Movie history of both a triumphant and embarrassing sort was made last weekend when Universal allowed THE DARK CRYSTAL, the extraordinary puppet spectacle created by Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Brian Froud, to open cold. Some mysteriously wrongheaded apprehension evidently prompted the distributor to forbid press screenings. That makes two wrong guesses of the same kind for Universal within the year, the first one coming in the case of Fred Schepisi's "Barbarosa." A vast audience happened to be waiting for "The Dark Crystal" anyway: It got off to a faster start than any of the competing products lined up for the overstocked opening day of December 17. Perhaps it's worth remembering that Universal also passed up the chance to distribute "Time Bandits" last year. At any rate, the company has now inherited a quartet of formidable 1982 releases from Lord Lew Grade's defunct production organization: "On Golden Pond," "Barbarosa," "Sophie's Choice" and "Dark Crystal."

The American Film Institute Theater's new roster of programs for January will highlight the Glenn Miller Orchestra in a peerlessly nostalgic early-Forties double-bill of ORCHESTRA WIVES and SUN VALLEY SERENADE.

Half a dozen films by JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE -- "Bob Le Flambeur" double-billed with his first feature "Le Silence de La Mer," plus "Second Breath," "Un Flic," "Le Samourai" and "Les Enfants Terribles" -- will be revived in a brief series starting Wednesday, and a cycle of three TRILOGIES begins January 12: Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali," "Aparajito" and "The World of Apu," Andrzej Wajda's "A Generation," "Kanal" and "Ashes and Diamonds" and Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light" and "The Silence."

A fresh edition of CULT MOVIES resumes January 3 with showings of "Sylvia Scarlett" and the It-Came-from-Schlock-Fifties-Hollywood bill of "I Married a Monster from Outer Space" and "Sex Kittens Go to College." A film-and-lecture series called "Obsessions: Psychoanalysis and Film," will occupy four Monday evenings beginning Jan. 10 with discussions of "Citizen Kane," "Taxi Driver," "Hour of the Wolf" and "The Story of Adele H." led by faculty members of the Baltimore-District of Columbia Institute for Psychoanalysis. Registration information for this attraction may be obtained by calling AFI at 828-4055.

One of the problem releases of 1982, a film version of I'M DANCING AS FAST AS I CAN, starring Jill Clayburgh, and stalled after a few lackluster test engagements, will get its first Washington exposure on January 16 and 19.

The Australian feature THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, considered for the Christmas season here, is being reserved for a late- January debut at several area theaters. A rousing and scenically breathtaking romance about ranch life in the 1880s, the film should recommend itself strongly to families plus the substantial local following won by an earlier Australian import, Gillian Armstrong's "My Brilliant Career."

Speaking of Armstrong, her second feature, STARSTRUCK, a musical comedy-drama about teenagers aspiring to pop-recording fame and fortune, has been booked at the Key in late January. Currently reviving the old reliables, "King of Hearts" and "Harold and Maude," the Key will become the city location for the holiday reissue of Disney's PETER PAN, to start on Christmas Day.