Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Star Wars Holiday Special
November 17th has a special meaning for Star Wars fans. It was the day, 39 years ago, that CBS aired the strangest Star Wars curio around until those hideous Jar-Jar Binks drink-toppers in 1999: The Star Wars Holiday Special. In some ways, Star Wars creator George Lucas was clever enough to rip-off his own movie, beating z-grade Italian movie producers to the punch. But his continued embarrassment around the endeavor suggests a limited hand in its development or an extensive cocaine incident while giving CBS the idea for this baffling two-hour TV event.
The story concerns Chewbacca’s family awaiting his arrival for Life Day, a Wookie holiday that in no way resembles Terran winter solstice celebrations. Their waiting takes the form of performances, sketches, and cameos from the main Star Wars cast while Han Solo (an embarrassed, yet dedicated Harrison Ford) and Chewie (good sport Peter Mayhew) valiantly attempt to avoid Imperial detection. Oh, also, Han apparently does this every year.
If you’ve never seen it, I totally get why. The Star Wars Holiday Special opens with twenty minutes of Wookies growling at each other followed by a proto-Cirque du Soleil performance. Thanks to only being available in the form of low-quality off-air recordings, the first quarter of the special looks and feels like a fever dream. The rest is only marginally better. Art Carney arrives to inject the show with some human dialogue. Unfunny dialogue, to be sure, but its better than Wookie vocalizations. Jefferson Starship appears on a portable holograph projector to perform “Light the Sky on Fire.” Lumpy, Chewbacca’s son, watches an animated Star Wars story that looks an awful lot like a failed pilot for a Saturday morning adventure show. Itchy, Chewbacca’s father, gets a Diahann Caroll video that he has um … a “reaction” to. And interspersed throughout is The Carol Burnett Show‘s Harvey Korman in a series of allegedly funny sketches.
Oh, and Bea Arthur appears at one point for the show’s saving grace: a performance of the Cantina Band’s “Goodnight, but Not Goodbye.”
For once, I’m not really sure if there’s legitimate charm to be found here. The Star Wars Holiday Special is almost a rite of passage for a Star Wars fan. Besides the gauntlet of unwatchable TV that is its opening sequence, it also features the first appearance of fan favorite Boba Fett. He appears in the animated short and is a little more talkative than he will be in the feature films. And as this thing was produced decades before the prequels, it’s clear Lucas had a very different vision for the character once upon a time. Fans also get the first mention of the Wookie’s homeworld of Kashyyyk — though the Imperial who utters the word for the first time makes it sound more like “Keshuk.”
Beyond the notable firsts, there’s the pervasive wrongness of it that every fan must face. First is the format: it’s a variety show at its core. As explained to me once by a former TV mentor, the idea behind a variety show was to “present a little something for everyone.” I suppose that made sense in the days when there were three networks, a smattering of local channels and the deranged world of UHF broadcast is most markets, but to our modern video-on-demand sensibilities, the variety show is a quaint idea. In those days, a family might sit down and watch an avuncular host interact with trained animals, cook a meal with the star of new film, watch sketches his team of comedians came up with, and then stick around for a performance or two by the Bay City Rollers. But to use the format as your Star Wars special seems like a case of extreme creative myopia. In 1978, Star Wars was the exclusive purview of children and sci-fi geeks: neither strike me as big fans of Diahann Caroll or Jefferson Starship (despite their name). Conversely, someone who wants to see performances by Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, and Caroll couldn’t possibly give a tinker’s damn about Star Wars. While the theory of the variety show suggests that these audiences will sit through something they don’t care about in order to see the segment they want to view, the line-up of acts and the Star Wars shell appear at impossible odds with one another.
Nonetheless, this thing aired.
Faced with this incomprehensible mess, the Star Wars fan is forced to face the possibility that this was the first crack in the Star Wars machine. Barely a year into its existence, George Lucas created a roadmap to Star Wars commercial excesses in the decades to come. Consider that in one of its better realized moments, a Stormtrooper wanders into Lumpy’s room and rips apart a stuffed bantha toy. I’ve shown this special to a number of people over the years and one of the few positive reactions I hear is “I want that bantha toy.” Even then, he knew we wanted as much plastic Star Wars junk as we could get.
Other fans will point out that the special was written by a number of television veterans like Pat Proft and Hollywood Squares mainstay Bruce Vilanch. They will take this to mean Lucas was not involved and became a zealous defender of his IP after this disgrace — a theory aided by the Special‘s status as the only Star Wars product unavailable in any format. But that ignores the very significant introduction of Boba Fett and Kashyyyk. According to some reports, Lucas was sent dallies and insisted on the Wookie focus, but neither his name nor the name of his company appears in the credits of the special. Nonetheless, he allowed the program to debut a key character and location (Kashyyyk was later replaced with Endor in Return of the Jedi) for the films he intended to make in the following years.
Y’know, come to think of it, the very puzzlement contained in The Star Wars Holiday Special is its charm. It’s a portal to a world in which Star Wars is even more soulless and commercial than its critics claim it to be in our universe. It’s a lick of unholy fire that is tantalizing in small bursts, but terrible to encompass as a whole.
The Star Wars Holiday Special is not available in any legitimate commercial form. Copies can be found at swap meets and comic conventions that still allow video tables to set up shop. It can also be found in that great — but unnamed — repository of online video.