By Ken Tucker
Updated December 06, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

The title phrase of this TV movie has become such a cliche that many people probably don’t even know its origin. And that’s what Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus is all about — the 1897 letter from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlan to the editor of the New York Sun inquiring as to the existence of Santa.

According to this telling of the legend, Virginia is the sweet daughter of a poor, rough-and-tumble Irish immigrant, played with startling conviction by the eternally sweet-faced Richard Thomas. Ed Asner plays the Sun’s editor; even before he’s identified, we know Asner’s Edward P. Mitchell is an editor because he stalks over to a quaking reporter and bellows, ”That last paragraph stinks — cut it!”

The movie’s real hero, however, is a reporter, played by Charles Bronson. Bronson’s Frank P. Church drinks too much and doesn’t hand in his stories on time because his wife and child died recently; he’s all but washed up at the paper until Asner’s Mitch-ell gives him Virginia’s letter to answer. Church’s earnest, fulsomely wrought editorial in response gives this movie its happy ending. Yes, Virginia‘s corniness would be a lot easier to enjoy if there weren’t so many scenes in which Virginia and her father are humiliated for being poor by what seems like everyone in New York, and I don’t think anyone wants to see Asner playing a turn-of-the-century Lou Grant. Otherwise, this is perfectly innocuous holiday entertainment. B-

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