THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE NIGHT THE ANIMALS TALKED Image

BOOTLEG FILES 562: “The Night the Animals Talked” (1970 animated TV special).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There appear to be some thorny issues keeping it out of release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: I wish it would happen.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, one of the joys of the Christmas season was the surplus amount of TV specials designed around the holidays. The challenge to the producers of these specials was to find a different approach to the subject – after all, how many times can Santa come down the chimney or can Scrooge be scared shitless by those ghosts?

One of the most wonderfully bizarre endeavors of that era was an animated short called “The Night the Animals Talked.” In some ways, it was unusual because it actually focused on the reason for the season and not on the secular fantasies that hijacked the Christmas period. However, it presented the Nativity story in a manner that was both remarkably diverting yet very wise and, perhaps, a bit sad.

“The Night the Animals Talked” takes place in a Bethlehem stable. One evening, a great light shines from above and illuminates the stable’s sleeping residents. They slowly awake and discover, to their amazement, they have gained the gift of speech.

But being able to speak and having the ability to use speech intelligently is something of a problem for most of the animals. The rooster struts and preens with vain arrogance, while his hens angrily squawk at the goat that sleeps next to them. Two mules sneer unpleasantly at those around them, while a haughty cow expresses her displeasure at her neighbors while cooing over her little calf. A pair of pigs, forced to sleep outside of the stable, are the brunt of the other animals’ insults. Only a wise steer and a friendly dog seem to be able to synchronize their newfound speech with the basic tenets of kindness and sincerity.

The dog ventures outside and discovers a sad sight: going through the empty Bethlehem streets is a man, his pregnant wife and their donkey. The donkey has also obtained the gift of speech, and he tells the dog that the couple has been unable to find any place to spend the night. This could be dangerous because the woman is expected to give birth very soon. The dog volunteers to ask his stable companions if the couple can spend the night with them.

Alas, the dog’s query creates an outrage. Almost every animal in the stable is violently opposed to the invitation, except for a pair of sheep that are bullied into silence by the cow. The pigs are prevented from taking part in the vote. But the steer shames his fellow animals for being no better than humans with their cruelty and selfishness, and the creatures slowly change their minds. A flock of sparrows that live in the upper part of the stable fly out and locate the lonely couple and their donkey, who are directed back to the stable and given the cow’s manger for the night.

Of course, the woman gives birth, and a miraculous glow shines from the manger. The animals gather around the newborn and smile, and even the pigs are allowed the rare opportunity to come into the stable to witness the baby. The animals realize that the news of this birth needs to be shared with as many people as possible, and they scatter out into the streets to wake the people with this announcement. But as they try to spread the news, the miracle that gave them speech evaporates and each animal returns to its natural barking, grunting or squawking. The steer, before his voice disappears forever, wonders aloud if the humans would be able to comprehend the extraordinary event of the birth in the manger.

The source for “The Nights the Animals Talked” is an old Norwegian tale in which the stable animals miraculously used hitherto undetected vocal powers to praise the birth of Jesus during the minutes before the shepherds arrived from their fields to discover the newborn infant – at which point the animals lapsed back into their silence. For this TV production, it seemed that more than a little inspiration came from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where the barnyard creatures invented a social order that divided animals into authority and subservient positions.

But being this was a 1970 production, there was also the vibe of that era’s social consciousness. In this case, some rather obvious jabs at segregation (in the treatment of the pigs) and, perhaps, a backhanded slam at the women’s lib movement (with the hens and the cows angrily asserting their authority in a crassly insensitive manner) peppered the story. And since there was a religious element to the story, the presence of the Holy Family among talking animals was handled with a subtle touch – in this case, the infant Jesus is not shown, while Mary and Joseph are only seen as shadows against a wall or as tiny figures viewed from above by the flying sparrows.

“The Night the Animals Talked” was originally conceived as a children’s record by Peter Fernandez, an actor/writer who was best known for adapting and performing on the English-language soundtracks for many European and Japanese films and television programs. Shamus Culhane, a veteran animator, took director credit while the Italian studio Gamma Films was responsible for the animation. Music legends Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne created three original songs for this production.

ABC broadcast “The Night the Animals Talked” in 1970 and rebroadcast it each year through 1973. And then, just as the animals’ voices vanished, the production also disappeared from sight. It is uncertain why the network ceased to show the special – most likely, the ratings were not sufficient enough to warrant its annual reprise. A 16mm version was released to the educational market via McGraw-Hill, but as of this writing there has never been a commercial home entertainment release.

Over the years, bootleg videos based on the 16mm version have been sold online. A couple of YouTube channels also feature unauthorized postings of this production. But why has it been absent for so many years? Most likely, clearing the rights to the Cahn-Styne songs or a possible dispute between the American and Italian production entities are holding up a home entertainment release.

I genuinely hope that the reasons keeping “The Night the Animals Talked” out of circulation are eventually cleared up and that this production can be properly seen again. It is a strange but charming effort that puts a curiously effective spin on the holidays.

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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