With the then surprising massive success that was 1977’s Star Wars, the general public and multiple entertainment businesses took note. Even 7 months after the movie’s release, Star Wars was still in the top 10 earners in theaters. Good luck seeing that happen these days. 20th Century Fox had already announced the next movie in the works (then known as Star Wars 2). In fact thanks to several Star Wars themed skits and variety segments from shows like Donny and Marie and The Richard Pryor Show, ticket sales were even boosted at the end of 1977. Additionally, Lucasfilm came under pressure from various licensees with ideas for products.
One of their licensees, CBS, suggested a full-length variety special. George Lucas became convinced that a special could sustain interest in the series while he worked on The Empire Strikes Back, planned for a 1980 release. So he not only greenlit the project, but he even gave them a few ideas to work with. He actually came up with the idea of Chewbacca celebrating a holiday with his wife, child and potentially his father.
Charles Lippincott, the advertising supervisor on A New Hope, told Vanity Fair in 2008 “We wanted something that was going to make us different in variety shows. We didn’t want the same-old, same-old.” Mission accomplished. The two main producers were also working on other projects at the same time, so they brought in other producers to assist. They also hired a multitude of writers, with Leonard Ripps, Pat Proft and Bruce Vilanch being the most important for the sake of this post.
Ripps and Proft met up with Lucas personally to discuss the special’s main story – Life Day. Since they normally wrote for a family audience, they tried to avoid writing violence. You read that right – avoiding violence for a special related to Star Wars. After handing their script to Vilanch, Vilanch wasn’t sure how to write characters who didn’t speak English. He felt it would end up being “one long episode of Lassie”. To offset this, he came up with a bunch of skits and variety segments. They also created the character Saun Dann to help bridge the audience during the wookie portions of the special, based on Lucas’s early concept of Lando Calrissian, as a trader on Kashyyyk.
As Lucas later observed, “It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two. I’m not sure either position would have worked on its own, but by combining them …”
This special pretty much speaks for itself on completing that sentence.
Interestingly enough, there are two known deleted segments from this special that nobody’s ever seen in public. One is a filmed scene that’s a fake in-cartoon commercial during the animated segment, which I’m sure they felt would just confuse the audience. The other, a scene where Luke Skywalker sang a song, wasn’t ever filmed. Mark Hamill claimed to have vetoed that idea. I don’t blame him.
The special ended up being filmed on video tape with a budget of more than $1 million. The first director, David Acomba, was both personal friends with Lippincott and one of Lucas’s film school classmates. Acomba usually specialized in TV episodes and specials, making him a good choice. But half way through directing the special, he left over creative differences.
They replaced him with TV veteran Steve Binder. Having been hired late with a project that was behind schedule and over budget, Lucas gave him a “wookie bible”, containing all the information he developed about the species. He shot the special with the original movie’s cast, most of which were reluctant to participate. The wookie home had been built as a full set, but to help speed up production, Binder tore down half the walls. The ending scene was shot in an aircraft hanger. By this point, the project ran completely out of funds, so they needed to use inexpensive materials to create the Life Day ceremony. They used store bought candles for lighting, and red robes on top of the wookie costumes.
No wonder the final project is such a mess. With the chaos that resulted from production, from too many people having too many different opinions, it’s a miracle they finished the Holiday Special at all. And it does make the special all the more fascinating.
The Star Wars Holiday Special aired in the United States on November 17 of 1978, and an estimated 13 million people watched it. As it premiered on the same day as CIA agent William Kampiles was sentenced to 40 years for stealing a spy satellite manual and selling it to Soviet Russia, and a Soviet general admitting to violating a neutron bomb treaty, some of the commercial breaks were used to give news coverage on these major events. Nobody really knew what to make of the special, and it never aired again.
At the 1987 Star Wars 10th anniversary convention, Lucas said that he expected the special to release on VHS at some point, but that never happened. At one point, Lucas joked about how he wanted to hunt down every existing copy of the special and destroy it with a sledge hammer. But in truth, he has shown regret for not assuming more control over the special. “That’s one of those things that happened, and I just have to live with it.” One has to wonder if this special is part of the reason he started to become a control freak over the franchise. One must wonder if this special is partly to blame for what happened with the prequels.
As for the special itself, it’s bad. But it’s the kind of bad that’s fascinating. It’s kind of surreal. It takes place in the Star Wars Universe, yet it’s easy to spot common 1970’s technology in the backgrounds. It’s mostly meant as a family friendly holiday special, yet there’s a segment where grandpa wookie is watching a virtual reality program with women seemingly dressed like sperm and swimming in the background. And then a woman in a very fancy outfit shows up and sings about being the grandpa’s fantasy, while he twitches around and moans. It’s a little uncomfortable to watch, and I won’t say anything more.
The main story with the wookies won’t make you hate wookies by any means, but it’s a struggle to sit through at times. You get three wookies barking constantly at each other for about 20 minutes worth of the special. Half the time, they do so without anyone there to translate. With the exception of a couple body language ticks to help out, it’s pretty much impossible to know what they’re talking about. There are bizarre comedic sketches, like a cooking instructional video with a cross-dressing cook who uses three arms, getting more and more crazy with his “stir, whip, stir, whip, whip whip stir, beat” chant. The kid wookie constructs a sound making device with the help of an instruction video, hosted by a robot that’s glitching out and losing power as the segment goes on. There’s a scene where there’s a holographic rock band singing a song that sounds like its straight out of the 70’s. It doesn’t feel like Star Wars.
With all that said, there are a few good things to come out of the special. Regardless of how you feel about the Prequel trilogy, the Kashyyyk planet looks great, and you’ve got this special to thank. They actually based Kashyyyk’s look on Chewbacca’s home in the special. There’s also a cartoon short that introduces us to Boba Fett. The animation style is weird and hasn’t aged well, but it’s not bad. And there’s also the “Life on Tatooine” Segment with Bea Arthur that’s actually really good. It’s weird mind you; there’s a guy who drinks booze by pouring it into a hole in his head. But it’s a tragic story about the Empire closing down a bar, and the bartender (played by Arthur) gives everyone one last round before potentially closing forever. She sings a song that’s emotional, yet catchy at the same time.
It’s clear that none of the original movie’s cast want to be here. Mark Hammil’s hair is completely different than it was in the movie, showing that he didn’t care at all. Carrie Fisher looks like she was on drugs when she sang her song at the end of the special. Harrison Ford looks like he’s putting in some effort, but not too much. Amusingly enough, Fisher talked about how she asked George Lucas for a copy, in exchange for helping out on the Star Wars DVD release’s commentary. She added that she shows it at parties “mainly at the end of the night when I want people to leave”.
I’m not sure whether to recommend this or not. On the one hand, there are moments where it’s a chore to sit through. There are times when it’s almost physically painful, and other moments where you’ll sit there awkwardly, hoping that nobody will walk in on you and wonder what it is that you’re watching. On the other hand, it’s a fascinating mess. It’s made all the more fascinating when you know the special’s backstory. If you’re curious enough to watch it, I say go ahead. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
And if you want to learn more about the special’s creation, Mentalfloss released a long and detailed interview last year that’s worth checking out. Also I actually wrote about this special before on this blog, but after looking at that post, yeah … I’m not proud of the old post. Search for it if you want, but I’m not linking to it.
Next up is not only what is almost universally considered the best Star Wars movie of them all, but often considered one of the greatest sequels in movie history. After that, it’s the never officially released mockumentary short, Return of the Ewok, followed by Return of the Jedi. And considering I’ve got 16 posts planned so far, even though there are only 10 theatrical releases to date, there will be more surprises on the way.