Think you’ve seen all the Star Wars movies? Which one is your least favorite? Do you even have a least favorite? Whatever your answer is, chances are it doesn’t stack up to the Star Wars Holiday Special. Well, except for those Chinese Star Wars bootlegs, but we’ll get to that on another day. Oh boy, will we. Just wait.
Getting back to the matter at hand, the Star Wars Holiday Special was broadcast on November 17, 1978 and featured all the principal cast members of the original film. It was built up to be the greatest TV special ever, or at least the most expensive, and promised to drum up even more support for George Lucas’s new franchise. That’s what it was supposed to be, anyway.
The movie, if we can call it that, opens at Chewbacca’s family’s tree house on Kashyyyk, where Chewie’s wife Malla (Mickey Morton) is busy preparing dinner while Chewie’s son, Lumpy (Patty Maloney) bugs Chewie’s elderly dad, Itchy (Paul Gale). Itchy growls and waves his cane at Lumpy, but it’s no use. Gotta give the kid a break, though, because he’s excited about celebrating Life Day.
Yep. Before Festivus, there was Life Day, a day that celebrates…life. It’s all about family, good eats, donning long red robes while carrying giant light bulbs, and is quite the festival.
Anyway, Han’s breaking his neck trying to get Chewbacca back home for the big holiday, but there are Imperial ships hot on their trail. Despite reassuring video chats with Luke and Leia, Malla is worried. Itchy is worried. Lumpy is worried. Imperial troops stop by looking for Chewie and trash the house, but a kindly craftsman named Saun Dann (Art Carney) distracts them long enough for Han and Chewie to get there. Whether they make it on time or not is indeed the burning question…oh, wait. It’s Life Day, so a happy ending is expected.
That’s the entire plot of the film. Seems pretty bare, doesn’t it? Yes. Yes, it does.
However, we’re not really done. There’s more fun to be had on the Holiday Special, although “fun” should be applied loosely and ironically at all times. It’s not just a Life Day extravaganza, but sprinkled throughout the minimal storyline is a huge hodge podge of dancers, jugglers, gymnasts, and acrobats in strange neon costumes with feather tails and prosthetics that mercifully cover their faces. Malla learns how to cook bantha stew from a bright orange Julia Child-ish being played by Harvey Korman with multiple arms and a bright orange face.
In an even odder turn, Dihann Carroll makes an appearance as, well, a virtual sex doll. The apparently love-starved Itchy summons her via what looks like a hooded dryer nipped from the onset hairstylist and sits in rapt attention while Dihann sensuously styles a low cut gown and croons “This Minute Now.” Kinda funny on a supposed family show, but whatever.
Cringe levels vary, because there’s also a halfway decent performance of “Light the Sky On Fire” by Jefferson Starship and a brief cartoon featuring Boba Fett trying to get one over on Han, Leia, and Luke in order to help out Darth Vader or something. It’s weirdly drawn and Luke looks like he was badly spooked and never got over it, but on the bright side, it’s the debut of a major character. And Bea Arthur as a cantina owner sings “Goodnight But Not Goodbye” to her unhappy patrons who have to clear out when the Empire puts a curfew on all businesses.
All of this pales in comparison to the final scene, in which all the original major cast members gather among red robe-clad Wookies and there are lots of hugs and smiles. It’s capped by Leia singing the horribly awkward “A Day To Celebrate” and Han and Luke try their hardest not to look bored out of their skulls.
Do I even need to reiterate how bad Holiday Special is? Yeah, I gotta vent here. This thing is horrendously awful. It’s clunky and dated and plods like no one’s business. We spend the first half hour listening to the Wookies growl at each other sans subtitles, which leaves us to suss out what’s going on through their body language and wild gesticulations. It’s so predictable that it’s not hard to figure out, but it doesn’t do much to draw an audience in, either.
Plus, there’s no dignity for these characters anywhere. Mark Hamill looks like a Kewpie doll, Carrie Fisher looks like she’s gritting her teeth the entire time. It’s probably the closest Harrison Ford has ever come to breaking character. Odds are, none of these actors would have agreed to make the special had they not been contractually obligated.
George Lucas had very little involvement with the film. He got things going, but as The Empire Strikes Back was in pre-production at the time, he left the show in the hands of producers Ken and Mitzi Welch, who wrote the screenplay and most of the music. The budget was minimal and it shows, which explains why so many of the props look like they got borrowed from the crew for the various scenes. Chewie and Malla’s house is decorated in typical 1970s style, with orange, avocado and gold everywhere, not to mention macrame hangings and a Rubbermaid trashcan.
Also not surprisingly, Lucas haaaaaaated the Holiday Special . His exact words were, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
Ratings for the show weren’t great, either. According to Esquire, the Holiday Special attracted a whopping thirteen million viewers and was easily beaten by Pearl and The Love Boat. It doesn’t take a Leonard Maltin to surmise that the movie probably flopped hard with those who did see it. 1978 was the one and only year it was on TV, and most of those involved have done their best to distance themselves from it in every way they can. The only person who got any fun out of the movie was Carrie Fisher, although it was many years later: She wheedled Lucas into giving her a copy of the special in return for some voiceover work.
Amazingly enough, though, hints of the film survive, such as the basic design of Chewie’s Wookie treehouse, which can be seen in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, we all know where Boba Fett ended up. Life Day also gets a passing mention now and then in various Star Wars installments. The film itself only survives because dedicated fans taped it in 1978 and then uploaded it to YouTube. There’s even a RiffTrax version that I highly recommend.
So yeah, if anyone’s in the mood for some jaw-dropping Star Wars, um, action, look no further than The Star Wars Holiday Special. Cringey as it is, it’s pretty unforgettable.
Oh, and happy Life Day!
For more badness, please click here. And because it’s that time, here’s what’s coming up in March (tomorrow!). Click on the images for more information:
All right, thanks for reading, all, and see you on the morrow with a little wrapup post…
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