by Richard von Busack
"On, Slasher! On, Flasher! On, Basher and Bitchin'! On, Vomit! On, Stupid! On, Bummer and Nixon!"--National Lampoon, c. 1975
Two day's worth of coal lumps await patrons at San Francisco's Roxie Theater, as archivist/nostalgist/bon vivant Johnny Legend dives for various holiday pearls. Here are relics of what the season used to mean in the early days of television. That is:, fuggly, skeevy puppets, inebriated midgets, bearded weirdos cackling like Batman villains, and ventriloquist dummies on the moon.
Some vintage mid-century performers (Liberace, Paul Winchell, Jack Benny, Ricky Nelson, Rosemary Clooney, and Ernie Kovacs) show they still repay the attention: others (Bing Crosby and David Bowie, two great flavors that didn't belong together) may haunt not just this Christmas but Christmases to come.
The program is in four parts. Monday night's 6 and 9:15pm show is a harvest of quaint old seasonal snippets features Ronald Reagan (above) using the "faith and brotherhood" of the season to shill for General Electric. This is followed by a very pretty music video of George Clooney's swell aunt Rosemary singing an obscure seasonal tune. Ernie Kovacs shows some sobriety in a season where "Everybody's a little bagged" as he does an anti-advertisement for Dutch Masters cigars.
Amid this potpourri is one of the most startling things Legend has ever disinterred. It's untitled, but let's call it "The Monkey's Christmas," a magenta-shifted torture session startling a home-invading Santa: "I want you to believe in me..." To convince a pair of children, St. Nick uses stock footage of swarming monkeys at some horrifying zoo, fighting like gladiators over a single pretzel, as well as tarted up costumed chimps acting out an inexpensive Xmas pageant.
But what, says a small voice, what of the children who still doubt Santa, despite the monkey footage? Santa has a speech prepared: "They do not believe except they see, they think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible to their little minds..." and more strange bloviation on the subject of blind faith, just before he threatens the kids with a Santanic reign of "ten times ten thousand years."
If this enormity is not actually the work of Ed Wood, it's so far down the idiosyncratic director's alley that Wood could have had it towed for blocking his driveway.
At 7:30pm, a Christmas noir cavalcade includes 1953's "The Big Little Jesus," a Dragnet episode directed by the one and only Jack Webb, in which Joe Friday and his partner (Ben Alexander in these early days) hunt down the punk who filched a baby Jesus from a church's manger. "Silent Panic" is like that A Cornell Woolrich Christmas special you've been begging for. This 1960 episode from a TV anthology show has Harpo Marx as the deaf-mute witness to a serious crime. He'd been working as a pantomime "mechanical man" in a department store window, and I would judge his make-up as far scarier than what Conrad Veidt had on in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Plus: "A Tale of Two Christmases" (1952) is a Robert Aldrich directed melodrama.
Dec 6 at 6 and 9:30pm features some particularly tough Christmas sledding. Floating to the top of the cauldron are cartoon bunnies and Liberace. The pianist, who seems to be having a posthumous comeback, turns up again and again during these two nights. He was the 1950s proto-Elton John, a fashion-plate known for both nimble fingers and utter lack of judgment when it came to segues ("Hungarian Rhapsody" used to slide into "Three Little Fishies"). The Milwaukee Mozart assays perhaps the most bearable of all carols, novelty musician Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," as his piano whirls around like a carousel.
More typical of the great man in his extremes is his spoken-word paean to the Nativity Scene. He murmurs endearments to Christ as he stares out a stage's window; "Libby" is so lit up like a candle with Polish Catholic fervor that it is amazing his hair doesn't burst into flames. More reassuring odds and ends include a famous group of TV hillbillies squabbling over the presents. One of the gang has received what Benjamin in The Graduate got as a 21st birthday present, a frogman outfit. Also: popular puppet Howdy Doody investigates the case of a kidnapped Santa which turns out to be a typical goof by pro-wrestler Ugly Sam (Dayton Allen, a ringer for De Niro in Cape Fear).
And at 7:15pm on Dec 6: the plum in this pudding. Legend has titled this segment "Christmas in Hell". The next time you're rubbing shoulders with hoity-toity San Francisco International Film Festival patrons, remind them that Rene Cardona's Santa Claus (1959) once won the Best Family Film award there. I've been using a cheap VHS copy to punish my foster children for many years, and it hasn't lost any of its dread. Referred to in Peter Bagge's "Martini Baton" comics, roasted on MST3K, Santa Claus is notorious as the Mexican movie that pits Santa v. Satan, with the help of Merlin the Magician and a nightmare-inducing machine that talks with big foam rubbery lips. The scene of the devil (aka "Pitch") tempting a street girl via a dream of shoplifting is usually the deal breaker for many. Those who weather the moment will get dozens of new reasons to hate on the season. Oh, come, let us abhor it. Santa Claus is the Everest of holiday awfulness; it surpasses the Mary Tyler Moore version of A Christmas Carol, the Star Wars Holiday Special and Santa Claus Versus the Martians as the worst Xmas movie that can or ever will ever be made.