With the weather cooling, the space heaters out, and the appearance of Christmas lights on houses, it’s beginning to look a like Yulemala. What’s Yulemala you might ask? It’s holiday themed Yakmala. Films that try, fail, and warm my two-sizes too small heart with the spirit of brothership because axial tilt is the reason for the season. We begin the month with my all time favorite Christmas turkey, “The Night They Saved Christmas.”
PLOT: Art Carney plays a thoroughly modern Santa in this 1986 made-for-Jaclyn-Smith-for-TV-movie in which an oil digger’s family is enlisted (the titular “They”) to save Christmas. When Gaylord-fearing oil tycoon Murdoch (Smucker’s spokesvoice Mason Adams in a role that will confound you) forces Michael (Paul Le Mat in another thankless part) to drill and bomb two sites near the North Pole, Santa dispatches his top Elf, Ed (Paul Williams in a role that will sicken you) to speak to Michael. Ed gently, but firmly, lets Michael know the oil is not on Site B—which is close to North Pole City, but on Site A—which still gives North Pole City quite a jolt, but will not destroy North Pole City, Santa Claus, and Christmas forever. Ed offers to take Michael and his family to meet Santa.
The family takes up the offer while Michael continues to be yelled at by his boss. When They disappear, Murdoch convinces Michael the never-seen “Gaylord” kidnapped his family and to move all digging operations to Site B by the 24th of December (“That’s Christmas-Eve Day, have you got me?”). While Jaclyn Smith, her brainy son and her girl daughter are treated to the scientific wonders of Santa’s Workshop, Michael is berated and despondent by their disappearance.
Oh, and youngest son C.B. sits at home crying.
Will Smith and her family save Christmas? Will C.B.’s emotional problems ever be addressed? Will “Gaylord” turn out to be Murdoch’s other personality? All will be revealed before the heart-rending performance of Marylin Maccoo’s “If You Believe Enough in Someone.”
Analysis: Now, I’m just going to start with “Gaylord.” Who is he? Who knows? Often mentioned, but never seen, “Gaylord” is the only thing that fills Mason Adams’s Murdoch with terror. Also, let’s get the snickering over and done with: “Gaylord” is a poor choice for a name in a movie aimed at 8 year-olds. It teaches them to look at that term with scorn, I have no idea if “gaylord” has much traction as a homophobic slur on the playground these days, but when I was a kid, the scale was something like girl, queer, faggy, faggot, gay, gaylord. Whether Murdoch is freaked out by gaylords in general or Gymnastics star Mitch Gaylord, it’s just not an appropriate tone for Christmas.
That said, Mason Adams is a delight in this film. Never again will you think of him as the kindly Smucker’s Guy. Instead, what you get is a man who never stops yelling or berating his subordinates. At one point, once Michael’s family has vanished, Murdoch says, “I know you’ve got your problems, kid, but back off!” It’s a truly remarkable performance.
“The Night They Saved Christmas” is one of those films that attempts to answer questions about old Claus. Here, all the answers come down to science. That is say, hooky pop-science of the mid-1980s. How does Santa get into people’s houses? Teleportation. How does he get all the toys out in one night? He slows down time and keeps satellites in low earth-orbit to restock as he moves from region to region. His sleigh is self-propelled by anti-grav technology, but he’s never told the reindeer that little fact. Every explanation is worse than the plot-hole it answers and always comes around to a forced warmth that kills any sense of wonder you might have about these fantastical concepts.
Also, we’re told quite emphatically that Santa doesn’t give toy guns or action figures because he doesn’t believe in violence. When Santa is being played by a rather loud Art Carney, that is just a hard fact to take on board. He looks ready to throtle all the elves around him for singing Jingle Bells.
The kids are an interesting group. The oldest is played by Scott “Scotty” Grimes. He’s intended to be a hyper-intelligent smarty-smart smarty-pants. That just means he has a lot of precocious things to say. The youngest child, C.B. is played by R.J Williams. The film makes vague references to C.B. needing “a stable environment.” I think he needs a real name. Finally, there’s the middle child played by Laura Jacoby. Her character trait? She’s a girl. I’m not kidding, there is literally no attempt made to give her any sort of character quirk at all. She’s just Daughter. They give her pink stuff to wear and she has lines like “Mom, I’m scared!” and “This is terrific!” and “May I be excused?
Jacoby would later go on to a similar, but meatier part in “Rad” and a guest spot on “Family Ties.” Grimes would arguably find the most success as a member of the later day cast of “ER” and a well-received role in “Band of Brothers.” Williams went on to voice Kit Cloudkicker on Disney’s “Tailspin.” He was also Deanna Troi’s brief alien son in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
The last time I wrote about the movie a few years ago, I skipped talking about songwriter and acting wunderkind Paul Williams. He appeared in such Yakmala-worthy films as “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” and “The Phantom of the Paradise.” He also wrote some songs for the later film. In “They Night They Saved Christmas,” he contributed a little diddy called “Gotta Be Ready By Christmas Eve” and it goes something like this:
Gotta be ready Christmas Eve!
(Gotta be ready by Christmas Eve!)x4
And it’s gotta be made with love!
As Ed, Williams is filled with a certain whimsical warmth that’s nauseating, particularly when he says the term “hot chocolate.” Also, Ed gets to ride with Santa on his Christmas Eve flight. I guess he’s being groomed as a replacement?
“Lassie” star June Lockhart appears as Martha Claus. She has a disconcerting habit of referring to her husband as “Pappa.” It’s … not the right tone, either. She only appears in brief sequence when the family first visits North Pole City. I guess in a script where the middle child can only be described as “girl,” the thought of writing Mrs. Claus was just too disturbing for the screenwriters.
The Night They Saved Christmas is a product of the early 80s, a misguided attempt to modernize the story of Santa for a jaded youth market already aware he couldn’t possible be the source of their Nintendo Entertainment System.