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December 21, 1986|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

It's the season of holly, of blazing yule logs, peace and love on earth, eggnog and other Christmas spirits. And, as always, you can settle in a comfortable chaos of gift-wrappings and pine needles before the TV set, and sample a banquet of movie sugarplums. (Also, unhappily, a few sugar dumbs and sour prunes.)

Sunday brings two mammoth musicals, from unlikely sources. Yentl (Channel 5 at 6 p.m.), written, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's story of a Jewish girl hungry for Talmudic knowledge, and forced into transvestism to pursue it. Does Barbra make Singer's tale sing? Occasionally, though the film sometimes drowns in its own grandeur.

So, too, does John Huston's movie of the Meehan-Strouse-Charnin Broadway smash, Annie (NBC Sunday at 7 p.m.), a likable but elephantine amusement, which, once upon a time, came from Harold Gray's comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie."

A new item--The Christmas Gift (CBS Sunday at 9 p.m.), directed by Michael Pressman, with John Denver and Jane Kaczmarek (illustrated on the cover)--sounds a bit like a yuletide "Brigadoon."

Brooke Shields pops up to lead "three desperate men on a deadly underwater hunt for sunken treasure" in the repeat of Wet Gold (ABC Sunday at 9 p.m.).

You'll probably have a better time with Fred Astaire, leading the notably un- desperate Audrey Hepburn through Paris to George Gershwin's music in Stanley Donen's fashionably effervescent Funny Face (Channel 11 Sunday at 9 p.m.).

Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life screens in its original black-and-white version Sunday at 10 p.m. on Channel 28.

Another new entry, Christmas Eve (NBC Monday at 9 p.m.) brings us an "eccentric millionairess" (Loretta Young), a "dignified servant" (Trevor Howard) and scheming relatives.

Also on Monday: Blake Edwards' freewheeling, pie-fighting tribute to Laurel and Hardy, The Great Race (Channel 13 at 8 p.m.), with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood. Holiday Inn (Channel 5 at 8 p.m.) offers Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, a lot of amiable hoofer-vs.-crooner jibes and a raft of Irving Berlin songs (including Bing's first "White Christmas").

Tuesday brings George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, in another try at Dickens' A Christmas Carol (CBS at 9 p.m.), directed by Clive Donner. Also: Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint and Joanne Woodward in the warm Glendon Swarthout-derived Depression tale, A Christmas to Remember (Channel 11 at 9 p.m.).

On Wednesday--Christmas Eve--Jaclyn Smith, Art Carney and director Jackie Cooper face the unthinkable on The Night They Saved Christmas (ABC at 9 p.m.): perfidious oil entrepreneurs, trying to drill right through Santa's toyshop. A more implausible night's entry--but a superb one--is director Elia Kazan and writer William Inge's seething, poignant drama of Kansas pre-Depression sexual repression, Splendor in the Grass (Channel 13 at 8 p.m.). This film, with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood as teen-agers driven crazy by the conflicting pulls of desire, society, morality and family, is an American masterpiece.

On Christmas Thursday, you can bumble through a papier-mache adaptation of Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland (Channel 5 at 8 p.m.) with Annette Funicello. Or you can croon and pray along with Father Bing Crosby, in Frank Tashlin's bright, thin Say One for Me (Channel 11 at 9 p.m.). (Of course, there are also gifts to unwrap.)

Friday evening brings two more masterpieces. Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (Channel 5 at 8 p.m.), is a romantic comedy, set in a Budapest department store, of such seamless elegance, warmth and wit (courtesy of writer Samson Raphaelson) that it almost makes the screen glow. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are the bickering co-workers who really love each other, Frank Morgan their distracted boss, and the mood is Illyrian.

Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (Channel 13 Friday at 8 p.m.) is a 1955 juvenile delinquent drama that touches tragedy. Today, the movie has passed into myth--with its views of Griffith Observatory on Eternity's edge, the fatal chicken run and the scraps of happiness in a deserted mansion. The stars: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo.

On Saturday, there's a neglected MGM musical, Ziegfeld Follies (Channel 9 at 7 p.m.). This Arthur Freed house revue--mostly directed by Vincente Minnelli--is variable. But there are great scenes: Astaire's "Limehouse Blues," Judy Garland's wicked "The Interview," Red Skelton's awesomely hilarious "Guzzler's Gin," and the full version of Astaire and Gene Kelly's only extended screen duet.

The week's evening cable picks: Colonel Redl (Bravo Sunday at 5 & 10); Modern Times (Z Sunday at 5:30); It's a Wonderful Life (Nickelodeon Sunday at 6 & 11, USA Thursday at 8); Rio Bravo (Movie Channel Sunday at 6:30); Murder (Bravo Monday at 8); Wild Strawberries (Bravo Monday at 10); Brazil (Showtime Monday at 11:45, Z Saturday at 9); Manhattan (Movie Channel Tuesday at 9); A Christmas Carol (Z Wednesday at 7:30); My Fair Lady (Disney Channel Thursday at 9); The Elephant Man (SelecTV Thursday at 9, Showtime Thursday at 10, Cinemax Friday at 6); The Lodger (Bravo Friday at 10); Les Comperes (Bravo Saturday at 5).

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