Sunday, December 18, 2005
Forgotten Christmas Gems From TV's Bygone Era
I often think about how DVD (and VHS before it) has been able to preserve small treasures from years past which might have otherwise been forgotten. I just viewed two Christmas productions back-to-back today, both of which reminded me of a line from another Christmas classic -- the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. "It is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt." I agree. For those who recognize it, Christmas magnifies everything. Happiness becomes great happiness. But want becomes great want. Need becomes great need. And loneliness becomes great loneliness. These two TV items, both produced by CBS, "keenly" demonstrate that point. The first, The House Without a Christmas Tree, which originally aired in 1972, was directed by Paul Bogart (who would go on to direct some of the best episodes of All in the Family) and was shot on video, giving it a stage-like yet realistic feel. It starred two-time Oscar-winner Jason Robards as a widower and single father whose bitterness over the loss of his wife has prevented him from enjoying Christmas (or life, for that matter) for nearly a decade. The story takes place in Nebraska of 1946 -- and you believe it -- the nuances are perfect, and the epiphanies and emotions here are as realistic as they come. The film produced three sequels over the next four years. I had always held a fond memory of this film and was genuinely overjoyed when I saw it available on VHS many many years later. It plays every bit as real today as it did in 1972. The second TV gem was the Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone (a TV anthology series which showcased the finest writing and some of the finest performances ever on the small screen). Written by series creator Rod Serling, "Night of the Meek," which first aired on December 23, 1960, tells the story of an alcoholic and disillusioned department store Santa who dreams of becoming the real Santa. On Christmas Eve (and especially in The Twilight Zone), anything is possible. Also shot on video (a departure for the series, which was regularly shot on film), the episode captures a tour de force performance by Art Carney, who deeply mines the emotions felt by his character. Both productions, like all of the truly great Christmas films, show the healing power of the holiday.