|I like how you can see Harrison Ford thinking about literally anything but where he is in this moment|
Director: Steve Binder
Hubris, thy name is Signal Watch.
Jamie put up three options for us to watch the other night, and I was like "ha ha! I'm feeling daffy! Let's watch The Star Wars Holiday Special! It'll be great with Rifftrax!"
Friends, it was not great.
Look, Rifftrax is/ are fun, but they can't turn a broken sewer line into the fountain in front of the Bellagio. It's more about standing there, cracking wise at the broken sewer line. I mean, Lucas disavowed and tried to hide the existence of the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) for decades, but early tape decks and bootlegs at sci-fi conventions kept it alive and kicking despite best efforts to quash this thing's existence.
Star Wars was once upon a time a thing where there wasn't that much of it - unlike today's Disney-fueled production factory, we got a movie every three years and then some occasional oddball items. But every attempt to expand beyond the narrow confines of the feature films seemed to be met in disaster. I was jamming to Christmas in the Stars as a kid (a record that drives Jamie into a fury when I put it on), live-action Ewok movies, an Ewok cartoon and a Droid cartoon, all of which were... not great. But I hadn't even heard of the Holiday Special until college.
I've seen this before at least once - maybe twice, originally renting it from our hip local video store on VHS. And I'll be honest, this is positively the last time I will wade through this thing in any more than 30 second clips. It's physically painful to watch, and the Rifftrax version cuts out both the cartoon (which is... fine) and and the Jefferson Starship number (which is... well, it happened). It is a thing that make Diahann Carroll seem unappealing, and I can't even run the numbers on how that happens.
Obviously Star Wars was huge and my earliest memories (I was 2 when Star Wars arrived) are tied up in the first movie. But I don't know if we saw this special. I don't think so. The only special I remember from around this time was the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader special where they all rode a rollercoaster. Or maybe my brain just cooked that up. It was the 1970's.
I have a rough idea of what happened here, but can't be sure. I'm making some extrapolations, but... It reminds of how, in the wake of the 1989 Batman boom, studios kept putting out superhero movies, but they were more like pulp heroes than superheroes, and always treated with a wink, right up to and including the back half of the Batman franchise started by Burton. Basically - the old guys in charge couldn't imagine not doing what they already knew how to do and liked. So - who cares about all these new-fangled superheroes, when they were growing up they read The Phantom in the funnies, and had memories of being hip in the 60's and liked Batman with Adam West, so... throw $30 million at it and call it a movie.
But these were 1970's TV execs. Everything was an excuse for a variety show - especially the holidays. And if Star Wars was a bunch of kooky nonsense to them, why not pile on the nonsense? But also - what would get cross-generational appeal and keep the kids happy? People love Maude and The Carol Burnett show, so bring on those faves. And wouldn't it be cute if Chewbacca had a family? No? Well, we're doing it anyway.
I was a young kid during the waning years of the variety show - which had always been part of TV. I grew up on the Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, holiday specials that always had Brooke Shields (that's a feature, not a bug), The Muppet Show, and plenty more.
What is deeply clear is that no one tried. Which was kind of the mood of the era on TV. Johnny Carson had ashtrays on his desk, Burt Reynolds would wander in - it felt like young performers were being earnest and sincere (see: The Osmonds) but established performers couldn't be arsed to do more than show up and let middle-America delight in their presence on screen. Which has it's own charm. But when you're trying to keep a 2-hour special going, asking Harvey Korman to carry all the water because his co-stars are three bellowing ape people and Art Carney who is playing this like Star Wars meets Death of a Salesman for some reason, it's a lot. But somehow also: nothing.
The miscalculation of having three featured characters who just scream incoherently without subtitles on screen for minutes at a time is truly one for the ages. I think the best-meaning artsy puppeteers and mimes of the 1970's thought this was "neat", but... this is hubris. It's Chewbacca's family eagerly awaiting his return to the planet Keyboard Slip for Life Day/ Wookie Christmas/ Heaven's Gate Cult Cosplay - and so the scenes are familiar domestic tableaus, just shouted in gutteral noise. And you will start to wonder at some point: Will this ever end? Is this what my life is now? did I die? Oh no, this is hell. And when it DOES end, it just gets worse.
Seeing Harrison Ford badly written and out of character as Han Solo is challenge enough, but Mark Hamill is wearing enough make-up to make KISS jealous, and Carrie Fisher is just clearly high as a kite, and I will never believe otherwise. Watch as she stumbled around her desk and her glassy, glassy eyes as she sings the admittedly memorable but not in a good way "Life Day Theme" which suggests that the Star Wars main march is actually PART of the Life Day theme, which is now canon, so ha ha, John Williams.
But, my god, there's just insane choices - like the acrobatic hologram sequence that will not end. The weird beerhall sequence featuring Bea Arthur and Korman just being a dumb dick. Korman's cooking thing. Art Carney trying to improvise a whole sequence with some guy in a 70's dad mustache as an Imperial trooper but Carney clearly has done zero prep before walking on set. And he just flatly refuses to button his shirt when all signs scream for that to be the right choice.
I used to think George was being weird about the Holiday Special, but he wasn't. Star Wars was a hard-won labor of love, the development, production and release of is a tale for the ages. Whatever this is didn't hurt the legacy of Star Wars - but had the potential to derail everything. Luckily, it seems like everyone agreed this sucked and buried it. Except for nerds at cons and blackmarket video.
It's a misery to watch, and I have to imagine George getting up ten minutes in and heading for his home bar if he's going to finish this bastard.
Also, just before she passed, Carrie Fisher released The Princess Diarist, and it's interesting to wonder what Ford and Fisher were thinking coming back together for a Holiday Special after their brief affair in London. Note: the two never look at each other during their one shared scene.
Sorry if this post in incoherent rambling, but so is the Star Wars Holiday Special.
*Ten years ago I'd say it would be hard for people today to believe how much of TV was filled with almost vaudeville-like programming, just tons of variety shows with stars big and small, some running series and many as specials. But, TV has been stepping quickly back toward that formula with dystopian programming like The Masked Singer. So don't think we've come so far by making variety shows a (rigged) competition.