BOOTLEG FILES 712: “The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood” (1965 television special starring Liza Minnelli).
LAST SEEN: On DailyMotion.com.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a highly dubious label.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The absence of the original color production.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at all.
During the 1960s, the Christmas season brought a glut of holiday-oriented productions to television. But for every “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that became an instant classic, there were scores of efforts that never clicked with audiences and became quickly forgotten.
Typical of the yuletide misfires was a 1965 special called “The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood.” This one-hour musical special featured an original score by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne, who struck gold in 1962 with “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” and became the toasts of Broadway with their 1964 smash “Funny Girl.”
“The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood” flips the well-worn fairy tale by having Red Riding Hood as the brash extrovert (a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli) and the wolf as a foppish villain who is never quite comfortable with doing evil. The wolf’s role went to Cyril Ritchard, an Australian character actor best known for playing Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, and he had a penchant for plumbing the campiest element out of comic villainy.
“The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood” – which carries the alternate title “Oh Wolf Poor Wolf,” a riff on the then-popular Broadway show “Oh Dad Poor Dad” – opens at a zoo where the animals are enjoying a holiday party. All of the creatures are enjoying the season except for the wolf, who is treated like a pariah and can only snag a holiday party invitation from the skunks. The wolf – formally Lone T. Wolf – informs the viewer that his isolation is due to a severe misrepresentation of facts concerning his encounter with Red Riding Hood. Indeed, he even claims to be a vegetarian. The wolf begins to tell his side of the story, and the viewer glimpses the world of Red Riding Hood – actually, her name is Lillian and she lives with her mother and a large mute mouse that communicates in a strange mix of dance and sign language.
It is Christmas and Lillian wants a colorful piece of clothing as a gift. She adores red, but her mother dresses her in blue. When she gets her gift, it is a blue riding hood, and she is not pleased until her mother informs her that is reversible and she can wear the garment’s red interior as an outer shell.
Red Riding Hood sets off to Grandma’s house and encounters the wolf in the woods. He is excessively cordial and charming to her, but when she realizes he’s a wolf she runs off. The wolf is then berated for his polite manners by a pack of lupine delinquents played by the British rock group The Animals. Red Riding Hood encounters a woodsman (crooner Vic Damone), who thinks he might be a prince under a magic spell, but he isn’t entirely sure. The woodsman offers to escort the young lady to her destination, but she insists that she can make it on her own.
The wolf disguises himself as a woodsman, but he fails to fool Red Riding Hood and she escapes him. He manages to get to Grandma’s house ahead of her and imprisons the old lady in her cellar. Getting into Grandma’s clothing (and, it seems, her wig), the wolf decides that he will cook Red Riding Hood for his dinner. At first, she doesn’t see through his disguise and they engage in a raucous song-and-dance number called “Ding-a-Ling,” but the Woodsman shows up in time to save her from being boiled. The show ends back in the zoo where the wolf reveals the woodsman was actually an earl and not a prince, and he reluctantly agrees to join the skunks for their Christmas festivities as a start of being reintegrated back into the animal community.
One of the big problems with “The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood” is the inconvenient fact that it has very little to do with Christmas. Outside of the framing device of the zoo’s Christmas party and the riding hood’s appearance as a Christmas gift, the production is less of a holiday celebration and more like a second rate British-style pantomime that pokes fun at hoary old fairy tales. And outside of “Ding-a-Ling,” which gained viral video popularity last year for the sheer goofiness of Minnelli’s bizarre dancing and Ritchard’s outlandish drag disguise, the rest of the score is oddly flat and unmemorable – this was a low ebb for Merrill and Styne. There is also an extebded ballet sequence with Red Riding Hood dancing with anthropomorphic creatures in the woods, but the weird choreography and creepy costumers are not charming.
Ritchard tries hard to make the endeavor work, and his droll sense of comedy often pays off. But Vic Damone is a non-entity as the romantic woodsman and The Animals are neither amusing nor musically invigorating as the bad-boy wolves – to be blunt, they were terrible actors. And poor Liza Minnelli tries waaaaaaaaaaaaay too hard to turn every song into a show-stopper. She was at a too-eager-to-please phase of her career, and one can easily be confused why an erudite wolf would want to get tangled up with such an obstreperous young lady.
“The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood” aired in color on ABC on November 28, 1965, and it topped the ratings. A soundtrack album was also released. However, it never found its way into the Christmas season rerun culture and disappeared from sight until 2007 when a not-pristine black-and-white presentation turned up on DVD from Jef Films, a label that many people have pegged as a bootleg operation. A copy of that can be seen on DailyMotion.com. Whether the original color version still exists is unclear – if it does, then the production would need a digital restoration and music and performance rights would need to be cleared before a proper commercial home entertainment release is possible.
But, to be frank, this is one holiday special that doesn’t need to be dusted off every December. Not unlike many Christmas presents, this was a bad idea presented with good intentions – and it should have stayed on Santa’s sleigh.
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