It's more than a day or a season. Christmas is a state of mind. To get in the spirit we look at a pair of classics from the '40s, "It's a Wonderful Life" -- one of the best films ever made, regardless of season -- and "Miracle on 34th Street." (Computerized-color versions of both films are reported to be on their way to the video market.)
This week's third offering, "A Christmas Story," is a recently made comedy that may soon rank among the holiday classics. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Kartes, 1946)
A man haunted by a feeling of failure gets a timely assist from a guardian angel when his torment leads him to consider suicide. George Bailey has touched many people in his life, but it takes his angel to make him realize the full impact he has had. Perhaps the favorite work of both legendary director Frank Capra, the name above the title, and Jimmy Stewart, who shines in the lead role. Also starring Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, with Henry Travers as angel Clarence. It's a celebration of small town American values and about the closest thing there is to celluloid perfection. It's a wonderful movie. MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (Magnetic/Fox, 1947)
Kris Kringle takes a job at Macy's department store and sets off a controversy when he claims he really is Santa Claus. He is put on trial for lunacy by the Supreme Court of New York and is tested by an unbelieving girl (young Natalie Wood) who makes a difficult request of him. Ed Gwenn is surely the most convincing screen Santa ever. Also starring Maureen O'Hara and John Payne. A CHRISTMAS STORY (MGM/UA, 1983)
A boy petitions his parents to get him an air rifle for Christmas, but is told that they are too dangerous -- "You'll shoot your eye out." A web of funny comedic bits -- including a boy getting his tongue stuck to a frozen pole, soap in the mouth for bad language and a hilarious Chinese turkey Christmas dinner -- are strung together skillfully by director Bob Clark. Based on the novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepherd. Darren McGavin, in a pleasant departure from type, is fine as the father, and Melinda Dillon ("Absence of Malice") as the mother once again proves that she is one of today's best actresses. Many people feel that children make the best actors and young Peter Billingsley ("Real People") as Ralphie does nothing to dispel that notion.