The Star Wars Holiday Special – USA, 1978 – review

‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’

The Star Wars Holiday Special is a feature-length television programme aired once (and only once) on American television on November 17th 1978.

I saw a charming young lady from Canada the other day with a Star Wars T-shirt featuring one of the more recent JJ Abrams-trilogy characters. Which started me on an accustomed rant: What if there were a Star Wars movie sooooo bad that it was only screened widely once… just once. And never again. Most evidence for its existence has been erased from the Star Wars universe. Only bootleg copies and internet uploads testify to its existence. I think I rather frightened the aspiring young Jedi/Jedienne from Toronto with my description. “You’re not exactly selling this very well,” I think she said.

Nonetheless, it is true, a chapter in the Star Wars saga untouted and, for the most part, unloved. Even though it reunites Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony ‘C3PO’ Daniels and Peter ‘Chewbacca’ Mayhew, and perhaps a few seconds of James Earl Jones’ voice.

It’s the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, broadcast near Christmas, 1978, by CBS television. And never repeated. George Lucas’ reported shame over this shot-on-high-end-videotape, semi-musical (!) production reached urban-legend proportions. Wide-eyed fanboys would whisper tales about how the introvert mogul prevented any possible revival of the Holiday Special by personally destroying any available copies.

But there existed a network of people – think of them as a Rebel Alliance – who owned those old top-mounting VCRs back during the President Carter administration and knew well how to use them for such momentously important airings. They saved the Holiday Special during its one and only airing. And, thus, in the comic-con underground and via private collectors and obsessives, third and fourth-generation home recordings of the infamous affair circulate in VHS and DVD form. And it’s even occasionally online too.

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Timing of the airing of the Holiday Special, just before the American Thanksgiving holiday, inspired the loose plot: Chewbacca must go to his home planet to celebrate “Life Day.” As Han Solo pilots the Millenium Falcon through a blockade of Star Wars movie clips (which was cheaper than shooting fresh F/X dogfight scenes, after all), Chewie’s treetop-dwelling Wookiee family – wife Malla, father Itchy and son Lumpy endure a Gestapo-style branch-to-branch search by Imperial Stormtroopers. One is to assume the Empire is very cross at their Death Star just having been exploded.

We observe a typical, middle-class Wookie household. Dirty old Itchy sits in a virtual-reality chair and experiences a suggestive serenade by the (recently deceased) singer-actress Diahnne Carroll, far from Las Vegas and Broadway. With the use of his controls, lascivious Itchy makes the image coo to him “I adore you! I adore you!“ repeatedly.

Malla, in an apron, tries to follow a TV cooking show acted out by a malfunctioning droid (comic actor Harvey Korman). Lumpy scans Rebel cartoon-comics that depict further perils of Luke Skywalker.

This animated portion is treasured by Star Wars completists for introducing galactic bounty hunter Boba Fett, prominent later in Lucasfilm mythology. The animation was accomplished by Nelvana, the Canadian studio responsible for adult-oriented cartoon features Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule and a television spinoff of Beetlejuice. It is definitely a notch above what passed for kids-TV animation being peddled by Hollywood at the time, although this is faint praise indeed.

Less venerated: an interlude at the famed Mos Eisley cantina, which allows viewers to savour Stuart Freeborn’s alien-makeup creations (along with a few newcomers whipped up by Rick Baker) under flat lighting that tends to emphasize how fake they really are. And who happens to own the cantina but American TV sitcom star Bea Arthur, who, as Imperial Stormtroopers browbeat her into calling it a night, sings a torchy closing-time song in Marlene Dietrich fashion. And who plays her suitor, who pours his drink directly into a hole atop his head? Harvey Korman again.

Assorted television scriptwriters and directors apparently put the whole entertainment together without much of a clue as to what the Stars Wars mystique is all about besides space creatures and bizarre costumes. In fact, the Holiday Special‘s original director, David Acomba, quit over “artistic differences” and was replaced by Steve Binder, who had created the legendary Elvis Presley 1968 Comeback Special that in the views of most critics, rescued the legacy of the King of Rock and Roll from years of negligible film vehicles. Binder was very, very good for Elvis. Less so for Leia (and yes, Carrie Fisher sings a sort of Wookie Life Day carol, and it does not go over well).

There are some interesting aspects. In an infamous detail that George Lucas himself was allegedly uncompromising about, the Wookies speak throughout their segments in their usual animalistic growls and barks, with no English subtitles whatsoever. The treatment credits the audience with enough brains to figure out from the context what they’re yelping about. This, for many viewers, is the most intolerable thing about The Holiday Special; one newcomer to it told me she found the Wookie scenes like “a bad acid trip.”

Yet, only a few years later, Besson’s Le Dernier Combat and Annuad’s Guerre de Feu/Quest for Fire would also present fantastic narratives entirely in sub-verbal, mime format, and were widely acclaimed. Perhaps if only CBS had hired a French director? No, probably not.

I suppose I am not doing a very good job selling The Star Wars Holiday Special as a viewing experience. When I last looked, an entire namesake website devoted to the Holiday Special had gone up, and perhaps it exhibits more enthusiasm.

For those brave enough, here are some technical details, such as they are. A VHS version I bravely secured ran about 90 minutes. Length, not to mention picture quality, may vary. Sometimes the “generation loss” of multiple VCR-to-VCR transfers fuzzes the images into a brownish scanline haze. Some bootlegs added related ephemera like the commercials for Kenner Star Wars toys featuring a very young and of course then-unknown Christian Slater.

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES & MANIA

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Cast and characters:

  • Mark Hamill … Luke Skywalker
  • Harrison Ford … Han Solo
  • Carrie Fisher … Princess Leia Organa
  • Anthony Daniels … C-3PO
  • Peter Mayhew … Chewbacca
  • James Earl Jones … Darth Vader (voice)
  • Bea Arthur … Ackmena (as Beatrice Arthur)
  • Art Carney … Saun Dann
  • Diahann Carroll … Mermeia Holographic Wow
  • Marty Balin … Holographic Band Singer (as The Jefferson Starship)
  • Craig Chaquico … Holographic Band Member (as The Jefferson Starship)
  • David Freiberg … Holographic Band Singer (as The Jefferson Starship)
  • Paul Kantner … Holographic Band Member (as The Jefferson Starship)
  • Harvey Korman … Krelman / Chef Gormaanda / Amorphian Instructor
  • Mickey Morton … Malla

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