Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holidaze Review: WGN Christmas Classics (1951/53/54)

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I grew up in Chicago, where I was lucky enough to have a plethora of viewing choices in the days before everyone had cable or satellite or TV shows streaming on the Internet.

This meant not only a sterling education in cinematic history via the many movie shows spread across all the VHF and UHF stations in the city (back when VHF and UHF were still things), but that I wasn’t necessarily tied to network programming at any time of the day or night.

If I wanted news, I didn’t have to rely on Walter Cronkite. If I wanted sports, I had options beyond Howard Cosell. And if I wanted children’s programming, I wasn’t stuck with Captain Kangaroo.

Not that I had any problem with the good Captain—Bob Keeshan’s long-running show (1955-1984) was fun, but I had local options that were just as good—and, during the holiday season, even better.

Over on WGN—then a local powerhouse, rather than the cable superstation it would later become--Garfield Goose and Friends bore some similarities to the daily CBS offering: It started around the same time (1952, though it first premiered on WGN in 1955) and had a genial host (Frazier Thomas) who spent much of his time talking to puppets, usually Garfield Goose (who believed himself to be King of the United States) and Romberg Rabbit.

Thomas also showed short films and cartoons on the show, like the weird limited-animation adventures of Clutch Cargo; the serialized Journey to the Beginning of Time, in which a group of kids went back in time and saw stop-motion dinosaurs; or more educational segments like Thomas’s trip to sites in Great Britain relating to the legend of King Arthur.

During December, though, Thomas broke out three animated shorts: Frosty the Snowman, Hardrock, Coco and Joe and Suzy Snowflake. They were all produced in the early 1950s and were likely intended to run before or between feature films, but since they hit television in the middle of that decade, they’ve all gone on to become holiday classics and traditional—practically mandatory—viewing for generations of Chicagoland kiddies.

Frosty boasts the best known song of the three and was produced by UPA, the studio responsible for both Mister Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing, which may explain why the kids in this short all kind of look like Gerald. The animation is traditional line art, but limited in scope and application—movements are repeated throughout, though the backgrounds change regularly. It’s also really short—under three minutes—so there’s little chance for young viewers to get bored.

The most interesting thing about this version of Frosty is really the treatment song itself. It was still a relatively new tune when this cartoon was made in 1954 and has always been up-tempo, but this rendition is downright swingy, with Frosty bouncing down streets and over hills while the kids cheer him on.

Hardrock, Coco and Joe (also known as The Three Little Dwarfs or as both names combined for one long title) is more obscure, at least in terms of its song, which, according to Wikipedia, was written by Stuart Hamblen, a singing cowboy who later underwent a religious conversion and focused on gospel instead. The production company, Centaur, is also obscure—apparently, they made this and Suzy Snowflake and blipped out of existence.

What’s not obscure is the talent of the man who made the stop-motion figures: Wah Ming Chang, who worked on everything from Disney pictures (creating life models of animated characters) to Star Trek (creating not only iconic monsters like Tribbles and the Gorn for the show, but also the signature communicators that have now more or less become reality).

The figures are pretty simple and their motion isn’t especially complicated, but the story, in which Santa brings Hardrock and Coco along to help him operate the sleigh and distribute the toys. Santa doesn’t actually need Joe for the trip, but brings him along “’cause he loves him so.” It always seemed like Santa didn’t need any of these guys, but brought them along because, well, flying around the world in one night is a lonely gig, and time passes faster when you’ve got someone to share the ride with you.

The last of the trio, Suzy Snowflake, is not only more obscure and surreal--it’s not really even a Christmas song. It’s more about winter in general and snowfall in particular, Suzy being the first flurry of the season personified. However, as winter and Christmas are permanently tied together (if only by other songs like “White Christmas” and the aforementioned “Frosty”), Suzy fits in with the other two shorts pretty well. As with Hardrock, this short features stop-motion animation with figures by Wah Ming Chang.

What sets Suzy apart from the other two is its sense of melancholy—not so much conveyed by the tune itself (which, while not as up-tempo as Hardrock and nowhere near as bouncy as Frosty, is hardly a dirge), but by its visuals. Suzy is often seen either in shadow or silhouette, and while there are a few closeups, she’s often viewed at a distance, as if her limited time on Earth (“Come out, everyone, and play with me," she tells us in the lyrics, I haven’t long to stay") is as solitary as it is brief.

Maybe that’s why Suzy has much more of an emotional effect on me than the other two do. Christmastime is often a time of gladness and cheer, but not for everyone—for some, it’s a time when loneliness is magnified and isolation stings more than it does the other 11 months of the year. While she speaks to something magical about snowfall (and, by extension, winter and Christmastime), her time is short. And let’s face it: Some look on the onset of winter not with wonder, but dread.

So Suzy Snowflake can make me cry—more readily than either Hardrock, Coco and Joe or Frosty the Snowman can, anyway. After all these years, and all in under three minutes. There’s wonder in that as well.

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