In December of 2015, Netflix aired A Very Murray Christmas, an original holiday special hosted by enjoyable comedic actor turned inexplicable pop culture demigod Bill Murray. Not surprisingly, given Murray’s persona, it’s very sly and self-aware, where even during the meant to be sincere moments Murray makes it clear that he’s much too cool to be doing such a thing. That’s not to pass judgment on him, most programs like this are done with a broad wink at the audience these days, as if to suggest that the people responsible for them think they’re at least as corny as you do. Whether it’s because we’re living in the “Age of Irony” (or whatever Salon-appropriate term can be applied to it), or some other as yet to be overthought reason, 21st century TV audiences seem to reject overt displays of sincerity, particularly when it comes to Christmas.
If you genuinely love that kind of thing, then the 70s was your peak decade. It offered multiple specials by the Carpenters, the Osmonds, John Denver, and Bing Crosby, among others. Presenting the kind of Christmas celebration most viewers would never experience, with horse-drawn sleigh rides in the snow and singalongs around a piano, often the stars would include their real life families in them, as if to suggest that the shows were really more like a home movie than a TV program. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, it’s hard to watch a lot of these shows knowing the sadness behind the scenes. It’s heartbreaking to hear Karen Carpenter sing anything, let alone “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s difficult to see Donny and Marie Osmond lauding their parents for their traditional homespun values, knowing that they were the family’s primary source of income for many years, essentially missing out on their childhoods. It’s entirely possible that John Denver was sauced while filming his various specials. Then, of course, there was Bing Crosby.
This might be the most controversial thing I’ve ever said on this blog, but here goes: I don’t care for Bing Crosby. His voice sounds like a 45 record played at 33 speed, and his version of “White Christmas” is boring. Droning and dirge-like, the backup singers all sound like they’re dozing off, and even the whistle solo in the middle sounds like a sleepy bird about to fall off its perch. It doesn’t help that most sources indicate that Crosby was a bit of a bastard in his personal life. Now, to be fair, I became aware of Crosby right around the time that his oldest son Gary wrote a scathing memoir portraying him as an emotionally and physically abusive martinet who in no way resembled the warm, salt of the earth image he portrayed in Hollywood. Though Gary Crosby himself retracted much of the memoir years later, at the time it was published no one really outright denied his claims, at best stating that while Bing did believe in corporal punishment, it was meant with love, not anger. In any case, all of Crosby’s children from his first marriage struggled with emotional issues their entire lives, with two of them eventually committing suicide.
Though they were featured in some of his earlier specials, none of them appear, or are even mentioned in the specials produced from 1965 on, which speaks depressing volumes. They were replaced by the children from his second marriage, to a woman more than thirty years his junior. Crosby Family 2.0 gathered together for one final special in 1977, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. If I haven’t brought the mood down enough yet, no one knew going into this that it would be the last Bing Crosby Christmas special. Crosby died suddenly just weeks after filming it, and the family decided to air it anyway, giving the whole thing even more of a surreal, melancholy touch, particularly when Crosby looks at the camera at the end and says “see you next time,” before the inevitable rendition of “White Christmas.”
Because it’s called Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, you’ve probably guessed that the show takes place in England, and you’d be correct. Bing and family are invited to spend the holiday at the estate of Percival Crosby, a distant relative. No one knows who Percival Crosby is, or how he’s related to them, but they go anyway. This sounds like the setup for a Christmas version of House on Haunted Hill, but alas, all appears harmless when they arrive at the estate. Percival isn’t there yet, for whatever reason, but his staff is, all of whom, even the women, are played by the same actor, Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter. Baxter, once a huge star in the UK without making so much as the slightest dent in the U.S., shows up a lot in the special, even appearing as an ancestor of Bob Hope at one point.
The payoff for this show comes very early, barely twelve minutes in, when David Bowie, right in the middle of the Berlin years, just shows up at the door. Bing and Bowie make polite conversation–Bing brings up holiday traditions, Bowie mentions that his young son enjoys draping a passed out Iggy Pop with colored lights and tinsel. The banter is about as stiff as you can imagine, but oddly charming too, and serves mostly as the setup for the one thing everyone knows from this show, even if they’ve never seen it, a duet where Bing Crosby sings “The Little Drummer Boy” and David Bowie sings something he pretty much made up off the top of his head before filming. The performance holds up really well, of course, even if it remains one of the weirdest musical pairings of all time, second only to Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in Rhinestone.
It’s pretty much downhill after that, albeit in a slow, inoffensive sort of way. The unflappable Bing discovers the ghost of Charles Dickens just chilling in one of the rooms, and chats with him a bit, leading into a very long sequence in which guest stars Twiggy and Ron Moody, best known for playing Fagin in Oliver!, perform a musical tribute to Dickens’s work. Don’t get me wrong, the production values are good, and the singing is fine (though Twiggy sings her parts in a broad “‘Ello, guvnor!” accent, and a little of that goes a very long way), but this sequence is interminable, and very quickly starts to feel like filler.
The show takes a brief odd turn at about thirty minutes in, when after Bing and Twiggy duet on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Bing begins talking about the timelessness of true love, which fades into pre-recorded footage of David Bowie performing “Heroes.” Nothing wrong with that, right? Indeed, it’s one of Yr. Correspondent’s favorite songs from her very favorite singer. Except that just after the first verse, Bowie starts doing mime. No shit, I’m talking that “Look, I’m in a box…now I’m pulling myself along a rope” kind of thing. Now, Bowie did study mime while in the early days of his music career, but why he thought busting out his skills for a show aimed directly at the corn-fed heart of middle America, I have no idea. It’s great, but it’s also terrible. It’s greatible, or perhaps terrigreat.
Percival Crosby (played by Ron Moody) finally shows up a full two-thirds into the show, and we never do find out if and how he’s related to Bing. Instead, he does a rendition of “Side by Side by Side” with Bing and Mrs. Crosby, who’s wearing some incredible burnt orange overalls. After that, Percival tells Bing about the ghost of a court jester named Leslie, who haunts the estate. If you’re an old Hollywood trivia buff, you’ll catch on pretty quickly that Leslie is supposed to be related to Bob Hope (real name: Leslie Townes Hope). However, and very curiously, Leslie isn’t played by Bob Hope, but rather Stanley Baxter. Baxter’s makeup, certainly by 1970s standards, is nearly uncanny valley level, but the effect is ruined by the decision to play Hope as a poncy flake, with a voice wavering somewhere between Liberace and Charles Nelson Reilly. He joins Bing and Percival in a brief reprise of “Side by Side by Side,” and then thankfully disappears.
Much of the last ten minutes is devoted to the Trinity Boys’ Choir joining the Crosbys for some traditional caroling, and that’s fine, even if one of Bing’s sons keeps making eyes at Twiggy the whole time. The show closes with Bing alone in a low-lit room, singing one final rendition of “White Christmas.” Oddly, while still not the most exciting holiday song in the world, it has a bit more life to it than the version played incessantly on the radio every year.
I came into Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas loaded for bear, eager to find any excuse to excoriate Crosby for being another “old-fashioned American values” phony. And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to hate it. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either. During the show’s quieter moments, when no one is singing or engaging in very light, so light it’s almost not there comedy, there’s a resigned sadness to Crosby, as if he’s keenly aware that his other children should be there, but aren’t, for whatever reason. It’s entirely possible that he tried to make up for the mistakes he made raising his older sons with the children from his second marriage. His younger children, two of whom had brief acting careers (daughter Mary was best known for playing the answer to “Who shot J.R.?”), have led considerably quieter lives than their half-brothers, which indicates that there was some huge difference in their upbringings. Bing Crosby may have been a monster, but he probably wasn’t an irredeemable one, and that makes watching Merrie Olde Christmas a strangely touching, bittersweet experience.
Originally aired on November 30, 1977
Watch it here