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December 20, 1987|Michael Wilmington

Bob Clark's 1983 A Christmas Story (Channel 5 Sunday at 6 p.m.)--in which writer Jean Shepherd recalls when a Red Ryder BB gun really meant something--is already something of a Christmas perennial. It kicks off a holly-strewn eggnoggy week of traditional fare.

Also on Sunday: Sidney Lumet's acidulous romantic comedy, Just Tell Me What You Want (Channel 13 at 6 p.m.) in which Alan King and Ali MacGraw demonstrate that, in their cutthroat Manhattan world, money buys at least a counterfeit of happiness. Springfield Rifle (Channel 13 Sunday at 8 p.m.) is a good, hard-edged Gary Cooper western, directed by Andre DeToth, about a post-Civil War morass of intrigue and betrayal. An American Christmas Carol (Channel 9 Sunday at 8 p.m.) offers Henry Winkler as Scrooge; in this context, Da Fonz ain't no Lionel Barrymore.

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" is a great tear-jerkers--but TV's new The Little Match Girl (Monday NBC at 8 p.m.) sounds suspicious. Instead of the original heroine, dreaming and dying in the snow, the streamlined version is a "homeless child" named "Little Molly" who "brings the gifts of love and reconciliation to a rich and powerful family."

A better bet: Ernst Lubitsch's superb romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (Monday Channel 5 at 8 p.m.). The Samson Raphaelson script, perfection itself, follows the sweetly turbulent romance of two shop clerks--James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan--in turn-of-the-century Budapest. The whole film is Lubitsch at his best: silkily flawless, humane, charming, effervescent, an unalloyed delight.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Wednesday Channel 13 at 8 p.m.) is a tragicomic meditation on the Baker Street duo, in which Billy Wilder shrewdly fills in the spots that Conan Doyle left blank: Holmes' failures, his sex life and the motives for his cocaine habit. Robert Stephens is Sherlock, Colin Blakeley is Watson, and the movie is perhaps Wilder's least cynical and most romantic: a sadly elegant celebration of gaslit sleuthery.

Silliness incarnate rules in The Legend of the Lone Ranger (ABC Thursday at 9 p.m.), a lame 1981 superspectacle in which the masked man and Tonto foil a diabolical plot by the Cavendish Gang to kidnap Ulysses S. Grant and many other historical eminences aboard a Western train.

On Christmas Friday, you can hear Der Bingle sing "White Christmas" and a raft of other Irving Berlin holiday standards in Holiday Inn (Channel 5 at 8 p.m.), accompanied by Fred Astaire, no less.

Saturday brings another great Lubitsch romantic comedy, Heaven Can Wait (Channel 5 at 3 p.m.). This wonderful movie shows us a Don Juan (Don Ameche) reminiscing in hell. It has absolutely no connection with Warren Beatty's 1978 "Heaven Can Wait," a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Channel 9 Saturday at 8 p.m.)--the droll, little celestial jape about a prizefighter who dies before his time and is sent back to Earth to inhabit the body of a murdered industrialist.

Pat and Mike (Channel 28 Saturday at midnight)--with a starchy, upper-crust tennis phenom joining forces with a salty old coach--is close to the best of all the Tracy-Hepburn comedies, with a spry, witty script and nimble direction by the great "Adam's Rib" trio of Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin and George Cukor.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (Saturday Channel 11 at midnight)--with Gene Hackman as a professional bugger who becomes obsessed with a seemingly inconsequential lover's conversation--is a deceptively cool and clever variation on Antonioni's "Blowup" that oozes paranoia and despair. It won Coppola the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Selected evening cable fare: It's a Wonderful Life (Nickelodeon Sunday at 8, USA Thursday at 9); Shoot the Piano Player (Bravo Sunday at 8); Sherlock, Jr. (Z Monday at 7); The Deer Hunter (Z Tuesday at 8); The Color of Money (Showtime Tuesday at 9, Movie Channel Saturday at 7); The Virgin Spring (Bravo Tuesday at 10); Brazil (Showtime Tuesday at 11); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Cinemax Wednesday at 6); The Killing (Z Wednesday at 7:30); The Last Hurrah (Select Thursday at 7); An American in Paris (Z Friday at 7); Hannah and Her Sisters (Select Friday at 9); Beauty and the Beast (Bravo Saturday at 9).

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