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Those Wonderful, Wonderful Christmas Specials (and Movies)

(Dedicated to the memory of my Mom, who said every year, "Are you still watching those cartoons?"
Yes, ma'am. Always.)


Top O'The Heap

The Homecoming: A Christmas Story
          Grade A entertainment that also inspired The Waltons. This is such a gorgeous movie I'm hard-pressed to describe it without gushing. The cast is superb. While several of the kids are cute, they all look and act like real kids, not those wisecracking plastic infants that inhabit TV sitcoms. The setting looks like a hardscrabble Depression community (much more old-time rural, in fact, than The Waltons did) and the general store and poverty-stricken African Baptist Church are authentic to a T. Just the cinematography is memorable: the shot of the cozy house across the field of snow, the Baldwin ladies' horse and sleigh sweeping along the snow-covered road, the children trailing after John-Boy and Chance the cow, the dissolve from the Baldwin ladies' chandelier to the candle-covered Christmas tree. Every sequence in this film is precious, from the amusing scenes (Charley and Grandma facing off, Elizabeth declaring "puppies") to the dramatic; every performer a joy, with especial notes to William Windom and Cleavon Little. This wonderful movie is finally out on DVD: rejoice!

The House Without a Christmas Tree
          CBS filmed this wonderful 1946-set period piece in 1972 on the same type of stark videotape that they used for soap operas. This is the only thing wrong with the heartwarming (and sometimes heart-wrenching) story of Addie Mills and her efforts to get her embittered, withdrawn father to buy her a Christmas tree; film would have given it a softer edge. As it is, there's an immediacy to it that makes it seem as if you are eavesdropping on the Mills' family life in the 1940s. Despite James Mills' misanthropy (and he is neither demonized nor sentimentalized), this is a nostalgic story filled with the everyday joys of post-war life before Christmas: buying a gift for the teacher, Christmas caroling, homemade decorations. Nobody's withdrawn in front of the TV playing Nintendo; these folks do something with their lives. Inspired three sequels of which The Thanksgiving Treasure was the best. Recently found a play version of the story online which delighted me until I discovered they had shoehorned a romantic subplot in about the school principal and Addie's teacher Miss Thompson. What does that even have to do with the story?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
          A staple at our home on Sunday evenings in the 1960s was GE's College Bowl, a quiz show pitting two teams of university students against each other (football for intellectuals). Occasionally GE interrupted the schedule for some type of children's special: in 1964 they came up with the classic of classics, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass's version of the Robert May story. To say "Practically perfect in every way" is understatement indeed. The engaging storyline made new characters like Clarice, Yukon Cornelius, and Hermie the elf household words, and added two songs, "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold" to the classic repertoire of Yuletide music. Filmed in glowing color with some of the world's most cuddly stop-motion figures, Rudolph was thankfully finally released to video/DVD in original broadcast form, which restored a song and the infamous "peppermint sequence" to the story. Yessss!

A Charlie Brown Christmas
          After this was filmed, Charles Schultz reportedly took CBS execs aback by stating proudly that the story featured an entire minute of Linus reading from the Bible. As Mike Rowe will tell you, the CBS suits walked away from the preview thinking this would be a loser of a special: they hated the jazz soundtrack, children rather than pro voice actors being the voice of the kids, and the Bible reading, which they felt would alienate viewers. Well, apparently it hasn't in over 40 years; too many people have gotten caught up in the amusing story of the Peanuts characters Christmas preparations while poor Charlie Brown muses that something is indeed missing within their philosophy of "get." Fans now wait each year for Sally's Christmas letter, Charlie Brown's "psychiatric" session, Christmas play rehearsals, and of course the poor orphan sapling that is transformed by love. This Christmas earns first place on Santa's nice list.

The Little Drummer Boy
          Obviously a story about a poor boy who walks up to the stable and plays a drum solo for the baby Jesus wouldn't take up much time. Without losing the point of this touching Christmas tune, Rankin-Bass constructed the story of the orphan Aaron with his hatred of humankind, his three animal friends, and the talent that makes him the envy of oily Ben Haramid, the desert showman—a talent that leads Aaron to the right place at the right time. A loving concoction of gentle humor and story that accents rather than overwhelms the ending. Linus would be proud!

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
          Probably the first Christmas special I remember with fondness and therefore a favorite for life. The songs (written by Broadway musical veterans) alone are wonderful—as a lone child "my" song was young Scrooge's "All Alone in the World"— from the comic "We're Despicable" to the heartwrenching "Winter was Warm." The idea to present the story as a play with framing sequences was brilliant and the fact that nearsighted Magoo as Scrooge does not prompt the usual blind-as-a-bat Magoo jokes except in these framing sequences was welcome and wonderful. (There is a rib that Scrooge needs spectacles, but the line is genuine Dickens; the fact that it also fits Magoo is a delightful in-joke.) TV syndication chopped out the framing sequences and the marvelous "Back on Broadway" song; thankfully they are now renewed on DVD so that a new generation can enjoy this animated classic.

A Christmas Story
          Now that TBS has chosen to show this movie back to back to back every Christmas Eve for the last few years, I doubt if there are few people in the United States who don't know the saga of Ralphie and his eternal quest for the Holy Grail, a.k.a. a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock! Based on several Jean Shepherd stories sewn together in a seamless whole and narrated by the late "Shep" himself in rich style, the story is hilarious and nostalgic all at once. Memorable sequences abound: a visit to Santa, Ralphie's fantasies (especially "soap poisoning," a classic!), the "major prize," the flagpole scene, the "F-star-star-star" word, etc, and the entire carefully crafted 1940s atmosphere makes you feel as if you're in an old Christmas card—or in your own childhood. The DVD is full of goodies, including two of the original stories that formed a basis for the film.

Miracle on 34th Street
          In the Connie Willis short story "Miracle," Lauren, the protagonist who keeps championing Miracle on 34th Street, is constantly urged to watch It's a Wonderful Life instead. I'm with Lauren: Miracle can be one of the most overlooked holiday classics of all, despite having been remade twice. The original is such a paean against cynicism and commercialism that its fantasy seems real despite the worn monochrome stock of so many prints; who needs color when you have the luminous talents of Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, and a young Natalie Wood? Oh, yeah—and this may be the only movie ever where you'll thank God for the US Postal Service!

The Gathering
          Marvelous made-for-television film about a man estranged from his family who discovers he has a short time to live and wishes to reconcile with his wife and four grown children. What could have been bathos is sensitively done by a seasoned and stellar case featuring Edward Asner and Maureen Stapleton. I'm also crazy about a marvelous little musical motif that shows up about halfway through the movie, and among its guest players it features early appearances by Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist. Avoid the sequel; it's as stale as 10-year-old fruitcake.


Next in the Queue

The Small One
          A radio staple for years, this story of a small peasant boy and his love of a small, elderly donkey was brought to the screen as an animated short by Disney (one of the last animation projects by Don Bluth before he went on to produce his own features). As the boy leads his pet through the streets of Jerusalem hoping to sell him to a kind master, they meet adventures both funny and terrifying. But a miracle is waiting at the gates to the city in a conclusion that reduces me to blubbering goo every time.

A Christmas Memory
          "It's fruitcake weather": a 1930s Yuletide Valentine from Truman Capote in this semi-autobiographical story of young Buddy and his best friend, elderly Miss Sook, and their escapades as they bake fruitcakes for people they like and who interest them. Not your typical Christmas story, but then Capote wasn't your typical writer. Please find the 1967 full-color uncut version with Geraldine Page; Patty Duke is good in the role in the newer movie version, but the inclusion of a subplot with Nelle Lee (later to be known as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockinbird, and Capote's real-life childhood friend) destroys the story's tight description of the friendship between Buddy and Sook and has less emotional impact.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town
          While occasionally this gets too "cutsey" in its attempt to fit the story to the famous holiday song, in general this is a fun Rankin-Bass special about the origins of Santa Claus. An orphan baby with the simple notation "Claus" is left at the home of the Kringles, toymaking elves who adopt young "Kris" and teach him their trade. Kris grows up to deliver toys to the children of Sombertown...just as the cranky old Burgomeister declares that no more toys will be allowed. Now of course Kris won't be deterred by that! Memorable supporting characters like the Winter Warlock and Miss Jessica, that fetching young schoolmarm, plus a collection of great songs including the inspirational "One Foot in Front of the Other," help round out the story.

The Bishop's Wife
          I came to adulthood with the vague memory of a Christmas film that ended with a story about an empty stocking told from a church pulpit. If the rise of cable television did anything positive, it was the return of this delightful, if slow-moving at times, fantasy film to the airwaves. The urbane Cary Grant is wonderful as the equally urbane angel Dudley, who can order meals in French and tell a Bible fable with equal aplomb, and Loretta Young is simply luminous as the bishop's wife, who sees her happy life dissolving in her husband's obsession to build a great cathedral. David Niven's Henry is so dour you wonder what spark the missus ever saw in him, but he's effective as the careworn curate torn between no donors and one supremely selfish one. Monty Wooley is an added plus as the cynical antiquities professor befriended by Dudley and there are some wonderful visual sequences as well. Oh, and that tale of the empty stocking, too...

A Very Merry Cricket
          Chester, the musical cricket who "made New Yorkers stop and listen" returned in this funny Chuck Jones sequel to The Cricket in Times Square. Harry the Cat and Tucker the Mouse, hoping Chester's miraculously beautiful music will make the greedy denizens of the Big Apple quit "gimme-ing" and count their blessings instead, journey to Connecticut to fetch him with hilarious results. (Check out the alley cat; he's a riot.) Does Chester succeed? Hey, does Santa have reindeer?

The Night Before Christmas
          This 1968 Elba Productions animated special is one of my favorites, telling a fictionalized version of how Clement C. Moore—well, unless you believe the Henry Livingston Jr. story—wrote the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Although the song "Lullaby Time" is a little treacly, the other two original songs are lively and enjoyable, and this version gets major points for, even in a limited animation style, trying to duplicate an American home and family in 1822 (except the little boy would not have been wearing overalls; back then both boys and girls wore dresses until they were about seven years old). The animation of the actual "visit" is more cartoony, but uses the Ken Darby arrangement of the accompanying song, which first appeared on the radion Johnson Wax Program (a.k.a. "Fibber McGee and Molly") in the 1940s. Try to find an uncut version; the original video version is missing four minutes of story!

Mercy Mission
          At last, a Christmas movie my husband will watch! It's Christmas Eve and Jay Parsons, a feckless freelance pilot whose wife cannot convince him to settle down and get a steady job after their baby is born, is trying to earn money by flying a crop-dusting plane to Australia. Unfortunately his navigation is fouled and he faces the prospect of ditching the plane in the ocean instead of landing at his scheduled stop on Norfolk Island—unless Gordon Vette, the determined pilot of a New Zealand airliner who is his only contact, can manage to find him with the help of his flight crew and his patient passengers. The sole holiday decoration is a mistletoe sprig, but the spirit of Christmas is in every inch of this unconventional holiday story. (This is based on a true, longer story and the real Jay and Gordon appear in a crowd scene at the end.)

White Christmas
          The classic technicolor confection with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. The obvious romance novel obstruction between Betty and Bob always drives me nuts, but the movie is a definite treat for the eyes and ears for musical lovers, the set is homey, the costumes lush and colorful, and when General Waverly walks into the dining room at the end there's not a dry eye in the house. And then of course there's Bob and Danny's duet of "Sisters"...

John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
          Oh, the music they made! Treats from one end of this special to the other, including Miss Piggy's inspired additions to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "Christmas is Coming." Musical numbers range from lively ("The Pleasure of Your Company") to thoughtful ("It's in Every One of Us"). Pass the figgy pudding! ("Figgy pudding! Figgy! It's made with figs." "Oh." "And bacon!")

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
          Another restored classic thanks to DVD and the collected clamoring of Grinch fans. Forget the overhyped, overproduced Jim Carrey flick: this is the real Grinch, all drawn out in the inimitable Dr. Seuss style. My favorite character is Max, the Grinch's poor beleaguered mutt, and I love the "Welcome Christmas" song. Oh, and there's the adorable little Cindy Lou Who, who is no more than two, as well.

Arthur's Perfect Christmas
          Had they left out the musical bits, the adventures of PBS's favorite aardvark might have made it higher on my list. The sentiments behind most of the songs was good, but the execution is less than perfect. Arthur is Everykid and one can sympathize with his need for the "perfect" Christmas even while already knowing Christmas is what you make it. The Francine/Muffy and Buster stories are charming as well, but Uncle Fred gets my vote for best Spirit of Christmas.

The Snowman
          If the dreamy animation wasn't enough in this dialog-free animated adaptation of the Raymond Briggs' book, the music would be enough to carry it through. Close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack.

For Better or For Worse: "The Bestest Present" and "The Christmas Angel"
          Two specials based on Lynn Johnston's family comic strip: the second is a bit more fanciful than realistic. The first takes place during the early years of the series, and is the more heartwarming of the two. Still, both are great watching and a terrific holiday hug.

A Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas
          The delightful Buster Bunny and Babs Bunny ("No relation!"), Plucky Duck, Hampton and all their friends in a hilarious take off of It's a Wonderful Life (down to a black and white cartoon "film clip" of a scene from the movie!). Favorite line: a dazed Buster complains, "I feel like I'm in a bad episode of Quantum Leap." The true identity of "Harvey" is the perfect capper.

Christmas Past
          The Discovery Channel used to show this every year and then quit; let's hope someone turns it back up soon. The history of Christmas from a British perspective, with interviews of servants who worked the nobility's mansions during the holidays, children who were evacuated during the second World War, people who still follow the old Christmas customs of wassailing the fruit trees and carrying "Old Hob," and a female Santa Claus. Fascinating stuff.


Series Episodes

The Waltons: "The Best Christmas"
          The series did two other Christmas episodes, "The Children's Carol" and "The Spirit," but neither ever lived up to the warmth of the show's first Christmas story, in which the family is separated on Christmas Eve by various events precipitated by an ice storm. Grandma and Grandpa have some very amusing scenes at a hotel, and the end will leave you with warm fuzzies. Production note: I know the pond rescue scene was filmed on a hot soundstage, probably in the middle of August, but the effect is so well-done that I shiver each time John-Boy and Harley Foster plunge into the "ice-covered" water!

Remember WENN: "Christmas in the Airwaves"
          WENN's first and (regrettably) only Christmas episode is an hour that seems so much shorter. No magical little angels come to rescue our folks from the machinations of the "Santanic Santa" or to soothe grieving Gloria Redmond; they help each other with their own unique charms and humor—and a heaping helping of Christmas music provided by the cast and guest stars Betty Buckley and Peter Noone. This is the sort of Christmas episode you sit down to enjoy with a cup of cocoa and some cookies; it's home made and all heart.

Lassie: any of the Timmy Christmas episodes
          Sorry to say, none of the later Christmas stories (except, marginally, "The Little Christmas Tree") ever lived up to the great holiday tales of the Timmy era. 1960's "Christmas Story," with a father and children being helped by the Martins, is my least favorite in the bunch, but that's saying little. 1958's "Christmas Story," 1961's "Yochim's Christmas," and the two parter "Lassie's Gift of Love" are all heartwarming, curl-on-the-sofa-and-watch-with-the-Christmas-tree-lights-on delights. All of these are available on video and DVD.

Little House on the Prairie: "Christmas at Plum Creek"
          Add a fillip of O. Henry to the Ingalls' family's simple preparations for Christmas and you have one of the most memorable episodes in the series' history. Some nice incidental music as well, and one of the few times Carrie is actually a featured character. If Laura's gift for her mother doesn't leave you in tears, you're made of stone. It's paired with another, lesser-but-still-good Little House effort, "A Christmas They Never Forgot," on DVD.

The Good Life/Good Neighbors: "Silly, But It's Fun..."
          Tom and Barbara Good practice self sufficiency on their property in Surbiton (outside London) while their neighbors (and friends) Jerry and Margo Leadbetter live as elegantly as persnickety Margo can manage. But when the Leadbetters Christmas doesn't come—typically, Margo sends back the entire van of holiday supplies because the Christmas tree is six inches too short—the Goods save the day with a homemade Christmas. As in every other episode of this wonderful series, the humor is lively and charming. Tom and Barbara are truly good neighbors.

All Creatures Great and Small: "Merry Gentlemen"
          This already charming British series is invested with a generous dollop of Merrie Christmas spirit in this Yuletide offering that finds James, Seigfried, and Tristan attempting to save the life of a gypsy girl's pet donkey and Helen nursing a jaundiced Tricki-Woo, the pampered Pekingese, who's been massively overfed treats. But what's in that locked front room that Seigfried doesn't want Tristan to find? Seigfried's solution is...well, typically Seigfried. Full of nice little historical touches like a Christmas tree with authentic C6 flame bulbs, the vets gathering holly to trim the house, a stable scene, and more.


Guilty Pleasures

The Little Match Girl
          I confess: I hated, hated this movie the first time I saw it. I knew it was simply a star vehicle for then Cosby regular Keshia Knight-Pulliam and I simply couldn't believe that in 1920 a rich white family in a wealthy Pennsylvania neighborhood would take in a scruffy black orphan. Okay, she's an angel, but it's pushing it. I thawed gradually. I still don't believe that a rich white family blah-blah-blah and Pulliam can be overly precious at times, but I like the meticulously duplicated 1920s setting, William Daniels' bravura performance as Heywood Dutton, and Irish servants who are actually allowed to speak with an accent without going all "sure and begorrah" on us. And Molly the angel occasionally has a roguishness about her that belies her sweet exterior. Points to John Rhys Davies as the corrupt chief of police, who one expects to roll the tip of his moustache like a 1920's melodrama villain.

Twas the Night Before Christmas
          Rankin-Bass animated, rather than stop-motion, story, with artwork very obviously by Mad Magazine's Paul Coker. The main story, about a town about to go without an annual visit from Santa due to the efforts of a cynical, scientific mouse, is overly-cute but of interest; the story snoozes, unfortunately, at the end where they choose to do all of the Clement Moore poem. I do like the songs, though, especially "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand."

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't
          Not a very good movie, although some of the songs are good. But I like Paul Tripp. That's it.


Literary Recommendations

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
          Not a bad adaptation. Fairuza Balk does well. But do get the book. The book is much, Much funnier—and much more meaningful in the end.

A Christmas Carol (other versions)
          Mickey's Christmas Carol is the funniest. The animated version with the Sir Michael Redgrave narration may be the most imaginative. And each of the classic versions has something I like about it: Alistair Sim, Reginald Owen, George C. Scott, and Patrick Stewart all get points for capturing something of Ebenezer Scrooge. But read the the book. It's all there, in brilliant language.


And the "Don't Kill Me" Entries

You'll notice two of the Christmas "superstars" haven't made any of my lists: It's a Wonderful Life and The Year Without a Santa Claus. I expect the fans of the Heat Miser, the Cold Miser, and Clarence the Angel will come after me any day now. I don't hate either of these stories. I usually end up watching and enjoying both at Christmastime; they just don't "ring any bells" for me. (Sorry, Clarence.) I end up aching for George Bailey, with his unfulfilled dreams (even if he is the "richest man in town"), and really want to give Uncle Billy a good shake, and although the Heat Miser and the Cold Miser make me laugh, I've never been fond of those little elves or the rhymed opening and closing sequences. Sorry, guys...


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