Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"The Golden Christmas Tree"

Ho ho ho, motherfuckers!  Santa found another present at the bottom of his bag!  Please to be festive and jolly! 

Well, whether that happens or not is open to question.  "The Golden Christmas" tree is from 1948, and it could be argued that Barks hadn't quite gotten a handle on how to do a Christmas story (or at least a long one--his eight-page Firestone efforts aren't bad).  "Letter to Santa," "A Christmas for Shacktown," and "You Can't Guess" were still to come.  As I understand it, he wasn't all that keen on doing them at all, and only buckled down due to editorial fiat--which makes it all the more impressive that he was able to produce deathless classics like the aforementioned.  However, although "The Golden Christmas Tree" certainly has its moments, it doesn't really deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as them.


This whole "strangely-colored Christmas tree" thing is pretty strange.  Was that a real thing?  Surely not.  But no one even comments on it or acts as though it's in any way out of the ordinary.


Seriously, can you imagine having a tree like that in your domicile?  Just think how outlandish it would look!  Gah!  I guess it makes sense that the more oddly-colored they are the more they would cost.  What kind of nightmarish genetic engineering must have been involved in their creation, I shudder to think.


…though maybe it's just paint, as the witch suggests, in which case it doesn't really make much sense that they'd cost so much, or that some colors would be pricier than others.

The thing about this story is, it's kind of sour.  Sure, something like "Letter to Santa" is rambunctious, and concerned more with human foibles than with what you'd call "Christmas spirit," but it still ends up feeling basically good-humored and festive.  Whereas this…well, HDL sobbing because they can't get the weird-colored tree of their dreams is representative of the general feel, and they're not forced to change or anything, as they might be in another story.


So yes indeed, the lady is a WITCH!  Though decidedly not Hazel, alas.  This is not a fun witch, as her apocalyptic pronouncement there may indicate. 


Yeah, tidings of comfort and joy to you too.  One might be reminded of the professor in "Ancient Persia," who wanted to reduce everyone to dust so he could just be left alone.  Might be that both of these are sort of parodic renderings of Barks' own misanthropic side.


The whole fight is reminiscent of the one in "Trick or Treat," complete with the witch disguised as a glamour-duck.  But that fight was far more energetic and, ultimately, life-affirming than this, which isn't really much of anything.  The fact that, in this story (and in contrast to "Trick or Treat"), Donald has no particular reaction to the lady may be indicative of the difference. 


Hmm?  Yes, okay, you're right; that's a funny/clever gag.  But that's about as good as it gets.


So yeah, naturally, she's ultimately defeated, and "The Spirit of Christmas" is released.  That's kind of Christmas-y, right?  Well…yeah, kind of.  The problem is, this spirit does nothing but spout pious homilies that aren't actually reflected in the action of the story.  There's nothing organic about it.  Barks' cynicism is reeeeally apparent here--just shoehorning this stuff in apropos of nothing.  Not very well-balanced.


And how weird is it that a Christmas story is one of very few Disney comics (along with "Dangerous Disguise"--any others?) in which a character is actually killed?  "Fairly weird," would be my response.  Nice that The Spirit of Christmas is so chipper about it!


And then…well, then we have an ending.  It's a typically Barksian sort of ending--generosity turns out to have unexpected consequences--but in the story's larger context…I dunno.  It seems like rescuing The Spirit of Christmas ought to have something to do with anything.  But instead there's this, which isn't commenting ironically on anything because there's nothing to comment ironically on.  It seems positively designed to blunt any search for meaning.  And not in a good way. 

Barks, of course, would not have been the artist he was without his cynical side, but I believe this is one instance in which it was not turned to the all-time possible best effect.   But it's at least interesting to think about, hopefully.  May your Christmases be happy and your trees be tree-colored.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Elaine said...

Random thoughts, more or less in the order your post elicited them:
--Yes, strange-colored trees really were a thing, but they were artificial trees, and therefore unlikely to be sold at a tree lot. I definitely remember pink and silver artificial trees (though not in *my* house, I hasten to add!). Note that at the end of Shacktown, the giant party includes "colored Christmas trees."

--Is the battering-ram-into-newspapers gag not an example of Barks still storyboarding cartoons at this point? I think someone has pointed this out as a great cartoon gag. It's funny on the page, but it truly belongs on film.

--I recall reading that Barks said that he was not only strong-armed into doing Christmas stories at all, he was specifically compelled to put barf-making stuff into this one about the spirit of Christmas. So the fact that the homilies spouted by the tree-spirit are just hung out there to dry, and that they don't convert the kids or connect to the ending, may be a result of their being shoehorned in to make the editors happy.

--I can't let this story go by without mentioning my favorite lines from it. Both are the witch's lines, right after Donald has turned her into a can of gasoline: "Curses! And high octane, too!...All is lost! And I'm at the mercy of that terrible duck!" I also like the fact that one of the captured HDL responds to her "invitation" by saying, "Aw, go poison your apples!" Nice Snow White reference.

December 25, 2013 at 7:53 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

A weak Bark story (part about Donald wishing to be tall and handsome and turning into Gladstone-like jerk was just... odd!) but not a terrible one.

And yes - Newspaer gag is the best part! :D

December 25, 2013 at 8:40 PM  
Anonymous Swamp Adder said...

Elaine is right -- according to this site, Barks was given this story to draw, he made a bunch of changes to it, and then his editors made him redo the ending. In particular, the "spirit of Christmas" stuff was not Barks at all.

December 25, 2013 at 9:39 PM  
Blogger Regular GeoX said...

WHY DID I NOT KNOW THIS?!? TELL ME!!!

Thanks, anyway; it certainly puts the story in context and makes it more comprehensible. I am desperately curious as to what Barks' creatively unfettered version was like.

December 25, 2013 at 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

Thanks for the link, Swamp Adder! I had a vague memory that the story of the Christmas-destroying witch was not Barks's originally, but couldn't remember exactly what the deal was. That explains the witch-as-embodiment-of-evil; Barks created evil villains, but they were not Evil Personified, they were people (pig-people, duck-people, whatever) who behaved evilly. And they had some recognizable, intelligible motivation, other than "Christmas makes people happy so I hate it."

December 26, 2013 at 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Duckfan said...

GeoX, you might find this interesting: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AluminumChristmasTrees

It's a list of weird stuff in fiction that people have a hard time believing was actually real.
Ironically, these colored Christmas trees are the most well-known example.

January 2, 2014 at 9:15 AM  

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