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Thursday, 17 November 2016

Some final Life Day thoughts on the Star Wars Holiday Special

Happy Life Day: The Star Wars Holiday Special

As another Life Day comes and goes, Episode Nothing offers some final thoughts on why The Star Wars Holiday Special still inspires macabre fascination.

The Star Wars Holiday Special
was broadcast 38 years ago this week – Thursday, November 17, 1978. That probably means we should consider that date as Life Day – the festival where wookiees put on robes and walk about amidst dry ice, carrying candles.

I’ve spent several weeks blogging about the Holiday Special, which is almost certainly more than it warrants. But I, and many other people, might not have been so fascinated by it if George Lucas had not been so keen to forget it ever happened. So today, I'll consider just how much Lucas was involved in the Holiday Special – and why he never decided to just make it available and laugh along with the rest of us.

How involved was George Lucas with the Star Wars Holiday Special?

Wookiee domestic life in The Star Wars Holiday Special

By any objective standards, the Holiday Special is pretty bad, but that isn't what makes it so weirdly unique in the Star Wars universe. What really sets it apart is that it its tone is so unlike anything else in the history of Star Wars. Slapstick, rock music, musical numbers, spoofs of cookery shows. As co-writer Leonard Ripps has said in Mental Floss's excellent oral history of the special: "In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars."

Given how proprietorial Lucas eventually became about his work, it's astonishing that the Holiday Special went off in such strange directions. Did the whole thing happen without Lucas noticing what network television was doing to his creation? It's tempting to think so, but the evidence suggests that Lucas at least had some input early on. All that domestic business with the wookiees in their treehouse originates with a Lucas idea. 

Ripps recalled that he and his co-writer Pat Proft spent a full day with Lucas. "He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about," he said.

Ripps and Proft wrote their script with gaps in the story, so that executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith could add in the musical and comedy sequences. Producers Ken and Mitzie Welch were responsible for those.

Bruce Vilanch, a writer with experience writing gags for Oscar night, was brought in later, but also says he dealt with Lucas

"I worked on it with George," he said. "That's how I got to know him. And he pulled the story out of the vault. It was like 'Episode 32' of the saga, and it was the one that was set on the planet of the wookiees, and the wookiees were the central characters.

"Unfortunately all the wookiees look like me and sound like fat people having orgasms. So, they're tough to write for … So I said, 'well we have to load this up with stars who sing and dance and do schtick to cover up that the story is about these walking carpets'."

George Lucas and the Holiday Special animation

The animated sequence in
The Star Wars Holiday Special

Lucas's involvement doesn't seem to have stopped with the wookiee story, however. The other thing he certainly took an interest in was the animated sequence with Boba Fett

Michael Hirsh, co-founder of Nelvana – the studio that made the cartoon – said: "Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place 
– if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in."

The Canadian animation studio was given the task of introducing the world to Boba Fettt, who had already been developed as a new villain for the Star Wars sequel that was in pre-production.

Lucas even suggested that the animation style should be modeled on the French artist Jean "Moebius" Geraud. It's significant that he worked with Nelvana again, on the Droids and Ewoks cartoon series of the 1980s, and that the animated sequence is the only part of the Holiday Special to get an official release – as an Easter egg on the Star Wars Blu-ray set. We can assume that this is one part of the special that Lucas is not ashamed of.

Original director David Acomba: would he have made the Holiday Special in the style of George Lucas?

Filming The Star Wars Holiday Special.

The original director of the Holiday Special was David Acomba, who had gone to the University of Southern California at around the same time as George Lucas. They never knew each other then, but some have gone so far as to describe Acomba as a "classmate" of Lucas and to suggest that he Holiday Special might have been more George Lucasy if Acomba had directed the whole thing. (I'm pretty sure this theory was advanced in an earlier version of the special's Wookipedia entry, but subsequently removed.) 

But this idea really smacks of wishful thinking. When Acomba left – apparently after growing frustrated by the laborious process of filming with multiple cameras on a big set – only a few scenes were finished, but there was little scope for changing the script. Steve Binder, who had been responsible for Elvis's 1968 comeback special a decade earlier, was brought in as a reliable professional who could put the project back on track – but he discovered there was little that could be done to the format at this stage. I don't think the idea that Acomba would have made a more Lucas-like film holds water.

George Lucas and his regrets over the Holiday Special

The Star Wars Holiday Special:
one of the stranger scenes

By the time the Star Wars Holiday Special was being shot in the summer of 1978, George Lucas would have been heavily involved in pre-production of The Empire Strikes Back. While he was not directing the Star Wars sequel, he had conceived its story, had written a complete draft of the screenplay between those by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, and was intending to supervise the project closely. It's not altogether surprising that he let the Holiday Special go its own way and didn't care for the results.

And yet Lucas's dislike of the Holiday Special is what has helped keep it alive. Since he refused to sanction its home video release, and since it was little seen after its first transmission, it lived on via word-of-mouth, the black market and eventually file-sharing sites and YouTube. People wanted to seek out this bizarre Star Wars reunion-cum-variety show for themselves.

You know how you can have an embarrassing experience in life and blow it out of all proportion, so that you're still dwelling on it long after everyone else would naturally have forgotten it? The Holiday Special is surely like that. It's surely time for George Lucas to learn to laugh about it.


Benovite said...

This is by far the best quality version of this show(if the best can be used in conjunction with it). Broadcast quality.

Darren Slade said...

Wow, that is good quality. Thanks for sharing!

Obi wrong kenobi said...

Maybe you should do an article on the Star Wars gang's decidedly cheesy appearance on The Muppet Show.

Love your blog, btw. Perfect balance of nostalgia and interesting info. Please keep up the good work, thanks.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Obi Wrong. That's a great suggestion. I'll definitely look at doing that.