With the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approaching, you know what I’m thankful for? No—not for being a white, conservative, straight male member of the openly bigoted, badly-dressed Online Film Critics Society (ask me for the screen grabs…). No, I’m thankful that you can still see some hard-to-find holiday TV gems on sites like YouTube.
By Paul Mavis
I poked around there the other day and found three animated Thanksgiving specials I remembered from my long-gone, long-lamented, and mostly-soused youth: 1968’s The Mouse on the Mayflower from Rankin/Bass; 1973’s B.C.: The First Thanksgiving, based on the popular comic strip; and 1989’s Garfield’s Thanksgiving, from CBS. So…loosen your belt and grab another slice of mincemeat pie, and let’s look at those old-timey toons, okay?
THE MOUSE ON THE MAYFLOWER
On Thanksgiving, William the church mouse (voice talent of Tennessee Ernie Ford) tells us that the holiday is about “more than eating.” He goes on to talk about his ancestor, Willem (voice of Ford), who sailed on the Mayflower. A humble church mouse where the English pilgrims worship, Willem witnesses William Bradford (voice talent of Paul Frees) imploring his congregation to pick up stakes and leave prejudiced England for the New World, where they can worship as they choose, without government interference. Captain Miles Standish (voice talent of Eddie Albert), wholeheartedly agrees, and soon the pilgrims set sail for America.
During the voyage, Willem proves critical in saving the Mayflower when her main beam cracks, while scurvy shipmates Scab and Quizler (voice talent of Frees) plot to steal the pilgrims’ treasure. After an arduous crossing, the pilgrims are in for more hardship, when their numbers begin to fall due to starvation and the winter weather. When Scab and Quizler almost set the pilgrims against their Indian neighbors, it takes Willem and his new Indian mouse friend, Thunder, to set things right.
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I didn’t see Mouse on the Mayflower back when it premiered on November 23rd, 1968, but I do recall it being rerun quite frequently in the 70s, though; we even saw it in 16mm at elementary school (for me, movies have never been as much fun since those wonderful school days of “let’s goof off and watch a movie while teacher silently cries at her desk,”). Considering how a small but somehow influential sector is going bat sh*t crazy with their retro-Stalinst assault on, and rewriting of, our past shared history and culture, I’m not surprised Mouse on the Mayflower hasn’t even seen a DVD release, let alone a network TV showing in decades, despite the fact that it comes from the fabled—and money-spinning—world of Rankin/Bass. God forbid we somehow offend the Native American mice out there….
In classic Orwellian illogic, just saying today that you didn’t believe Mouse on the Mayflower was racist back when you were a kid, is now taken as proof positive by many in academia and in the media that you indeed are a racist, then and now. You must only admit guilt and beg for mercy in today’s pop culture show trials, and accept your fate willingly (that verdict always being: guilty with zero chance of redemption). There shall be no nuance, no innocence, you retrograde! It’s all so tiresome now, really; almost a parody of outrage and victimhood over race and sexual politics, where even an innocently sexy Christmas song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is deemed—with a humorless, entirely serious straight face—a dangerous “threat” to women and must therefore be re-written for a completely un-endangered, uninterested general public. We live in quite mad times.
So…don’t ever expect me to get bent out of shape when I see little Willem mouse make friends with his monosyllabic Indian mouse friend, Thunder. After all: this was the liberal late sixties. The whole point of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and longtime R/B scripter Romeo Muller’s screenplay is to show kids how two cultures came together and got along (for awhile). How is that ever going to be wrong? Critics will inevitably trot out the tired jokes about “just you wait, friendly Indians!” while I could lay down some facts that tell a different angle…but why bother? Either you get what Mouse on the Mayflower was aiming at in 1968, and accept it for what it is, or you don’t (according to my welcoming, diverse-thinking OFCS brothers and sisters, my skin color forbids me from saying anything about anything, anyways. So if you know what’s good for you, just click off this, okay?).
Directed by Jules Bass and Rankin, Jr. (but supervised by Steve Nakagawa for Toei Animation in Japan), Mouse on the Mayflower sports the brisk, limited animation and stylized graphics you’d expect from this company during this time period. Stand-out moments include the storm at sea, and the landing of the Mayflower, complete with joyous dolphins leaping alongside it (there’s a particularly good shot at the beginning, highlighting genuine scope and scale, with Willem impossibly high up on the church steeple, looking out to the hazy harbor below).
Even better are the songs featured here in Mouse on the Mayflower. November is a nicely somber, contemplative refrain that winds throughout the narrative, while A Little Elbow Room is bouncy fun, well put-over by Tennessee Ernie Ford’s booming assurance.
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Mouse on the Mayflower’s weakest story element is the dopey John Alden/Priscilla Mullins romance (why did anyone think kids would enjoy that?) but two beautiful songs come out of it: the lovely Time Stand Still duet featuring John Gary and Joanie Sommers (both have a hell of a set of pipes on them), while Sommer’s When He Looks At Me is a Broadway-worthy showstopper (…or perhaps a cool 60s Bondian knock-off theme), set to a nicely surreal dream sequence.
Other voice work includes Eddie Albert doing a passable Spencer Tracy imitation, while voice talent extraordinaire Paul Frees is instantly recognizable doing his best Robert Newton as the scheming Quizler (his William Bradford is hilarious: this strange amalgamation of Richard Burton and JFK). Mouse on the Mayflower’s Scab and Quizler villains are suspiciously filled out with Hanna-Barbera-ish villains Smiling Buzzard and Big Wheeze the bear, but to Mouse on the Mayflower’s credit, the story doesn’t end with their defeat. We’re shown the hardships of 1621’s winter, including the deaths of many pilgrims (they don’t shy away from seeing a cemetery full of crosses while Willem cries at a grave—hey kids! Want more pie?). All that comes before our cathartic Thanksgiving feast reward and a mini-How the West Was Won ending showing “current” American progress that includes Mount Rushmore…and your personal right to drive your car through a giant redwood. All in all, this relatively obscure Rankin/Bass outing needs a DVD release pronto, Squanto.
B.C.: THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
Prehistoric days. A tree outside B.C.’s (voice talent of Daws Butler) cave is hit by lightning, so he discovers fire…before promptly burning first his finger and then his entire hand. This is a monumental discovery, because now the imposing cavewoman Fat Broad (voice talent of Joanie Sommers) can boil her stone soup. And what is the only thing that can flavor stone soup? A turkey (voice talent of Don Messick). So B.C. and the gang, including Peter and Thor (Messick), and Wiley and Grog (voice talent of Bob Holt), set out to capture the elusive, fast-running bird.
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Now that’s a shared cultural experience that’s pretty well gone here in America: everyone reading the morning’s newspaper comics. When I was growing up, Johnny Hart’s B.C. was one of the biggies, right up there in recognition with Peanuts, Snuffy Smith, Andy Capp, and Family Circus, to name just a few. Everyone knew that strip. Any new prime-time network TV holiday toon was cause for big-time anticipation with kid viewers, with B.C.: The First Thanksgiving’s 1973 bow clearly placed in my memory (probably because my old man liked the strip, too, so he let us watch it).
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You don’t have to have experienced the Sunday funnies, though, to enjoy B.C.: The First Thanksgiving. My kids had to be told what newspaper comics were before we watched it, and they still laughed. Mission accomplished. Written by Hart, and directed by animation pro Abe Levitow (Tom and Jerry, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Gay Purr-ee), B.C.: The First Thanksgiving has a scattershot breeziness, matched with a wonderfully smart-assed attitude, that immediately connected with my older kids (while the loud, funny sight gags got my younger daughter laughing).
Now…they may not have picked up on some of the comedic references (they didn’t get B.C. speaking like Jack Benny, nor did “heavy breathing” phone calls resonate with them), but most of the jokes are both simple and appealingly crude (in the best sense), put over with a stylized exaggeration that’s quite effective. When B.C. discovers fire—on his finger—he calmly walks “off camera” into his cave, while we wait in silence. We know the joke—he’s going to scream—but Levitow waits a long time to give it to us, and when he does, he turns the volume up to “10,” creating a jarring effect that only gets funnier when he repeats it a minute later.
Sound is particularly important in B.C.: The First Thanksgiving, with harsh volume matching Hart’s harsh, barren landscapes (brutal jokes for brutal times, made more amusing by the then-current contexts slapped onto them). There’s a great sequence where the “citizens” of this wasteland all gather at the lake and start making a cacophony of noise, building and building it until Wiley, lying on a hill, screams even louder for them all to shut up. It’s such a simple gag, but it’s expertly built and drawn out, with a topper resolution.
A sense of scale and even better, frenetic movement, is frequently on display in B.C.: The First Thanksgiving. Quite a few gags have someone huge in the foreground watching little figures scurrying around far off in the distance, to nice comedic effect (there’s a good visual joke of the turkey being pursued through two belching volcanoes). With its weirdly random tone and its coarse, ragged look and sound, B.C.: The First Thanksgiving is a most welcome Thanksgiving treat—it deserves a 21st-century DVD comeback, B.T. (big time).
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, but more importantly…it’s the day of Garfield the cat’s (voice talent of Lorenzo Music) appointment at veterinarian Dr. Liz Wilson’s (voice talent of Julie Payne) office. Problem solved: just rip off the daily calendar page, and viola, it’s Thanksgiving. Too bad Garfield’s owner, Jon (voice talent of Thom Huge) isn’t buying it. John’s going to Liz’s office because he’s crazy about her, and he’s not giving up on asking her out until she says, “Yes,”…which she does for a Thanksgiving meal.
Garfield is far from happy about this, considering Liz put him on a strict diet, but further complications arise when Jon discovers he can’t actually make a Thanksgiving meal. So…it’s Grandma (voice talent of Pat Carroll) to the rescue, as Garfield learns the true meaning of the holiday: eating.
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I can’t say I was a big Garfield fan growing up…because I was already grown up when he hit it big (at least in terms of network TV specials, the 80s were his peak decade, with a new special airing each and every year). But I did come to appreciate the character when I reviewed his Saturday morning series years ago. So, I thought, “why not?” to 1989’s Garfield’s Thanksgiving, when I was looking to round out this trio of holiday reviews.
And I’m glad I did, because Garfield’s Thanksgiving turned out to be just right in terms of an amusing, light holiday offering—and right out of the gate, too. In a short, speedy pre-credit sequence, Garfield demands—while standing on John’s stomach—his pancakes-and-coffee breakfast (“Do you patriotic duty,”), decides on a nap before torturing Odie the dog (“Early mid-morning nap time…check that: time to abuse the dog,”), before he hatches the scheme to speed up Thanksgiving and avoid the vet. Quick and funny, Garfield’s Thanksgiving’s deadpan tone is immediately set in just a few minutes before Lou Rawls’ drawls out a snappy, jazzy, killer theme song:
Do the mashed potato, do the candied yam,
Do the funky turkey cause it’s time to jam.
If you don’t wanna dance, well that’s alright,
Do the non-stop shopping to work up an appetite.
Make your Thanksgiving one long meal,
‘Cause the more you eat…
The more grateful…you are gonna feeeeeeel.
Written by creator Jim Davis and Kim Campbell, and directed by animation veteran Phil Roman, Garfield’s Thanksgiving does exactly what it sets out to do: get you laughing right away, and keep you laughing. Fast visual gags abound (I like the quick pan of Liz’s office, where all the dogs look like their mangy owners), while one-liners pile up with more-than-appreciated frequency. When Liz finally agrees to a date with Jon, she flatly states, “I can’t stand to see a dumb animal suffer.” Garfield’s talking weight scale gives us a welcome 80s’ monologue standard (“Okay, smartie—what’s my name?” asks Garfield. The scale responds, “Judging by your weight, you name is Orson Welles,”), while the animation of Garfield’s frequently peeved face is consistently amusing (his pantomime of the various side effects of dieting—including dementia—is a highlight).
If you’re looking for a traditional Thanksgiving message here, you won’t find any pilgrim stories in Garfield’s Thanksgiving, and I rather liked that (it’s tough to make them funny, anyhow). However, there is a rather agreeable sequence where Grandma, voiced by that terrific comedic actress, Pat Carroll, comes to Jon’s rescue, whipping up a fantastic Thanksgiving meal in nothing flat—without complaint—before she orders Garfield to tell Jon’s date that he’s the best…and she better not blow it, before she roars off on her motorcycle. It’s not overdone; it’s not maudlin. It’s just…sweet, and nice, and genuine, and you buy it when Garfield reverently intones after her, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” When so many family shows today tilt towards the obvious and even the grotesque when trying to convey “heart,” Garfield’s Thanksgiving does it—amid the fat jokes and po-faced complaining—with surprising grace. Nice one, Garfield.
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.