There's a knock at the door. But, it's a different door and it's a different story.
Brief Tangent: "Christmas Time" aired 4 years after "Guess Who is Coming To Christmas." The episode itself is very specifically set at Christmas 1960. Richie graduated from high school in Season 4 and has been in college for a while. There's every good chance that "Guess Who..." is set at Christmas 1956 except for one big element: Joanie receives a hula hoop. The hula hoop craze was in 1958. On the other hand, Joanie's physical growth doesn't match up to 2 years so maybe it is 1956. (There's one Christmas episode in between these two we're discussing so there is a Christmas gap.) All this seems like it might not be terribly important in the grand scheme of things. But, I always like to try set the stage as best I can.
General festivities abound
However, the fun of trying to date Happy Days episodes must step aside... there's that darn knock at the door to deal with. The first important knock was in either Christmas 1956 or Christmas 1958. (Probably '58.) It was Mr. C and Richie trying to get The Fonz to come back to their house to celebrate the holiday without wounding his pride. And it works. But, past issues haven't been addressed. No wounds have been healed. It's that second knock, the one in 1960, that heals a wound. Although, it looks like it might go wrong for a while.
What house is behind that optical effect?
Times have changed since whenever "Guess Who..." happened. The Fonz no longer lives in that apartment building. He now lives in the rooms above the Cunningham's garage. Chuck is no longer there. (We do not speak of Chuck). The Fonz lives with the family almost as an eldest son. He basically has a variation on the attic room that Greg got in The Brady Bunch or that many of my friends had in high school. The Fonz lives with the family but set apart from the family. That's for the best, I think, what with the constant influx of women into the place. By this point in the series (around 130 episodes), the show has a live studio audience and each episode is as loud and raucous as every other sitcom on TV. And it works to the show's advantage because the viewing audience went through the roof, mainly because of The Fonz.
The Fonz has a great scarf
The Fonz buys fun ties
Oh boy! The Sailor And The Fonz
Most Happy Days episodes have one main plot-line going through them. Most modern day sitcoms usually have an A Story and a B story, even a C story. This episode of Happy Days (plus a later Christmas episode) has multiple story-lines. The A Story is The Fonz. The B Story is Mr. C buying an aluminum Christmas tree that no one is happy with. The C Story is something to do with Richie and Lori Beth and I'm getting sleepy already writing about those two. (Their relationship is something for another column.) The B story is funny, especially the resolution. But, the Fonz rules here, especially when he learns that the gift is from Vito Fonzarelli, his dad. His dad that he hasn't seen since he was 6.
More general Christmas shenanigans
Then, the wounds open anew. I think the Fonz's pain was always there but his life with the Cunninghams, the constant flow of ladies and his evolving magical powers covered everything up. The sailor with the gift tears it all wide open. The Fonz becomes angry, spiteful and threatens his best friend, Richie, when Richie tries to help him overcome some of the bitterness. The dark side of the Fonz comes out here, albeit briefly. It was a side we always felt was there but don't see until now. It took a second knock on the door at Christmas to bring it. To threaten to tear apart what the initial knock had done.
Ralph & Potsie are fun
The Fonz hates his dad. Hates Vito for how he tore apart their happy home life. Hates him because Vito's leaving must have influenced Mom leaving later on. The Cunninghams bring the Fonz happiness and joy, probably better than his parents may have been able to. But, the return of his father, via the gift, shows off that what he has with the Cunninghams is not actual family. His actual family has returned to his life and he hates it. (This is all a bit dark for such a carefree show set in the 1950s.)
Luckily, the Fonz has Richie on his side. Richie keeps pushing the Fonz again and again to open the Christmas gift from his dad. Sometimes at the risk of Richie being punched hard by The Fonz. And, we all know, when the Fonz punches you, you stay down. But, the friendship is so strong, possibly forged by Christmases past, that Richie keeps pushing. And it all culminates at the Christmas Eve family dinner.
Some shots of Richie confronting the Fonz...
with some Fonz Anger
Everyone has had a lovely meal. They are starting to open gifts. The big joke throughout the scene is that everyone has brought a real Christmas tree to the house because the aluminum one is so depressing. The family sits at their couch in what looks like the center of a Christmas Tree lot. It's a funny gag. (Fibber McGee & Molly did something similar on a radio episode back in the 1940s. It's a funnier visual.) Richie hands The Fonz his dad's gift with a letter... And the Fonz gets very angry.
Angry Fonz trying to read the letter...
...and simply getting angry
But, the Cunninhgams keep him under control. And Richie reads the letter. We learn why Vito left his family... as the Fonz sits sullen throughout. Mr. C gets angry at Vito for abandoning his family. The whole scene is as tense as "Will they be able to get The Fonz to come over for Christmas?" from so long ago. But, the emphasis is different. There is no more chicanery or fiddle-about going on here. They love the Fonz. The Fonz loves them. They want him to be well. They want the Fonz healed. It's a wonderful, honest scene and it has a twist within it...
Richie takes over...
Mr. C gets mad at Vito
It might be an obvious twist but this should be considered a SPOILER! (I'll put some comedy tree pictures here. The paragraph in between the tree pictures is the Spoiler.)
The sailor with the gift was Vito. One can sort of see that on a second viewing. The sailor doesn't just hand off the gift and go. He seems to be wanting the Fonz to say something good about his dad but The Fonz won't. One can see a proud glint in the sailor's eye when he sees his son. When you've finished watching the episode, go back and watch it again with that revelation in mind. It makes the scene even more poignant.
There is a long uncomfortable moment at the end of the scene where the Fonz is stone cold still. One wishes that Chachi could have been there to provide that extra family support but Who's Watching The Kids? wasn't going to shoot itself. After that dark, uncertain moment, the Fonz lets out a cheer. The wound is healed as well as it will ever be. How? Because all his life The Fonz had thought he was the reason his Dad left. But, it turns out Vito was a bad dad. It had nothing to do with the Fonz. The viewer can see a weight lift off of Arthur at that moment.
Post Letter: Happy Fonz!
His dad's gift? A kimono. And the Fonz looks good in it. And Christmas looks great on the Fonz and the Cunninghams. Oddly enough, it is all down to Richie being the one who does the pushing. In "Guess Who's Coming To Christmas," Richie gets Mr. C to go to Fonzie's place and bring him over. They could have so easily let it ride. The Fonz would have been fine. In "Christmas Time," Richie pushes the Fonz to face up to the gift. These two moments are obviously huge ones in the Cunningham/ Fonz relations. The next big one would be at the end of the series and would bring everything full circle. That would be the first one that is actually between the Cunninghams and the Fonz himself as opposed to the Fonz's demons and his past. That is another story.
Two knocks at two doors with the same man on the other side of the different doors. Happy Days wasn't known for its character arcs. But, they are there. There is more to the Fonz's arc dealing with his past but it really begins with "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas" and reaches an emotional climax during "Christmas Time." He would possibly find his mom. Grandma Nussbaum would appear. Chachi would become a regular. All sorts of great bits would follow... but these two Christmas episodes are the main sticking points. And they are fantastic.
Merry Christmas. Stay cool.