The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Imagine being kicked in the shin. Repeatedly, over and over again, for almost two hours. That is what it feels like to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special. I normally try to stay away from writing about bad movies on this blog (although on occasion I make an exception or two), but this is one you just need to experience because, you know, you have to see it to believe it.

Patty Maloney, Micke Morton, Paul Gale and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Everyone knows that the first Star Wars film premiered in 1977. Less well known is that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was actually not the second part of the saga. That honour goes to The Star Wars Holiday Special, which made its TV premiere for the Christmas season of 1978. Here, you will see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels (C3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader) reprising their roles from the first film. However, none of these are the main characters. Instead, the action centres around Chewbacca’s family – his father, wife and son – living in a tree house that would have made Johnny Weissmuller green with envy.

This is where the Holiday Special’s problems start. Through much of the film, these relatives just walk around, howling their lungs out in poor imitation of wookie language (which, embarrassingly, was created by Ben Burtt himself). The so-called story, about Chewie having to make it back home in time for celebrating the all-important Life Day holiday, is stupid enough in itself, but every step of the execution just keeps making it worse, and then worse again.

There is actually one segment of the Special that is rather good (when compared with the rest). About halfway through, there is a ten-minute animated short film. The inclusion of this is incredibly silly, plot-wise speaking, but when seen in isolation, the animation (which is not in any significant way connected with the rest of the plot) has a number of redeeming features. Sure, the animation is a bit too cartoonish and the voice actors (also the original cast, as far as I can tell) certainly did not put their souls into the job. But on the other hand, and very much unlike the rest of the Special, it has a lot of nice Star Wars-esque alien planet environments. The story is simple but not bad. As an oddity under the Star Wars brand, this short is well worth exploring. Also, it is the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett.

Since The Star Wars Holiday Special has never been restored and officially released after the original airing, copies found online tends to be of really low quality. The main copy at the Internet Archive is the best I have seen, with almost-decent technical quality. There is also another version available, with worse quality, but on the other hand it comes with all the commercials from the original airing. They provide a welcome break from the inanities of the Special, and also add some unintended entertainment of their own.

This film is best enjoyed because you know that pain is your friend. Besides, what does not kill you will make you stronger. George Lucas has allegedly gone on record saying that, if he could, he would smash every existing copy of this film with a sledgehammer. This in itself is reason to watch it. Also, when properly applied it can actually be useful. Carrie Fisher has stated that she always puts this film on when she wants her late guests to leave the party.

R2D2, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The Star Wars Holiday Special
Download link
Year: 1978
Running time: 1 h 48 min
Director: David Acomba, Steve Binder
Stars: Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (597 M)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955 – 1959)

Compared with some other classic characters, like Sherlock Holmes or Zorro, fairly little Robin Hood material appears to exist at the Internet Archive. There is Douglas Fairbanks’ classic 1922 film, but apart from that my only significant find is parts of the 1955 British TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was the second ever Robin Hood TV series. The first was a six-part live production from 1953, also of British origin. But that first series has no complete preserved episodes, making The Adventures of Robin Hood the oldest Robin Hood TV series still in existence.

Archie Duncan as Little John and Richard Greene as Robin Hood facing off in the episode Dead or Alive from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955)

The series lasted for four seasons, until 1959. There were some changes in the cast along the way, but the title character was played all the way through by Richard Greene, an actor who I do not associate with any other role.

Richard Greene may not have the charm or charisma of either Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, nor does he have half of their skill with a sword. But he is not a bad actor, and carries something personal and unique to the role. Greene’s Robin is perhaps a bit more thoughtful and calculating than most other interpretations, though he can still get that mischievous gleam in the corner of his eye.

The complete series is 143 episodes. The following list contains those that I have found at the Internet Archive. There may be more that I have missed. The episode numbers given at the Internet Archive is often at odds with those in the episode guide at Wikipedia. I have here used the numbers from Wikipedia.

      1. The Coming of Robin Hood
      2. The Moneylender
      3. Dead or Alive
      4. Friar Tuck
      5. Maid Marian
      6. The Inquisitor
      7. The Knight Who Came to Dinner
      8. The Challenge
      9. Queen Eleanor
      10. Checkmate
      11. The Ordeal
      12. A Guest for the Gallows
      13. The Highlander
      14. The Wager
      15. The Betrothal
      16. The Alchemist
      17. A Husband for Marian
      18. The Jongleur
      19. The Brothers
      20. The Intruders
      21. Errand of Mercy
      22. The Sheriff’s Boots
      24. The Ladies of Sherwood
      25. The Deserted Castle
      26. The Miser
      27. Trial by Battle
      28. The May Queen
      30. The Vandals
      31. The Byzantine Treasure
      33. The Youngest Outlaw
      34. The Traitor
      35. Tables Turned
      36. The Thorkill Ghost
      37. Secret Mission
      38. Richard the Lion-Heart
      39. The Scientist
      40. The Prisoner
      41. Blackmail (3D version)
      42. A Year and a Day
      44. The Goldmaker
      47. The Hero
      48. Isabella
      50. Outlaw Money
      55. The Dream
      57. The Final Tax
      59. The Bandit of Brittany
      60. The Goldmaker’s Return
      61. Flight from France
      62. Fair Play
      63. The Secret Pool
      65. The York Treasure
      66. The Borrowed Baby
      67. The Black Five
      68. Food for Thought
      72. The Little People
      93. A Village Wooing
      126. Goodbye Little John

As with any series, the quality of the episodes vary. The first half dozen or so are all good, so if you are looking for a few episodes to try out, I would recommend starting from the beginning.

The series became very popular, both in Britain and in the US, and it spawned several similar series. At least two, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and The Adventures of William Tell, can be found at the Internet Archive.

This series is best enjoyed if you like vanilla Robin Hood. There are no surprises here in the characters’ portrayals or backgrounds.

Richard Greene as Robin Hood, Archie Duncan as Little John, Alexander Gauge as Friar Tuck and Bernadetet O'Farrell as Maid Marian in the episode Checkmate from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955)

The Adventures of Robin Hood
Download link (episode 1)
Years: 1955 – 1959
Running time: Approx 25 min per episode
Directors: Ralph Smart, many others
Stars: Richard Greene
Image quality: Acceptable for most episodes
Resolution: Medium to High for most episodes
Sound quality: Acceptable for most episodes

Quatermass II (1955)

In my review of Quatermass and the Pit, I wrote about the scientist Professor Quatermass, who was the hero of a trilogy of excellent British made-for-TV science fiction series. Professor Q. is a very well developed character, and if you are only slightly interested in well-written sci-fi, you should not miss the two preserved series (only two episodes of the original series, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), still exist, though all episodes were remade in 2005). In addition, Hammer films remade the entire trilogy a few years after the originals in good but somewhat different movie renditions.

The spaceship in Quatermass II (1955)

The second series was aptly named Quatermass II (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), and was originally broadcast exactly 60 years ago (the final episode was televised sixty years ago this Thursday). The title was the first time the number two was appended to the title of a sequel, though the roman numeral refers not to the series as such, but to the spaceship Quatermass II, which is an important plot object. It has been suggested that it inspired others to use similar numbering for sequels in later film series. It has even been suggested that the spaceship name was just made up as an excuse to smack the “II” label on the title, though that explanation feels a bit far-fetched.

In Quatermass II, Professor Q. battles invading aliens who are jettisoned from an asteroid orbiting earth, and upon landing take control of human bodies. This idea was not new in literature. See for example The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein, available (parts 1, 2, 3) from the Internet Archive. But as far as I know, it had not previously been used on screen. The following year, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released, which is one of the most famous examples in the movies.

This film is best enjoyed for the story (brilliant throughout) and actors (uneven, but mostly very good). Frankly, though, other aspects of the production, such as sets, special effects and camera work, feel very cheap and sometimes amateurish by modern standards. Even so, the positive aspects weigh so heavily that I can only recommend watching it.

John Robinson in Quatermass II (1955)

Quatermass II
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Year: 1955
Running time: 3 h 6 min
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: John Robinson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

The Crystal Egg (1951)

Normally, I do not include films that are considerably less than 40 minutes in length, but I am going to make an exception for The Crystal Egg. Partly, I do this because it is the only screen adaptation I have seen of a very good story by H.G. Wells (Wikipedia says that it was also adapted for a 2001 TV series, but I suspect that one may be hard to find), but also because it is an example of what American sci-fi fans could watch on television in the early 1950s.

Thomas Mitchell and Edgar Stehli in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

Specifically, it is an episode from the first season (out of two) of the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow. Tales of Tomorrow was all science fiction, usually based on literary sources. Famous examples include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (not available at the Internet Archive) and Frankenstein. Like most early television, it was broadcast live.

The Crystal Egg is the story about an antique shop owner who asks his friend to help him examine a strange crystal egg. The egg turns out to produce strange images that can only come from the planet Mars. In the episode (but not in the original story) there is also a mysterious stranger who wants the egg for himself. The TV episode makes a number of changes to Wells’ story, but in my opinion these are tastefully executed in order to make the story suited for the short TV format.

Tales of Tomorrow is notorious because of the uneven quality of its actors. The Crystal Egg illustrates this well. Thomas Mitchell is good as Professor Vaneck (Mr. Wace in the original story), whereas Sally Gracie as his girlfriend can barely remember her few lines. Little problems like this shine through very clearly in a live broadcast, but today it must be considered part of the charm of old-time television.

Another problem is image quality. Old television shows with good images are practically non-existent. This is because video technology had not yet been invented, so episodes had to be filmed from a television screen, when they were preserved at all.

Wells’ story is good enough to be interesting in itself, but also because there is a neverending debate among fans and scholars as to whether Wells intended it as a “prequel” to his famous novel The War of the Worlds. We shall never know whether he did, but it is always fun to speculate.

This episode is best enjoyed as an introduction to Tales of Tomorrow. If you like it, a few dozen more episodes, including radio shows, are available. Many actors appear that either were famous already (e.g. Boris Karloff), or were to become famous (e.g. Paul Newman).

Saturn seen from Mars in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

The Crystal Egg
Download link
Year: 1951
Running time: 24 min
Director: Charles S. Dubin
Stars: Thomas Mitchell
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (620×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (432 M)

The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

One of the many genres that can be found at the Internet Archive is educational films. Most of these are quite old, and some are terribly outdated. Two examples of outdated but extremely interesting (not to mention amusing) films are Duck and Cover (1951) and Destination Earth (1956). But like most other educational films, those are too short to be relevant for this blog.

Better, both in terms of length and fact content, is one of the films that was produced as part of the classic The Bell Laboratory Science Series. The series consisted of nine different educational films on scientific topics that were tremendously popular and influential in the 1950s and 1960s. The one that has been chosen for today’s post is The Alphabet Conspiracy. The choice was made not only because it has aged with reasonable dignity, but also because the film very neatly ties in with characters from Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the film, the Mad Hatter and Jabberwock run around trying to devise a scheme to kill the alphabet (hence, the title of the film).

Dr. Frank Baxter, Cheryl Callaway, Dolores Starr as Jabberwock and Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy is an old film and linguistics is an evolving field of science. Hence, some parts are a bit quaint or even outdated. For example, the part about baby language acquisition is not consistent with modern views. But unlike the above-mentioned short films (which are perhaps bordering on propaganda), The Alphabet Conspiracy was firmly grounded in the science of its day. Even now, it is not laughable. Just a bit old.

But even while care must be taken with the fact content, perhaps the content is not what is most important anymore. Far more interesting is the dramatic structure, including the fantastic sets, the nice animations, the literary characters, the neat dialogue and the slow-moving but effective cutting. In these respects, The Alphabet Conspiracy outshines most of its contemporary competition, and even most present-day educational films. I work as a teacher. I know these things far too well.

Several other films from the same series are available at the Internet Archive. Those I have been able to track down are Our Mr. Sun (1956), Gateways to the Mind (1958) and Thread of Life (1960). The one I had most wanted to see, however, is not there, namely The Restless Sea (1964). It is the last film in the series, and it has Walt Disney as host.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to learn some basic facts about linguistics, or if you just want to enjoy the nice Alice in Wonderland references, or the fine animations. Or if you simply want to admire some classic, not to mention classy, educational material.

Dolores Starr as Jabberwock, Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter, Dr. Frank Baxter and Cheryl Callaway having a tea party in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy
Download link
Year: 1959
Running time: 52 min
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Stars: Frank C. Baxter
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Santa and the Three Bears (1970)

When Santa and the Three Bears was first offered as a Christmas special to various American TV networks, they declined, saying that it did not include an antagonist. This goes to show just how stuck people often are in the preconceived Hollywood notions of how a story is supposed to be told.

Santa Claus and the Three Bears (1970)

So there is no evil nemesis in Santa and the Three Bears. Just an old and kindly park ranger and a bear mother with her two cubs. The cubs learn about Christmas and want the ranger to tell them more about it. So they decide to wait up for Santa Claus, instead of going into hibernation. Sounds boring? It is not. Not unless you are absolutely allergic to a bit of sentimentality which, admittedly, this film has its share of.

The film is also filled with music. Original music, yet it fits perfectly with the Christmas theme. If you love Christmas music, then you are going to love the music for this film.

Santa and the Three Bears is certainly not the most polished piece of animation. It looks mostly like some low-budget Hanna Barbera cartoon. But that is easy to forget and forgive when the beauty of the story starts to kick in.

This film is best enjoyed while getting into the mood for the Christmas season, especially if you fancy the American variety of Christmas.

Santa Claus and the Three Bears (1970)

Santa and the Three Bears
Download link
Year: 1970
Running time: 46 min
Directors: Tony Benedict, Barry Mahon
Stars: Robert Hal Smith
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

Four O’Clock (1957)

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is probably best remembered for his fantastic Hollywood films, although he had a long history before that as a director in Europe, and towards the end of his career, he produced and hosted a couple of popular TV series. In fact, back in the late 1950s and a couple of decades to come, Hitchcock was probably more associated with his TV appearances than with his movies.

One of those TV series was Suspicion, and Hitchcock directed the premiere episode Four O’Clock himself.

E.G. Marshall in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

E.G. Marshall plays a watchmaker who has concluded that his wife is having an affair, and he plans revenge. The episode begins as he tests a timer for an explosive device in his shop. He then plants a bomb and sets the timer in his own basement, making sure that no suspicion must fall upon his own person. But then things start to go wrong …

Four O’Clock is excellent in every aspect. It is tense, psychologically interesting, dramatic, full of nice twists, and with an ending that I, for one, was totally unable to predict. Hitchcock shows that even with a much smaller budget than his lavish Hollywood movies, he can still create a little masterpiece.

Suspicion is not so well remembered today as Hitchcock’s other TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which featured Hitchcock’s iconic caricature image, and which had every episode hosted by “Hitch” himself. Two episodes (The Cheyney Vase and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) of that series are available at the Internet Archive, although neither was directed by Hitchcock.

This episode is best enjoyed alone and late at night.

E.G. Marshall and Nancy Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

Four O’Clock
Download link
Year: 1957
Running time: 48 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: E.G. Marshall
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (350 M)