‘A Christmas Story’ (1972): Hanna-Barbera special is a sweet, nostalgic time capsule

Hey, listen, readers: if we have to change our name from DrunkTV to All Hanna-Barbera! All the Time!, we will, particularly with the insane number of hits we’ve been clocking lately off that brand.

By Paul Mavis

You want more reviews of vintage H-B cartoonery, particularly if they’re Christmas/holiday related? You want something more obscure, like a look at H-B’s 1972 syndicated offering, A Christmas Story? You got it, amigo (and in that same vein, holmes, to honor Steven Spielberg’s brilliant idea of making his flop West Side Story unintelligible to most U.S. viewers, this review will be spoken in un-subtitled Spanish).

Christmas Eve in the late 1910s Middletown, U.S.A.. As the carolers sing Oh Come, All Ye Faithful on the snow-covered streets, inside a cozy, snug, middle class home, little Timmy (voice talent of Walter Tetley) sits on his father’s (voice talent of Don Messick) lap, and listens to him read, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Also listening in while enjoying the warm fire in the hearth are friends basset hound Goober (voice talent of Paul Winchell), and hole-in-the-wall mouse, Gumdrop (voice talent of Daws Butler). When Mother (voice talent of Janet Waldo) says it’s time for bed, Timmy is anxious for the arrival of, who else, Santa Claus (voice talent of Hal Smith).

Unfortunately, it looks like Timmy won’t get his Christmas wishes this year, since Gumdrop and Goober discover on the floor, Timmy’s unmailed letter to Santa. Resolved to get the letter delivered before midnight, Gumdrop and Goober leave their warm home to travel out into the dark, cold, Christmas Eve night. They soon discover their task is a daunting one, dodging four mean alley cats (voice talents of Winchell, Smith and John Stephenson), slippery sidewalks and rooftops, and too many faux “Santa’s Helpers,” all the while continually missing the real Santa by minutes. Will the duo deliver Timmy’s letter to Santa on time?

Produced by Hanna-Barbera and released in syndication by AVCO Broadcasting Corporation, I’m pretty sure A Christmas Story didn’t reach the Mavis household in 1972, the year it was released. At least I don’t remember seeing it on our black and white set. I do, however, have a vivid memory of watching it (in color) at my friend’s house a few years later. The reason that still stays with me? His father worked at Sears, and the old man got his hands on a Cartivision TV and some cartridges for peanuts when retailers balked over poor sales and the manufacturing company junked the format a few years later.

Apparently, Cartrivision was a home video system (not coincidentally manufactured by AVCO, the syndicator of A Christmas Story) that utilized video tape cartridges that plugged right into specially made TVs. Of course I didn’t know about any of these details when I went over to my friend’s house (I had to research it years and years later, matching up dates and systems to find out what the hell I had remembered all those years ago). However, I do recall that feeling that I was in some sort of futuristic science fiction movie, seeing my friend pull out a cartridge and plug it into this big, bulky TV cabinet, to show me A Christmas Story without any commercials. From my TV antenna-and-tin foil experience, that was a revolutionary way to watch TV, and I never forgot my amazement at that initial impression.

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I hasten to add: the way I first saw A Christmas Story was revolutionary…not A Christmas Story itself. Rewatching it again after several lifetimes (its latest DVD release was on the Warner Archive 2012 disc, the Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection), this stand-alone Hanna-Barbera special is sweet and simple, with some energetic songs, plenty of Christmas-themed imagery, and enough (but not too much) H-B slapstick to keep you entertained during its short runtime. Is it top-line H-B? No…but that’s beside the point. At least half of the appeal of these 70s H-B holiday specials is the nostalgic feeling you get from the old timey (limited) cell animation, the slower-tempoed editing, and the recognizable voice work, all of which are found in A Christmas Story, a decided feeling of “yesterday” that comes through even if you didn’t live through that period.

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A Christmas Story‘s narrative framework couldn’t be more simplified, but then again, what do you expect for 24 minutes: Lawrence of Arabia? This wasn’t made for adults (even though we can still enjoy it on its own terms). It was intended as a fun little time-filler for the small fry, a highlighted “Special” in the local newspaper TV listings, designed to catch Mom or Dad’s eye when they wanted some novel peace and quiet around the house for a half hour.

And seeing as it was produced within 1972 television standards, “traditional” is A Christmas Story‘s key word. After the old-fashioned Christmas toys iconography of the opening credits (toy train, jack in the box, dolls, drums, toy soldiers, tin horns), a Christian carol is sung outside a middle-of-the-road house in a middle-of-the-road small town (it’s even called “Middletown,” in case you needed a smack over the head). If they even make these kinds of Christmas TV specials for kids anymore (seeing what passes for children’s entertainment today…why would I care?), you won’t see any of the above in them, most likely (and more’s the pity).

My personal preference as a kid was to hit the can the minute a song came up in a kids show. I’m not sure why so many producers felt it necessary to have songs in kids specials, but at least A Christmas Story‘s tunes are catchy and energetic, particularly composer Hoyt Curtin’s Sounds of Christmas Day and Which One is the Real Santa Claus (both recycled in the delightful H-B A Flintstone Christmas special). The pretty Hope (also reused in Yogi’s First Christmas), works well here, too, accompanied by the charming sight of ungainly Goober flying gracefully through the air, his floppy ears working as wings (if only these H-B specials had spent a little more time on charmingly surreal moments like this, rather than on the straight slapstick that made up so many of their gags).

I never see A Christmas Story discussed or written about when the subject of childrens’ holiday TV specials comes up, but it’s certainly worthy of a look. Iwao Takamoto’s fun designs of Goober and Gumdrop, Ken Spears‘ and Joe Ruby‘s speedy script, and of course the pro vocals from H-B familiars Winchell, Messick, Butler, Tetley, Stephenson, Smith, and Waldo, add up to a fun little Christmas package you should treat yourself to this holiday season.

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.

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