21 November 2012

Spotlight on Holiday Classics: The Thanksgiving Treasure

Year: 1973
Network: CBS
Stars: Lisa Lucas, Jason Robards, Mildred Natwick, Barnard Hughes, Franny Michel

This was the first of three sequels to the Emmy Award winning The House Without a Christmas Tree, which first aired in 1972. The story is set in the fall of 1947 where young Addie Mills, now eleven years old, is "horse crazy," initially in ecstasy over an autographed photograph of Roy Rogers and Trigger ("Smartest horse in the movies!" declares the photo) she brings home from the post office. She hitches a ride with her dad when he embarks on errands and meets crabby Walter Rhenquist, a reclusive farmer who, in the past, asked her father to dig a pond on his property. When the pond didn't hold water, Rhenquist didn't finish paying James Mills, and the two men have been feuding ever since.

Addie cannot help but remember Rhenquist when her class has a lesson about Thanksgiving and making strangers into friends, so, when she can't talk her friend Cora Sue into inviting Rhenquist to her aunt's home for dinner, she devises a way to secrete food away and bring the old codger a Thanksgiving dinner. From this small beginning a friendship is born, set alight by a pinto horse named Treasure.

This is a "slice of life" nostalgic story on the level of Capote's A Christmas Memory. Filmed cheaply on videotape like other specials of the era, it nevertheless evokes strong memories of the past, from the radio play the schoolchildren put on to the traditional Thanksgiving mural at the back of the classroom, the old-fashioned Thanksgiving meal side dishes one rarely sees today (creamed onions, chestnut-flavored dressing) to the vintage clothing, and even the grimy, tattered interior of Rhenquist's house, which reflects his depression since the death of his wife, and the rural Canadian countryside that stands in for 1940s Nebraska so perfectly that you feel you are back in the postwar era. Indeed, one of these scenes features Addie and Cora Sue trading corny old riddles during a bike ride as real 1940s kids might have done.

The key word is "real." The nice thing about the protagonists is they do not dissolve into sloppy platitudes, even at the end of the story: Addie's gruff father shows his "softer side" only in tentative bits, a thawing Rhenquist fights his growing affection for Addie, Addie herself is neither a "girly girl" who overdoses on pink or a brainless idiot; a fine scholar, she's also an often prickly heroine who is bossy and who criticizes her best friend with words like "dodo." The one sweet character, Grandma Mills, still has the backbone to take the brunt of her son's exasperation with his daughter and is not a person who allows herself to be bullied. She is also tender but honest: in a moving scene, she talks to Addie about her husband's death and how she nearly gave in to despair, until someone read her the following passage: "When people leave on a boat, everybody says 'There they go,' but on the other side of the horizon, they're saying 'Here they come.'" She concludes, "I thought it must be something like that, and then I could let your grandpa go." Cora Sue is more shy and introverted than Addie, a perfect Diana Barry to Addie's Anne Shirley.

Only The House Without A Christmas Tree is available on DVD, but you can find this special on VHS tape under the title The Holiday Treasure (so that CBS could sell it with the Christmas videos). Both are well worth your time if you like thoughtful drama.

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