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The House Without a Christmas Tree DVD Review

Buy The House Without a Christmas Tree from Amazon.com The House Without a Christmas Tree
Movie & DVD Details

Director: Paul Bogart

Cast: Jason Robards (James Mills), Mildred Natwick (Grandma Mills), Lisa Lucas (Addie Mills), Kathryn Walker (Miss Thompson), Alexa Kenin (Carla Mae Carter), Murray Westgate (Mr. Brady), Maya Kenin Ryan (Mrs. Cott), Brady MacNamara (Billy Wild), Gail Dunsome (Gloria Cott), Patricia Hamilton (Narrator)

Original Air Date: December 3, 1972 / Running Time: 75 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $12.99
DVD Release Date: October 16, 2007
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5); Black Keepcase with Side Snaps

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In the 1972 television movie The House Without a Christmas Tree, Jason Robards plays James Mills,
a grumpy, reticent widower who makes a conscious decision to be owner of the title's tree-less home. Naturally, this decision does not please Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas), his ten-year-old daughter.

The year is 1946, the place is the small (fictional) town of Clear River, Nebraska, and the word that immediately comes to mind in describing House Without a Christmas Tree is "simple." There is simplicity to be found in the story, the staging, the style, and the setting.

The lack of ostentation has doubtlessly contributed to the movie's reputation among those who have seen it and remember it with the utmost fondness. It also probably accounts for why the movie's fanbase is a passionate but small one. A movie like this doesn't hit you with a hard sell, lend itself to workplace talk, or even demand viewing outside of the holiday season. But if most TV movies are meant for mindless consumption and subsequent disposal, there is something about House that makes it stand out and endure. While the majority of TV movies have gone unreleased on DVD, House not only makes it format debut next week, it does so to fanfare that is 100% organic. Instead of a promotional campaign, word of mouth and memory-triggering are responsible for the detectable buzz which is sure to thrust this little 35-year-old movie into the top hundred sellers at Amazon.com by Tuesday among commercial blockbusters like Transformers and Shrek the Third.

The title screen for "The House Without a Christmas Tree" is the first of many construction paper collages that serve as transitions to and from commercial break. Norman Sunshine would eventually win an Emmy for the collages on the sequel "Addie and the King of Hearts." Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) wants a Christmas tree, but her grumpy father (Jason Robards) would rather sit, scowl, smoke, and read the newspaper.

The Mills Family is not especially impoverished and they're not bad people. But the idea of seeing a Christmas tree in the house is too much for James to handle. Though it's been nearly ten years since his wife died, the pieces of him that went with her still haven't healed. In fact, he's remained reluctant to warm to Addie for the reminder she serves of her mother. Addie herself (Lisa Lucas) isn't doing as poorly. Having hardly known her mother, her biggest problem is having a father she doubts loves her, but her Grandma (Mildred Natwick) is there to tell her otherwise.

Addie may forget to say "please", eat with her elbows on the table, pass negative judgment on some of her classmates and get into the occasional schoolhouse scuffle,
but she's a good, intelligent girl and one who would be even more in the Christmas spirit with a little Tannenbaum action. Her desire for a Christmas tree isn't overplayed, but it really forms the gist of the plot. Though the movie first aired in a 90-minute slot, it runs a full 75 without commercials and there's definitely room for more story. By today's standards, especially, the proceedings seem fairly slight.

There are a few gentle subplots to occupy our attentions. Addie prepares for playing an angel in her school's Christmas play. She uses the betting tips her father has imparted in her to beat out a fellow classmate for ownership of the classroom's Christmas tree. (Occurring a little more than halfway into the proceedings, it's crystal-clear that this victory won't reverse the title, though how that happens is unexpected and pretty unbelievable.) Addie and a handful of other girls pick out a class gift for their beloved teacher Miss Thompson (Kathryn Walker).

Outside of some mentions of the cost of things, there is not a great deal to establish the setting of post-WWII small-town America. The simple set design and single wood-filled classroom feel like they could be, like the low-grade video, merely the product of a small budget. It seems quite clear to me that if anyone's citing nostalgic value of the movie (and many are), it is because they fondly recall TV movies of the early '70s and not a 1940s childhood. That's plenty fine and recognizing the modest origins -- an inexpensive Monday night telemovie in the days of three networks -- is both essential to appreciating the movie and likely to enhance its appeal.

Addie and Grandma (Mildred Natwick) talk turkey while baking gingerbread cookies. Miss Thompson's (Kathryn Walker) fifth grade class does their gift exchange with a boy in a cottony beard playing Jolly Saint Nick.

Paul Bogart was nominated for a Director's Guild Award for House Without a Christmas Tree, but he wound up losing to Lamont Johnson for That Certain Summer, an ABC movie (starring Hal Holbrook, Martin Sheen, and Joe Don Baker) about a teenager coping with his divorced father's homosexuality. Bogart would win multiple DGAs and Emmys for his behind-the-camera work on "All in the Family" and "The Golden Girls."

In a movie where acting is spotty and often weak, Jason Robards gives a great understated performance that really makes the movie what it is.
A film veteran and Emmy winner beforehand, Robards would go onto win back-to-back Supporting Actor Oscars later in the '70s in addition to receiving numerous other nominations. As his relatives, Lisa Lucas brings a realism as an ordinary girl with a flair for using newly-learned words and Mildred Natwick adds grandmotherly heart to the proceedings. The movie is noteworthy for being the first credit of Alexa Kenin, playing Addie's best friend Carla Mae; Kenin would star in a host of ABC Afterschool Specials and appear prominently in Pretty in Pink before dying prematurely due to still-shrouded circumstances.

The House Without a Christmas Tree was the first of four ABC TV movies featuring Robards, Lucas, and Natwick as the Mills family. The following November brought The Thanksgiving Treasure, the spring of 1975 debuted The Easter Promise, and the series came to a close with the Valentine's Day-themed Addie and the King of Hearts in 1976. Each was based on a story by a woman named Gail Rock. The first three came to VHS from 20th Century Fox and later Paramount. However, Tuesday's release of Christmas marks the series' debut on DVD.

VIDEO and AUDIO

One can't really expect too much from an early '70s TV movie of the week and though it probably surpasses the VHS versions, the DVD is definitely no revelation in picture and sound quality. Colors in the 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer are pretty drab and pale. The stage isn't always the most well-lit, rendering some scenes fairly dark. Most bothersome is the presence of three faint but noticeable horizontal lines that run across the picture at many parts, giving a slight ghastly glow to whatever they cover. In the sound department, the two-channel Dolby Mono track is certainly limited in what it conveys and some lines of dialogue don't come across as clearly as they should. But while little effort seems to have gone into sprucing up Tree for DVD, the shortcomings can easily be traced back to low-budget video production.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

No bonus features of any kind are provided, which is a little disappointing but not too surprising for a 35-year-old TV movie. It would have been quite neat to catch up with Lisa Lucas or see how the movie was promoted around the time of its initial airing. At least, the disc and insert-less keepcase are forward with the bare presentation. Not that they really can get around that; with no subtitles, supplements, or alternate language tracks to offer, all we get is a main menu and two pages of 7 scene selections. This is about as basic as one can find for a 2007 major studio DVD; even fast-forwarding and rewinding functionality is limited.

Addie shows off her angel costume -- an old bed sheet plus tin foil halo -- to her Grandma in anticipation for the school Christmas play. Is it really a spoiler to say that "The House Without a Christmas Tree" ultimately doesn't live up to its title?

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Like many TV movies, The House Without a Christmas Tree is something that, while unfamiliar to most of the general public, has been anxiously awaited on DVD by those who know it. As such, most readers of this review will fall into one of two classes: A) those who have seen it, love it, and are counting down the hours until Tuesday and B) those who haven't seen it, don't care to, and aren't really sure why they've read this far. Those in group A will be able to overlook the lack of bonus features and imperfect video/audio, pick up the DVD with a smile, treasure it for Christmases to come, appreciate having their beloved movie on a quality non-degrading format, and maybe await the sequels. Those in group B still won't care. Everyone else -- intrigued by the cast or genre -- won't be in for any real surprises. If you've got a soft spot for '70s telemovies and find yourself in need of another entry to your holiday DVD collection (by no means an easy feat), then this sweet, simple production fits the bill perfectly and does so at a low price.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / The Book by Gail Rock

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Reviewed October 12, 2007.



Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1972 CBS Television, Inc. and 2007 Paramount Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.