Filmed in Los Angeles and Apple Valley for USA Pictures, Walter Mirisch Prods. and MTE Inc. Executive producer, Walter Mirisch. Co-executive producer, Robert Eisele. Producer, Anthony Santa Croce. Co-producer, J. Michael Riva, Director, Delbert Mann; writer, Eisele, from story by Riva, Julie Moskowitz, Gay Stephens, Eisele; Surrounded by vet moviemakers (notably exec producer Walter Mirisch and director Delbert Mann), singer Natalie Cole nicely survives her full-length dramatic acting debut in a solid Christmas story devoid of Santa Claus trappings but heavy on family spirit.
Cole plays a quietly contained nanny/housekeeper from rural Alabama, working in New York City in 1957. Her chief responsibility is the care of a young white boy (Brian Bonsall) whose showbiz parents (Cecil Hoffman and Dwier Brown) are too preoccupied to give their son any attention in the days before Christmas.
Resentful and emotionally dependent on his nanny, the boy sneaks aboard a train carrying Cole to her ragged roots in backwoods Alabama. Back in New York, the parents think the nanny has kidnapped their son and call in the FBI.
Once in Alabama, the young boy confronts an alien world that includes the nanny’s gritty mother (Marla Gibbs), her embittered, sexy country sister (the miscast, much too citified and sleek-looking Salli Richardson) and the adorable Rae’Ven Kelly, who calls the beloved nanny her aunt.
Dealing with these flavorful character elements — Gibbs adds such texture to her role that you can almost overlook the fact that the character’s a cliche — director Mann brings sun-dappled sentiment to the material.
Successfully working multiple levels of family, Christmas and social content, writer Robert Eisele cleverly twists the key to the movie’s New York/Tobacco Road axis.
Without explicitly making an issue of race, Eisele’s carefully calibrated script subtly dramatizes North-South race relations in 1957, the year that the civil rights movement became empowered.
There’s a certain cautionary mellowness about Cole’s dramatic demeanor that works fine in this instance. (Her first dramatic appearance was as a civil rights educator in the final episode of “I’ll Fly Away.”)
Notable perfs come from Monte Russell and James Pickens Jr., as Cole’s hustling brother and his larcenous buddy, respectively.
Underscoring the work are production values that give a slap of reality to this coming-of-age odyssey, including its burnished period design (Daniel Lomino), sharp lensing (Charles Mills) and ’50s costume design (Greg LaVoi, who provides cabbage-patch dresses and Broadway finery).