THIS is the season when film buffs like to deck the tube with boughs of holly, heat up the VCR, and plug in some Christmas spirit - in the form of all-time favorite videos. For me, the best Christmas movies concern some kind of salvation - transcendent forgiveness, the brotherhood of man, redemptive love. Most are also designed for family viewing. And, fortunately many of the best Christmas movies have been released on home video.
So, here I offer my personal list of favorites, drawn from 50 years of moviemaking. Some of them just might light up your holiday season.
For my money, director Frank Capra made the quintessential Christmas picture with ``It's A Wonderful Life'' (Media Home Entertainment & Republic Pictures) in 1946. Yet there's nothing dated about the sentiments of the movie or its message.
The film stars James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and a host of great character actors. Stewart plays George Bailey, a small-town building-and-loan president who rescues his community from the despotism of a rich and spiteful old man (Barrymore). Through no fault of his own, George is nearly brought to bankruptcy, disgrace, and the contemplation of suicide one Christmas Eve, before a slightly befuddled angel named Clarence drops in to show him what Bedford Falls would have been without him.
After recovering from a serious illness, Capra decided to make films that would inspire the depressed hopes of the American public. His best films concern the power of the ordinary man to stand up for good in the face of apparently insurmountable evil and to act creatively for the benefit of his fellow man. With Clarence's help, Bailey sees how his building-and-loan made possible a decent standard of living for the working man and his family, encouraged small business, and kept citizens of weaker stuff than George sane and useful.
Despite charges of sentimentality leveled at it, ``Wonderful Life'' satisfies now, as much as it ever did, a public starved for meaning. Its schmaltz can be forgiven, partly because the film is so well made and partly because at its core lies the assumption of a common-ground of meaning among us all and the steel-tough realities of selfless affection. ``It's a Wonderful Life'' is one of the very few films that actually improves with age.
If one of the great angels from movie history was Henry Travers in ``Wonderful Life,'' another has to be Cary Grant in ``The Bishop's Wife'' (Nelson Entertainment Inc.), made by director Henry Koster in 1947.
Set at the Christmas season, the movie concerns an Episcopal bishop (David Niven) who prays for guidance as he struggles to raise enough money to build a cathedral. But the anxious cleric gets more than he bargained for when an angel named Dudley appears in answer to his prayer.
The bishop has neglected his loving wife and child and his old friends to cultivate the approval of wealthier parishioners. But more than this, he has substituted his own will for that of his Employer. With guidance from on high comes painful self-knowledge and a change of heart.
The film opens with an angel's-eye view of the city and the voices of children caroling. Dudley wanders the city - helping a blind man to cross the street, saving a baby just as its carriage rolls toward traffic, and generally watching over the citizens. As in many a Christmas story, the protagonist must learn to see his blessings before he can be grateful for them, and he must learn gratitude before his peace and joy can be restored to him. With gratitude comes greater love and insight, and with insight comes eloquence. By the end of the film, it's quite clear to us just who's really responsible for the bishop's powerful Christmas sermon.
Charles Dickens's classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge has spawned several excellent films, but perhaps the one that best captures its spirit is Brian Desmond Hurst's 1951 version of ``A Christmas Carol'' (MGM/UA). It stars Alistair Sim as that greedy old reprobate, Scrooge, and the exquisite expressionistic lighting, elegant acting, and scythe-like wit scare and tickle us by turns.
``Mankind was my business - their general welfare was my business,'' the ghost of Jacob Marley tells Scrooge. Marley then warns him of impending visits by three spirits. During his long night of wandering from past to present to future, Scrooge changes. At several points he protests that he is too old to change, but the spirits will accept nothing short of his absolute reclamation.
This film comes closest to Dickens's theme, because it's message of redemption and joy is so unashamedly religious: Scrooge finds his life because he loses the old one; no one is beyond redemption; once a man changes fundamentally his life becomes meaningful.
Even charming fluff like George Seaton's 1947 ``Miracle on 34th Street'' (Playhouse-CBS/Fox) links the Christmas spirit with a change of heart. The best of all possible Santa Clauses (Edmund Gwenn) converts an ultra-rational department store manager (Maureen O'Hara) and her somber little girl into true believers in the wonder of Christmas.
Among the most charming of Christmas (and childhood) tales is Bob Clark's ``A Christmas Story'' (MGM/UA), from 1983, starring Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin and based on the memoirs of humorist Jean Shepherd, who grew up in the 1940s and wanted nothing in the world so much as a Red Ryder BB gun.
``Christmas in Connecticut'' (MGM/UA) is a classic romantic comedy from 1947 with nothing whatever to say, but this sweet and goofy Barbara Stanwyck vehicle traps characters in their own little deceptions and mocks the commercialization of Christmas and home.
Musicals like Mark Sandrich's ``Holiday Inn'' (MCA), Michael Curtiz's ``White Christmas'' (Paramount), and John Huston's ``Annie'' (RCA/Columbia Pictures) also suit the season's family needs. And, while the action does not revolve around Yuletide, there are Christmas scenes worthy of family viewing in Frank Capra's melodrama ``Meet John Doe'' (Media Home Entertainment) and in the various ``Little Women'' (check out George Cukor's 1933 version on MGM/UA).
There are also a handful of films not recommended for family viewing but well suited to the season. One of the most enchanted Christmas-party sequences in the movies opens Ingmar Bergman's ``Fanny and Alexander'' (Nelson Entertainment Inc.), though this isn't a family film.
Another mature entertainment appropriate for the season is ``Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'' (MCA), based on a Laurens Van Der Post book, directed by Nagisa Oshima, and starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. This 1983 film focuses its action in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, where British soldiers suffer terrible privations, torture, and forced labor. At one point a Japanese sergeant saves the lives of two British soldiers because it is Christmas Eve and he has heard of Father Christmas. One of the British soldiers is executed later for an ``offense,'' but the second, Mr. Lawrence, survives.
After the war, the Japanese sergeant and Mr. Lawrence meet again. This time the sergeant is the prisoner, about to be executed, but Lawrence cannot save him. As the two men talk, forgiveness that transcends culture, past transgressions, and time sweeps through the scene. The last moment of the film blazes with meaning.
Children being cherished and cared for in the teeth of want, neglect, or abuse helps define the Christmas spirit, too. At the end of ``Night of the Hunter'' (MGM/UA), a 1955 film directed by Charles Laughton, two children have escaped the clutches of their evil stepfather.
They find refuge with the tough, benign Mrs. Cooper (Lillian Gish) and her brood of orphans. Laughton's stylized, expressionistic storytelling has stirred to the surface nearly all the fears of troubled childhood, but children are ``man at his strongest,'' Mrs. Cooper says. ``You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas after one of them and then go on in the same old way. Lord, save little children. The wind blows and the rains are cold, yet they abide. They abide, and they endure.''
Only Gish could utter such lines and make them not just work, but glow with meaning - for Christmas, and the rest of the year, too.