Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #10: Family Theatre

Just Enough Information: Family Theater was created for the radio in 1947 by Father Patrick Peyton of the Holy Cross Fathers after seeing a few impressive examples of the power of religious broadcasting and deciding he wanted to play a part. The networks were okay with religion, but not so much a single-denomination appeal—probably because his original idea was to broadcast the Rosary. Father Peyton managed to make it work anyway by putting together a dogma-free weekly drama series with the best Hollywood talent…sponsored by prayer. That’s right, in the spots where the usual pitches for soap and cigarettes went, Father Peyton would instead make a weekly appeal for family prayer in America. His best remembered line: “The family that prays together stays together.”

The radio series ran for nearly ten years on the Mutual network and still turns up from time to time on EWTN Radio and old-time radio programming blocks.

Beginning in 1951, Family Theatre (changing the spelling for some odd reason) began seven years of film production for television, still drawing from top Hollywood talent, including one of the earliest James Dean roles and (at one point) a young George Lucas on the production crew.

Yeah, George Lucas used to be young. It blew my mind, too.

The Christmas Episode: “A Star Shall Rise”. Original Broadcast: December 25, 1952.

Of course, their TV Christmas story is the Nativity. And of course, there’s no way I’m going to lay a snide snarky finger on the actual story, but if it’s all the same to you guys, I’d like to hit a few points on the way the story is told before we move on. And if you don’t have an idea what “the story” is, I’d like to check your papers, please. Wecome to Arizona America.

Now that you’ve been cleared by Homeland Security, “A Star Shall Rise” stays mainly with the three wise men and their quest. In this version, the magi are Melchior, the old one…

…Gaspar, the…um…not-old one…

…and Balthazar, the Raymond Burr one.

Yep, that's him.

I was this close to labeling this picture “Perry Mason and the Case of the Missing Manger”, but I changed my mind. And yet, there I went and typed it already. Drat. Balthazar also happens to be the skeptic of the crew, which means he’s got a moment of truth coming up before the half-hour runs out. Also that Burr got one of the best parts.

King Herod—you know, the monarch who just can’t deal with this whole Messiah thing—is played by Morris Ankrum as a man just one broken straw shy of becoming King Loopyloo of Crazytown.

Seriously, he's got some excellent "about to lose it" faces going here.

He does hold it together enough in front of the magi to lay the stones for his cunning plan to find and do away with the infant Jesus, but since his people seem to fear and despise him, Balthazar doesn’t trust him one bit. So the magi continue on to find Jesus and Herod will just have to figure it out for himself...or not.

There are also encounters with villagers, the shepherds watching their flocks (since it is early television, we don’t actually see the heavenly hosts), a brief burst of action (since Father Peyton or no, we're still in Hollywood), and finally, the manger…

Our Christmas Message For Today: …where the skeptic finally gives in.

Balthazar: “I did not believe.”

Mary: “But you are here. There is but a short way to go. Let me lead you to him.”

Like more than a few Bible films from back in the old days, the dialogue is occasionally just a hair on the wrong side of overly formal for my total comfort (to be fair, a lot of dramas set in ancient times suffer from the same problem), but as far as early '50s TV is concerned, it's very well put together. If this is the type of Christmas television you like, you’ll love this one…

Reminder That You Only Paid $5 For This Set: …at least if you get past the background noise that swirls in and out of the soundtrack at all the wrong times (grrrrr). Holy Cross Family Ministries sells this one on DVD, so if you’re worried about sources, that’s a good place to check.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: GodTube, a Christian-oriented Youtube (and yeah, I know it had to happen eventually, but finding it surprised me anyway), has the whole thing posted in three parts.

Next: Fred Waring's music in General Electric Theater! With your host Ronald Reagan!

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