While I lamented, in my remarks about A Christmas Story, that the modern Christmas films are either tailored to a star’s comic persona, or issues-oriented dramas that happen to take place in December, there had been a time when every Christmas season offered one or two very good holiday-themed television films. They were modest, by feature film standards, but infinitely superior to the Yule season tide of forgettable “All-I-want-for-Christmas-is-a-boyfriend”–like fare. Many of these productions were literary adaptations; they aired periodically and then were dropped from the holiday calendar. A few are available on DVD and all of them are worth hunting down or pestering Netflix to acquire.
A Christmas Memory was one of the hour-long installments in the unsuccessful experiment, Studio 67, to develop an anthology of dramas, documentary and variety programming. First airing in December, 1966, it was adapted from Truman Capote’s autobiographical, Depression-era tale of the final Christmas that seven-year-old Buddy (Capote) spends with his elderly aunts. His aunt “Sook”, naïve and open-hearted is his best friend, and together they contrive to keep up their small traditions despite their poverty and the discouragement of their other relations. In a brilliant stroke, the decision was made to have Capote narrate and his languid, almost childlike recital sets the perfect nostalgic tone. Geraldine Page, as Sook, won Emmys for both A Christmas Memory and its sequel, The Thanksgiving Visitor.
The House Without a Christmas Treewas the first of a quartet of films based on children’s author Gail Rock’s “Addie Mills” series. First airing in the early 70s, it was a Christmas staple throughout the decade. The tale, set in mid-1940s Nebraska, is focused on spirited, 10-year-old Addie Mills and her embittered father who has not allowed a Christmas tree in the house since his wife’s death. When Addie wins a Christmas tree in a school contest, it brings about a confrontation and finally, reconciliation. Recorded on videotape, which was relatively new and raw in the 70s, but the performances of Jason Robards, Mildred Natwick and Lisa Lucas more than compensate.
The Gift of Love (1978) was based on the famous O. Henry tale, The Gift of the Magi. Here, the young lovers are wealthy, orphaned Beth Atherton and the poor immigrant Rudy Miller (Marie Osmond and Timothy Bottoms). Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York, and with some pleasant tunes, it’s pretty much Titanic without the iceberg, the shipwreck, and with James Woods as the rejected fiancé (here, diffident and somewhat “nerdy” rather than belligerent and possessive), and with a happy ending. There have been a few renditions of this familiar classic; this one embellishes it to accommodate the feature length, but never encumbers it with mawkish sentimentality.
A Christmas Without Snow, was written for television, and suffers from many of the films of the 1970s-1980s; that is, the social issues – racial tolerance, feminism, single parents – are served up with all the subtlety of a punch list. When the story is allowed to evolve from it’s premise, it’s a rather appealing Christmas tale. Michael Learned stars as a newly divorced woman who moves to San Francisco and is recruited for a church choir. As the demanding choir director prepares the singers for a Christmas performance of The Messiah, the lives of the choir members begin to connect and overlap. As with many of the 80s TV movies, A Christmas Without Snow has a somewhat pat, off-the-template look, but some very good performances – Ruth Nelson, James Cromwell, Beah Richards and John Houseman – give it an advantage over the standard Christmas fare.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, based upon Barbara Robinson’s novel of the same name, first aired in 1983. Loretta Swit, coming straight from her long run on the popular TV series M*A*S*H stars as Grace Bradley, a small-town mother who is saddled with producing the annual church Christmas pageant when the perennial director quite literally breaks a leg. Young Beth Bradley is the wry narrator of Grace’s struggle to contend with the phoned-in advice of the bedridden director, and with he pandemonium caused by the six unruly Herdmans who descend upon the church (because they heard that refreshments were served) and demand the choice roles in the pageant. High marks for communicating the spirit of Christmas in an often hilarious tale.
And 3 Degrees of Austen?
1. Geraldine Page (A Christmas Memory) appeared in White Knights with Helen Mirren, who appeared in The Debt with Ciaran Hinds, Wentworth in the ’95 Persuasion.
Lisa Lucas (The House Without A Christmas Tree), appeared in An Unmarried Woman with Alan Bates; Bates appeared in Gosford Park with Tom Hollander, Mr. Collins in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.
James Woods (The Gift of Love) appeared in The General’s Daughter with James Cromwell, who played Reverend Austen in Becoming Jane.
John Houseman (A Christmas Without Snow) appeared in Ghost Story with Alice Krige, who was Lady Russell in the 2007 Persuasion.
Fairuza Balk (The Best Christmas Pageant Ever) appeared in Valmont with Colin Firth, 1995’s Mr. Darcy.
And which Austen characters would have enjoyed these films? A Christmas Memory would have appealed to the elderly Bates ladies, perhaps remembering their times with Jane Fairfax when Jane was a child; Eleanor Tilney and Anne Elliot may have sympathized with Addie Mills’ cheerless home life; Marianne Dashwood would have been carried away by A Gift of Love; Mrs. Dashwood would have sympathized with the main character in A Christmas Without Snow, who has lost husband and home, and Fanny Price may have seen something of the Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever when she returned to Portsmouth and her gaggle of unruly siblings.