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The Bootleg Files: Julie’s Christmas Special

BOOTLEG FILES 617: “Julie’s Christmas Special” (1973 television production starring Julie Andrews).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and Vimeo.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It’s possible.

In 1972, Julie Andrews sought to re-energize her career by focusing on television. This migration from big screen to small screen followed a string of big-budget flop films that damaged her viability as a movie star. But she still had name value, and the less expensive and more intimate parameters of a television variety seemed perfect for her distinctive talents. “The Julie Andrews Hour” was produced in England by ATV and distributed internationally by Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, with ABC picking up the U.S. rights.

While “The Julie Andrews Hour” was praised by critics and won seven Emmy Awards, it failed to find a consistent audience in the U.S., which resulted in its cancellation after one season. But ABC maintained its faith in the star and a new offer was made for Andrews to headline a series of specials. On December 14, 1973, “Julie’s Christmas Special” gave the one-time Mary Poppins another shot at U.S. television.

“Julie’s Christmas Special” opens with a lavish number rich with the jolly camp nonsense that permeated television specials of the early 70s: Andrews is surrounded by a multicultural battalion of dancers in maxi-skirts and bell-bottomed polyester jumpsuits (billed as Dougie Squires’ Second Generation) who gyrate in a strange mix of lite-ballet and Vegas vamping while the star offers a cheery rendition of “I Saw Three Ships.” To its credit, the number does not end in canned applause (another staple of the era’s production protocol), but with an off-screen voice declaring, “That’s a good one, Julie!”

Andrews retreats to her dressing room for a nap. While asleep, she is visited by the Sugar Plum Fairy, played by Peggy Lee and filmed through the thickest gauze-covered lens this side of “Mame.” Andrews awakes, puts on a hooded white cloak and walks out the door of her dressing room and into a snowy landscape to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” (And this type of stuff was relatively sane compared to the typical 70s television output.)

Andrews then returns to her TV show’s stage to introduce Santa Claus, played by rotund Peter Ustinov while sporting a bushy white beard. But Ustinov is wearing a tuxedo, and his Santa needs to show an ID card to verify his claims. Where is Santa’s red suit, you may wonder? “I left it at home,” Ustinov mumbles, with a shrug.

Ustinov’s Santa takes Andrews to a Christmas from long ago, where a brass band plays “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen” under a bridge before being joined by a squad of working class blokes who join Andrews in singing “Carol of the Bells.” Ustinov’s Santa complains that “people don’t care about me anymore,” and Andrews insists that he has a persecution complex and needs a “good psychiatrist.”

Andrews then departs to visit the Sugar Plum Fairy, whom Santa dislikes. “There are times she can be real pain in the ice,” he grumbles. The Sugar Plum Fairy resides in a suite that looks like Belle Watling’s parlor if it was designed by Mr. Freeze, and Andrews and Lee launch into a string of pop tunes that have nothing to do with Christmas. Sadly, their voices and performing styles don’t truly mesh, and the segment feels like an eternity before Santa reappears to play with his electric trains and reminisce about how he once delivered toys to “Georgie Washington” and “Tommy Edison.”

Lee comes back to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while seated on an airplane, then Andrews drinks a cup of the wine-laced “Santa’s Little Helper” to help St. Nick lift his massive bag of toys. The scene shifts to a Victorian food market for no very good reason, and then Andrews joins the Treorchy Male Choir to sing “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Lee returns to wake Andrews up – remember, it was all a dream! – and Andrews performs a holiday-themed song that I’ve never heard before or since. And then, the closing credits cue us that it’s time to turn off the telly.

Yes, “Julie’s Christmas Special” is full of mild absurdity, especially Ustinov’s droll and slightly indolent Santa. By contemporary standards, it is fascinating to hear a Christmas special where the musical selection is so heavily focused on the religious roots of the holiday – outside of a Mother Angelica rerun, I haven’t heard Jesus mentioned so frequently within the course of an hour.

And, yet, the production doesn’t generate a lot of fun. Andrews has a magnificent voice, but she doesn’t bring any soul or feeling to her vocalizing. Her renditions of the Christmas classics are among the most antiseptic ever recorded. Indeed, she seems to have more fun in her non-holiday duet with Lee, even though their styles are ill-suited for a combination.

“Julie’s Christmas Special” was a one-off broadcast that ABC never reran. Andrews’ other specials for the network paired her with Jackie Gleason, the Muppets, and her “Mary Poppins” co-star Dick Van Dyke, but none of these efforts seemed to click. By 1975, ABC dropped her option and Andrews was mostly unseen until a role in her husband Blake Edwards’ 1979 film “10” helped bring her back into movies.

“Julie’s Christmas Special” has yet to be presented in a commercial home entertainment format, although decent bootleg dupes can be found on YouTube and Vimeo. But maybe it’s best that it is not on DVD – if it was, it would be a prime candidate for the after-Christmas returns department.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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