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House Without a Christmas Tree, The

Paramount // Unrated // October 16, 2007
List Price: $12.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 15, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Talk about haunting Christmas memories: Thirty-five years ago, as a child, I caught a television special about a young girl and her melancholy father, and his adamant refusal to display a Christmas tree in their small home in rural, 1940s Nebraska. Though it turns out the special, called The House without a Christmas Tree (1972), was actually released to VHS back in 1996, for this reviewer it had vanished completely. I couldn't remember the title, who was in it - nothing. Just striking images and a mood that stayed with me all those years. Seeing it again on DVD was a strange experience; I was much too young to appreciate its delicacy so watching it again was almost a new experience, yet I was also surprised how accurate my memories were of its simple story and, more important, its understated emotion.

As with Earl Hamner, Jr.'s contemporaneous The Waltons, The House without a Christmas Tree is narrated (by Patricia Hamilton) in flashback, as a memory of its protagonist/author, Addie Mills (played as a 10-year-old by Lisa Lucas), about one Christmas in 1947 when she was living with her working class, crane operator father, Jamie (Jason Robards), and doting grandmother (Mildred Natwick).

Jamie is an emotionally distant man, polite but not demonstrative around his daughter. He has no use for Christmas, though he begrudgingly allows his mother and daughter to bake cookies for the neighbors, and Addie to take part in Christmas activities at her school. However, as he has in years past, he absolutely refuses to spend money on a Christmas tree: a waste of money, he says. Addie thinks he's being cheap, or that perhaps he doesn't really love her. For Addie, not having a tree creates a certain awkwardness with her classmates at school, so she begins parroting her father's excuses.

(Spoilers) But Addie's grandmother knows the real reason for her son's stubbornness: Jamie's wife died shortly after giving birth to Addie, around Christmastime, of pneumonia brought on by her weakened condition. He blames himself for not taking her to the doctor sooner - it's implied Jamie hesitated because, being the middle of the Great Depression, he couldn't afford one. Addie is a constant reminder of his late wife, and he confesses he wishes the baby had died instead of her. A Christmas tree, well, that's just too much to bear.

Unlike It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and myriad adaptations of A Christmas Carol, The House without a Christmas Tree hasn't become the widespread annual tradition those films enjoy. It's almost like a kept secret: the show has a fiercely loyal following of admirers, but their numbers are comparatively small. Partly this is because it's the antithesis of It's a Wonderful Life's heavily-lacquered Capracorn. The House without a Christmas Tree is powerful precisely because it's not sentimental at all. The story's payoff is low-key, muted and realistic; in the end Addie's relationship with her father improves only slightly, in a small if significant way.

Based on a book by Gail Rock, the show was adapted by Eleanor Perry, who with then-husband Frank made some of the best and most underrated films of the 1960s and early-'70s: David and Lisa, The Swimmer, Last Summer (criminally still MIA on DVD) and, significantly, the equally beloved TV adaptation of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory (1966) with Geraldine Page. Robards and Natwick give exceptional, nuanced performances. (Natwick, a favorite of director John Ford, was memorable also as the sorceress who tells Danny Kaye's Court Jester that "the pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true"). Lisa Lucas (An Unmarried Woman) is also quite natural as Addie, whose features and performance avoid the cloying cliches of child actors in most specials of this sort. Artist Norman Sunshine did the beautiful, similarly understated graphics (like paper cut-outs) used under the titles and to bridge scenes between commercial breaks.

For reasons unknown, the entire program was shot on videotape, which on American prime time television in 1972 was pretty much limited to three-camera sitcoms and variety shows. Though video is still the format of choice in many countries around the world, to shoot a TV-movie this way in America, even then, was unusual. The use of tape hurts the show in subtle ways: its marvelously authentic rural and period atmosphere (the dirty, slushy snow, Robards' flannel shirts over long underwear, etc.) are at odds with its smeary video look even then. Today it only makes the show look stuck in the 1970s instead of 1947. It's a shame it wasn't shot on film.

Video & Audio

At least The House without a Christmas Tree has been carefully preserved. The presentation is about as flawless as it could be given the now-ancient videotape technology. The mono audio is similarly up to par given the technological limitations. There are no subtitle options, though the program is closed-captioned. No Extra Features are included, a major omission as an audio commentary by Lucas, liner notes about its production, etc., would have been most welcome.

Parting Thoughts

The House without a Christmas Tree deserves a wider following. It's an excellent show, perfect holiday viewing for the entire family, a drama likely to stay with you for many decades to come. Highly Recommended.

  Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.

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