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Stop Dreaming and Start Watching : A Catalogue of Film Classics From Christmases Past

December 16, 1990|JOE SALTZMAN

For many of us, some of the happiest Christmas memories happened at the movies. Video makes it possible to relive those golden moments: Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," Edmund Gwenn showing us there really is a Santa Claus, Jimmy Stewart standing by a tree discovering the gift of life, Jean Shepherd reminding us what it was like to be young the night before Christmas, Dickens' Scrooge come to life.

Crosby introduced "White Christmas" in one of the best holiday musicals ever created on film: Holiday Inn (MCA tape and laser Encore Edition video disc). Irving Berlin crowded the 1942 black-and-white film with one song after another, each memorializing a holiday. Crosby and Fred Astaire (or both) sing (or dance to) them and it's a sure-fire way to start the holidays right.

Crosby sang the Yuletide classic again in White Christmas, a 1954 Berlin songfest with Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen (Paramount tape and disc). A tiresome plot almost swamps the typically merry Berlin score-the patter-song "Sisters," still another version of "Blue Skies" and the indestructible title song.

Miracle on 34th Street (Playhouse Home Video tape and disc) is the 1947 classic featuring Gwenn as Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who just may be the real thing. The way he goes about convincing everyone (especially the little girl who steals the film, Natalie Wood) that he's the great Mr. Claus is great fun. Skip the colorized version; everyone looks anemic, like early Polaroid snapshots left out in the sun.

For most of us, even a colorized Gwenn is Santa, not the imposter in Santa Claus: The Movie (Media Entertainment tape; Image Entertainment laser video disc). Not that David Huddleston doesn't look the part (his first sleigh ride at the beginning is impressive). But even Dudley Moore as a fallen elf and John Lithgow, as an unscrupulous toy manufacturer, can't save the picture.

A Christmas Story (MGM/UA tape and disc) is one of the funniest films ever made. Humorist Jean Shepherd's reminiscences about growing up in the late 1940s revolves around young Shepherd's gift of his dreams for Christmas: A Red Ryder Carbine Action 2OO-Shot Lightning Loader Range Model Air Rifle (a BB gun). Peter Billingsley plays Shepherd as a boy and Shepherd himself narrates. Pure joy.

Many memorable films have special Christmas celebrations. Few film endings will match the emotion of the Christmas ending in Frank Capra's 1946 heartwarmer It's a Wonderful Life (Be careful. The tape is in the public domain and many of the video prints are terrible. Recommended: Republic tape and disc, or the special edition on Criterion laser disc). Stewart is the small-town businessman facing ruin on Christmas Eve. The ending is pure movie magic. Skip the Hal Roach Studio's "colorized" print. It makes everyone look embalmed on a series of tinted postcards.

The Christmas sequence in Meet Me in St. Louis (MGM/UA tape and disc) is the highlight of this lovely family musical. When Judy Garland sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien, there isn't a dry eye in the house.

Rosalind Russell storms through an unforgettable Christmas celebration in Auntie Mame (Warner tape and dasc), and the musical featuring Lucille Ball (Mame, Warner tape and disc) has Jerry Herman's underrated song "We Need a Little Christmas," a neat populist summary of why everyone loves the season.

When it comes to Christmas stories, none will ever match Dickens' A Christmas Carol and you can now own two of the best versions ever on film. The 1951 black-and-white film starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge is the 86-minute British version that sets the standard (United). Surprisingly good is the 1938 production featuring Reginald Owen as Scrooge (MGM/UA tape and disc).

Scrooge, a happy musical adaptation, was made in 1970 with an all-star cast including Albert Finney out- rageously good in the title role and no less than Alec Guinness as Marley's Ghost (CBS/Fox tape and disc).

Other films with a Yuletide theme:

Christmas Lilies of the Field (MPI Home Video tape), a made-for-television sequel to the original "Lilies of the Field," featuring Billy Dee Williams in Sidney Poitier's Academy Award-winning role.

A Christmas to Remember (Vestron tape) is another made-for-TV movie with a superior cast including Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint and Joanne Woodward. It's the story of a city boy who joins his grandparents in the country for the holiday and learns the real meaning of Christmas.

For TV fans, there's Christmas Television Classics (Shokus tape). This video compilation features four 30-minute, black-and-white TV shows from the 1950s, including "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (Rick sings "Christmas Song") and "Make Room for Daddy" (Danny Thomas is stranded out of town on Christmas Eve).

If you're tired of Hollywood's interpretation of the Christmas message, you might try The Christmas Collection (Vanguard Video, two hours) of five films, including "Glory in the Highest," a drama about the birth of Christ, and "God's Christmas Gift" in which a girl finds the true meaning of Christmas.

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