Weekly Video/DVD Picks

A Christmas Story (1983)

Recently released in a special-edition DVD, A Christmas Story can now be seen at home in wide-screen format. Special features include radio recordings by radio humorist Jean Shepherd, on whose stories the film is based.

Based on Shepherd's childhood memoirs about growing up in the Midwest in the 1940s, A Christmas Story is as heartwarming and nostalgic as its title suggests. Like many Christmas-themed movies, it offers no insight into the true meaning of Christmas, but it brims with insight into the human condition — particularly the condition of boys at Christmas time.

The tale shows us Christmas through the eyes of Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), whose consuming desire is for “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range-model air rifle.”

To this end he brings to bear all the intellectual prowess of a 9-year-old with one scheme after another to ensure that he will find one under the Christmas tree. Yet at every turn he meets the classic adult dismissal: “You'll shoot your eye out.”

With much affectionate humor, A Christmas Story recalls vividly what it was like to be a kid at Christmas in a more innocent era, when boys were liable to get their mouths washed out with soap for cussing.

A minor holiday classic.

Content advisory: Some crude language and mild profanity.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

A Vatican film list honoree in the category “Values,” Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is perhaps the quintessential Christ-mas classic, notwithstanding its popular religious confusion about human beings becoming angels when they die.

Often remembered as sentimental holiday-themed “Capra-corn” celebrating such platitudes as “count your blessings” and “everyone can make a difference,” Wonderful Life is in fact leavened by darker themes and a more rigorous moral about self-sacrifice.

It's a Wonderful Life is in part about an oppressive relationship between a cruel rich man and a sympathetic, less well-to-do family man that results in supernatural intervention. But where A Christmas Carol was about the redemption of Scrooge, Wonderful Life is about its Bob Cratchitt, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), and his heroic virtue and consistently selfless choices, his dark night of the soul and his ultimate vindication.

Significantly, the dark alternate reality George Bailey experiences in the third act is not the result of something going fundamentally wrong with the world but the way things would have been had someone not prevented them. (“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”) Rich and satisfying, the film earns its feelgood ending.

Content advisory: Some tense family scenes; contemplation of suicide; brief inebriation.

Holiday Inn (1942)

Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire sing and dance their way through this slight but pleasant holiday-themed romantic comedy-musical, which casts the two entertainers as romantic rivals vying for the same woman — twice. Numerous Irving Berlin songs include the classic “White Christmas,” sung twice by Crosby (12 years before the less-satisfying film of that name). Astaire's fancy footwork, meanwhile, includes a literally explosive Independence Day tap-dance with a pocketful of firecrackers that go off when thrown to the ground.

True to type, Crosby plays nice and Astaire shallow: Jim (Crosby) loves his dance partner and wants to marry her and settle down, but Ted (Astaire) wants to dance with her and steals her away from Jim. Heartbroken, Jim retires to the Connecticut farm where he had hoped to settle down. He soon finds that show business is in his blood and hits on the novel idea of turning his farmhouse into a dinner theater that operates only on holidays.

Soon Jim has a new dance partner — and romantic interest — in Marjorie Reynolds. Naturally, that's when Ted shows up, having lost the last woman to a Texas millionaire. From there the story goes by the numbers, careful never to get in the way of big productions for every holiday on the calendar, especially Christmas.

Content advisory: Romantic complications; comic inebriation; a musical number involving blackface.