Every year at this time there's an "It's a Wonderful Life" overdose on television.
One would think the 1945 Frank Capra-James Stewart classic was the only Christmas film in existence.Part of that has to do with "It's a Wonderful Life" having fallen into public domain, meaning the film's copyright was allowed to expire. Anyone who can get a copy of the film can show it for free - and a wide array of TV stations and video distributors do just that since any revenue it generates is pure profit.
That's kind of ironic, when you think about the film's themes.
Sometimes, because "It's a Wonderful Life" has become something of a joke - overexposed as it is each Christmas - we tend to forget just how great the movie is. But if you take it in one sitting, watching the film from beginning to end, I defy you not to be moved by it.
For my money, it remains the best of the seasonal offerings.
But there are, of course, an awful lot of Christmas movies and TV programs available on video, and each year letters and phone calls come pouring in, asking which are best.
So, here's a thumbnail Christmas list of videos you can rent or purchase, with apologies to anyone whose favorite was omitted:
It's a Wonderful Life - * * * * - Despondent James Stewart sees what life would have been like had he never been born. (1945) (The TV remake, "It Happened One Christmas," is not on video.)
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - There are quite a number of video versions of Dickens' classic Christmas tale available: A Christmas Carol * * * * (1951), with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, is by far the best. A Christmas Carol * * * (1938), with Reginald Owen, is also quite good. Scrooge * * * (1970), the musical version with Albert Finney, is enjoyable family fun. Scrooge * * * (1938), with Sir Seymour Hicks, is good. Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol * * * (1963), an animated version, boasts warm humor and surprisingly good songs. Mickey's Christmas Carol * * * (1983), delightful Disney short, with Scrooge McDuck (natch), Mickey, Donald, etc. A Christmas Carol * * 1/2 (1952), Fredric March is good in this "Shower of Stars" TV production, though the tape transfer isn't great (60 minutes). Rich Little's Christmas Carol * * (1984), amusing comic rendition with Little as everyone from W.C. Fields (Scrooge) to Richard Nixon (Marley's Ghost). Scrooged -turkey- (1988), the disappointing modern-day satire with Bill Murray; too vulgar for family viewing. (The 1984 TV movie, with George C. Scott, is not on video.)
Miracle on 34th Street - * * * * - Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar as Santa Claus in this charmer. Great family fare. (1947) (The color TV remake is not on video.)
A Christmas Story - * * * * - A young boy in the '40s wants a Red Ryder rifle for Christmas. Knowing, funny look at life from the viewpoint of childhood. (1983)
Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland - Two versions of the operetta are on video: March of the Wooden Soldiers * * * * (1934) is by far the best, a hilarious Laurel & Hardy vehicle. Babes in Toyland * * (1961) is a glossy, color Disney film with Annette Funicello, which suffers in comparison. (The 1986 TV version is not on video.)
The Shop Around the Corner - * * * * - James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are squabbling co-workers who don't know they are secretly, romantically corresponding with each other in this terrific Ernst Lubitsch film. (1940)
Holiday Inn - * * * * - Terrific musical-comedy, with great Irving Berlin songs ("White Christmas" won an Oscar) and the teaming of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. (1942)
The Man Who Came to Dinner - * * * 1/2 - Hilarious comedy about a pompous radio star who takes over a household during the holidays. Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante. (1941)
The Christmas Wife - * * * 1/2 - Jason Robards and Julie Harris are fine in this TV drama about a lonely man who "hires" a wife for the holidays. (1988)
The Bishop's Wife - * * * 1/2 - Cary Grant is an angel helping a bishop (David Niven) and his wife (Loretta Young) get their priorities straight in this wonderful little comedy. (1947)
White Christmas - * * * - More than a passing resemblance to "Holiday Inn," but good Berlin songs and sprightly performances by Crosby and Danny Kaye make it fun. (1954)
One Magic Christmas - * * * - Offbeat, but affecting Disney story of young girl conspiring with an angel to help Mom (Mary Steenburgen) find meaning in Christmas. A bit stark at times, but good. (1985.)
Holiday Affair - * * * - Nice romantic comedy has Janet Leigh as a widowed mother courted by two very different men (Robert Mitchum, Wendell Corey). (1949)
Christmas in Connecticut - * * * - Funny domestic farce has Barbara Stanwyck forced to find a family to keep up a fabricated lifestyle when the boss and a war hero come to Christmas dinner. (1945)
Prancer - * * * - Very good story of young girl who believes a wounded reindeer she's found is Santa's Prancer. (1989)
The Night They Saved Christmas - * * * - Art Carney's lively Santa makes this TV movie a delight, trying to save his toy factory. (1984)
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - * * * - Warm TV film about a social worker (Loretta Swit) staging a Christmas play with delinquent kids. (1978)
Santa Claus - * * * - Overblown, but enjoyable story of Santa loses steam when it switches to comic story of an elf (Dudley Moore) defecting to an evil toymaker. (1985)
A Hobo's Christmas - * * 1/2 - Lightweight, but enjoyable TV drama of elderly transient Barnard Hughes returning home to the family he deserted 20 years earlier. Filmed in Salt Lake City. (1987)
The Man in the Santa Claus Suit - * * - Fred Astaire plays seven roles in this OK "Love Boat"-style episodic TV comedy. (1978)
Ernest Saves Christmas - * * - Concentration on characters other than pitchman Ernest P. Worrell (Jim Varney) saves this one. (1988)
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians - A classic bad movie; has to be seen to be believed. (1964)
Amahl and the Night Visitors - * * * - This version of Menotti's operetta was partially shot in the Holy Land; Teresa Stratas is featured.
The Honeymooners/I Love Lucy Christmas Present- * * * - The "Lucy" show is mostly excerpts from other episodes; the"Honeymooners" has Gleason & Carney playing Santa.
The Abbott & Costello Christmas Show - * * - A 1952 "Colgate Comedy Hour"; some amusing moments for Bud & Lou fans, but it's unrehearsed and skits go on too long.
(See also "Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol" above.)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas - * * * * - Classic Dr. Seuss adapted by Chuck Jones and narrated in rhyme by Boris Karloff.
A Charlie Brown Christmas - * * * * - The first animated "Peanuts" cartoon is the best; Charlie Brown mounts a Christmas play.
The Small One - * * * 1/2 - Disney theatrical short shows the nativity from the viewpoint of a young boy and his beloved donkey.
A Disney Christmas Gift - * * * - Compilation of excerpts from Disney cartoons, wrapped in holiday trappings. Not as good as seeing them complete, but fun.
Frosty the Snowman - * * * - The perennial TV cartoon is a delight for kids, with Jimmy Durante narrating and Jackie Vernon doing Frosty's voice.
Babar and Father Christmas - * * * - Leisurely paced episode of the cartoon series based on Jean de Brunhoff's stories.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus - * * * - Nicely told story of how Santa came to be.
B.C.: A Special Christmas - * * * - Nice spinoff of the "B.C." comic strip as Peter and Wiley try to cash in on the holiday spirit.
The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas - * * * - Cute story of Ted E. Bear (voice of Tommy Smothers) who'd rather celebrate Christmas than hibernate.
The Trolls and the Christmas Express - * * 1/2 - OK nonsense for kids about nasty trolls trying to strand Santa at the North Pole.
Yogi's First Christmas - * * - For young ones and fans of Hanna-Barbera characters, as Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and Augie Doggie get together for the holidays.
The Care Bears Nutcracker Suite - * 1/2 - Even my younger children find this one too saccharine as the Care Bears save Toyland.