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The Star Wars Holiday Special

Say what you will about him as a filmmaker (and brother, there is A LOT to say), but I don’t think there’s any denying that George Lucas was always a remarkable man of business. Through some miraculous feat, Lucas somehow convinced Fox to let him keep the licensing and merchandising rights to Star Wars. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he then used those rights to build a vast multimedia empire that continues to this day. Yet even without that cash cow, Lucas would still have spent the past few decades making millions.

Through THX, Lucas created a system that has become synonymous with quality sound in movies. He built Skywalker Sound, the massive sound mixing studio that reportedly works on 20-30 films a year, in addition to various TV shows, theme park attractions, video games, etc. That isn’t even getting started on Industrial Light and Magic, which is still quite possibly the most prestigious special effects company on the planet.

This begs the question: If George Lucas was so incredibly gifted at managing his assets and making money, how in the almighty fuck did he allow The Star Wars Holiday Special to happen?!

Accounts differ on whether or not it was 20th Century Fox or LucasFilm who came up with the idea. It’s agreed, however, that 20th Century Fox put Smith-Hemion Productions in charge of making the special happen. It bears mentioning that Smith-Hemion had previously made several well-respected TV specials, including “My Name is Barbra” (Barbara Streisand, to be exact) and “Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music.” Co-founder Dwight Hemion would later go on to direct the Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 and 1990, winning Emmys for both efforts. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, George Lucas did provide a basic outline of a story to work from. These notes were given to Pat Proft (previously a writer on The Carol Burnett Show) and Leonard Ripps (who once wrote a segment of The Sonny and Cher Show), both of whom then worked out a screenplay. Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and producer Mitzie Welch are also among the credited writers, which should give you an idea of how badly this initial script was tampered with.

Even so, I was surprised to learn how much effort went into making this special worthwhile. The art department was allowed to put an abnormally large amount of work and money into the sets, though that’s partly because early in the development stages, someone thought that this might work as the backdoor pilot for a TV series. Let’s move on before we think too much about what that proposed series might have been like.

Elsewhere, Ben Burtt — widely recognized as a god among sound designers — returned to the Star Wars universe and recorded new Wookiee sounds for this special. Stuart Freeborn — the original trilogy’s costume designer — came back to design the Wookiee outfits, and he was assisted by no less a man than Stan Winston himself.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the original cast members who show up here. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, and James Earl Jones all reprised their respective roles to collect a paycheck for this picture. That said, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hamill had been replaced with some kind of bad Muppet stand-in. See, in January of 1977, Mark Hamill had to undergo seven hours of plastic surgery after a car accident terribly disfigured his face. I assume that the procedure was still fresh at the time of filming, because his features look rather… well, plastic. Of course, the terrible lighting and makeup don’t exactly help matters.

As long as I’m digressing to talk about the cast, I should add that Harrison Ford seems visibly angry to be involved in this. However, it feeds into the gruff and snarky attitude that we all know and love about Han Solo, so it works rather well. As for Carrie Fisher, she looks stoned out of her goddamned mind through the entire running time. Then again, considering that she would have been starting her infamous drug addiction at about this time, she probably was. Anyway, let’s get back to the pre-production.

George Lucas personally chose David Acomba (an old USC classmate of his) to direct the picture, though Acomba only directed three sequences before leaving. Apparently, he had some creative differences with producers Ken and Mitzie Welch. Reportedly, Lucas was quite supportive of that decision. In his place, Smith-Hemion tapped Steve Binder, who was previously known for directing Elvis Presley and Barry Manilow in their own respective TV specials.

I don’t know how things might have gone if Acomba had stayed on, but I feel confident in saying that the end product couldn’t have been much worse.

Before going any further, I should point out that once again, I will refrain from any comments about poor picture quality. This is because the copy I watched for review was transferred off a VHS recording of the original telecast. In fact, all surviving copies of this special were ripped from VHS recordings of the original telecast.

You see, George Lucas (who, remember, will gladly stand by his unwatchable Howard the Duck and that generation-defining fuckup known as “Jar Jar Binks”) has completely disavowed this movie. The man has spent several decades doing everything in his considerable power to ensure that the picture never sees mass broadcast on any medium ever again. Lucas has stated on multiple occasions that he would track down and burn every surviving copy of this picture, if he only had the time and means to do so. The irony, of course, is that the special is being kept alive by the very same people who funnel billions of dollars into his pocket. And for the exact same reason, too.

That aside, I’ll be interested to see if we get a remastered release of this special in the near future. It would certainly never happen under Lucas’ watch, but he’s not in charge anymore. I can easily see the execs at Disney going “You want to give us money? Here’s your DVD, now give us your money.” But again, I digress.

Getting around to the picture itself, the film wastes absolutely no time in showing us how crappy the direction is. Right from the get-go, the film shows us a couple of Star Destroyers by way of footage that was clearly recycled from A New Hope. They’re chasing the Millennium Falcon, in which Han Solo and Chewbacca are shot in extreme close-ups to hide the fact that their set doesn’t look a goddamned thing like the Falcon’s cockpit in the movie.

The scene shifts to Kashyyyk, where we meet Chewbacca’s family. Yes, Chewbacca apparently has a wife named Malla and a son named Lumpy, both of whom live with Chewie’s father, named Itchy, but that’s not the worst part about this storyline. No, the worst part is that their scenes are presented entirely without subtitles.

I’ll repeat that: A storyline that’s entirely about Wookiees is presented without subtitles. It’s just guttural noises, grunting, and worthless comical pantomime from start to finish. As a direct result, we’re only given the faintest possible idea of what’s going on at any given time. The actors can’t even convey anything through emotion, because not even Stan Winston’s craftsmanship would’ve been good enough for that. It also bears repeating that these Wookiee family scenes aren’t some little segment, nor are they a mere story thread. This is the main overarching plot that weaves all the segments together into a single movie. As such, the lack of understandable dialogue is a problem that infects the entire movie, even when the Wookiees aren’t onscreen.

(Side note: I just realized that the only one in this movie who serves as a Wookiee translator is C-3PO. When the golden protocol droid finally showed up and repeated Molla’s lines in English, I was genuinely grateful for the service and found myself wishing that Threepio could’ve stuck around.

(That’s right, folks: This movie is so bad that more C-3PO would have been a blessing. I have no idea how to adequately express my feelings about this. Can you help me out here, Luke? Thanks.)

While watching the segments of this picture, I was reminded with every passing minute of screen time that talent doesn’t always mean quality. There were so many talented people involved in the making of this picture, yet their skills were entirely in the service of crap.

The “circus” segment is a great example. Watching that sketch, it’s obvious that a great amount of talented people were really bringing their A-game to shoot some neat acrobatics. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t answer the central question of “what the fuck am I watching?” The segment has nothing to do with the overall narrative, or even with the greater Star Wars universe. We never get a feel for what these performers are (Aliens? People dressed in weird costumes? Virtual constructs? Droids?) or why they’re performing to begin with.

These complaints extend through all of the various sketches and plot detours in this movie. Watching Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman in this picture, it’s plainly obvious that these are dedicated actors who have to deal with godawful dialogue and pathetic excuses for characters. Then again, I suppose it doesn’t help that these actors only get a few precious minutes to make an impression with characters who were paper-thin to begin with. Even more unforgivably, these are gut-busting comedians who are being forced to tell hopelessly unfunny jokes.

…Oh, I’m sorry, did I say “hopelessly unfunny?” I meant to say that the jokes are so ungodly boring that the film will actively punish you for sitting through them. Somewhere around Korman’s alien parody of Julia Child, I couldn’t tell if my brain cells were dying or if my black and withered soul was being crushed in a vice. I only know that I was in overwhelming pain. I haven’t seen many movies that could elicit a reaction of physical agony, but these filmmakers somehow found a way to remotely assault their audience with a tangible form of highly-concentrated boredom.

You might think that the musical numbers would fare better, since the production company and the director all built their careers on TV specials with music legends. Alas, no. The musical segments suffer the same basic problem of astronomical talent wasted on shitpiles.

Easily the most infamous case in point is Diahann Carroll, who remains a golden-voiced and gorgeous class act to this day (see: her recurring appearances on the ongoing TV series, “White Collar”). Though this particular TV special absolutely makes the most of Carroll’s stunning beauty, and though Carroll tries to salvage her number with those heavenly pipes of hers, the wretched song is totally beyond hope. The lyrics are meaningless and repetitive, the instrumentals are a featureless slog, it’s just a mess all around. Far worse, Carroll’s virtual reality character is squicky in ways that I can’t even bring myself to describe here.

Bea Arthur and Carrie Fisher both get songs as well. The less said about those, the better.

Jefferson Starship fares much better, as their song is the only one that’s anywhere near salvageable. Plus, the electronic sounds and lighting effects are somewhat enjoyable in a campy, “Tron” sort of way. Perhaps most importantly, I got the impression that with a little more tweaking, this group might plausibly be something that exists in the greater universe of the Star Wars films. That’s more than I can say for any other segment in this picture. With one exception.

The famous animated segment is the only part of this whole picture that feels legitimately “Star Wars.” After all, the short is about Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Threepio, and Artoo out adventuring on some faraway moon as they run from Imperial forces. Though the return to basics was a most welcome shift, the sketch is undercut by some rubbery animation, godawful character designs, and subpar voice acting.

All of that aside, the animated short’s biggest claim to fame is the introduction of Boba Fett. In fact, the debut of that particular bounty hunter is the single greatest pop culture contribution of the TV special as a whole. I know that isn’t saying much, but it speaks volumes that Boba Fett left a big enough impression in this special to merit inclusion in the franchise going forward. With only a few minutes of screen time, Boba is built up as an imposing figure and an all-around badass. Given the character’s inherent mystique and his intriguing sense of honor, I can completely understand why this disposable antagonist caught on so quickly.

Getting back to that remark about how none of the other segments seem to feel at home in the “Star Wars” mythology, I’m including the Tattooine Cantina scene in that assessment. Yes, I know that the cantina scene has all of the aliens we know and recognize from the movie, but that’s sort of like saying Luke Skywalker is being played by Mark Hamill. It’s technically true, but you can just tell somehow that this still only a poor imitation of what’s come before. In this case, I think it mostly has to do with the lighting. The shadows and smoke that made the cantina so atmospheric in A New Hope are completely gone here. It’s like a wretched hive of scum and villainy as brought to us by Disneyland (which, hopefully, is in the planning stages as I type this).

Oh, and also: The cantina segment contains a half-assed romantic comedy between Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman. The whole angle is terribly unfunny, in large part because of how pathetically creepy it is. Needless to say, that doesn’t exactly add to the Cantina atmosphere.

With all of that said, the craziest thing about this picture is that the concept of a “Star Wars Holiday Special” wasn’t as moronic as it inherently sounds. No, seriously.

At its core, this movie is about depicting the holidays, customs, and entertainment of Kashyyyk. Squint through all the shit on the screen and you can see a glimpse in the everyday life of a perfectly ordinary family in the Star Wars universe. These are some of the people who live beneath the scope of the movies and are thus pushed to the wayside. As such, this might have been a fascinating and clever way of opening up the greater mythos, if only we had protagonists who were capable of explaining what was going on.

This is the ultimate reason why depicting the main storyline entirely in Wookiee was an unforgivably stupid idea: Without a relatable or understandable character to serve as our guide, we have precisely zero context for anything that we’re seeing. We have no way of knowing what’s going on or how any of these segments fit into the greater universe, or even into the everyday lives of these Wookiees.

Overall, I think the biggest problem with this production is that it was made and released the year after A New Hope. I’m sure this would have been made with a lot more care if 20th Century Fox and/or Lucasfilm had waited on the idea, leaving it until they knew what this franchise would turn into and how much it would mean to so many millions of fans several decades later. But with so little hindsight to guide their decisions, the filmmakers and execs had no idea what they had on their hands. At the time, they only knew that it was a sci-fi fantasy oddity so popular with kids that it became one of the highest-grossing films of all time (and adjusting for inflation, it still is).

Put simply, the filmmakers weren’t thinking about what would serve the franchise as a whole and help define the greater mythology. Clearly, they were thinking about all the noisy and flashy crap they could put on the screen, with no logic or restraint whatsoever, all to entertain the grade school set.

If only Fox had waited until the original trilogy was over. Then they might have killed the franchise before the prequel trilogy was made, and everybody would’ve won!

(Side note: The DVD I watched for review contained all the TV commercials that played during the original CBS telecast. Though some commercials were undeniably campy, I was surprised by how little had changed. Most of these commercials could be remade shot-for-shot and modern networks would probably air them. The commercials for upcoming movies and TV shows make for a neat little pop culture time capsule, ditto for the newsbreaks. This sort of “bite-sized” media was designed to be quick and disposable — as they are now — so applying over thirty years of hindsight to them can be rather enlightening. Makes you wonder what the people of 2050 will think of our YouTube videos.)

You know that old cartoon stereotype of a corporate tycoon whose product makes toxic waste that’s dumped into a river? I’m pretty sure that’s what happened here. Clearly, The Star Wars Holiday Special was a glop of hazardous byproduct excreted by the Kenner toy company.

Whatever viable talent and effort got put in front of the camera, it was totally abused by the stupidity and incompetence behind the camera. The whole special is a 97-minute parade of bad ideas, most of which have nothing to do with each other and little to do with Star Wars. The sketches are so ill-conceived and nonsensical that all attempts at humor or entertainment of any kind are DOA. This whole enterprise was a rushed and misguided attempt to cash in on A New Hope, which only goes to show how short-sighted and greedy the studio execs really were.

The animated short might be worth looking up if you’re curious. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

P.S. Special thanks to my good friend Morgan, who generously loaned me her DVD copy for this review.

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