THE BOOTLEG FILES: “A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES”

THE BOOTLEG FILES: “A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES”

My favorite Christmas story is, hands down, Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Part of its appeal to me is rooted in ethnic pride (being a child of Wales, I have an irrational mania for anyone and anything relating to the Land of the Red Dragon). Part of its appeal is also in its simple brilliance. This non-linear memoir recalls the scatterings of absurdities, love, curiosities and nicely warped protocols that wrapped their way around the Christmases of Thomas’ youth.

Not surprisingly, my favorite Christmas movie is the 1962 adaptation of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” The film, however, is perhaps the most mysterious production that I ever came across in creating this column. After extensive research, I’ve found absolutely no information about its production history or its distribution. I did find several online postings from like-minded souls asking about if anyone had a video copy of this very, very rare short. If you have a copy, consider yourself to be extremely lucky. If not, here is what you are missing.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was created by Marvin Lichtner, a photographer who was at his peak during the late 1950s and 1960s. He is best known today for his photographic illustrations in Gay Talese’s book “A Serenidpiter’s Journey” and for a portrait series of the Beatles that he shot in 1967 for Time Magazine. I believe “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is his only motion picture – there is no entry for him in the Internet Movie Database and I cannot locate any listings for additional film work.

Lichtner opted to make this film in a style similar to Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” – a montage of still photographs with a narrator telling the story of what is transpiring on the screen. Lichtner apparently shot his black-and-white stills in Wales, using what appears to be non-professional locals. Most of the photographs were obviously staged to correspond with the sequences in the Thomas story, but they are so fresh and vibrant (and the people in the shots are so refreshingly real and not actorish) that this could be mistaken for a documentary.

Lichtner also had the good fortune to secure the 1952 Caedmon recording of Thomas reciting his story. Thomas had an extraordinary raconteur’s voice and he laces his remembrances with a warm nostalgic hue that never becomes icky-treacly. A light score, primarily consisting of a single flute, is credited to Don Heckman and it enhances the Thomas recitation without drowning it in unnecessary emotion.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” opens with the most remarkable introductory passage imaginable. Just read this to get a feel of the intellect, playfulness and passion of Thomas’ writing:

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.”

And then comes a hilarious sequence in which two boys, representing the young Thomas and his pal Jim Prothero, who find their attempt to bonk the neighbor’s cats with snowballs interrupted when Mrs. Prothero emerges from a smoke-filled doorway, beating a dinner gong to get attention and assistance (this story is set in the early 1920s, obviously in the days before telephones were prevalent in Welsh homes). As Thomas recalls: “And we ran down the garden, with the snowballs in our arms, toward the house; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out of the dining-room, and the gong was bombilating, and Mrs. Prothero was announcing ruin like a town crier in Pompeii. This was better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. We bounded into the house, laden with snowballs, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room. Something was burning all right; perhaps it was Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, ‘A fine Christmas!’ and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.”

After the Prothero fire incident (which, by the way, ends without fatalities or damage), the film follows the story’s stream of consciousness approach to the lost Christmases of Thomas’ past. In a curious but successful strategy, Lichtner does not keep one child as the young Thomas throughout the film. A series of very different looking boys stand in for the writer, as if giving the impression that his Welsh yuletide experiences were universal throughout his time and country. Indeed, one gets the feeling that every home of that era and location was much the same for the holidays.

At one point, Thomas bifurcates his memories between the adult self and an inner child. When the latter asks (with Thomas feigning a childlike voice in his narration) “Were there Uncles like in our house?”, the adult Thomas confirms the presence of such relatives on Christmas day: “Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”

I cannot imagine how Lichtner cast this film, but the uncles and aunts are a sight to behold. Large, ruddy faced uncles grumping in chairs and elderly aunts of various shapes, posed in manners ranging from the verge of tears to the burst of spiritual glory – particularly the uninhibited buxom woman portraying Aunt Hannah, whom Thomas celebrates for as one “who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.”

Not unlike “La Jetee,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” imaginatively pans and scans across the details of the photographs and uses remarkable editing effects to simulate movement and animation. In a wonderfully absurd sequence when the local boys ponder the possibilities of hippos racing down their street, Lichtner uses quick cuts to simulate the children pretending to be hippos as they waddle and wobble down the snowy Welsh streets. When the same lads go out in the night and sing carols outside an allegedly haunted house, the surprise of the home owner’s response is met with quick zooms and rapid edits of the close-up shots of the terrified kids.

And in closing, the touching fadeout of the enveloping night reflects the heartfelt sincerity of Thomas’ final memory: “Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

I found “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” quite by accident. About 15 years ago, I was home in New York and thumbing through the TV listings when I saw this title in the mid-afternoon line-up for a local PBS station. Not knowing the film, I videotaped it. What I discovered enthralled me for its originality, emotion and utter Welshness. The print that was used for this broadcast left something to be desired: it seemed to come from a very, very well-worn 16mm print, with thick dark scratches weaving and bobbing across parts of the presentation. It was not impossible to watch, but this was clearly not the way it was meant to be seen.

And, alas, I’ve not seen it on TV again, or anywhere else. Had it not been for that serendipitous sighting in the TV listings, I would never have known this film existed. Looking around today, it is still easy to imagine it never existed. I’ve been able to locate four collections that house 16mm copies (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the University of North Carolina, William Patterson University in New Jersey, and a well-known independent distributor in New York who has a print in his personal stash). I’ve been unable to determine if this film was ever shown in theaters; it was clearly never released on home video. A long-defunct company called Margin Productions was the original source, but I don’t know who owns the rights to the film today.

If “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is unfamiliar to you, I would recommend visiting the Dylan Thomas-related web site http://www.undermilkwood.net/prose_christmas.html to read the story and to hear the Caedmon recording by Thomas (who died a year after he was before the microphone). And if you can locate private collectors who have bootleg copies of this, then by all means chase them down and stuff with them cash for a copy. It doesn’t get better than this.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on December 23, 2005 in Features by
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7 Comments on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: “A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES”"

  1. Kathryn Hill on Sun, 19th Dec 2010 3:24 pm 

    I just stumbled upon your article about the black and white version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Finally, evidence that I didn’t imagine seeing this in the 1960s on my local PBS station in Rochester, NY. I have been searching for years, off and on, for verification that this film exists since no one I know ever saw or heard of it, and my local TV station has no record of it.
    Is it possible to bribe you with $$ for a copy of this? It stays in my memory after all these years as being one of the more special viewing experiences in my life. A perfect blend of words, voice, and images.
    I’s made my day to find out that I’m not alone in my memory of this great little film.
    Kathryn Hill


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  2. Don Zier on Tue, 21st Jun 2011 4:16 pm 

    I saw this film in 1962 or 1963. It was on a double bill, together with Jiri Trnka’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, shown on the classic film program at my university. Most probably they had a 16 mm print. Both my wife and I were entranced. I, too, have tried to find a copy for all the intervening years. Now that DVD’s are becoming available I had hope that something might someday show up, but your review is the closest I’ve gotten.

    Could I, too, bribe you with gallons of cash to make a copy? If not, can you direct me to a good bootlegger?


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  3. Ray Konrad on Sat, 28th Jan 2012 6:50 pm 

    Today was another day in which I started another search for the lost Child’s Christmas in Wales film I remember seeing when I lived in the San Francisco Bay area. I remember that KQED, (PBS) used to air the film around Christmas time, and it seems to me that this happened on three succeeding years around 1966-69?. At the time I had no idea that this would not continue indefinitely, and so did not place that much value on the film. One year it was not there, and I began to try and find out about it. All my efforts led to nothing. I have tried off and on to see if I could locate some information on it, but have never found anything. I am so glad to see at least something about the film, and hope to stumble on a copy, or at least an airing or showing of this priceless gem of a film.


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  4. Judith Danielsen on Mon, 21st Oct 2013 1:51 pm 

    When I taught in the English department at South Dakota State University in 1980, I borrowed this film from the University’s collection to show my students at Christmas. I had not previewed it, but loved Dylan Thomas’s writing, this story, and my own heritage of being half Welsh. I had not yet connected with relatives who live in Dolwyddelan where the photos were taken by Marvin Lichtner. The film was in such terrible shape, I had to give my students a longer break from my class by dismissing them early. Later, when I learned more of my connections to Dolwyddelan and more about the film, I tried to borrow it again, but it had been destroyed for it was not even in the South Dakota film library in our state capitol, Pierre, SD. It does not seem there is a copy available, but if it ever does show up, please let me know. Could there possibly be a place where Marvin Lichtner has donated his photos? My relatives are in his film so it would be fun to look through them.


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  5. Donald L. Richardson on Sat, 15th Nov 2014 1:42 pm 

    In the 60’s and 70’s before Christmas vacations, I’d always show my students that perfect creation: Thomas,s poem and voice and Lichtner’s black and white film. For the last 30 years I’ve yearned to see that joyful film again. I so hope you can find it for us!


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  6. Phil Hall on Mon, 17th Nov 2014 9:46 am 

    I have excellent news, Donald. There is a new documentary being produced about the history of this elusive film – and as luck would have it, I appear in the documentary. It will be broadcast in Wales in December and should be online shortly after its broadcast.


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  7. L E SHannon on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 2:08 pm 

    I could have written Ms Hill’s comment myself, word for word — except change Rochester NY to Alhambra, California (yeah, there was a little intelligent life out here back then). That film has haunted me for decades, so bless Mr Hall for the heads-up. At last the long wait is over.


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