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George Lucas’s "Star Wars Holiday Special" is a kitsch and crappy Christmas classic

The Star Wars Holiday Special is a well-meaning piece of dross that was created at the cusp of emerging home video technologies. George Lucas might have only expected the thing to be broadcast once, but through the glories of bootlegged VHS tapes, I live to tell the tale of the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Like the Star Wars Christmas Album, which featured the ephemeral "What Do You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)?", the Star Wars Holiday Special is a craptacular space odyssey of craprific proportions. Premiering Friday, November 17, 1978 on CBS, Holiday Special garnered excellent ratings, but is considered to be one of George Lucas's worst creations. With cameos from Bea Arthur, Art Carney and Harvey Korman, as well as most of the cast from the first film, the Holiday Special has continued to live on bootlegs these past twenty-seven years.

The story centres on Chewbacca, who must return to his home planet Kashyyyk in time to celebrate "Life Day." Space battles with the Galactic Empire ensue, Boba Fett makes his first appearance during an animated segment, Bea Arthur performs a song called "Goodnight, but not Goodbye" to the creatures in the Mos Eisley Cantina, and Chewbacca's son Lumpy watches an instructional video featuring Harvey Korman. (Lumpy must assemble a communication device so he can get back at the Imperial forces that tore up his room and destroyed one of his Life Day presents). Oh, and Princess Leia, perhaps channeling Bill Murray's SNL lounge singer character, sings Star Wars theme-song lyrics over the classic score.

It's a bit of a chore to make it through the whole two hours, but the Boba Fett cartoon makes most of it worthwhile. Not to mention that it's fun to see Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher enjoying a coked-up bender through the Star Wars galaxy one more time. If Holiday Special does one thing right, it's capturing the freewheeling, ramshackle essence of the first film; but overall, the crappy sets and hackneyed plotline only serve to confuse the Star Wars mythos. Certainly, I don't recall seeing Chewbacca's grumpy father Itchy (I guess if your name is Itchy, you're bound to be a bit grumpy) in Revenge of the Sith, so I can only assume that he was phased out of the continuity-perhaps someone should start a website to protest this grave infraction.

Anyway, a few months ago I watched the original Star Wars movies on VHS. These are the pure, untouched "Han-shoots-Greedo-first" versions. It was the first time I've seen a non-special-edition Star Wars since college. The first film, in particular, is still good-but I've gotta say that, like the Holiday Special, it's as cheesy as all get-out. The editing in the first act is nigh-ridiculous, scenes fade out as if they're meant to be followed by a commercial break, and Mark Hamill is just awful; there's a moment when Luke runs away from Ben to get in his land speeder that looks like it was shot by Ed Wood in his quintessential "let's-keep-the-camera-on-the-actor-until-he-drops-something" style. Much too much time is spent watching Luke shout out lines and dash over to his speeder.

 

Knowing the impact Star Wars has had on the film industry makes me wish it had been a flop. Cinema in the seventies was gritty, realistic and uncompromising-bleak, even-from The French Connection (1971) through Taxi Driver (1976). Then along comes Star Wars, ushering in a new age in cross-promotional merchandizing. The film also pioneered science fiction's "lived-in" aesthetic movement, where future technology is portrayed as rusty and paint-chipped. This is certainly a positive when you consider films like Blade Runner (1982), but then, all of a sudden, one out of every five movies released in the eighties featured a post-apocalyptic war-world. Or, in the case of the Ice Pirates, space herpes.

What evolved ultimately didn't even resemble Star Wars, per se. If anything, the world that Star Warscreated was very insular-Mos Eisley was little more than a set from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), only with Jawas-but the technology in Star Wars does feel well-used and lived-in, and maybe that's part of the reason people felt so attached to it. The first one was fun, like outsider art, but the others had to work with a formula that was becoming increasingly diluted.

Whatever raucous joy that had informed the first Star Wars was sucked away by the Holiday Special. Largely an attempt to capitalize on a concept that was already reaping the rewards of mass merchandizing, the Holiday Special was a straight-up effort to do little more than entertain. It was a Star Wars variety hour that could have benefited from more Muppets and less Bea Arthur, a broadcast experiment that could only have been inspired during a time when the entire world was ripped to the gills on blow.

Nonetheless, this holiday season I encourage you to gather together with your Itchy and Lumpy loved ones, sit near a fire, and bask in the warm glow of Harvey Korman dressed as a four-armed Julia Child competing in a bake-off against a Wookiee. It might not have anything to do with the holidays, but it certainly is special.

Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.