The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Rating:

USA. 1978.

Crew

Director – Steve Binder, Teleplay – Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren & Mitzie Welch, Producers – Joe Layton & Ken & Mitzie Welch, Music – Ian Fraser, Star Wars Themes by John Williams, Songs – Ken & Mitzie Welch, Makeup Effects – Rick Baker, Ellis & Tom Burman, Stuart Freeborn & Stan Winston, Animated Segment – Nelvana, Art Direction – Brian Bartholomew, Choreography – David Winters. Production Company – Smith-Hemion/20th Century Fox

Cast

Mickey Morton (Malla), Patty Maloney (Lumpy), Paul Gale (Itchy), Art Carney (Saundan), Beatrice Arthur (Ackmena), Harvey Korman (Gormaanda/Krelman/Amphorian Instructor), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Anthony Daniels (C3PO), Diahann Carroll (Holographic Wow)


Plot

Han Solo is flying Chewbacca back home to his family aboard the Millennium Falcon for the celebration of Life Day but they find the way their impeded by an Imperial blockade. Meanwhile, Chewbacca’s wife Malla, his son Lumpy and father Itchy worry over when he is going to arrive. Their home is then entered by Stormtroopers as part of a security crackdown. They fill the time waiting by watching various forms of intergalactic entertainment.


In Star Wars fandom, The Star Wars Holiday Special has attained a legendary reputation. Those who have seen it speak it of in the same tones as the works of Edward D. Wood Jr. It exists only in bootleg video copies (and more recently as downloads) where it is strongly recommended that one be in an intoxicated state to watch it and that managing to watch it the entire way through is considered a feat of extraordinary endurance. In a muchly repeated statement, George Lucas once said that he wished that he could track down and destroy every copy of the film still in existence, and Carrie Fisher was once reported to have denied the film ever existed. There has even been an internet short film in recent years about one fan’s attempt to track down a copy of the film and interview those involved, while the documentary The People vs. George Lucas (2011) spends some time dealing with the Star Wars Holiday Special phenomenon.

What, pray tell, is The Star Wars Holiday Special and why does it have such an astounding reputation? It came about way back in the days of first generation Star Wars fandom, not long after Star Wars (1977) had come out and gone completely galactic. It appeared that some network executives at CBS approached George Lucas who agreed to allow the Star Wars characters and universe to be used for a Thanksgiving holiday special. The production managed to rope in most of the original cast – with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew reprising their original roles and James Earl Jones returning to voice the part of Darth Vader over footage of Vader taken from the first film.

A good part of the reason for the special’s legendary reputation is the fact that it so disastrously fumbles the elements that made Star Wars a success. One must remember that at the time the special was made, it was only the second ever filmed work set in the Star Wars universe. And it is Star Wars in little more than name only. The principal characters in the Star Wars canon – Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader etc – are present but are sidelined and instead the film is about Chewbacca’s family. Why this was the case is anybody’s guess? Indeed, it is a scratch of the head trying to figure out what inspired the networks to create a special centred around a family of characters that only speak in growls. Up until Art Carney and the Stormtroopers turn up, there are some twenty minutes or so of nauseatingly cutsie scenes with the Wookies growling at one another over taking the garbage out and cleaning up their rooms – scenes that moreover come with the growling unsubtitled making it impossible to work out what is going on.

The ‘highlights’ of the show are its various variety performances. These are often a mind-bendingly surreal experience. These include:– a hologram version of Jefferson Airplane performing a number called Cigar Shaped Object while a watching Stormtrooper taps his fingers; a holographic circus act called The Wazzan Troupe; later-to-be Golden Girl Bea Arthur as the owner of the Mos Eisley cantina singing a song about friendship before the alien ugly mugs that have been recycled from the first film. The most bizarre of the performances is the three roles played by Harvey Korman who first appears in drag as a four-armed chef in a cooking show being watched by Chewie’s wife where he goes into a frenzy “Beat, stir, whip, beat, stir, whip” as he cooks a cake; then as a robot instructor that runs out of energy halfway through trying to tell Chewbacca’s son Lumpy how to put together a holo-projector; and lastly as an alien smitten with Bea Arthur who pours drinks into the top of his head. The scene that has become legendary for its bizarreness is the one where the grandfather Itchy puts on a Virtual Reality helmet and views a performance by Diahann Carroll. She coos and whispers about how she finds him adorable and that she is his fantasy before segueing into a song, while back in the real world the old codger goes into a paroxysm of sexual frenzy. One should note that this was made way before Virtual Reality – let alone the notion of cybersex – was ever a concept in the public paradigm. For someone like George Lucas, who has purportedly threatened legal action over Star Wars fan erotica, this seems bizarre, not to mention something decidedly dubious when one considers the film’s intended family audience.

As to the series regulars, they do appear but only in minor roles – Harrison Ford is seen with Chewbacca in occasional cuts back to the Millennium Falcon cockpit, and Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill make even smaller appearances on a monitor in communications with Chewbacca’s wife Mala. Everybody turns up in the final scenes to dispose of the Stormtroopers and then all somehow walk off into the stars in red robes during the final number. None of them give the impression that they are very happy being there. Harrison Ford seems embarrassed trying to do his cocky Han Solo thing while having to deliver lines like “Don’t worry Chewie, we’ll get you home for Life Day” and talk his way through mawkish scenes about how the Wookies are really his family. Carrie Fisher has been widely ridiculed for the end number where she sings a song set to John Williams’s Star Wars theme, although to her credit, while the song is utterly saccharine, she does have a halfway decent singing voice.

The Star Wars Holiday Special should not even be considered Star Wars. What it is is a bunch of network creative talent for hire who have come in and constructed a variety show around a vague connection to the Star Wars universe. It has clearly been made by people who came from a variety show background – the precedents of modern chatshows like Letterman and Jay Leno, which featured a charismatic host, a guest celebrity and a number of singing and dancing routines throughout the course of an hour. All that the special lacks is someone like Milton Berle or Johnny Carson hosting it, otherwise it is just a series of song and comedy routines by various moderately well-known entertainers of the day – Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll, The Jefferson Airplane – who would in most other circumstances be eking out a living by doing these very same guest spots on tv variety shows. It is more than abundantly clear that the people behind the special had no understanding of Star Wars and why it succeeded.

It is sad just how much of a gaping abyss there is between the unbridled wonder that Lucas conjured in Star Wars and what the special drags his creation down to. Lucas crafted a film that set adolescent (and adult) minds afire with imagination – the lightsabre duels, the Death Star trench sequence – and made audiences cheer in joy at the sheer excitement of it all. On the other hand, The Star Wars Holiday Special gives us inane routines with Harvey Korman as a four-armed chef and stormtroopers tapping their fingers to holographic displays of Jefferson Airplane. Rather than a barroom of roughnecks, the Mos Eisley cantina aliens now double as a chorus singing about friendship. (Here the masks created for Star Wars by Rick Baker have simply been reused so we end up with Greedo, the character that Han Solo shot, inexplicably alive and boogieing away). While Star Wars had an intensely exciting pace and a bustling plot, The Star Wars Holiday Special is almost wilfully at the opposite extreme – it is dramatically inert and what plot there is seems only there to string the routines together. It is not as though there is not opportunity for a dramatically exciting film. The plot about Han and Chewie trying to run an Imperial blockade and Chewie’s family being held prisoner by Stormtroopers could have had potential as a story, but the special seems to purposefully eschew action of almost any sort and instead concentrates on the comedy acts and musical numbers. The special effects were a high point of Star Wars – a number of sequences are cannibalised here but grate badly contrasted with the cartoonishly shabby mattes of the tree city on the Wookie homeworld.

It is generally agreed that the one redeemable aspect of the whole sorry exercise is the animated segment. This is something that Lumpy watches on a videoscreen. In the story, Luke and the droids go to rescue Han and Chewie after the Millennium Falcon crashlands on a water world, while searching for a talisman that has strange properties. There they are aided by Boba Fett who arrives riding in on a lizard creature and at first appears to be friendly but later turns out to be working for Darth Vader. It transpires that the talisman has powers that put humans to sleep and there is a brief quest to obtain an antidote. The segment is perhaps most famous for its introduction of the character of Boba Fett to the Star Wars universe, with Fett subsequently becoming a major character in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the prequels. The animation was conducted by the Canadian animation company Nelvana, who had had some acclaim with various tv specials like Take Me Up to the Ball Game (1977), A Cosmic Christmas (1977), The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), Intergalactic Thanksgiving (1979) and Romie-0 and Julie-8 (1979). They would further collaborate with George Lucas to make the animated Star Wars tv series Droids (1985-6) and Ewoks (1985-7), and go on to make a host of Care Bears movies, the films Rock and Rule (1983), Pippi Longstocking (1997) and the fine The Adventures of Tintin (1992) tv series. The segment is only around 10 minutes long and the animation somewhat limited. Moreover, the story is slight, although at least the segment is the nearest that any of the special comes towards capturing the spirit of Star Wars.

George Lucas has reportedly regarded the show as an embarrassment and has refused to ever allow it to be rescreened or released to video/dvd. It is only due to the handful of people in the world who had video recorders at the time the special originally aired that copies exist today. On the other hand, while most of Star Wars fandom has been happy to take George Lucas at his word that he had little to do with the special, one wonders if that is the case or not. Certainly, Lucas has no credit anywhere on the film. On the other hand, does it seem credible that a man who exercises such stringent control over his universe that he vets all the novelisations and numerous merchandising spinoffs, that his legal team crack down on the publication of Star Wars fan erotica and slash, who is so fanatical about what the press hears about the films that he even shoots dummy scenes so that his actors do not leak plot secrets, who is so controlling over the way his films are shown that he will threaten to pull them from theatres that do not show a strictly mandated number of trailers beforehand, would not exercise even some of the same sort of control over a spinoff of his own creation or at the very least do something as minor as read the script or view a print copy before the special went to air? It does stretch belief somewhat. Moreover, the fannish assumption that George Lucas had nothing to do with the exercise does seem built on the pre-supposition that everything Lucas does is gold. Do remember after decrying The Star Wars Holiday Special as a disaster that Lucas had nothing to do with, that George Lucas was also the person who subsequently went on to commit such crimes against good taste as Howard the Duck (1986), digitally retouching Star Wars to make Greedo shoot first and creating Jar-Jar Binks. Rather, one sneakingly suspects that George Lucas’s real reason for decrying The Star Wars Holiday Special and announcing that he desired to destroy every copy is less a complete understanding of why it was disliked so much than it is simply feeling guilty after hearing how much everybody hated it.



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