When December’s shopping and baking are done and it’s time to relax over cookies and TV, we usually turn to feature films like Elf or A Christmas Carol. We might even look for I Love Lucy or Honeymooners Yuletide episodes or check out the newest holiday specials.
But television has been producing its own seasonal movies, hundreds of them, ever since the small screen was actually small. They run the gamut from brilliant to awful, but even some of the trashiest can be as sweet and comforting as cocoa on the first chilly night of the year.
The problem is that so many new films materialize each year while older ones tend to disappear quickly. And unlike movies released in theaters, too few resurface on DVD, Hulu or Netflix.
So I’m starting next year’s Christmas list early. Here are eight holiday TV movies, in no special order, that I’ve enjoyed in the past and hope to see once more. They’re only the first to occur to me, so I’m likely to make additional requests in the future. And I invite you to do the same.
It Happened One Christmas – Long before It’s a Wonderful Life took its rightful place as a holiday treasure, this 1977 role-reversed version paved the way for its popularity by reviving the 1946 saga of the Bedford Falls family’s crisis and redemption. Marlo Thomas stars as the self-sacrificing president of the building and loan company, Cloris Leachman as the bumbling but earnest angel who guides her, Wayne Rogers as Mary’s loving spouse George and Orson Welles as wealthy, tyrannical Mr. Potter.
Home for the Holidays – A post-Flying Nun Sally Field stars as the youngest of four sisters returning to the country home of ailing patriarch Walter Brennan in this 1972 thriller. The prime suspect in the ensuing string of murders is stepmom Julie Harris, who Dad claims has been poisoning him, but over several dark and stormy nights it becomes clear that the family closet has lots of other skeletons.
Little Women – This 1978 retelling of the March sisters’ Civil War-era life and loves is sweet, sensitive and fairly faithful to Louisa May Alcott’s book. Susan Dey shines as Jo and heads a first-rate cast that includes Eve Plumb as Beth, Meredith Baxter as Meg, Greer Garson as Aunt March, Dorothy McGuire as Marmee, Richard Gilliland as Laurie and Robert Young as his grandfather. It served as the pilot for a series that, unfortunately, lasted only one season.
Ebbie– Scrooge, in this 1995 incarnation of A Christmas Carol, is a bitchy department store head played to the hilt by soap queen Susan Lucci. After four spirit visitations, including a comical one from a pair of rowdy galpal ghosts of Christmas past, she sees the light, reconciling with her niece and becoming a second mother to Taran Noah Smith’s Tiny Tim.
Turn Back the Clock – Connie Sellecca plays an actress named Stephanie Powers (seriously!) in this 1989 mystery. After a New Year’s Eve murder she can’t piece together the following day, she wishes for, and gets, the chance to relive the previous year so she can prevent the death. It’s a bit predictable but highly entertaining and stylish noir, right down to the dreamlike black-and-white opening with splashes of color painted in.
Christmas List – This lighthearted 1997 fantasy stars Mimi Rogers as a talented perfume consultant whose career and love life are at a dead end until her wish list winds up in her store’s North Pole mailbox. It’s fun to watch Melanie’s dreams come true one by one, even her unwritten longing for a husband and family, and to see her get the best of man trap Marla Maples.
Silver Bells – Based on a Luanne Rice novel, this 2005 family drama brings bereaved Anne Heche together with single dad Tate Donovan, who sells his farm’s evergreens in Manhattan each December. When his teenage son runs away to pursue a career in photography, Heche becomes his guardian angel, mentor and ultimately the catalyst for reuniting the two men.
Gift of the Magi – Marla Sokoloff of The Practice fame brings a lot of spirit to this thin but charming 2010 update of the O. Henry tale. She and new husband Mark Webber struggle to pay rent and keep a car running, but their biggest challenge comes when their efforts to buy each other Christmas gifts in secrecy nearly destroys their marriage.