I have a confession to make: after watching and reviewing an episode of Donny and Marie, I think I’ve developed a grudging affection for the Osmonds. I watched a few more clips from different episodes (not too many, there’s only so much saccharine my old bones can take), and I realized that their brand of vintage corniness might have been a bit more genuine than I originally thought. Presented as a balm to the soul to viewers who were overwhelmed by the seemingly sudden uptick in sex and violence on primetime television, it’s not surprising that it was among the last successful variety shows before the genre disappeared entirely. Hating Donny and Marie would be like hating a kid’s backyard magic show–it’s just too earnest to deserve that sort of hostility.
Also, I owe Donny Osmond an apology. In my review, I implied that Donny describing himself as “a little bit rock and roll” was a dubious claim at best. A friend later pointed out to me that it was actually true, if you take into account some of the earlier music Donny performed with his brothers, particularly 1972’s “Crazy Horses” a song that was most definitely a little bit rock and roll, and remarkable mostly because it’s not at all what you’d expect an Osmonds song to sound like. Seriously, check it out, particularly that thunderous guitar. It ain’t “War Pigs,” but it ain’t bad either. If you don’t believe me, read this article, which further explores the Osmonds’ brief foray into hard rock, and even prog rock, with their next album, the Mormon concept album The Plan.
Though “Crazy Horses” was a hit, The Plan most definitely was not, and eventually the Osmonds not only settled back into the bland, family friendly pop that made them famous, but also retreated out of the spotlight so it could be turned on the three youngest members of the family, Donny, Marie, and barely formed fetus Jimmy. If the Osmond brothers had any hard feelings towards their siblings, they’re not present in 1977’s Christmas episode of Donny and Marie, which features the entire Osmond Family, and I do mean the entire family. It’s a veritable infestation of Osmonds, with spouses, seemingly dozens of children, and even Mother and Father Osmond present for the festivities.
While retaining some of the usual aspects of Donny and Marie (the good natured sibling banter, a performance of “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll”), the Christmas episode focuses more on the family dynamic, as the audience is treated to a “typical” holiday celebration, in what appears to be an enormous ski lodge. It is, of course, the perfect Christmas that virtually no one watching at home would ever experience, with ice skating, snowmobile excursions, horse drawn sleigh rides into the snow covered Utah countryside to chop down their own tree, and the whole family gathered together to make popcorn strings before a roaring fire. Plus, there’s singing. Lots and lots of singing.
Recurring guest star Paul Lynde shows up at one point (as if Mormons would welcome a flamboyantly gay man into their home, even at Christmas) and recites a poem. It’s a weird moment that doesn’t really work with the rest of the show, not just because his poem isn’t about Christmas (it’s about himself growing up), but because Lynde is literally the only person in the episode, other than a handful of backup dancers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who isn’t an Osmond. Lynde appears later in a sketch playing a doctor who treats a sick reindeer, with the typical Paul Lynde edge of meanness, and again, it’s a weird, discomfiting fit for a show in which, just two minutes earlier, Donny entertains small children with a hand puppet.
Given the puppet show, the homey quilts used as a stage curtain, and the cutaways to various Osmond kids playing, oblivious to the cameras, the episode was clearly designed to look like a home movie, and, like watching actual home movies, it’s cute but eventually starts to feel like a chore, especially once you get to the interminable musical number that focuses on all the different instruments each family member can play (Wayne plays the clarinet, Jimmy plays the trumpet, Merrill plays the banjo, it goes on and on). Still, like everything associated with the Osmonds, it has an inexplicable charm.
The “you’re invited to spend an old fashioned country Christmas with the Osmonds” feeling of the 1977 special was dropped for the penultimate special in 1980. Keenly aware that the success of all the Osmonds was now on the wane, this special is unquestionably for the audience, filmed at the studio named for Osmond patriarch George, and incorporating more sets, more costumes, more singing, more dancing, more guest stars, more everything. All but two of the brothers, including Donny, were married by then (youngest Jimmy was just 17, while 25 year-old Jay, surely to the great shame of his family, didn’t marry until 1987), meaning there are more Osmonds than ever. There are so many children present at this point that most of them are just wandering around in the background, seemingly unaware that there’s a television show happening.
Curiously absent, however, are the Osmond wives, who don’t appear until the last five minutes, and the Osmond parents, who briefly show up during the first fifteen minutes (along with the Osmonds’ ancient grandmother). Also MIA: Paul Lynde, who, after being arrested outside of a Salt Lake City gay bar in 1978, lost his recurring guest spot on Donny and Marie. Instead, we get guest appearances by a visibly uncomfortable Peggy Fleming, magician Doug Henning, and Greg Evigan of B.J. and the Bear, who shows up for the festivities with exposed chest hair and wearing a gold chain, and sings an original composition that has nothing to do with Christmas.
After that, he duets with Marie on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” stroking her hair and eyeing her like a starving man looking in the window of a Golden Corral (he even licks his lips at one point). Their body language implies that they’re dating, which is curious considering that, as per Wikipedia, Evigan was married by this point. Much like when she was paired up with the married (and old enough to be her father) Kris Kristofferson in this episode, the show, hopefully unintentionally, seems to suggest that older men are irresistibly drawn to the sweet, virtuous, undoubtedly oblivious to her own beauty Marie.
Doug Henning appears to do some party level magic tricks for the Osmond children, whose reactions range from mildly interested to yawning on camera. During a medley of holiday songs, Marie, wearing what looks like a blanket taken from someone’s couch, solos on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” While singing, she comes out into the audience to lightly flirt with some of the men, as illustrated here, in my favorite screen shot since starting this blog:
Donny and his brothers cover Electric Light Orchestra’s “All Over the World,” a hit single from the soundtrack to Xanadu, and the closest the show gets to being cool (because, yes, for one brief, shining moment things associated with Xanadu were considered cool). Bringing the mood down a notch, Peggy Fleming performs an interpretive dance on ice skates, and her banter with Donny afterward is so stiff it elicits the same kind of discomfort as watching two people on a bad blind date. Thankfully that mood is quickly lifted thanks to an elaborate musical number set in a department store, with the original Osmond brothers dressed as dancing Santa Clauses. It’s pretty entertaining, until you realize that it goes on for more than five minutes, and you miss Donny poorly doing ventriloquism for a bunch of little kids in the 1977 special.
And speaking of elaborate, overly long musical numbers, the Osmond wives finally join their husbands and their combined 157 children for the last sequence, which Marie explains is a recreation of Christmas in Victorian England. There are no syphilitic whores, child laborers, or human waste running in the streets to be seen, but they all have really great costumes–Marie wears a hat that’s so big you expect there to be more Osmond children hidden inside it. Through some miracle (a Christmas miracle, perhaps?), the show doesn’t end with one of the many offspring saying “And God bless us, everyone.”
So, there’s your two sides of an Osmond Family Christmas–cozy and relatively low-key (well, as low-key as anything featuring Paul Lynde could possibly be), and flashy spectacle. It’s difficult to say which I prefer, as both have their charms and their drawbacks. Despite the drawbacks, though, it’s all done with complete sincerity. There’s something undeniably sweet about Jimmy Osmond’s reedy adolescent pipes accompanying the majestic tones of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on “The Christmas Song,” or Mama Osmond rocking out on the saxophone with her sons. Never again would a variety show exist without that sly “We know this is as lame as you do” wink at the audience. Forays into funk and concept albums aside, the Osmonds embraced their corniness, and presented it as a warm little Christmas gift to television audiences. I sort of miss them.
Not as much as this guy, but still.