Learned Gets a Handel on Christmas
If you've grown tired of the fluffy, commercial Christmas movies which are about snow, Santa and romance then a trip back to 1980 and "A Christmas Without Snow" could be in order. As the name suggests there is no snow in this movie and to be honest whilst it focuses on various characters in a San Francisco choir as they prepare to put on a Christmas concert it is in fact not really Christmassy. Instead we have a microcosm of activity from newly divorced Zoe struggling to find work having just moved to the city through to racial issues, crisis of faith and also illness. All of these events, these trials and tribulations have nothing to do with Christmas except that it has a touch of community spirit which helps these people deal with their problems and as such has an almost old fashioned Christmas moral to it.
Having just moved to San Francisco recently divorcee Zoe Jensen (Michael Learned - Touched by Love) finds it hard going as not only does she struggle to find work and something to fill her evenings but she is also missing her son who is staying with her mother whilst she tries to build some form of stability. It is through having nothing to do that she joins a church choir who under the leadership of new choir master Ephraim Adams (John Houseman) are preparing to perform Handel's "Messiah" at a Christmas concert. But as the concert gets closer a series of issues put it in jeopardy.
Now to be totally honest if you watch "A Christmas Without Snow" as a Christmas movie there is a huge chance you will be disappointed because this is as far away as you can get from modern mainstream Christmas movies. In fact other than the choir rehearsing Handel's "Messiah" for a Christmas concert and a couple of scenes where people go Christmas shopping it barely mentions Christmas. But then thanks to the storyline it has some depth and Christmas spirit as the members of the choir end up being there for each other through various trials and tribulations.
And that is what "A Christmas Without Snow" is really all about this community of people in the choir and the various issues which occur during the lead up to the Christmas concert. The main focus of which is Zoe who having recently become divorced has moved to San Francisco for a new start whilst her son lives with her mother as she tries to build some form of stability. We watch as she struggles to get a job, deal with her mother wanting her to move back home, her son wanting the family back together whilst also dealing with limited money and minor romantic issues.
But that is just one of the numerous threads as we also have jealousy amongst the singers, racism, the Reverend of the church having a crisis of faith whilst his son starts to resent religion as it dominates his father's life and so much more. It does have an almost episodic feel as one issue follows another with the choir rehearsals being the glue which links it all together and whilst it initially feels dull by the time you come use to this different sort of Christmas movie it grows on you even if the outcome is inevitable.
What is nice is that whilst there is a certain amount of drama there is equally plenty of humour which interweaves itself mainly due to the cold way that new choir leader Ephraim Adams drills the choir. It breaks things up nicely so that where one minute you have the drama of Wendell being arrested on suspicion of vandalising the church organ you then have the humour of the police band being picked up by the electric organ they purchase to replace the damaged one. This isn't laugh out loud humour but the mild sort of things which will bring a smile to your face.
But here is the thing, whilst "A Christmas Without Snow" grows on you it is not only very dated both in style and attitude it is also quite shallow. What I mean is that whilst the issues which arise are real they all seem to be dealt with in a far too easy manner. The Reverend has a crisis of faith yet a prayer and a bit of community spirit helps bring him around, a child runs away the next minute he shows up. It feels like a case that the potential to be something remarkable and deep is there but time and budget limitations forced it to be a little too simplistic.
Simplistic is unfortunately true of much of the acting with only John Houseman really making an impression as Ephraim Adams because whilst quite cold he also has the pick of the humour. The rest of the cast which also stars Michael Learned, James Cromwell and Ruth Nelson all seem to be on autopilot delivering just enough to make their characters work but not enough to make them come to life. Maybe the limitations of "A Christmas Without Snow" being a TV movie caused this but it unfortunately is often a cause of it feeling dull.
Of course there is the musical element to this with the choir rehearsing for a Christmas Concert. Now I am sure if you enjoy choral singing and in particular Handel's "Messiah" then the various musical scenes will be enjoyable as well as entertaining but if you're not a fan the choral singing and solos it can become a little too much.
What this all boils down to is that "A Christmas Without Snow" is a very different sort of Christmas movie and for some calling it a Christmas movie would be a push. It does feel very dated and a little dull but whilst it is at times slow going the various trials and tribulations of the choir do become entertaining even if the outcome to all this is seriously obvious.