Thursday, April 14, 2016

...The Dark Times, Before the Empire (Strikes Back)

To celebrate the amazingness of Star Wars: The Force Awakens being released for high definition, surround sound, home viewing less than four months after premiering in theaters, I gave my daughter, and by extension the rest of you, a lesson in some considerably less amazing Galactic History.
A decent while ago in movie theaters not so far away, Star Wars came out in May of 1977.  With the VCR industry in its infancy, Star Wars was given a projected home release date of…


That availability finally started with rentals and pay per view in the early 80’s, HBO in 1983 and network television (CBS) in 1984. 

Once Star Wars slammed into the collective unconscious of Seventies youth, unless it was playing in a theater, there was no way to watch it for years.

Parents who have been forced to view the same Disney DVD a thousand times a day probably long for those simpler times.

All we had in the home delivered, watchable Star Wars realm outside of a few “making of” specials came on Thanksgiving a full year and a half after the film’s premier.

It reunited the entire heroic non-force-ghost main cast, had designs by Ralph McQuarrie, effects by Rick Baker and Stan Winston, and sound design by Ben Burtt. It was also the first appearance of Boba Fett, and the first on screen credit of James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. (He recorded new lines over stock footage, but still.)

With all of that, it should have been awesome.

What is turned out to be, though, was the infamous “George Lucas vowed to track down every VHS copy and smash it with a hammer” Holiday Special.

Thanks to smart television technology and a handy YouTube search we were able to review it in the comfort of our living room on a fifty inch plasma television with Dolby subwoofer enhanced stereo…

It didn’t help.

The truly mind blowing part about the special, is that each section, while horrible and far overlong in its own right, is also progressively worse than most of the previous portions.

It starts out with the title using incorrect, non-Star Wars typeface, prompting the first, “What the heck,” of a night full of them by my daughter.

The action (and I use the term loosely) opens with a decent amount of coolness featuring the introduction of the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk, the design of which, incidentally, was used in both the expanded and cinematic Star Wars universes.
(See, it should have been awesome.) The coolness seeps away rapidly as Chewie’s wife Malla, father Itchy, and son Lumpy spend an inordinate amount of time going about their daily lives and conversing with each other in shyriiwook with NO SUBTITLES. 
My daughter couldn’t decide if it sounded like dueling garbage disposals, or gang pooping.  The best she could offer was occasionally Lumpy sounded like the son of another large, usually non-verbal genre movie star: Minilla.

The Day Glow Disturbing holographic Cirque Du Soliel act that comes out of a cassette player was a strong early indication that Bruce Vilanch and the rest of the oddly selected team that threw it together had no clear concept of what to put in it. How they conned the original Star Wars cast and so many other guest stars to show up in the thing is beyond me.

Mark Hamill has so much makeup on to cover his car accident damage that my daughter couldn’t pay attention to anything he said. She just kept repeating, “He’s really shiny.”

The largest single role by a Guest Star, eclipsing the screen time of many of the Star Wars Stars, is Art Carney as Saun Dann.  He’s a friend of the Wookies, trader, and anti-empire smuggler. 

His secret code abilities are brought to the forefront when he tells Malla about a “Shag carpet” she ordered that he’d be delivering “Solo,” or something equally subtle.

He also supplies Chewie’s dad, Itchy, with a virtual reality machine featuring a suggestively speaking and singing Dianne Carrol in what’s clearly supposed to be a dirty movie…

A dirty movie he watches and reacts to in the living room in front of his daughter and grandson.

He was already disturbing Anabelle before that display, with her commenting, “He’s making me itchy.”

The Carrol video stunned her in that, “I didn’t know something could be both extremely creepy and extremely boring.”

Carney redeems himself somewhat in story when Imperial soldiers enter the Wookie home.  They all have American accents, which would have been more jarring if I wasn’t distracted by the leader being dressed very much like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs.

Saun saves the day by becoming Ed Norton and distracting Lord Dark Helmet by taking forever to set up yet another weird little analog recording machine that shows a miniature version of Jefferson Starship playing a song.

Y’know, as bad as this thing was – and it was exactly that bad – it had some of the first non-variety show stage music videos on network television.

There are shreds of worth in this mess, because it leads to sentences like:
Art Carney met Chewbacca, saved the day with pure unadulterated B.S., and even said, “May the Force Be With You.”

Harvey Korman had the closest amount of screen time to Carney, but in three different roles.

His turn cross-dressing as a multi-armed robotic cooking show star watched by Malla was one of the few intentionally funny scenes that managed some intentional funnyness. It went on too long, like everything else, and my daughter claimed she was, “laughing- not in a good way,” but thanks to Mr. Korman’s excellent skills the bit actually worked.

Thanks to how horrendous the script was, even Harvey couldn’t save the speeding up and slowing down how to build Lumpy’s electronic whatever educational video scene he was in.

The third role he played was shorter, kinda sweet and in the Cantina.

It’s time to stand back in awe at the power of Bea Arthur. She played Ackmena, the night bartender of the famous Mos Eisley cantina. 
Facing an Imperial curfew that may shut her down forever, and doing it while singing lyrics to a slow version of Figrin Dan and the Modal Nodes famous “Cantina Band” song, she manages to bring class, honest warm feelings and quality to this total disaster of a special.  She earned the highest praise of the evening from my daughter, “It’s the best part of the show, but still weird.”  Korman’s love-struck patron who drinks through the top of his head was also sweetly portrayed and his best contribution…
which says all you need to know about the rest of this train wreck.

As fast as my daughter picked up on Luke’s shininess, she picked up on Han’s boredom.  In his first scene she said, “I don't think Harrison is having much fun doing this.  He sounds like a zombie.”

It made it all the more baffling when, out of nowhere, he expressed true emotion to console Lumpy.

My daughter had to restate, “Come here baby it's OK???” to herself several times to let the whole moment sink in.

She was far too excited to see Princess Leia to notice the substance induced condition she was in that mercifully keeps Carrie Fisher from remembering the entire event.

In general, the cartoon portion is commonly known to be the best part of the evening, due to the introduction of Boba Fett, and being made by the studio that would go on to greater Star Wars cartoons.

My guess is this knowledge became common through people who didn’t watch it.

One introduction that is a bit of less common knowledge: I believe this special is where I learned that Y-wing fighters seat two.  I always thought of them as the “F-14” of the rebellion, but rewatching the movies thirty or forty times I eventually noticed only one pilot in the on screen Y-Wings.  Guess they couldn’t defend squeezing someone else into Luke’s X-wing since its cramped cockpit featured so prominently in the Death Star battle.

The cartoon is watched by Lumpy, yet stars his dad and all of his buddies doing Rebel like illegal activities against the Empire.

All three of us went, “Wait!  WHAT???” for that revelation.

Yes, it introduces Boba Fett, but it also introduces him riding a giant pink dinosaur on a moon made of jelly.

When Han and Luke fall asleep due to…whatever it was, I forget it was so mind numbing. I think I saw a proto-Gungan in it as well, but I may have been hallucinating by that point.

Maybe Han and Luke were watching a movie of the Holiday Special that put them to sleep while starring in a cartoon that was being watched by Lumpy in the Holiday Special?

Anyway, Chewbacca’s solution to his narcoleptic friends is to hang them upside down.

Another strong comment on the remainder of the piece was my daughter’s proclamation of:
“That’s the most normal thing in the whole show.”

Stunningly, or perhaps because it was so bafflingly bad, her focus remained on the screen from start to finish of the fetid extravaganza, and there was occasional attachment.

She was horrified that Lumpy had a chair upholstered in Wookie fur in his room, until she realized it was a stuffed Bantha.  (OK, maybe not completely focused.)

She knew those rotten (if American) Imperials were going to destroy the stuffed Bantha during ransacking the room. When they sent him back up saying,
“Clean your room.  *Malicious pause* That will keep him busy,” she felt his pain.

“Awwwww that’s so depressing. Listen to him, he’s really sad…
Or he’s pooping again.”

I’m going to fully describe the ending for the sheer freakish levels of insanity putting all these words on a page will accomplish:

The First Family of Kashyyyk sits at their Lifeday Table and says Wookie Grace.

They hold up glowing snow globes while wearing red snuggies and are transported to Wookie Snuggie land, where the rest of the furred inhabitants of the planet are dressed the same.
(Saving a heck of a lot of funds on Wookie costumes that likely went to pointless celebrity cameos.)

They gather around what looks an awful lot like the Animal Kingdom Tree of Life.

In a happier world, where the Star Wars Holiday Special was as awesome as it should have been, Disney would take advantage of this and have a perfect Star Wars themed end of the night celebration for that park.

The main Star Wars cast, despite bidding farewells (Han) and not being on the planet at all (Luke, Leia and the Droids) show up anyway.

Leia sings the Lifeday tune to a mellowed Star Wars theme. (Yes, Bill Murray did it better.) While she croons, she wobbly-ly holds on to Chewie for dear life to keep from falling down.

Maybe that’s why it was called Lifeday?

Han continues to not care and Luke continues to shine. 

It ended showing all of Chewbacca’s greatest moments from what is currently called Episode IV.

This view back to a favorite character in a film that changed my, and many other seven-year-olds’ lives was the greatest part of the special, and likely fueled any fond memories of the show before we saw it again…because it was all we had.

My daughter’s clear headed and matter of fact response to any version of the “all we had” argument:

“It still stunk.”

Yet there were occasional shining moments...becasue Chewbacca!


Anabelle said...

I liked your summary of my thoughts. They were very accurate. I also... wait.... hold on..... I'm still itchy.
<3 Anabelle

Jeff McGinley said...

Look at the bright side, you didn't have to sit through 1970's commercials between each bit.

Thanx again for sharing craziness with me.