by Herbie J Pilato
1] THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE (CBS, 1972): Directed by Paul Bogart. Written by Eleanor Perry and Gail Rock. Based on the book by Rock.
Jamie Mills (played by the great Jason Robards) has grown bitter over the years after losing his wife a decade before. As such, he no longer celebrates Christmas and refuse to put a tree. But this is no run-of-the-mill take on Scrooge – especially after watching Jaime’s young daughter Addie (Lisa Lucas) ultimately drag a decorated tree through town and into the Mills living room.
If you’re looking for your heart, you’ll find it in this movie. Mildred Natwick offerred her usual perfect performance, here – in a supporting role – as Robards’ mother. Special note: This flick’s budget was low, forcing it to be videotaped (like everything pretty much today – though some TV shows and movies make it look like film). But somehow it adds to the “reality.”
2] MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (CBS, 1973): Directed by Fielder Cook. Written by Valentine Davies, Jeb Rosebrook (and others).
No, it ain’t the original 1947 feature film classic (with a tiny Natalie Wood), but it sure as heck ain’t the overblown remake from 1994. Nope, this little puppy of a version starred the late Sebastian Cabot (Mr. French from TV’s Family Affair), David Hartman (soon to be an early rising staple on ABC’s Good Morning, America), and Jane Alexander (who was just about to find super fame playing Eleanor Rosevelt in a series of TV-movies for ABC).
Look also for this astounding supporting cast: Roddy McDowall, Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Isalnd, Mr. Magoo), James Gregory (Barny Miller), Conrad Janis (Mork & Mindy), Roland Winters, and David Doyle (Charlie’s Angels) and Tom Bosley (Happy Days) – the latter two of whom have been cross-identified by viewers for years – and who appeared here on screen together for the first time. you can’t beat that – and you can’t beat this TV-flick for slick production values (for its time), nostalgia (on so many fronts) and a straight-forward “logic within the illogic” script.
Just awesome; and everything a Christmas TV-movie (or any TV-movie for that matter) should be.
3] FATHER KNOWS BEST: HOME FOR CHRISTMAS (NBC, 1977): Directed by Norman Abbott and based on the original TV series created by Ed James.
Like The House Without A Christmas Tree, this TV-flick was produced with an extremely low budget (it wasn’t even filmed like the original series, but videotaped – like a daytime soap opera). But little matter. The script is in place, story is home-made-for-TV, and the cast is dynamite, including all original members of the original Father series, such as: Robert Young (Marcus Welby, MD), Jane Wyatt (Spock’s mom on Star Trek), Lauren Chapin, Elinor Donahue (who later married the much-older executive producer Harry Bewitched Ackerman; and who also guest-starred on the original Trek, by the way), Christopher Gardner, and Billy Gray.
When Young as Jim Anderson puts up those Christmas lights outside the house, I can’t help but be reminded of my super Uncle Carl – who did the same for so many years on Erie Street. This movie will remind you of similar memories I’m sure.
4] SAINT MAYBE (1998, CBS): Directed by Michael Pressman. Written by Robert W. Lenski. Based on the book by Anne Tyler.
Not a Christmas movie, per se, but filled with the astounding spirit of one. Thomas McCarthy plays a lonely teen who works past a tragic car accident that kills his sister, and forces him to care for her three children. Moving, pristine and downright awe-inspiring.
Also starring Blythe Danner, Edward Hermann (who played alongside the aforementioned Jane Alexander in those Roosevelt TV-movies), the beautiful Melina Kanakaraedes, Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds), and former TV-movie queen, Glynnis O’Connor.
5] CHRISTMAS ON DIVISION STREET (1991, ABC). Directed by George Kaczender. Written by Barry Morrow.
As usual, Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) delivers another fine performance, this time as the privileged offspring of wealthy parents who learn the true meaning of Christmas from their son (who learns it from a homeless man).
Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with buying lots of expensive, materialistic gifts for people. Also starring Hume Cronyn, Badja Djola, Cloyce Morrow, Kenneth Walsh and Kahla Lichti.
6] A DAD FOR CHRISTMAS (a.k.a. Me and Luke, 2006, CBS). Directed by Eleanor Lindo. Written by Alan Hines. Based on the novel (Me and Luke) by Audrey O’Hearn.
As with Saint Maybe, this pristine small screen film is not clearly defined as a Christmas TV-movie (though there’s a Christmas dinner in there at the end). But it’s infested with the spirit. Newcomer Kristopher Turner plays a compassionate teen father who sets out to protec and claim his newborn son from the likes of the child’s selfish mother.
The Oscar-winning Louise Fletcher, as the Turner’s grandmother, steps up to the plate as the first-time Dad’s main ally. Also starring Philip Akin, Lindsay Ames, and others.
7] BORROWED HEARTS: A HOLIDAY ROMANCE (1997, CBS): Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl W. Wallace.
Roma Downey is no angel. But Hector Elizondo is in this flick, which also stars Eric McCormack in a pre-Will & Grace straight role. Bottom line: She’s poor. He’s her rich, snobby corporate boss – and they’re both brought together by her daughter Carly (Janet Baily) – with a little help from an Elizondo.
8] IT HAPPENED ONE CHRISTMAS (1977, ABC): Directed by Donald Wrye. Written by Jo Swerling and Frank Capra.
Before the rest of the universe realized how wonderful It’s A Wonderful Life is, That Girl star Marlo Thomas reworked the 1947 Jimmy Stewart classic with a female twist. And the results were impressive. It’s probably BECAUSE of this small-screener that people began to become obsessed with the original.
Also starring the iconic Orson Welles (as Mr. Potter), Wayne Rogers (M*A*S*H), Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Dick O’Neil, Cliff Norton, Christoper Guest, C. Thomas Howell and Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond) and Ma Baily.
9] A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984, CBS). Directed by Clive Donner. Written by Roger O. Hirsen – and Charles Dickens
Though the Charles Dickens classic has been remade about a gazillion times, this version starring George C. Scott takes the cake – and the entire dessert table. A top-level, A-List production from every angle. Also starring: Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasence, Edward Woodward, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees, and so many other fine actors.
10] THE NIGHT THEY SAVED CHRISTMAS (CBS, 1984): Directed by Jackie Cooper. Written by Jim Maloney.
A lot better than you would think – with the additional benefits of Charlie’s Angels beauty Jaclyn Smith, the legendary Art Carney (The Honeymooners), Paul Le Mat (who starred opposite Smith’s Angels co-star Farrah Fawcett in 1985’s ground-breaking TV-movie, The Burning Bed), June Lockhart (Lost in Space), Paul Williams, Scott Grimes and many others.