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Christmas Classic Movies Revisited

Movies, Dalton Ross and Julie Chen
CBS/The Early Show
Christmas isn't just a day, it's a frame of mind.

That's a line from "Miracle on 34th Street," one of the great Christmas movies that can help get us in a holiday mood. For many of us, the holiday wouldn't be the same without them.

On The Early Show Tuesday, Entertainment Weekly senior writer Dalton Ross added to the holiday spirit with a look at some of the best Hollywood has offered; he counts these among his personal favorites:

"IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE" 1946

Frank Capra's magical tale of a man who's allowed to see what his family, friends and community would have been like if he'd never been born. A flop when it came out, repeated television airings built its following over the years and it became one of the most beloved holiday films. With Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore as a despicable villain, it's a little dark, but always moving, even when you've seen it dozens of times.

George Bailey has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel, but never had the opportunity, because he wanted to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents him from doing so is George's modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George's Uncle Billy loses the business' $8,000 while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally enabling Potter to take over the town. Thinking his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George, with the promise of earning his wings. He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. In a nightmarish vision in which the Potter-controlled town is plunged into in sex and sin, those George loves are dead, ruined, or miserable. He realizes that he has touched many people in a positive way and that his life has truly been a wonderful one.

Ross says this one is indeed a classic. You can't make it through without crying. It's a mad dash through Bedford Falls. Jimmy Stewart does a great job selling himself as the wide-eyed youngster and the jaded old man. It's very traditional, but also dark. He really questions the choices he made in his life.

Side note: It's said that Jim Henson named Muppets Bert and Ernie after the policeman and taxi driver in this film.

"MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET" 1947

The charming tale of a department store Santa who believes he really is Kris Kringle -- and he just may be. Jolly Edmund Gwenn helps thaw the practical hearts of a young Natalie Wood and her single mom, Maureen O'Hara, in a tale that kicks off with the Macy's parade, just like the actual holiday season. And the courtroom battle to establish Kris' sanity and the real identity of Santa Claus is a treat.

At the Macy's Department Store Thanksgiving Day parade, the actor playing Santa is discovered to be drunk by a whiskered old man. Doris Walker, the no-nonsense special events director, persuades the old man to take his place. The old man proves to be a sensation and is quickly recruited to be the store Santa at the main Macy's outlet. While he is successful, Ms. Walker learns that he calls himself Kris Kringle and he claims to be the actual Santa Claus. Despite reassurances by Kringle's doctor that he is harmless, Doris still has misgivings, especially when she has cynically trained herself, and especially her daughter, Susan, to reject all notions of belief and fantasy. And yet people, especially Susan, begin to notice there is something special about Kris and his determination to advance the true spirit of Christmas amid the rampant commercialism around him, and succeeding in improbable ways. When a raucous conflict with the store's cruelly incompetent psychologist erupts, Kris finds himself held at Bellevue where, in despair, he deliberates fails a mental examination to ensure his commitment. All seems lost until Doris' friend, attorney Fred Gaily, reassure Kris of his worth and agrees to represent him in the fight to secure his release. To achieve that, Fred arranges a formal hearing in which he argues that Kris is sane because he is in fact Santa Claus. What ensues is a bizarre hearing in which people's beliefs are reexamined and put to the test, but even so, it's going to take a miracle for Kris to win.

Ross says he loves the whole concept of putting Santa on trial, as well as exploring the whole question of whether he actually is Santa. This film is very old-school, but very timeless. It brings up the question of when you believe in Santa and, more importantly, when did you stop believing?

"A CHRISTMAS STORY" 1983

Hilarious and sweet, this picture of Christmas and family life in 1950s small-town America is hard to beat. The infamous "leg lamp," the kid who sticks his tongue to a frozen lamppost, the pink bunny pajamas, the terrifying trip to a department store Santa, and Ralphie's vivid imagination will make anybody but a true Grinch remember the fun of the holidays. It's radio personality Jean Shepherd's storytelling at its best, with a terrific cast. It's truly a tribute to the original, traditional, one hundred percent, red-blooded, two-fisted, all-American Christmas.

Ralphie, a young boy growing up in the '40's, dreams of owning a Red Rider BB gun. He sets out to persuade the world this is the perfect gift. But along the way, he runs into opposition from his parents, his teacher, and even good 'ole Santa himself.

Ross says this movie teaches you a lot of lessons, such as not to pee on Santa's lap, not to try to stick your tongue onto a freezing flag pole, and how to deal with bullies. This is the "It's a Wonderful Life" of a new generation. And you can't avoid it! There is a TBS 24-hour marathon every year.

Side note: Last year, a museum was opened in the Cleveland house used in the film, and it sells leg-shaped lamps and other memorabilia seen in the movie.


To see photos of the museum, click here.
Another side note: Shepherd has a cameo as the man in the line for Santa, and does the adult narration for the voice of Ralphie, and is the voice of Santa in the film.

"HOME ALONE" 1990

Stars Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Catherine O'Hara. Kevin McAllister, 8, is accidentally left behind while his family rushes to the airport to go to France for a Christmas vacation. Kevin spends his first day having fun in his house. Then, Kevin learns that crooks Mav and Harry (The Wet Bandits) are trying to rob his house. Kevin fends for himself and protects his house from the thieves, by setting traps everywhere. Meanwhile, Kevin's mother discovers that they left Kevin in Chicago and tries to go back to Chicago while the other members of the family stay in France.

Ross says this is the sort of the movie that shows you what the holidays are really like: Everything goes wrong in some fashion and, as in real life, the characters have to adapt. And of course, the young Macaulay Culkin is cute as a button!

"A YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS" 1974

Stars Mickey Rooney, Shirley Booth. Mrs. Claus tells us about the time Santa had a bad cold and decided to take a vacation from Christmas. Two of his elves, Jingle Bells and Jangle Bells, decided to go out (with Vixen) to find children to persuade Santa that the Christmas spirit is still important to everybody else. But they have to get past Heat Miser and Snow Miser before they land in Southtown, USA, where it never snows for Christmas. The Miser Brothers can't agree to let it snow in Southtown. But Mrs. Santa knows their mom -- Mother Nature.

Ross points out that this one is a little more underground. It's out on DVD. It aired on network TV for 15 years. It has a big cult following. A lot of people look at Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a classic, but this is a great movie. It's not quite as well-known, and features a great song and dance.