paul Mavis
Shout! Factory’s cozy, comfy Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age is a seven-show compilation that includes Christmas-themed episodes from the premiere seasons of Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, That Girl, The Flying Nun, and Window on Main Street (the disc’s “bonus” episode, from Robert Young’s 1961 failed sitcom/drama). Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age is a fun little collection, just in time for the Christmas holiday (yaaassss I wrote, “Christmas” again! So call the P.C. police!).
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The “Christmas episode” of a particular series is a television ritual that goes back to the very beginnings of the medium, and ever since television dominated the American culture—a period of history, I’m sorry to say, now ended—the ritual of sitting down with family to watch a favorite show and its characters reenact one’s own holiday traditions, while reinforcing the religious and secular tenants associated with that holy day, marked some of the happiest Christmas memories for viewers my age.
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Today, with DVD and streaming, we can “reprogram” those valuable memories (although I do miss the commercials—why do the DVD releasing companies ignore that essential element of vintage TV viewing?) while skipping network toy commercial garbage like Olaf’s Frozen Adventure and Shrek the Halls. Let’s look at the seven shows in Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age.
FATHER KNOWS BEST
The Christmas Story (original airdate: December 19, 1954).
It’s Christmas Eve in Springfield, and General Insurance Company agent Jim Anderson (Robert Young) is feeling decidedly grumpy about the holiday season. Wondering aloud why no one, apparently, has the “old fashioned” Christmas spirit, Jim is increasingly dismayed by his wife Margaret’s (Jane Wyatt) military-styled bookkeeping when it comes to keeping accounts on who and who doesn’t among their personal and business acquaintances gets Christmas presents, as well as with his children, who seem more mercenary than reverent.
Bud (Billy Gray) is using Christmas carols to sell used cars; Betty (Elinor Donahue) is more concerned about manufacturing an appearance of good will in her calculated gift-giving; and little Kathy (Lauren Chapin) wants a tree…a purple one (Commie…). Jim decides what the family needs is a little old-fashioned togetherness, so he bundles everyone up in the family sedan and heads off to Pine Mountain to get a tree. But a snow storm strands them, and they’re forced to stay in an abandoned cabin…or is it abandoned?
One of my favorite Christmas-themed TV episodes, The Christmas Story, written by Roswell Rogers, is a beautifully designed little story that never fails to choke me up a bit whenever I watch it. What starts off as a fairly common look at the dissatisfaction with the increasing commercialization of Christmas, a feeling that was gaining traction with many adults in the 1950s (having still remembered a time in America when the holiday could be celebrated without the all-pervading hype and monetary considerations), turns quite lovely as the Andersons—that most typical of typical American sitcom families—rediscover the true meaning of the Christmas holiday.
Wallace Ford turns in an emotional performance as “Nick,” the wily old loner who lives in the hills (against the law), who breaks into the cabin and finds he has a family to take care of on Christmas Eve. Connecting with Bud and Kitten on a direct level, Nick soon imparts valuable life lessons to the children who initially aren’t at all thrilled with the prospect of “missing” Christmas; i.e.: gifts (as Nick correctly counters, “It’s Christmas up here, too.”). Jim gets his wish for the true Christmas spirit as the children blossom under the “hardship” of making up their own old-fashioned Christmas. There’s a wonderful scene with Ford and Chapin, where he tells the child what a precious gift he’s been given by their arrival: “Tonight, Katy, I’m everybody. I’m a man, I’m a little boy, I’m a father, I’m an uncle, I’m a friend, I’m a stranger. And I’m rich, because you’re my friend, and because I own tonight.” That last line is important, because The Christmas Story isn’t sentimental or “cute”—Nick could have eventually told the Andersons he didn’t own the cabin. He could have “walked them out” to the ranger he knew was looking for him.
But he doesn’t. He wants them to stay, even if it means a little subterfuge on his part. That’s how lonely he is, but importantly, Jim and Margaret, once they find out what Nick did for them, decide to pay for any materials he used in the cabin—they’re grateful for his gift to them. When the ranger shows up and plays along with Nick so as not to spoil Kitten’s “sighting” of Santa Claus (one of the most magical, beautiful shots in early TV: Kitten, looking silently through a frosted window, sees Nick getting ready to leave, carrying a sack on his back, as he pets a deer), the scene is played knowingly, without jokiness or overdone pathos. It’s a sad, lovely story, marred here only by the edited syndicated print that was used for this disc’s transfer (the scene transitions are unfortunately abrupt at these arbitrary edits).
THE DONNA REED SHOW
A Very Merry Christmas (original airdate: December 24, 1958).
After discovering that no one seems to like fruitcake as a substitute for handing out cold, hard cash at Christmas time, Donna Stone (Donna Reed) realizes that she’s somehow lost the Christmas spirit among all her frenzied activities. Being the wife of Alex Stone (Carl Betz), an equally harried young doctor growing his practice, she has to worry about keeping up appearances with her gift-giving, while watching over her two rambunctious children, Mary and Jeff (Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen).
Both give her pause to wonder if they know the true meaning of Christmas as she hears their mercenary, calculated responses to the rules of gift-giving, as well. A chance encounter, however, down at the county hospital, changes Donna’s outlook when she realizes she can be of use to people who truly need a touch of Christmas kindness.
Another favorite Christmas episode of mine from this time period in TV history, and just like the previous Father Knows Best episode, this entry again trades on the disenchantment so many of us feel with the over-commercialization of Christmas, where attention to social appearances coupled with insane gift-buying and getting, totally obscure the true meaning of the holiday. Light and quite funny at the beginning (The Donna Reed Show excelled at seemingly lightweight but in reality quite sophisticated banter), the show turns serious at the end when Donna discovers a ward full of injured children who won’t be having the kind of “traditional” Christmas the Stones take for granted.
Finally, truly needed by these children, Donna does the unthinkable for a 50s sitcom mom (or at least, it’s “unthinkable” for today’s bloggers who make politically-motivated sociological generalizations about TV shows they’ve never actually seen)—she leaves her family on Christmas Eve, asking them to please understand, while she goes to the children who really need her. There, she encounters the hospital janitor (well-played by Buster Keaton right before his highly-publicized comeback) who has given of himself to the children at the hospital, as well, for over 30 years, planning their parties and fixing up the broken toys that are donated at the last minute. Organizing a tree and some presents, Donna goes to the ward where she’s eventually met by the head of the hospital, as well as her own family, all of whom donate some of their own gifts to the more needy children.
As Alex and Donna listen to Silent Night, the camera dollies in close to her, as her face is transformed as she gazes at an angel decoration on the tree. Donna Stone goes from happily smiling at the gift she’s been given—the gift of knowing what Christmas really means—to her putting on the most remarkably enigmatic, searching look—a look I still wonder about to this day, whenever I think of Donna Reed, the performer. It’s a truly beautiful, transcendent moment, and one that’s a testament to this wholly underrated actress.
The Day They Captured Santa Claus (original airdate: December 27, 1962).
The native children of the Buena Loa Shelter and School are nervous that Santa—whom they just learned about from Mrs. Parfrey (Anna Lee)—won’t be coming to visit them with presents because of the war raging out in the Pacific. What they don’t realize is, Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale (Ernest Borgnine) is on the job, after Mrs. Parfrey wrote to him, asking for his help.
McHale, with the organizational help of his fumbling second-in-command, Ensign Charles Parker (Tim Conway), instructs the men in the decorating of their P.T. boat to deliver the children their presents, while McHale (in full Santa regalia) and Harrison “Tinker” Bell (Billy Sands) plan on parachuting right onto the island to surprise the children. Unfortunately, what they don’t count on is the island being overrun by the Japanese.
A silly little trifle from a silly, funny series, The Day They Captured Santa Claus works primarily because of the chemistry between the cast of expert farceurs. Borgnine (one of my favorites) is playful and almost goofy at times here as he tries to con his way out of his capture by the Japanese soldiers. I love it when he tells the incredulous Japanese commander that Santa is coming, and when they both hear the PT boat, he says, “Uh uh! See!” in a hilariously whiney, sing-songy way, playfully poking at the soldier. Sentiment only comes in very briefly when Mrs. Parfrey expresses her admiration for McHale, but other than those two tiny moments, this Christmas episode is played strictly for laughs—and it works just fine.
As always, Joe Flynn walks away with his scenes as the martinet Captain Wallace B. Binghamton (that needling, harping voice is just…priceless), while some moments of genuine wit surface here and there (I love one of the final shots of one of the natives girls, who asked Santa for a puppy, yelling, “Lassie, come back!” as she chases a piglet). Harmless fun, and a nice mood changer over the previous two entries in the Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age collection.
A Vision of Sugar Plums (original airdate: December 27, 1962).
Both Darrin and Samantha Stephens (Dick York and Elizabeth Montgomery) and next-door neighbors Abner and Gladys Kravitz (George Tobias and Alice Pearce) are inviting a young boy home from the local orphanage for Christmas. While Abner and Gladys find a boy who’s grateful for the chance to come to a nice home with lots of presents on Christmas Eve, young Michael (Billy Mumy) isn’t buying any of the Stephens’ holiday cheer.
Angry over the loss of his father and family, and distrustful of Christmas and Santa Claus because his father told him he only existed for people with money, Michael resigns himself to the Stephens’ efforts to make him believe…but it doesn’t work. So Samantha—who just happens to be the foxiest witch ever—decides a visit to the North Pole is in order for the doubtful Michael…and for the incredulous Durweed, too.
A sweet black and white Bewitched episode, A Vision of Sugar Plums deftly integrates the classic “Gladys Kravitz Dilemma”—she knows Sam’s a witch, but no one believes her—into the Christmas framework, with quite funny results. I always loved the Kravitzes (I am partial to the first Gladys…), and this is a particularly good showcase for them, allowing them much more screen time than they normally had, along with a wider range of emotions to play with (the childless Abner and Gladys actually get to break out of their standard shtick to become anxious then proud parents).
As for heartbreaker Montgomery, what more can I say about her that you don’t already know? I did notice that she’s much more solemn, almost, much more serious in these earlier black and white episodes—not nearly as silly and goofy as she’d become (and delightfully so, I might add) in later seasons. The Christmas angle is well-handled, with Cecil Kellaway doing nicely as Santa (he has a good speech where he talks about our outward appearances meaning nothing as we age—only that which we’ve experienced with our hearts remaining “a thing of joy and beauty.”). It’s a sweet message, and while grumpy realists will no doubt despise that happy ending with Billy Mumy finding a nice couple to adopt him, Bewitched isn’t a documentary on the plight of the orphaned—it’s entertainment. And maybe a nice message if you’re listening.
Christmas and The Hard Luck Kid (original airdate: December 22, 1966).
As Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) works as a Santa’s Helper at a New York City department store, she recounts to her boyfriend Donald (Ted Bessell) how three years ago, she helped a lonely boy through a hard-luck Christmas. Working as a teacher’s aide at a private boy’s school, Ann befriends little Tommy (Chris Shea, the voice of Linus in the classic early Peanuts shorts), who won’t be going home for Christmas because his actor parents are shooting a movie.
Ann tries to bring Tommy to her home for the holidays, but the school’s principal (John Fiedler) says their insurance policy won’t protect the child outside of a ten-mile radius, and they could be sued (typical). So Ann decides to stay with the boy at the school for the duration of the vacation.
Christmas and the Hard Luck Kid is a little clumsy in its construction, with too many questions asked by the viewer as to why they spend their vacation the way they do, but the overall tone of the piece is sweet and loving (Thomas effortlessly shows a caring, maternal side to the lonely boy). Who was going to take care of the boy if Ann hadn’t decided to stay with him at the deserted school? The caretaker who takes off when he finds out Ann is staying? The school wouldn’t have made other arrangements for the boy? Or the parents, for that matter? No message from them? They’re rich actors working on a movie—they couldn’t fly him out for the vacation? And once they’re at the school, they can’t find anything else to eat but jelly sandwiches, and nothing else to do but play checkers? No TV in the whole joint? Not one? No books? No other games?
It’s all a little silly and arbitrary, especially when Tommy’s playmate says he comes to the school during vacation to use the gym (wouldn’t that mean other kids did, too? And do they all have keys? Wouldn’t there be more people at that supposedly deserted place?). But the twist ending is good (Ann finally gets Tommy over to his friend’s house for Christmas, but later finds out they put Christmas on just for him: they’re Jewish), and of course, Marlo Thomas is cute and funny in her signature role.
THE FLYING NUN
Wailing in a Winter Wonderland (original airdate: December 21, 1967).
Follow me on this one. At the Convent San Tanco, near San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) can…fly. If the wind catches her cornette just right, she’s off, spinning around in the clouds like a bird. This accident of nature and aerodynamics comes in handy when a visiting nun, who worked her whole life in Puerto Rico but who now wants to return to her native Norway, is too sick to travel and wishes only to have a white Christmas before she dies. So…Sister Bertrille travels to the local meteorologist, confirms that it never snows in San Juan, and then proceeds to salt the clouds with dry ice to make it snow for the sister. But what she didn’t count on was the chilly tourists leaving San Juan in droves.
Hey, kids—even Santa hates The Flying Nun. For my money one of the most noxious sitcoms to ever come down the pike, the chance The Flying Nun episode popping up on my local TV station in syndication was reason enough to make this TV-obsessed boy do something he never even admitted to his own mother: I would turn off the set. God, no wonder Sally Field is still mortified by this series (although she’s got no business being snooty, hawking a trashy tell-all before Burt’s body was even cold…). When they cut to the horrible blue-screen of Field supposedly salting the clouds, “flying” by her cornette, I came close to turning the show off again, just like I did all those years ago.
And don’t excuse The Flying Nun by saying it’s just one of many silly fantasy sitcoms from the 60s. Gilligan’s Island had even dumber plots, but they were carried off with dash and wit and expert performances. This dreck, though…. And then Alejandro Rey is screaming and yelling all over the place, with an angry red face, and Madeleine Sherwood is sniffing at everything…. It’s all just…terrible. Still worse, the Christmas connection here is negligible. A big mistake including this episode in the Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age collection.
WINDOW ON MAIN STREET
Christmas Memory (original airdate: December 18, 1961).
Writer Cameron Brooks (Robert Young), having returned to his boyhood small town for inspiration for his stories, now lives in the Majestic Hotel, where he befriends the janitor, Ludwig (Ludwig Stossel). This being the Christmas season, Ludwig plays Santa at a local store. Cameron is taken with Ludwig’s charm and ease—and wisdom—interacting with the children, but Ludwig’s message to a child of keeping the Christmas spirit all year long, doesn’t work with Cameron when he thinks about his dead wife and baby. Invited to spend Christmas Eve with widow Chris Logan (Constance Moore) and her young son, Arny (Brad Berwick), Cameron can’t stop the sad memories flooding over him and leaves her home. But a chance meeting with Ludwig changes his outlook.
An interesting curiosity, with a strange but compelling rhythm and structure. Window On Main Street was the unsuccessful project Robert Young initiated after he pulled the plug on Father Knows Best—an unusual move when one considers that iconic series was still climbing in the ratings when Young quit (its last year was its highest rated, an impressive 6th for the year, and there was no indication that trend would stop anytime soon for the beloved sitcom). By his own account, Young was tired of playing Jim Anderson (which he had also played for years on radio prior to the television show), so Window On Main Street was a chance for Young to stretch as an actor in a sitcom that wasn’t really a sitcom (or at least, not this particular episode, which plays quite serious).
It’s hard to describe, but there’s a strange atmosphere to Window On Main Street, a theatrical dynamic to it that reminds you of a stage play rather than a television show—which is further made unusual when the episode slips in and out of cinematic conventions like flashbacks and voice-over narration (equally odd, too, is Young’s various ages through the flashforwards and backs). Written by Roswell Rogers (who wrote so well for Father Knows Best), Christmas Memory is a surprisingly forlorn, mournful Christmas episode. Cameron is seen in tears, thinking of his wife and baby who both died in an icy car crash (his simple statement, “Who knows why these things happen?” sounds modern for an early 60s sitcom/drama). Ludwig, who seems so happy playing Santa Claus, is shown walking home in a daze when the shop closes, telling Cameron that for him, this is the worst night of the year: when everyone else’s Christmas begins, and his lonely one ends.
There’s a happy ending, where Cameron quite rightly says we need to let go of the past and that we have a “job to live each new hour as it comes,” but this measured, grave Christmas episode may not be to everyone’s taste…but I rather enjoyed its difference. It’s a strong finish to this charming, cozy little Merry Sitcom! Christmas Classics From TV’s Golden Age collection, one that should play nicely on a cold December night.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.