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Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) review


Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Beatrice Arthur (Ackmena), Art Carney (Saun Dann), Diahann Carroll (Hologram), The Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman (Chef Gormaanda/Krelman/Amorphian Instructor)

Directed by Steve Binder

The Short Version: Akin to watching the Death Star charge up and misfire for 100 minutes while attempting to obliterate Alderaan, few films are as spectacularly painful to watch as the STAR WARS HORRIBLE DAY SPECIAL. After the disgrace of not receiving a medal at the end of STAR WARS (1977), Chewbacca got an entire film built around him... which turned out to be an even bigger galactic disgrace. You'll contemplate going to the Dark Side when it's over. Unless you're a lover of awful films this pile of Bantha fodder isn't the movie you're looking for.

Han Solo is taking Chewbacca to his home world of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day with his family, but they get sidetracked after running into an Imperial convoy. Meanwhile, his family pass the time with an interminable string of comedy skits and musical numbers that are worse than being stranded in the swamps of Dagobah--till they're all reunited and it doesn't feel so good... for the viewer.

On November 17th, 1978 CBS aired what was arguably the most notorious Made For TV movie ever produced. Normally, when a special presentation is a hit, it gets replayed one or more times; this spin-off of George Lucas's mega-hit was beaten by an episode of THE LOVE BOAT, and never aired again. Since its release in May of '77, STAR WARS mania gripped the world. There had been nothing like it before on the big screen. And there had been nothing quite like the HORRIBLE-DAY SPECIAL on the small screen, either. 

There's little positive one can say about this enterprise. One thing to be said is this epic disaster was an extremely ambitious television production for its time. Costing a million dollars and shooting on a 4 week schedule, it boasted five writers (Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Rod Warren, Bruce Vilanch and Mitzie Welch) to flesh out this original STAR WARS story from George Lucas. Unfortunately, Lucas and this quintet of authors assumed that what people really wanted to see was an entire story about Wookies... creatures that do not speak English. In this case, Chewbacca's family--his wife Malla (played by a man!), his grandfather Itchy, and his son Lumpy (played by a girl!). So, for chunks of the show, you're left to try and figure out what is being said as giant hairy rugs gurgle and gargle their dialog without the use of subtitles. 

Remarkably bad in every conceivable way, the feature began filming under the direction of David Acomba (later the director of the 1989 zombie flick NIGHT LIFE). He was replaced halfway into shooting (some sources state it was a few days) by Steve Binder over "artistic differences". Binder was a prolific tele-film maker who had a lot of variety specials to his name; which is basically what THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL is--a variety show replete with singing and dance numbers and alleged comedy skits. And yet, you'll find the lack of humor disturbing.

Featuring sporadic appearances by the original cast, it's a failed platform for comedians like Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and especially Harvey Korman--who plays three different characters. Sadly, the skits are about as precise as a stormtrooper's blaster skills; and about as funny as Chewbacca ripping your arm from its socket after beating him in a game of Dejarik.

While there's nothing legitimately funny in the movie, some mild, unintentional laughs are derived from a single, eyebrow-raising sequence when the elder Wookie receives a Christmas gift (or a Life Day present) from Art Carney--it being a computerized disc inserted into a virtual reality machine. The senior walking carpet then proceeds to have a virtual sex encounter with a holographic Diahann Carroll. "Oh, we are excited, aren't we? Now, we can have a good time... can't we?" she asks. Tame by today's standards, it's awfully suggestive for boob tube family entertainment in the late 1970s.

The other major musical number is 'Light the Sky On Fire' from Jefferson Starship. Written specifically for this variety special, the video features antiquated graphics that will only be appreciated by nostalgia lovers. It's as bizarre as everything else with the pink and purple lighting; and musical instruments that glow like light sabers. The song itself was included on 'Gold', the band's compilation album released in 1979. Some of their biggest hits followed in the 1980s, including 'We Built This City', 'Sara', and 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now'; the last song featured in the hit comedy MANNEQUIN (1987).

All the skits, music and dance numbers are viewed from within Chewbacca's household. There's a flat screen monitor in every room of their spacial tree house. Naturally, since it's the Empire with their big government grip on the galaxy, they need to keep tabs on what everyone is doing when they aren't piping in the most boring entertainment roster on 12 systems. So, when one of Chewie's family gets bored, we get to share in that boredom by seeing things like alien acrobats doing a futuristic Renaissance routine. Basically a variety show stitched to a film format, it fails at both since the variety is as barren as the Dune Sea; and there's no real plot to speak of.

As for the comedians, Harvey Korman essays three increasingly stupid characters in three atrocious sketches. Korman, known for his comedy roles on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1967-1978) and movies like BLAZING SADDLES (1974), is anything but funny here. His performance as a female, multi-armed alien chef early into the picture is as agonizing as Lucas's dialog in the STAR WARS prequels. What feels like an hour has only been 25 minutes... and it gets worse from here. Yes, if this were the Kessel Run, 12 parsecs will seem like an eternity.

Next, Korman plays an Amorphian Instructor, a robot that teaches Lumpy, Chewbacca's kid, how to build a mini-transmitter. How you derive comedy from that is anyone's guess. It's moments like these that you begin thinking of that scene in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) where Luke says to Yoda he'll try to use the Force to remove his X-Wing fighter from the swamp--to which Yoda famously retorts, "No! Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try". In the case of the HOLIDAY SPECIAL, Yoda is telling you there is no 'try' in finishing it; you either watch it to the end or you fail. And it's tempting to go over to the Dark Side in trying to finish this misguided scrap pile.

Things improve slightly in Korman's third interpretation as Krelman, a lonely, love-starved alien with a big hole in the top of his head. He enters the Mos Eisley cantina run by Beatrice Arthur who is essentially playing Maude in Space but using the pseudonymous Ackmena. For whatever reason, this is initially treated as an ill-fated love story. Krelman mistakes Ackmena's responses as romantic interest. Now depressed, Krelman leaves and we never see him again. The attempt at humor is Krelman pouring drinks into the top of his head, by the way. Ackmena then spends what seems like infinity trying to get the patrons to leave--finally using the power of song to get them to exit the joint after the Empire orders a curfew. 

With the unnecessary Krelman character feeling like filler, and the filmmakers succeeding in making a room full of monsters dull, you begin to realize the only wretched hive of scum and villainy are the writers who penned this hare-brained mess.

Still, seeing all those aliens again manages to work in the film's favor. In some cases you get a better look at them; in others you see them in a more lively capacity like Ponda Baba, who avoids losing an arm this time. Rick Baker supervised this sequence, even designing two new cantina barflies--a Lion Man and Baboon Man. These two were makeup jobs as opposed to the masks everyone else was wearing. According to sources from the time, this sequence was shot over the course of a 24 hour period resulting in some of the mask-wearers passing out from lack of oxygen.

Art Carney (Ed Norton from THE HONEYMOONERS) comes off the best of the human guest stars in that he's not playing a comedic character; so the only humiliation suffered is simply appearing in this movie. He contributes nothing to the proceedings except to give us some idea of what the Wookies are saying by his responses to their gargle speech. Regarding the Wookies, Stan Winston was responsible for the Malla, Lumpy and Itchy suits.

The appearances of the STAR WARS cast are just as bizarre as everything else. They all seem uncomfortable compared to their roles in the hit movie from the previous year; like they don't want to be there, and this is evident in their acting. Learning that none of them wanted to do this movie is revealing; not just because the script is horrible, but because movie stars didn't do television and vice versa. They did it out of obligation to George Lucas. Nonetheless, their participation makes the STAR WARS HORRIFIC SPECTACLE a bit more bearable.

Reportedly, Carrie Fisher was enticed to it because she was given the opportunity to sing a song--in this case, it's the 'Life Day' song heard during the closing moments.  Fisher, like the other returning cast members, doesn't seem like the same Leia from the movie. Considering her substance addiction, it's possible that was a factor. She seems out of it in the few scenes she's in. Actually, being in this tele-film, and knowing it aired and that people remember it, is enough to turn one to alcoholism or worse.

Mark Hamill was originally supposed to sing but that nonsense got cut. You'll recall he was in a terrible car accident in January of 1977 where he wrecked his BMW and fracturing both his nose and left cheekbone in the process. For his role in HOLIDAY SPECIAL, his hairstyle is different and he appears to be in heavy makeup. Luke is in a couple of scenes, the first of which he shares with R2-D2. 

Kenny Baker, the midget actor inside the R2-D2 outfit in STAR WARS, did not slip inside the lovable trashcan for this tele-film. An unknown actor took over when Mick Garris wasn't operating a remote controlled model. Anthony Daniels, however, did return as C-3PO. He wasn't enamored with the production either; later referring to it with various descriptive terminology like "crap" and "unbearable". Daniels even went so far as to say you'd die if you watched it!

Harrison Ford would like to think it doesn't exist--calling it an embarrassment. He gets the most screen time of the cast (other than Chewbacca) and yet it doesn't feel like the same Han Solo. No longer the selfish rogue of the movie, Han is now a sentimentalist. Less a smuggler, he's more of a snuggler given the affection he displays for Chewbacca and his family. He even refers to Lumpy as sweetheart! He's the sort of guy you wouldn't expect to shoot first, if you get my meaning and I think you do. You can tell in Ford's line delivery, his body language, that he doesn't wish to be in front of the camera.

Incidentally, Peter Mayhew (who returns as Chewbacca) is the only member of the original cast who seemed to enjoy his HOLIDAY.

With so much galactic fail following the first mega-blockbuster, there's one minor, shining light amid the darkness--a ten minute cartoon that's the first onscreen appearance of Boba Fett. Just like the rest of this anxiety program, the animated short makes zero sense; but it's the closest this dereliction of direction comes in capturing the spirit of STAR WARS (1977). Ironically, Boba Fett does more in this ten minute toon than both his roles in EMPIRE and JEDI combined.

Additionally, the HOLIDAY SPECIAL is periodically dotted with footage from STAR WARS, the movie whose momentum this galactic garbage nearly liquidates. Mostly action shots, a couple of them are scenes cut from the theatrical release version; this gives some modest value to a production totally lacking in it. One of these inserts involves Darth Vader (with new lines dubbed over by James Earl Jones) ordering household searches for Han and Chewbacca; and another is during the cantina sequence showing a man running into a giant alien being of some kind.

Despite it being his idea adapted into a tele-play by five writers, George Lucas hated the end product so much he had his name removed. In an interview with Patty Maloney (who played Lumpy), Lucas, who was busy trying to put EMPIRE together, signed off on the dallies. Mind you, 20 years later Lucas would let Jar Jar Binks loose on the world. It would seem that Lucas--like everyone else in front of and behind the camera--didn't want to do a TV special at all; but if one must be done, the hope was that it would act as a bridge between STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, keeping fans interested while also selling merchandise. Unsurprisingly, outside of prototypes, we never got Malla, Itchy and Lumpy action figures.

Airing only once, THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL was unceremoniously cast off into a trash bin far, far away; yet fan interest has brought it back from its YouTube graveyard and bootleg DVD confines to a wider audience again; much to the chagrin of those who starred in it. So now it can be embarrassing for surviving cast and crew all over again. If anything you can look at this Wookie-centric pockmark on STAR WARS lore as ill-advised redemption for Chewbacca not getting a damn medal.

This review is representative of the Editdroid fan DVD. Specs and extras: fullscreen presentation; English and Spanish language; English subtitles; Extras: TV promos; Boba Fett cartoon; TV Land segment on SWHS; FOX News segment on SWHS; Harrison Ford on SWHS (2 segments); Anthony Daniels on SWHS (2 segments including vintage special from 1978); Peter Mayhew on SWHS; Stan Winston on SWHS; running time: 01:38:00


Steven Millan said...

With the way the recent J.J. Abrams and Rian Jonhson films have gone(and their careless use of the original trilogy's beloved characters),this cheesy TV special looks much more inspired and entertaining(even if George Lucas aimed it at children).

Franco Macabro said...

Craziest thing ever to air on television. The grandfather getting aroused with the holograms, how out of place was that! I did like Jefferson Airplane's part...and the animated bit, the animation is actually pretty good...and its the first appearance of Bobba Fett ever, so that's something. But I hate the way Luke, Leia and Han act on this thing, its like you said, they seem like entirely different characters because they are not being directed by a good director or script, therefore....its crap. Luke simply looks weird. But you know what, I bet back in the day, this must've been awesome for kids of the time...even if its considered crap today, back then it mustve been slightly cool to see their Star Wars characters on tv, however weird it may be. I was only about two when this aired so obviously I didn't see it...but I bet it was appreciated by some.

venoms5 said...

@Steve: I saw LAST JEDI the other night. I liked it, but found elements annoying in it. Thought about doing a review. If nothing else, the two recent offerings (not counting ROGUE ONE, which I liked a lot) have given me interest in seeing the awful Lucas prequels again.

@Fran: Actually, Boba Fett appeared in a parade a few months before this aired. That's why I wrote it as first onscreen appearance. There's a newspaper article online showing Fett with Vader. I forget the city now.

Judging by comments on the FB page, some folks seem to like this thing. I don't recall if I saw it as a kid or not. It's worth seeing once if you can make it to the end, lol. Most people I know have said same thing--it was difficult to watch to the end. Possibly one day when there's a big box of the entire series (when they're done with it) this will be included among the extras.

Kaijinu said...

Y'know, it's kinda appropriate that the last image you used for this review is that of Chewie going "huh"? on us. Seriously, this entire special is summed up by that one confused wookie face alone...

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