A lovely Christmas tale that should be better known
I stumbled upon this episode on YouTube while looking for episodes of Ray Milland's "Markham" series. I had no idea he'd done a sitcom. When I realized that Beverly Washburn was in this episode, I stuck with it. She was a remarkable child actress who made everything she was in memorable. I've seen her in the Lone Ranger movie (1956); an episode of "Dragnet" ("The Big Pair"); and an episode of "Science Fiction Theatre" ("The Strange People at Pecos," which I've also reviewed here).
In "Christmas Story," she plays Susie, an unruly orphan who is entrusted to Professor McNulty (Milland) and his wife (Phyllis Avery) on Christmas Eve so she can experience Christmas with a family (never mind that the McNultys have no children). Susie is quite devious and, when she's alone with her doll, Amy, she reveals a plan to fool everybody into thinking she's changed, all so she can ruin Christmas at the orphanage by proving to the other kids that Santa Claus is a fake. Without giving anything away, something unexpected happens and leads to a very different, heartwarming outcome.
With lesser talents in charge, this story could have been contrived and treacly, but everything is centered here around the fact that Susie is a very bright girl who happens to feel thoroughly unloved and has nothing but distrust for the grown-up world. She's a wounded soul who brings some emotional honesty into the fabric of the piece. In Washburn's hands, the character is completely believable and the later shift is quite touching. Without her, I don't know if this could have worked quite as well. It helps, of course, that she's surrounded by old Hollywood hands like Milland, Lloyd Corrigan, Raymond Greenleaf, Madge Blake, and, in a witty turn as a department store Santa, Nestor Paiva.
I wish this episode had been given proper recognition and gotten more TV play over the years. It should have been revived as a Christmas classic the way so many other sitcom Christmas episodes were. I wish I'd seen this when I was growing up. Has this ever come out on DVD? I've seen several Christmas-themed box sets devoted to TV classics but none had this episode. If you're reading this review I hope you'll look this up on YouTube and see for yourself.
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