Today’s feature, in honor of the release of a new Star Wars movie as well as the holiday season, is 1978’s infamous The Star Wars Holiday Special.
The ill-fated television special had five credited writers: Pat Proft (Police Academy, Hot Shots!, The Naked Gun), Leonard Ripps (Full House, Frankenweenie), Bruce Vilanch (Hollywood Squares), Rod Warren (Donny & Marie), and Mitzie Welch (The Carol Burnett Show).
The Star Wars Holiday Special was initially directed by David Acomba, whose only other credit at the time was a 1973 movie called Slipstream, not to be confused with Slipstream (1989), Slipstream (2005), or Slipstream (2007). However, he left the production before the shooting was complete, leaving the remaining directing work to Steve Binder (The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse).
The musical score for The Star Wars Holiday Special was composed by Ian Fraser, who primarily worked as a conductor and musical director on movies like Doctor Doolittle and Scrooge.
The cast of The Star Wars Holiday Special included the original main players from A New Hope: Mark Hamill (Slipstream, Batman: The Animated Series), Carrie Fisher (Loverboy, The Burbs, The Blues Brothers), Harrison Ford (Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker (Time Bandits), and James Earl Jones (Conan The Barbarian, The Ambulance, Field of Dreams). However, they were joined by an odd assortment of actors and entertainers as well: Art Carney (Last Action Hero, Roadie), Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part I), Bea Arthur (The Golden Girls), and Diahann Carroll (Julia, Dynasty).
The plot of The Star Wars Holiday Special is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Chewbacca and Han Solo try to get home to Chewie’s family to celebrate Life Day, which includes various forms of entertainment.
The one most notable thing that fans still credit The Star Wars Holiday Special for was the debut of fan favorite character Boba Fett in an animated short. He would play a key role in the following two movies, and even be edited into A New Hope in George Lucas’s controversial Special Edition.
All of the wookie dialogue, which makes up a significant portion of the movie, isn’t dubbed or translated, making all of their conversations a complete mystery to the audience. This is consistent with the treatment of Chewbacca in the main series, but it wasn’t as much of an issue when there was only one untranslated wookie, as opposed to multiple in conversation.
Carrie Fisher apparently demanded that she be allowed to sing in order to appear in the special. The result could be generously described as jarring and off-putting. Likewise, Harrison Ford particularly didn’t want to participate in the ill-conceived television series. However, Mark Hamill was the most surprising cast member appearance, given he had just been in the serious car wreck that required facial reconstructive surgery, and had barely recovered when shooting began. This accident would ultimately be the reason for the wampa attack at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, to explain Luke’s changed appearance.
The character portrayed by Art Carney in The Star Wars Holiday Special was apparently based on the same notes and character sketch that would eventually turn into Lando Calrissian, a fan favorite character who would first appear in The Empire Strikes Back two year later played by Billy Dee Williams.
The Star Wars Holiday Special was utterly reviled by just about everyone who saw it, and George Lucas immediately sough to bury it after his release. In fact, he was once quoted as saying “if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every bootlegged copy of that program and smash it.” Currently, the program holds a user rating of 2.5 on IMDb, along with a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 20%. Astoundingly, however, it currently has a 50% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (still rotten, but not atrocious), thanks to a number of facetious and ironic reviews.
Overall, The Star Wars Holiday Special is undoubtedly a mess. The only thing that isn’t totally terrible is the animation sequence, which doesn’t make up much of the total run time. The special was clearly poorly conceived and unmotivated, and apparently nobody wanted to be there. Still, the world was in the midst of a Star Wars fever, and anything with the branding would have seemed impossible to fail, so I can understand why it was pushed forward in spite of the obvious problems.
First off, die-hard Star Wars fans have to watch this infamous franchise entry at least once. I think it is also worth checking out for bad movie fans, though it pushes the boundary between being a television movie or just a bizarre variety show. Still, it is a baffling experience, particularly during the musical numbers or the wookie conversations.
For more thoughts on The Star Wars Holiday Special, mention anything about ‘Life Day’ near a Star Wars nerd. Alternatively, I recommend checking out the Best of the Worst entry from Red Letter Media, the thoughts from The Nostalgia Critic, the recent write-up on The AV Club, or the Wookieepedia entry for the special.