Richard J. Leskosky | The holiday gift of films

Richard J. Leskosky | The holiday gift of films

This year, The News-Gazette's Best Christmas Movies Ever mini-series at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign features a stronger helping of fantasy than usual with a British film retelling a story that has been a classic for almost 200 years. Tickets for the shows this week are $6, or you can see all five for $24. The N-G has stuffed your cinema Christmas stocking with the following goodies:

'The Bishop's Wife' (1947), 7 p.m. Monday

An Anglican bishop (David Niven) in New York loses sight of his original mission while trying to raise funds for a new cathedral and begins to neglect his daughter and his wife, Julia (Loretta Young). He prays for guidance (for the cathedral), and the answer comes in the form of debonair angel Dudley (Cary Grant). Everyone loves Dudley, from family servants to wealthy but arrogant society matrons, even the bishop's old non-believer friend, Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley), and Julia. And that becomes a problem for the bishop. Dudley (spoiler alert!) sorts everything out by Christmas Eve, of course.

Though he keeps the tone light, director Henry Koster (who also directed "Harvey") makes the film surprisingly interesting visually not only by composing his images in depth but also by moving the camera around the set almost as though it were another character.

'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947), 7 p.m. Tuesday

When Macy's event planner Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) hires elderly Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to play Santa, she doesn't realize he really believes he is Santa. To her dismay, Kris is soon directing parents to other department stores to find presents. Doris and her daughter Susan (a very young Natalie Wood), pragmatists both, refuse to believe in fantasies, but Kris wins them over eventually. When a mean-spirited psychologist commits Kris to a mental hospital, Doris' neighbor and suitor, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne), defends him in court but can only free him by proving that he really is Santa Claus.

Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, Valentine Davies won for Best Story (no longer a category today) and writer-director George Seaton won for Best Screenplay; the film also received a Best Picture nomination. The studio, by contract, previewed the film in April for the owners of Macy's and Gimbel's (separately, of course) with the understanding it would be released only if both approved. They did and it opened in June and stayed in theaters well past Christmas.

'Meet Me in St. Louis' (1944), 7 p.m. Wednesday

"Meet Me in St. Louis" (based on Sally Benson's autobiographical "New Yorker" stories and subsequent 1942 novel) takes a fond look back at the era of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), although there's very little of the fair itself here (and nothing at all of the Summer Olympic games held at the same time, which St. Louis wrested away from Chicago).

Throughout the year leading up to the fair, the Smith family's main concerns revolve around the two oldest daughters, Mary (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland), actively looking for husbands and their father's (Leon Ames) decision to move the family to New York City (thereby jeopardizing his daughters' immediate romantic plans). Garland sings several songs, several of which became staples at her later live concerts. "The Trolley Song" earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Song, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has become a general Christmas favorite. The film also received Oscar nominations for Screenplay, Color Cinematography and Scoring for a Musical.

Director Vincente Minnelli (born Lester Minnelli in Chicago), who had become famous directing Broadway musicals, began directing films only the year before. Though he worked in various genres, his forte remained musicals. The year after he directed Garland in this film, they married.

As an evocation of idealized Midwestern middle class family life, "Meet Me in St. Louis" has no equal.

'A Christmas Carol' (1951), 7 p.m. Thursday

Charles Dickens' immortal story of a mean-spirited miser whose life changes on Christmas Eve when a series of spirits show him past, present and future Christmases has been adapted to film and television more often than any other literary work. This rendering (originally entitled "Scrooge" in Great Britain), produced and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, is the definitive film version of the tale and the main character.Justifying its eponymous British title, it fills in more of Scrooge's backstory than Dickens did and even introduces a new character in his past.

Alastair Sim was at the height of his film career at this time, but the film also features a myriad of British character actors who will be immediately recognizable from other classic films and even television series. In particular, look for Patrick McNee (a 1960s icon playing intelligence agent Steed in the British adventure series "The Avengers" — no relation to the Marvel films) as the young Jacob Marley.

'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946), 7 p.m. Friday and 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday

George Bailey (James Stewart) always hoped to get away from his small hometown, Bedford Falls, but his family's Building and Loan company, its opposition to greedy banker and slumlord Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and his own love for his wife, Mary (Donna Reed), kept him there. When his uncle (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces the company's assets at Christmas and George faces jail, in despair he contemplates suicide, but Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) materializes to show him how the town would have turned out if he had never been born.

Producer-director Frank Capra collaborated with husband-and-wife screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who had written comic mysteries in the Thin Man series and several Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddie musicals) on the script, and it's very much in style of the pre-war socially aware comedies that had established his reputation.

The film did not do well at the box office in its initial release, but it nonetheless earned five Oscar nominations: Picture, Actor (Stewart), Director (Capra), Sound and Film Editing. It won a Technical Achievement Award for its new techniques for making artificial snow.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net. He will be on hand at the Virginia Theatre after the Saturday evening screening to discuss "It's a Wonderful Life" and answer questions about it or any of the other films in the series.

Topics (1):Film
-