NO MATTER THAT the department stores have been decked since October -- for some people, it's just not Christmas till they've seen "It's a Wonderful Life." Or "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Or even "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians."
There's no place like home for the holidays, and 'tis the season -- and certainly the era -- of video reunions, when the whole family gathers round the cheery glow of the TV set.
Certain movies (and a handful of perennial television shows) have made the transition from mere entertainment to holiday classic. Classic status requires a hard-to-define something to sustain and entertain us through all those Christmases past, present and future. It's not necessary to have Santa and his reindeer, snow-laden evergreens and all that jingle bell schlock. The Christmas classic mostly needs that human, heart-tugging quality, and some element of closeness -- on the screen, in front of it, or both.
So, here's our wish list of a few perennial cinematic sugarplums, chestnuts (and turkeys) for Christmas cheers and tears. Some will be playing at local repertory film houses (noted where possible), most of them on television in the coming weeks -- and many on that VCR you got for Christmas.
THE HOLIDAY HALL OF FAME
It's a Wonderful Life gets more wonderful every time you see it. One of the most unabashedly sentimental pictures ever, with a multiple-hanky ending, Frank Capra's 1946 inspirational, cautionary tale follows a small-town good guy whose guardian angel gives him a chance to see how rotten life would be if he had never been born. Unneccesarily remade for TV in 1977 as "It Happened One Christmas" with Marlo Thomas.
Holiday Inn. Irving Berlin's score features some of his best tunes for this 1942 film, in which Bing Crosby introduced "White Christmas." And Fred Astaire's "Say It With Firecrackers" is one of his all-time best. At AFI December 13-14.
White Christmas is the movie spun off from the hit song. This 1954 remake of "Holiday Inn" with Crosby and Danny Kaye is not as good, but still has its pleasures, such as Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen (and then Bing and Danny in drag) singing "Sisters." Just released on home video, and already a best-seller. Also at AFI December 14-15.
Miracle on 34th Street Enduring 1947 classic with Edmund Gwenn as Macy's St. Nick who goes on trial to prove to unbelieving Natalie Wood he's the real Santa. With Thelma Ritter and Maureen O'Hara. Remade for TV in 1973 with Sebastian Cabot. Original shows at AFI December 15-16.
A Christmas Carol. Take your pick of the many film and animated versions (including one that stars mice) of Dickens' evergreen fable, but most bets seem to be on the faithful 1951 Alastair Sim version (at AFI December 15-16). The 1938 Hollywood version, with Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart, can be seen at AFI December 13-14.
The Nutcracker. Mikhail Baryshnikov's made-for-public- television version of Tchaikovsky's ballet, also featuring Gelsey Kirkland, has become an annual staple.
Handel's Messiah is broadcast live each year from a variety of places, but it's also available on Thorn/EMI Video, with Christopher Hogwood conducting The Academy of Ancient Music and Choir of Westminster Abbey in a 1983 performance.
Scrooge, a big-budget, high corn-content musical with Albert Finney and Alec Guinness, flopped at the box office but found a new life on the small screen. At AFI December 17-18.
Auntie Mame. Not technically a Christmas movie, but if you can keep from crying during the scene where the servants give Rosalind Russell their paychecks for Christmas, your name is probably Scrooge.
A Christmas Story. Bob Clark's very silly pre-"Porky's" movie is based on Jean Shepherd's midwestern memoir of growing up in the '40s and longing for a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin play little Ralphie's beleaguered parents.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, an inept 1964 cheapie, has been called one of the worst movies of any kind ever made. It's notable mostly because a green (literally) Pia Zadora made her movie debut here as a little Martian girl. Santa is kidnapped by Martians, who force him to make toys.
Gremlins is set in suburban Christmastime by screenwriter Christopher Columbus, and in the riot by the little monsters, director Joe Dante came up with one of the best spoofs of the commercialization of the season.
The Christmas That Almost Wasn't. Santa Claus gets hijacked in this Italian-U.S. flop. For some reason, this stinker keeps coming back to shopping mall cinemas on Saturday mornings, as does Santa Claus, a 1959 Mexican exploitation flick that teams Santa with Merlin the Magician to fight the devil. Definitely not to be confused with the Salkinds' new $50- million St. Nick flick, "Santa Claus: The Movie."
Silent Night, Deadly Night caused a commotion, with its poster of Santa coming down the chimney with a hatchet. Regrettable.
Home for the Holidays is a made-for-TV chiller about a deranged killer terrorizing a family reunion, with Sally Field and Walter Brennan.
Wait, we're just getting warmed up! Turn your antenna toward the North Pole -- here are more movies to watch for:
The Bishop's Wife with Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young, Monty Woolley and Elsa Lanchester (AFI December 13 and 16). The Holly and the Ivy (1953) with Ralph Richardson as the preacher who gathers his family to find he's made them unhappy; Tenth Avenue Angel, with Margaret O'Brien and Angela Lansbury; The Lemon Drop Kid with Bob Hope as Santa; and The Light at Heart, with Monty Woolley as same; Christmas Mountain sports Slim Pickens as a cowboy who helps a widow and her young 'uns in a big blizzard.
Also Christmas in Connecticut (1945) with Barbara Stanwyck as a recipe writer who invites a war hero to Christmas dinner to impress her boss, played by Sydney Greenstreet (AFI December 14-15); I'll Be Seeing You, (1944) a wartime weeper wherein Joseph Cotten falls in love on Christmas furlough with convicted killer Ginger Rogers, with Shirley Temple doing her Shirley Temple stuff; Babes in Toyland, the Disney- ized version of Victor Herbert's "March of the Wooden Soldiers," with Annette Funicello; and O'Henry's Full House, a film adaptation of four O'Henry stories, including the ultimate Christmas tearjerker, "The Gift of the Magi."
There were merry Christmas scenes in: The Bells of St. Mary's; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; The Man Who Came to Dinner; Holiday Affair; Since You Went Away; Young at Heart and Meet Me in St. Louis (at AFI December 17-18).
And blue Christmases were seen in: Things to Come; The Apartment; Meet John Doe; The Glenn Miller Story; Christmas Holiday; The Christmas Tree; Christmas Miracle in Caufield, USA,; Ordinary People and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.