As Elvis croons, "It's Christmas time, pretty baby." And you know what that means. Hanging lights and stockings, watching the snow fall, caroling, baking gingerbread and visiting loved ones. And if you are anything like me, it also means curling up on the couch to watch the best of the worst Christmas movies ever made. I'm talking about made-for-TV Christmas movies - Lifetime's got a marathon of 'em that they call "Fa-la-la-la-Lifetime" and Hallmark's been making their own for a few years now, too. You can find a barrage of celebrities that you might have mistaken for dead or else, onto bigger and better things, right there parading across your TV screen. Here's a list of my top favorite made-for-television Christmas tales of all time (and I had to go way back for some of these). Twelve in all for each day of Christmas!
Mrs. Santa Claus - Angela Lansbury...and she sings! Lansbury stars as the titular wife of the big guy. Tired of feeling invisible, she rebels and takes the sleigh out for a spin...and lands in Manhattan. Talk about culture shock. And did I mention she sings?
Comfort and Joy - You may have to ignore the rather anti-feminist values in this drama (what's that you say? Women can have both a career and a family? This isn't the early 1950s?) but once you leap that hurdle, you'll be able to marvel at the "serious acting" skills of Jo Polniaczek. I mean Nancy McKeon. Here, she plays a career woman with bickering, divorced parents, an inattentive boyfriend and no time for a family of her own. Then, one night she wakes up from a car accident to get a glimpse into what her life might be like with a husband and kids. Comfort and Joy also stars Dixie Carter and several actors who will evoke a "hey, it's that guy!" response.
A Recipe for a Perfect Christmas - I admit to loving this movie because I find Christine Baranski incredibly sexy, despite the fact that she's 25 years my senior. Add to mix Carly Pope (who you may remember from an old show called Popular) who is also drop dead gorgeous and I am so there. In this tale, Pope plays J.J. (it stands for "Janis Joplin," I kid you not) Jenner, a food critic for a New York magazine that has just been given the chance of a lifetime - but only if she can get her editorial in by deadline. To stir things up, in walks her estranged mother, Lee (Baranski) who has just been laid off from her job as a singer on a cruise ship. Lee is the "fun one," claims J.J., while she has to be the serious one. To get her mother out of her hair so she can get some work done, J.J. makes a deal with a local chef who wants his restaurant reviewed. The best part of this movie comes when Lee sings karaoke to Pat Benetar's "Shadows of the Night." I tried to find a clip of that, but couldn't locate one.
The Christmas Box - John-Boy Walton stars alongside Annette O'Toole and Maureen O'Hara (yes, she's still alive!) in this adaptation of the Richard Paul Evans book of the same name. John-Boy and his family move in to work as caretakers for an elderly widow (O'Hara) in her Victorian mansion. Initially, the widow seems crotchety to John-Boy, irritating him with questions and observations on his family. But she bonds with his daughter and his wife, who back him in a corner over staying. Meanwhile, he has recurring dreams that cause him to reexamine his life. In the end, he discovers secrets about the widow's past that help him to understand her questions and intentions. Maureen O'Hara came out of retirement to play Mrs. Parkin, the widow who brings a little family closer together. Caution: this story is so saccharine, it may make you gag - but if you stay with it, it's actually an absorbing mystery and O'Hara does an excellent job with her multi-dimensional character.
The Night They Saved Christmas - This 1984 Jaclyn Smith vehicle also stars Art Carney as Santa Claus. Smith's family is residing in the Arctic while her husband, who works with an oil company, is there on business. The "business" is blasting for oil (in the Arctic?) and their drilling threatens Santa's North Pole village. So what does Santa do? He pays a visit to Smith and takes her, along with her three children, to his village in hopes of engaging them to help stop the blasting. Of course it's a happy ending, but the important part is that, long before The Santa Clause, this T.V. movie explained all the inner-workings of the elves' workshop and how exactly St. Nick makes it to all those houses in one night (hint: radical 1980's technology). As cheesy as you'd imagine an 80's Christmas movie could be, but The Night They Saved Christmas is a television classic.
A Mom For Christmas - Does anyone else remember that this existed? Made in 1990, it's actually based on a book for middle school children called A Mom by Magic by Barbara Dillon. In the book and the movie, a little girl who has been motherless since she was a baby makes a wish and brings to life a department store mannequin. The mannequin, of course, doesn't know what it means to be human and the child must teach her. Olivia Newton-John stars as the plastic mommy and she apparently wrote two songs just for this movie.
One Special Night - James Garner and Julie Andrews should be in more movies together. If these were ranked in any kind of "best to worst" order, One Special Night would win the "best" position hands down. Despite being incredibly sappy, someone did a pretty stellar casting job. The story spans the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas and begins with Garner visiting his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife at a hospice on Thanksgiving, only to find that no taxis will pick him up during the developing snowstorm. Andrews plays a widow so well-known to the nurses and patients at the same hospice, the place her husband died, that she still pays them visits bearing gift baskets. Andrews offers Garner a ride home in her tiny sports car - but of course, they get stuck in the snow and have to spend the night in a vacant cabin. While it's not exactly love at first sight, they eventually warm up to each other. There are complications and a twist reminiscent of classic movies like An Affair To Remember - but everything comes together in the end.
A Smokey Mountain Christmas - It's Dolly Parton, ya'll. Yes, it's snowing hillbilly clichés, but that's okay because it's got Dolly...singing...with orphans. There's a witch, too.
A Diva's Christmas Carol - In this re-telling of the Dickens classic, Vanessa Williams stars as basically the same character she plays on Ugly Betty - only here she's a pop star named Ebony Scrooge who earns the title of "diva" with her fiery temper and narcissism. Among the ghosts that pay her a visit is Kathy Griffin as the Ghost of Christmas Past (amusingly flippant as ever, as only she can be) and John Taylor of the 80's musical group Duran Duran is the Ghost of Christmas Present. Very schlocky and incredibly cheeseball, this movie is more guilty pleasure than an extra helping of pumpkin pie.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus - Just this year, CBS aired an over-the-top re-telling of the same story - animated this time - but the 1991 TV version is worth far more of your time. It tells the story of a little girl in the 1800's named Virginia who has her Christmas spirit shaken by a bratty classmate who informs her that Santa is a fiction. When she asks her father (played by Richard Thomas/John-Boy Walton - yes, apparently he's in a lot of these "heart-warmers"), he tells her she should write to the newspaper and ask the editor if, in fact, there is a Santa Claus. Way to buck the question, John-Boy. Of course she does and the letter becomes one of the most famous to-the-editor letters in history. Charles Bronson co-stars as the New York Sun editor who thoughtfully answered Virginia's letter.
The Christmas Choir - This Hallmark original first aired in 2007 and won itself four Emmys. Based on a true story (aren't they all?), The Christmas Choir follows a young man whose girlfriend has just dumped him for being a workaholic and whose life isn't taking the path he expected. One night, he hears a man singing in a bar and is stirred to start a choir for homeless men. It's one of those stories where one person's belief in others results in the unexpected. The choir meets with some difficulty along the way - at one point they try to sing in a subway to raise money, only to find out that (shocking!) they need a permit to perform there. Rhea Perlman co-stars as a prickly nun named Sister Agatha who doesn't believe these men are going to turn their lives around to sing in a choir.
The Christmas Star -Ed Asner and Fred Gwynne (yes, Herman Munster) star in this late 1980's family comedy about an con man who manages to escape from prison by disguising himself as Santa. It's Christmastime and although cops are scouring the town looking for him, there are Santas everywhere - ringing the bells for Salvation Army donations, posing for pictures at local malls, etc. - so he manages to escape. Two kids who believe in Santa are enlisted to help him recover loot he once left behind, but of course, they end up winning his heart instead. That said, kids really shouldn't be allowed to play with escaped convicts. Especially if they dress up like old Kris Kringle.