For most people, Christmastime is a season of celebration, a time to share happiness and joy with family and friends.
For others, though, it’s a season of sadness, of painful reminders of what they have lost, of wounds inflicted and never fully healed.
So it is for James Mills (Jason Robards), who is still mourning the loss of his wife, Helen, 10 years later and refuses to allow a Christmas tree in the house he shares with his daughter, Addie (Lisa Lucas) and her grandmother (Mildred Natwick), even as Addie begs for a tree. Her friends have Christmas trees in their houses, so why can’t her family have one, too?
It’s not about money, Addie knows. The Mills family isn’t wealthy, by any means, but Jamie has some money in the bank—certainly enough for a Christmas tree, even a small one. Addie wonders aloud if her father really loves her, a point Grandma disputes: “He loves you,” she assures her granddaughter. “He’s just not good at showing it.”
An unfortunate understatement, that. James shows affection for his daughter by constantly correcting her, regardless of the activity: From the messy way she eats to shooting marbles to how Addie leaves the newspaper when she’s done reading it, it seems nothing she does is done the right way, according to him.
When Addie wins a prize at school—surprise! A Christmas tree—it sets up a confrontation between daughter and father, with Grandma smack in the middle.
Emotions, positive and otherwise, tend to get magnified in the yuletide season. It would be easy to take such material and turn it into an extended shouting match, but director Paul Bogart (a TV veteran who helmed many episodes of All in the Family) and screenwriter Eleanor Perry (working from a story by Gail Rock) keep the emotions in check. Even the faceoff over the tree is plainly and directly spoken, not shouted, with more emotion conveyed by facial expressions than by words and the recognition of the tensions that exist in all families, even a loving one like the Mills.
Robards, in particular, underplays wonderfully, the look of sadness and anger on his face when he sees the tree conveying more than a page of dialog ever could have.
No surprise there—Robards was one of the finest character actors of his era, shifting between lead and supporting roles with ease, later in the decade, winning two Academy Awards for Best Supporting actor. Here, he plays James as a man so full of regret and pain that he’s blind to the needs of those he loves most. When Addie brings home her school’s choir to sing Christmas carols—specifically, “O Christmas Tree”—Grandma clearly knows what her granddaughter is up to and looks nervously at James, who never speaks a word. He doesn’t have to. The hurt on Robards’ face says it all.
Natwick, a former member of John Ford’s stock company and an Oscar nominee herself, has the difficult role of the peacemaker of the family—Grandma loves and understands both Addie and James, but know that only they can settle their differences.
And Lucas as Addie, the true lead in The House without a Christmas Tree, could have been precocious or grating—or, worse, overly sweet or downright angelic. Instead, she plays Addie as clever, artistic, and emotional in the natural way a 10-year-old would be. She doesn’t scream at Robards over the fate of the tree; like Robards, Lucas conveys her character’s disappointment and anger with her face and her eyes.
Set in a small Nebraska town in 1946, The House without a Christmas Tree is an inexpensive production—shot on videotape and on limited sets (the Mills house, the classroom and the neighborhood between—giving it the look of a filmed play. But this movie doesn’t need anything elaborate or expensive. It’s the story of ordinary people who aren’t good at saying what they feel, told simply, without an overabundance of nostalgia or sentiment.
Many viewers will recognize their own family’s dynamics in the way the Mills family struggles with how to say what they really feel—with how hard it is to convey even the most simple, obvious things, especially at what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.