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TV COMMENTARY : Home Videos With the Christmas Spirit

December 24, 1987|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Yes, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a wonderful movie, but there may be a few people who'd just as soon skip Frank Capra's Christmas classic this year. Too much wonderfulness can be exhausting.

The story of how good old George Bailey (James Stewart) is rescued from a suicidal leap by a lovable angel named Clarence has become as familiar as " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Johnny Carson joked the other night that the film has been rerun so many times, Clarence finally got sick of it and pushed George off the bridge himself.

Viewers reasonably want wholesome, family entertainment when the holidays roll around and "Wonderful Life" obviously fills that bill, as do such other inescapable perennials as "Miracle on 34th Street." But on a less beaten path, you can find plenty of other Hollywood films to satisfy seasonal cravings.

Like these, all available on home video:

-- "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," just released on cassette for the first time, may seem a little grim for the holidays. But this warming, moving story of tenement life near the turn of the century includes a memorable sequence depicting a poverty Christmas. Today's children of plenty can get a value-fix from it.

The movie includes two magical, memorable, Oscar-winning performances: Peggy Ann Garner as a sensitive girl growing up in a hard, cold environment; and James Dunn as her loving, drinking, pipe-dreaming father. One of the greatest films of the '40s and a true emotional adventure. (Playhouse Video)

-- "The Lemon Drop Kid," often mistakenly scheduled by local TV stations during spring or summer months, is a Christmas movie despite its title. Bob Hope, in one of his final first-rate movie roles (a last best Hope), plays a shiftless Damon Runyon schlemiel who sets up a phony old-folks' home to pay off his gambling debts.

Hope and Marilyn Maxwell introduced a new Christmas standard, "Silver Bells," in this picture, and the supporting cast includes William Frawley, just about the time he joined the cast of TV's "I Love Lucy" as Fred Mertz. Often hilarious, and often at least cheery. (RCA-Columbia)

-- "Scrooge" is probably nobody's favorite version of "A Christmas Carol," but this lavish musical adaptation makes a pleasant change from the more familiar editions rerun each year. Albert Finney offers another demonstration of his versatility in the title role, and the numbers include the rousing "Thank You Very Much." You're welcome. (CBS-Fox)

-- "Meet Me in St. Louis" actually covers four seasons in the life of a Midwestern family, but when winter rolls around, so does the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," sung by Judy Garland to Margaret O'Brien. The moment is so indelible that it has become folklore, and the whole movie is melodic and festive. (MGM-UA)

-- "The Three Caballeros" seems Christmasy because parts of it used to appear every year on Walt Disney's annual Christmas show. Donald Duck travels to South America and roars through a series of adventures with new-found pal Jose Carioca, a lecherous parrot. The omnibus movie also includes a Christmas story and a fable about a penguin who migrates south.

No relation to the lousy Chevy Chase picture "The Three Amigos," "Three Caballeros" has spectacular color, high spirits and trailblazing sequences combining live action and animation. (Disney)

-- "Holiday Inn," Irving Berlin's celebration of all the holidays and the songs he wrote for them, is most famous for the fact that in it, Bing Crosby sings "White Christmas" for the first time. He sings it to Marjorie Reynolds, who later played Peg on the TV series "The Life of Riley."

Otherwise, the picture is a parade of highlights, most of them danced by Fred Astaire or sung by Bing. The story is moderately dumb, but you can always fast-forward to the songs. (MCA)

-- "Hans Christian Andersen" is a fanciful version of the famous storyteller's life, a big-budget Samuel Goldwyn production that established Danny Kaye as an ally of kids the world over. The Frank Loesser songs include "Wonderful Copenhagen," and thanks to home video, one can speed past the arduous ballet numbers. (Embassy)

-- "Night and Day" may not seem even remotely like a Christmas movie, but for some reason, every year that I can remember, WGN in Chicago has shown it during the holiday season. Now it seems to belong somehow. A bogus biography of composer Cole Porter, the film's all-star procession of production numbers includes Mary Martin singing her one-time trademark "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

While the Porter score contains no Christmas songs, as such, there are a few happy snowy scenes. And for them, Max Steiner wrote a brief musical theme that has Christmas written all over it. (Key)

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