Less a heartwarmer than a brainchiller, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" aspires to a place among holiday perennials like "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life." What it demands of viewers is not just susceptibility but an all-forgiving tolerance. The two-hour syndicated film, at 8 tonight on Channel 5, makes for a very docile wassail.
Mickey Rooney, every inch Mickey Rooney, plays a beloved old grandpa who kicks off a few days before Christmas, arriving in a dry-ice heaven with the complaint that he had promised his grandson a trip to New York so the kid could see how the wicked city is transformed each year by Christmas spirit (it is???). Because he was a police detective in Manhattan for 45 years and they are trying to retrieve a wayward angel roaming the city, the Powers That Really Be agree to let gramps return to earth for a couple more days.
The film should have been called "The Horn Blows at Midnight Clear." Frank Capra it ain't.
Gramps and his adoring grandson sneak off and discover New York to be down in its very dumpy dumps. But by the end of the film this pair, like the title character of "Annie," have delighted everyone into festive camaraderie, mainly by just telling them all to cheer up. In real life, they would have been trampled to death at Bloomingdale's.
Viewers who crave "wholesome family entertainment," especially at this time of year, may be willing to overlook the derivative and unimaginative manipulations attempted by writer-producers George Schenck and Frank Cardea and director Peter H. Hunt, but the padding and plodding drag the whimsy down to droning speed before very long. Such diversions as a food fight in the window of Rumpelmayer's don't help, and the film's patronizing attitude toward the elderly is eclipsed only by its cloddish attitude toward the mentally ill. A scene supposedly set at Bellevue is offensive.
Among those appearing are a number of screen veterans: Elisha Cook on line at the pearly gates; Lloyd Nolan in a brief appearance as Monsignor Donoghue (no threat at all to Barry Fitzgerald); Lurene Tuttle as a lonely woman; and Jerry Maren and Billy Curtis, who back in a better Hollywood were prominent citizens of Munchkinland in "The Wizard of Oz."
Rooney does his cuddly coot act for the umpteenth time in "Midnight" and there's nothing fresh about it. He is upstaged handily by a Mickey Rooney-to-be, Scott Grimes as grandson Robbie. The only really good moments of the film are the prologue and the epilogue, when Grimes speaks directly to the camera. These scenes are so well shot, they look like ads, and Grimes has a bright, flashy presence.
Each December brings new attempted uplifters from TV producers hoping they've come up with something that can be played year after year -- usually, as in this case, some redeployment of cliche's that purports to reaffirm the "real meaning" of Christmas and decry its commercialization, in between commercials, of course. The producers of this picture may not know that the "it" that came upon a midnight clear has a certain religious significance; maybe they appropriated the title because they thought it was catchy.