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VIDEO DISCOVERIES

It's a Wonderful List of Movies Filled With the Holiday Spirit

December 19, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH

Let's get this out of the way at the top. When it comes to Christmas movies, "It's a Wonderful Life" shines like a beckoning star to all those wise men and women trekking to the video store for Yuletide inspiration.

There's the original black-and-white version, the Ted Turner-tampered colorized version, and the rare all-nude version, reportedly director Frank Capra's favorite. Right, just kidding.

Anyway, as just about everybody knows, the 1946 film is remarkable, one of the most purely satisfying products to emerge from Hollywood's golden days. It's an almost perfect holiday excursion, heartfelt enough to connect with the magnanimous impulses of Christmas and with a fable-like patina that has you happily pardoning its obviousness.

What "It's a Wonderful Life" is really about is tradition and unimpeachable virtues. Capra always envisioned an idealized world, and this classic may be his most optimistically utopian.

Of course, good vibes abound in just about all the movies celebrating the season. A child's need for wonder wins out in the 1947 version of "Miracle on 34th Street," as beautiful (and tiny) Natalie Wood comes to believe in the enigmatic Edmund Gwenn, a nice old guy who thinks he's Santa, and just may be. Big gulps of sugar come with this one, but at least profane commercialism gets lumps of coal and switches in the sassy pricing war scenes between Macy's and Gimbel's.

Bing Crosby is almost too good to be true in the Leo McCarey-directed Father O'Malley films. Choose from "The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945) or "Going My Way" (1944), they're both about the same in the uplift factor. Crosby is more interesting in "Holiday Inn" (1942, and featuring "White Christmas" and other Irving Berlin songs), where he sings while Fred Astaire dances.

He's also the No. 1 guy in "White Christmas" (1954), the draggiest of the Crosby holiday vehicles. Even the usually manic Danny Kaye is reduced to a kind of nagging Man Friday. There are some good tunes, though (Berlin was in on this one, too).

Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" has had a handful of incarnations over the years. The best are the first one--made in 1938 and starring Reginald Owen as an especially brittle miser--and the 1951 remake, with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Albert Finney hammed his way through the 1970 musical "Scrooge," which can be a pleasant alternative.

Fans of dependable Barbara Stanwyck may appreciate "Christmas in Connecticut." In this 1945 release, she plays a classy and, of course, spunky magazine writer forced to entertain a soldier and her boss during the holidays.

John Wayne gets uncharacteristically sentimental in "Three Godfathers," John Ford's 1948 movie about a trio of good-hearted desperadoes who adopt a wilderness baby. Bringing the child through the nasty wilderness to a warm Christmasy home sets the stage for some ironically amusing acting and glorious Ford shots of Monument Valley.

Turning to more recent films, it's actually best to turn away. Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn't given us much of interest in the past few years. "A Christmas Story," made in 1983, is an exception. Based on Jean Shepherd's recollections of growing up in the '40s, this sardonic movie has its share of bent little takes on the more realistic side of Christmas.

A last bit of advice: stay away from "Scrooged," Bill Murray's 1988 vanity movie. This cynical rehash of the Scrooge legend is as funny as a grimace.

\o7 "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), directed by Frank Capra. 129 minutes. No rating.

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1947), directed by George Seaton. 96 minutes. No rating.

"The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945), directed by Leo McCarey. 126 minutes. No rating.

"Going My Way" (1944), directed by Leo McCarey. 126 minutes. No rating.

"Holiday Inn" (1942), directed by Mark Sandrich. 101 minutes. No rating.

"White Christmas" (1954), directed by Michael Curtiz. 120 minutes. No rating.

"A Christmas Carol" (1938), directed by Edwin L. Marin. 69 minutes. No rating.

"A Christmas Carol" (1951), directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst. 86 minutes. No rating.

"Scrooge" (1970), directed by Ronald Neame. 118 minutes. Rated G.

"Christmas in Connecticut" (1945), directed by Peter Godfrey. 101 minutes. No rating.

"Three Godfathers" (1948), directed by John Ford. 105 minutes. No rating.

"A Christmas Story" (1983), directed by Bob Clark. 98 minutes. Rated G.

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