This edition of FOS looks at a collection of vintage Christmastime TV movies available on streaming
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’Tis the season for Hallmark Christmas movies, whether you like them or not. That’s right, the endless parade of holiday fare from the one cable network who has cornered the market on them is in full swing. From now until what feels like the end of time, actors from former TV shows, Canada-filmed stories about pageants, treasured ornaments and opposites being forced to exchange gifts before falling in love will be available for everyone’s Holliday cheese fest needs.
I’m not knocking Hallmark Christmas movies, I promise. Well, perhaps just a little. If I am it’s only because the history of TV Christmas movies has strayed quite a ways from some of the sub-genre’s most endearing and genuinely well-made standards of the past. I know there are plenty of people who find the kind of hope, magic and Holliday warmth offered by Hallmark movies and that’s really great. However for those wanting something more, the ghost of Christmas TV movies past will always be here.
In the spirit of the season, check out these five Christmas TV movie titles featuring great actors and touching stories, all of which are available on your favorite streaming platforms.
ONE SPECIAL NIGHT (Prime and Tubi)
Their third teaming together may be their least memorable, but Julie Andrews and James Garner make this seemingly simple story come alive the way legends like them can. It’s the holidays and pediatric doctor Catherine (Andrews) intends on working through them since she’s never gotten over the death of her husband two years earlier. Robert (Garner), meanwhile, is struggling to hold it together as he contends with a dying wife and children whose own lives need help. When Catherine offers Robert a ride home in a snowstorm, an accident prompts them to seek refuge in an abandoned cabin where they form a special bond. As I said before, the story here may seem simple, but One Special Night remains memorable today thanks not only to its seasoned pros, but also because of this portrait of two people who have designed their lives so that they don’t have to deal with what’s actually in front of them. There are side characters with their own sets of problems; but they really don’t register in the shadow of the magic Andrews and Garner radiate so naturally.
SILVER BELLS (Sling)
Widowed Christmas tree farmer Christy (Tate Donovan) spends all year getting his trees ready to come to New York during the holidays in order to sell them to all he encounters, save for gallery curator Catherine (Anne Heche), who wants nothing to do with the holidays. This life works for daughter Bridget (Courtney Jines), but not 16-year-old son Danny (Michael Mitchell), who wants to become a photographer. Fed up with the life he’s living back home, Danny runs away just as the family is packing up to leave. Christy spends the following year worried about his son, arriving back in the city next December determined to find him. As you may have guessed, a lot happens in Silver Bells, enough so that this could have actually made for an engaging feature. As it stands though, some of the film’s more realistic elements (such as being one of the few of its kind ACTUALLY shot in New York) make for an interesting blend with its cozy holiday TV ones. But Silver Bells finds that balance and tugs at the heartstrings in refreshingly gentle ways, opting for truth over saccharine in order to win over its unsuspecting audience.
CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (HBO Max)
You could say they just don’t make ’em like this anymore, or you could perhaps say they never made them this way to begin with. Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed Rod Serling’s own 60s-set take on A Christmas Carol with Sterling Hayden as Daniel Grudge, a wealthy industrialist still angry and resentful over his own past, specifically the loss of his son. On Christmas Eve, Daniel is transported to different eras, each of which had a hand in shaping the man he his and the man he might die as. It’s obvious how much Serling was unloading with this project. Carol for Another Christmas is stark in its content and ideology, calling out America’s atrocities of the past, the madness of the present and the imagined chaos that could very well become the future. The way the film reflects the various tensions felt within the decade and distills them all into a traditional Christmas story reaffirms Serling’s unique gifts. The forever underrated Hayden is great as Dainel, the impressive roster of costars, including Ben Gazzarra (check), Eva Marie Saint, Peter Sellers and Robert Shaw, among others do great work and the visuals are just beyond impressive, especially for the early days of television. A Dickens reimagining that’s impossible to shake.
THE CHRISTMAS STAR (Disney+)
Before Elf, Ed Asner donned the Santa Claus suit in this 1986 TV movie for ABC in which he played an escaped convict who convinces a group of kids about to be evicted from their apartment building on Christmas that he’s the real Santa. So what’s the idea? The kids will help him uncover the money he and his late partner stole and hid somewhere in the city. Even though it was years before Disney bought ABC, The Christmas Star feels pure Mouse House through and through. The movie totally goes for the jugular in terms of its sweetness and shameless sentimentality, making it the entry on this list closest to the current crop of Hallmark fare. To its credit however, The Christmas Star stays firmly on the ground for most of its runtime until a deliciously creepy third act sequence. What really grounds the film though is Asner’s performance. As an actor, the multiple Emmy winner was unable to play anything but the authenticity of whatever scene he was in. It may not be his signature role, but his turn as an unlikely Santa who never fully lets go of his jaded exterior until the very last minute is total proof of that.
THE GIFT OF LOVE: A CHRISTMAS STORY (Tubi)
For a movie rich in Christmas spirit, The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story sure starts out in a pretty dire way. Janet’s (Lee Remick) life is falling apart. The store her and her husband Neil (Mart Hulswit) own is about to go out of business, their marriage is on the rocks and her children Dorothy (Samantha Atkins) and Michael (Michael Pearlman) are getting into trouble at school. To make matters worse, her mother Amanda (Angela Lansbury) has just passed away, ensuring this is will be the worst Christmas ever. Ordered to bed, Janet ends up dreaming herself back to her childhood farm in Vermont where Amanda, her father Spencer (Joe Warren) and her Aunt Minerva (Polly Holliday) have welcomed her back home just in time for Christmas. A movie going for this much magical realism that isn’t called “A Christmas Carol” has to do a lot of work to earn its stripes, which this one surely does. Despite its well-meaning but generic title, The Gift of Love doesn’t spend a great deal of time explaining lessons to its characters, but instead gives reminders of how important it is to recognize the value of the here and now. The movie plays its fantasy element for real to such great effect, that when Janet must finally acknowledge it, the whole affair takes on a soulful grace that’s hard not to be moved by.
There are countless services to explore and great things to watch on all of them. Which ones did we miss that you would suggest to us? Tell us what we’re missing out on or what new services we should check out by leaving a comment below or emailing us.