Setting the mood for the season is the splendid 1984 TV movie version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (CBS Sunday at 8 p.m.), which seems destined to become a holiday classic. George C. Scott won an Emmy nomination for his Scrooge, everybody's favorite miser, and David Warner and Susannah York are the hapless Bob Cratchit and his wife. Clive Donner directed from Roger O. Hirson's script. (Note: Channel 2 is also airing the very fine 1951 British version with Alistair Sim Tuesday at 6 p.m.)
Conan the Barbarian (NBC Sunday at 9 p.m.) revives the heroic epic in all its innocent pleasures on a spectacular scale and with a sophisticated style. Directed and co-written (with Oliver Stone) by John Milius from the character created over 50 years ago by writer Robert E. Howard, it's a classic struggle between good and evil. Virtually an homage to illustrator Frank Frazetta, it stars that Frazetta superman come to life--Arnold Schwarzenegger--who must destroy the evil James Earl Jones. Evoking moments and motifs from De Mille biblicals to camp Maria Montez fantasies to Sergio Leone existentialist westerns, Conan takes itself just seriously enough to be amusing and not so seriously as to be campy.
It's too bad that the Ray Stark remake of the hit French comedy The Toy (ABC Sunday at 9 p.m.) is so relentlessly crass. That's because Richard Pryor is such inspired casting as a journalist who's so hard up he signs on to be the plaything of Louisiana tycoon Jackie Gleason's young son (Scott Schwartz) for one week. As long as the film sticks to the Pryor-Schwartz relationship--the kid is as lonely as he is spoiled--it buzzes along amusingly, but it winds down under the weight of its heavy-handed attempts at satire. Gleason isn't merely a strong-willed tycoon but a monster of Southern-fried nouveau riche vulgarity, a bigot who supports the KKK and a husband who dumps unwanted wives into mental institutions. The film is on firmer ground when it acknowledges that there's a recession on--the time is 1982--and that it's more hurtful to blacks than whites.
Elizabeth Montgomery stars as a woman who awakens from a 20-year coma in Between the Darkness and the Dawn, a new TV movie airing Monday on NBC at 9 p.m.
As might be expected, much movie programming is geared this week to Christmas--the cables seem to be paying homage to Frank Capra, a film maker in keeping with the holiday spirit if ever there was one. Channel 5 gets in the mood with Going My Way on Monday at 7:30 p.m. while Channel 13 counters Monday night at 8 with the classic 1935 George Cukor-directed David Copperfield.
Also in the offing on Channel 5 at 8 p.m. are such sentimental standbys as the fine 1974 TV movie remake of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Wednesday), How Green Was My Valley (Thursday at 7:30 p.m.) and The Shop Around the Corner (Friday). Channel 13 chimes in at 8 with the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Tuesday) and Marlo Thomas' satisfying remake of "It's a Wonderful Life," called It Happened One Christmas (Wednesday).
The Black Stallion (CBS Tuesday at 9 p.m.) is a work of beauty and simplicity that achieves a touching intimacy yet possesses considerable scale. Carroll Ballard directed this stunning adaptation of William Farley's much-loved 1941 novel about a boy (Kelly Reno) who is shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and rescued by a magnificent black horse being transported on the same ship, which is just the beginning of the story's adventures. Teri Garr is Reno's canny mother, and Mickey Rooney scored a career highlight as a veteran horse trainer. Caleb Deschanel contributed the luminous cinematography. A terrific film for everybody.
Don't overlook Stunts (Channel 13 Saturday at 8 p.m.), a rootin,' tootin' exploitation picture that in its rambunctious way is an affecting, sentimental salute to the men and women who risk their lives for the enjoyment of millions. Once again, director Mark Lester displays in full force his unique way of giving rough-and-tumble Americana a sophisticated edge and a certain poignancy. Robert Forster and Fiona Lewis star.
Rocky II (CBS Saturday at 9 p.m.) preserves intact the emotional wallop of the original. The picture is better set up than most sequels because the epic fight between Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who shows sensitivity as well as brawn and anger) demanded a rematch. The film also works because Stallone, who also wrote and directed, knows the terrain--the highs and lows of phenomenal success.
Selected evening cable fare: It's a Wonderful Life (Nickolodeon at 6, Sunday and Wednesday); Norma Rae (Showtime Sunday at 8, Cinemax Tuesday at 10); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (WTBS Monday at 9:50); The Goodbye Girl (Cinemax Tuesday at 8, Showtime Wednesday at 9, Cinemax Saturday at 6, Showtime Saturday at 8); The Bells of St. Mary's (WTBS Tuesday at 9); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (WTBS Wednesday at 8:20); You Can't Take It With You (Cinemax Wednesday at 10:15); The Great Dictator (Disney Thursday at 8:45); A Soldier's Story (ON & SelecTV Thursday at 9); Willie & Phil (WGN Friday at 9:30); Choose Me (Cinemax Friday at 10:15, Z Saturday at 9); Little Lord Fauntleroy (AE Saturday at 7); All Quiet on the Western Front (WOR Saturday at 10:30).