Appellate Judge Tom Becker didn't take his Christmas tree down until February, at which point his home became The House Without a Brown Stick.
"I live and work in the city now. It's a landscape of cement, and noise,
and crowds. It's all so different and far away from the little town where I grew
up, Clear River, Nebraska, population 1,500. Clear River was surrounded by corn
fields, and cattle, and open sky. The tallest building in town was only three
stories. Most of the streets were unpaved, and we didn't even have a traffic
light. We didn't need one. Every day, the Union Pacific Streamliners roared
through, but they never stopped in Clear River. I often think of that little
town, and that special Christmas in 1946, when I was ten years old. This is the
house we lived in then."
With all the colorful, toe-tapping, message-bearing Christmas TV specials we get each year, it's easy to forget about some of the more modest presentations that use the holiday as a backdrop to tell a deeper, more human story. Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, with Geraldine Page, was one; The Homecoming, which introduced The Waltons, was another.
The House Without a Christmas Tree was shown on CBS in December 1972 and became a holiday staple for many years after. Directed by multiple Emmy winner Paul Bogart (The Adams Chronicles), this is a beautifully written and acted memory drama about families and childhood.
Ten-year-old Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas, The Migrants) lives with her widowed father (Jason Robards, Long Day's Journey into Night) and grandmother (Mildred Natwick, Barefoot in the Park). Addie is an active, intelligent child, and the household is stable enough—it's just after World War II. This Nebraska town is not exactly thriving, but Addie's dad is doing all right, and Addie doesn't really want for anything.
Well, almost anything. Addie's father refuses to allow a Christmas tree in their home. He never says why and just sidesteps the issue with his daughter, but she's becoming convinced that he really doesn't care for her. What she doesn't realize is that he is still deeply grieving the loss of his wife, who died when Addie was a baby, and his grief has made him a closed-up, bitter man.
But Addie's immediate concerns are with the holiday, and with being in the Christmas pageant, and on the committee to pick out a gift for her teacher, and the baking, and the caroling, and all the preparations, the season is pretty full—except for that empty space in the living room, which she knows is just perfect for a tree.
Then fate intervenes, and Addie does get a tree—but not from her father. Instead, she wins one at school. She and her best friend, Carla May, drag it home, and with the help of Addie's grandmother, they set it up and decorate it. She's sure her father will be happy when he sees how beautiful it is, and, besides, she won it—it didn't cost him anything.
But even the resilient and sensitive Addie isn't prepared for her father's reaction.
Touching and sincere without ever being maudlin or corny, The House Without a Christmas Tree was adapted by Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa) from Gail Rock's autobiographical story. The script has an authentic feel. Situations arise naturally and are resolved in ways that are true to the characters and the time.
Addie sounds like a precocious 10-year-old, not an adult's idea of what a precocious 10-year-old should sound like. Her father says and does things that are sometimes cruel, but he's not a villain; we can understand his anguish. There are no by-the-numbers reconcilements. As in real life, much is left unspoken.
The film boasts a trio of memorable performances. Lisa Lucas could have made Addie a cloying know-it-all, but Bogart directs the young actress to eschew manipulation. Lucas imbues the character with a natural blend of childlike belief and grownup resolve. We empathize with Addie—we feel for her, but we never pity her. We respect her too much for that.
Jason Robards's James Mills might be surnamed Tyrone, given the quiet complexity the actor brings to the part. This is a wonderfully nuanced performance that in the hands of a lesser actor could have been broad-stroked to caricature. The same can be said for Mildred Natwick's perceptive portrayal of Addie's no-nonsense but loving grandma.
The House Without a Christmas Tree was shot on videotape, and the technical values are just slightly better than an episode of All in the Family (for which Bogart won a directing Emmy). The closest we get to a special effect are the scenes fading to paper cutouts. It is really a televised play. Both the costume designer (Jane Greenwood) and the art director (Ben Edwards) had extensive backgrounds in theater, and their work here is fine, evocative, and natural.
Paramount is clearly targeting this for the nostalgia crowd, with the tag line on the back of the package proclaiming, "The Holiday Classic You Loved as a Child, Now on DVD to Share with Your Entire Family." But even the most sentimental Boomers and Xers might be put off by the lack of care that went into this disc. The full-frame transfer looks worn and speckled. The Dolby Digital Mono track is very uneven, and at times the dialogue competes with the incidental music. There are no extras, just chapter stops where the commercials were originally.
Lucas, Robards, and Natwick starred in three other specials about the Mills family, all themed for a holiday: Thanksgiving, Easter, and Valentine's Day. The House Without a Christmas Tree was the first and best of the series. It would be nice to have a set featuring all four films.
The House Without a Christmas Tree is a lovely and poignant little film, literate, heartfelt, and deceptively simple. I'm glad it's being released on DVD and hope it finds a new generation of admirers. It's a shame that Paramount is treating this little gem like a recycled fruitcake.
No guilt for the film, but a big "Bah, Humbug" to Paramount's lackluster presentation.
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