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Merry Sitcom: Christmas Classics From TV's Golden Age

The overarching theme among these stories is an often unacknowledged tension between affluent postwar consumer culture and a more austere mode of living.

Merry Sitcom: Christmas Classics From TV's Golden Age

Cast: Marlo Thomas, Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, Sally Field, Ernest Borgnine, Donna Reed, Elinor Donahue, Paul Petersen, Elizabeth Montgomery, Billy Mumy, Dick York
US Release Date: 2009-11-03

“It’s the most wonderful time, of the year”… or so the puppet masters controlling Philo T. Farnsworth’s momentous invention would have us believe. Since the '50s, TV sitcoms have often presented a Yuletide episode, brimming with warm fuzzies and intended to demonstrate to the audience that good will towards one’s fellow man always triumphs in the end. I personally recall watching many during my Wonder Years in the '70s and '80s; a stock character was a portly, retired gentleman – with a twinkle in his eye and a kindly soul – intended to symbolize Old St. Nick himself.

I suppose someone somewhere must have mused, “Why can’t we see these Very Special episodes again?”, and voila! Shout Factory rode to the rescue! The California-based homevid distributor has just released , a compilation of Baby Boomer seasonal episodes. Although I’m a firm Gen X-man, I’m definitely among the more ancient of that tribe, so I was hardly unfamiliar with the selected shoes, and couldn’t resist taking a look, if for no other reason than to satiate my Inner TV Addict.

My memory of Robert Young is cemented by his portrayal of the ever-congenial “Marcus Welby, M.D.” whose reruns I occasionally glanced at after school during my tween years. His earlier program, the weightless sitcom Father Knows Best, is included here, as the earliest broadcast in the collection, stardate 1954, an era when TV audiences were expanding exponentially in the wake of I Love Lucy.

Titled The Christmas Story, Young’s Jim Anderson laments that his family has never know a “quiet, simple Christmas”, and drags them into the woods on a wintry day, seeking the perfect tree for their parlor. Predictably, the Andersons become stranded during a sudden blizzard, and are rescued, so to speak, by a bearded loner named Nick, who seems utterly delighted to make their acquaintance. When Jim’s WASPy wife – the patrician Jane Wyatt – suggests that they’ll miss the holiday altogether if they can’t get “back to town”, Nick gently reminds her that “It’s Christmas up here, too”. Hmm… what a novel notion!

In A Very Merry Christmas, Donna Stone, doyenne of The Donna Reed Show suffers a an existential crisis upon realizing that her spoiled suburban brood has been seduced by Yuletide consumerist greed, and has her nerves frazzled during a bargain-hunting tug-of-war at the local department store. Proclaiming that “Christmas presents are not something you weigh or measure”, the crusading hausfrau, married to a Rock Hudsonesque physician – don’t smirk - determines to assist in putting on a hospital Xmas bash for sick children, most of which, curiously, are afflicted with the most minor injuries conceivable. No H1N1 here, thank you very much!

I confess I’d never seen McHale’s Navy until now, and frankly haven’t missed much. Evidently a light-hearted take on the US naval presence in Hawaii during the Second World War, this episode titled "The Day They Captured Santa Claus”, is marred by ‘Oriental’ stereotyping, typical of that period – check out Disney’s The Ugly Dachshund or the later The Aristocats – and an avoidance of any unpleasant aspects of warfare, preferring the silly, harmless histrionics depicted in Hogan’s Heroes. I don’t know if any non-holiday episodes touched on Pearl Harbor or the American navy’s arguably imperialist occupation of those islands, but I tend to doubt it.

Freckle-faced perennial Billy Mumy – star of three of the most memorable Twilight Zone tales – appears in “A Vision of Sugar Plums”, a Xmas entry from Bewitched, the longest-running of the Bewitching Blonde sitcoms. As you might expect, young Billy plays a sullen, fatherless boy brought home from an orphanage to spend the holiday with Samantha and Darren. Declaring that “Christmas is a lot of bunk and so is Santa Claus”, you just know that he’ll eventually flash a toothy, warm-hearted grin by the time the end credits roll, especially after Samantha takes him on a magical journey. Of course, everyone’s favorite neighbor, Gladys Kravetz, witnesses – via her living room window – more than she should. Frankly, dear Mrs. Kravetz steals the show, her shrill complaints at their most annoying pitch.

The DVD also features episodes of “hat Girl, The Flying Nun, and the little-seen Window on Main Street, Robert Young’s follow-up to Father Knows Best. I hadn’t seen the Marlo Thomas series in a dog’s age, and she is amusing as Ann Marie, a perpetually perky Snow White-cum-Lois Lane, who channels the sweet, giggly girl-next-door, counterpointing that with a mod cosmopolitan hipness, bringing to mind – in her go-go boots – '60s “It” girls Holly Golightly and Ann-Margret. Is it a coincidence that she’s dubbed “Ann Marie”? And couldn’t you just see her cooing “Santa Baby”?

The overarching theme among these stories is an often unacknowledged tension between affluent postwar consumer culture and a more austere mode of living, rooted in a simplicity made necessary during the Depression and World War II. Let’s also remember, prior to the Crash of ’29, America’s middle class was much smaller, and there were fewer useful items to buy. Most people didn’t own homes, and city dwellers seldom owned cars, as they didn’t need private vehicles – remember trolleys? – and often couldn’t afford them. The America presented in these so-called “Golden Age” sitcoms was an imperial-industrial powerhouse, flexing its muscles, and emotionally frivolous enough to ignore its myriad inner contradictions.

These programs were the product of Jet Age comfort, and they are little more than candy floss, cheesy, innocent entertainment beloved now by nostalgists who miss their own faded youth -- or an idea of someone's faded youth -- far more than they miss any particular TV show. Some would argue that it’s a terrible shame that a society that wields such technological and intellectual might produce such needless fluff. Others might say that the strength of America is found in a populace comfortable enough to sit back and digest these frothy desserts. You can have your cake and eat it, too, but it certainly won’t fill your tummy.

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