Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Celebrating Two Christmas “Charlie”s

December is the month classic TV fans devote to their favorite Christmas episodes. This year, my list surpassed the 50-show mark.

Admittedly there are a few I watch more out of tradition than any genuine desire to see them again. But most of these Yuletide stories remain sources of great comfort and joy, and some resonate more deeply with each passing year.

Two of my favorites share a unique common denominator – both introduce new characters named Charlie, played by Academy Award-winning actors.

“A Very Merry Christmas,” from the first season of The Donna Reed Show, aired on Christmas Eve of 1958. 

It opens with Donna wondering what happened to Christmas, after watching daughter Mary fret over whether she should buy a gift for one of her friends, and hearing son Jeff complain that he’s probably going to lose money on Christmas because he spent more on presents than he’s received.

“Was Christmas always like this?” she asks Alex. “Christmas should be warm, and friendly, and peaceful.”

Later, she becomes concerned that nothing seems to be planned for the children’s ward of the hospital where Alex works. There’s a party every year, but no one knows who puts it together. Eventually she discovers that the hospital’s janitor, Charlie (played by legendary silent film comedian Buster Keaton) makes sure the kids always have a happy Christmas. He buys a tree, supplies the gifts, and finds someone to play Santa Claus. 

Donna is so moved by his selflessness that she joins in the preparations, and even convinces Charlie to play Santa this year, since he’s really been doing it for decades. 

At a time when so many people think everything they say and do is worthy of being preserved for posterity with a selfie, this episode features a man content to toil in obscurity, helping others without any recognition or fanfare.

The final scene in the children’s ward is one of those perfect warm and moving classic TV Christmas moments. And hearing Donna lament that Christmas isn’t what it used to be (in 1958!) is reassuring in a way, as it tells us that such complaints did not originate in our more cynical and secular times. She had to go searching for a sign of true Christmas, and she found it – we can too.

Our other Christmas Charlie appears in “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa,” a season two episode of The Partridge Family from 1971. 

Returning from a holiday concert in Vegas, the family bus breaks down in a ghost town, where they are greeted by its only resident. This Charlie (played by Dean Jagger) welcomes them into his sparse lodgings. 

 When the kids worry about missing Christmas, he tells them a story about the town back in its heyday, which triggers a delightful western fantasy sequence with everyone in the cast playing different roles. 

There are many things to love about this show, but it’s the framing scenes with Charlie that stick with you after it’s over.

Jagger creates such an evocative character in a few moments of screen time that it’s easy to imagine the lonely life he’s lived, and wonder about how fate brought him to such a desolate place. 

When the Partridges return to serenade Charlie with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” his wordless, tear-filled reaction packs an emotional wallop, especially after such a whimsical story. 

On that note, I wish all of you the very happiest of holidays. Whether this is your first visit to Comfort TV or you are a regular reader, thank you for stopping by. If you'd like, please share your favorite Christmas episodes in the comments.


  1. That Donna Reed episode has a funny running joke. The mailman, delivery boy, etc. would offer Donna Christmas greetings, probably hoping for a nice gift, or a nice tip, and instead getting a gift-wrapped fruitcake from her. Upon being told it's fruitcake, they'd all say thank you rather unenthusiastically. Since I've never liked fruitcake myself, I can relate to their reactions, though I hope I'd try to be more enthusiastic about the gift.

  2. Um, how would a Christmas-oriented episode of "Charlie's Angels" have been like?