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story.lead_photo.caption James Stewart (center) stars as George Bailey, who is reunited with his wife, played by Donna Reed (left center) and their children during the final scene of Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

From as far back as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, which struggled to find its footing in the end-of-the-year glut of late December 1946, predicting the canon of Christmas movie future has never been easy.

Some of today's favorites had to survive a critical drubbing, or a ho-hum box office. Others needed a push from cable TV. And still others just didn't seem like holiday movies, becoming classics almost accidentally thanks to reclassification or cult followings.

The holidays have given us an occasion to dig through the archives to see if critics were on the right side of history when they first reviewed these films, or if they missed an annual tradition in the making.

Here's a sample of several that are available to stream along with excerpts from what New York Times -- and Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette -- critics first thought of them.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Stream it on Amazon.

Frank Capra's classic tear-jerker about Christmas Eve as a dark night of the soul has been a Yuletide standard-bearer for so long that it's easy to forget what a ho-hum reception it got at the time. A best-picture nomination was the sole consolation prize for a film about a small-town family man (James Stewart) that neither critics nor audiences fully embraced until the mid-1970s, when its revival as an annual public-domain television staple commenced. Sentiments like these, from Bosley Crowther's New York Times review, were common:

"Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer's point of view, is the sentimentality of it -- its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra's nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities. And Mr. Capra's 'turkey dinners' philosophy, while emotionally gratifying, doesn't fill the hungry paunch."

• We couldn't find a Democrat review, but searching "wonderful life" in archives did turn up a fun 1947 ad for the Bendix Automatic Washer: "One of the million lucky Bendix owners is a neighbor of yours. So you don't have to take our word for it. Just ask her what a wonderful washing job her Bendix does ... how thrifty it is ... and what a wonderful life it is with all the work of washing done for her automatically."

White Christmas (1954)

Stream it on Netflix; rent it on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

Irving Berlin won an Oscar for the song "White Christmas," but not for the movie White Christmas, which wasn't produced until 12 years after Holiday Inn, the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire musical in which the song first appeared. Christmas was but one of the occasions for mirth in Holiday Inn, but here it is the VistaVision payoff to the team-up of two different song-and-dance acts. Crowther was unimpressed:

"The colors on the big screen are rich and luminous, the images are clear and sharp, and rapid movements are got without blurring -- or very little -- such as sometimes is seen on other large screens. Director Michael Curtiz has made his picture look good. It is too bad that it doesn't hit the eardrums and the funny bone with equal force."

• We couldn't find a Democrat review in the archives. But while searching for "Christmas film," we did find a Dec. 25, 1954, ad -- "Let us develop and print your Christmas film" -- with prices starting at 49 cents at a downtown Little Rock drugstore.

A Christmas Story (1983)

Rent it on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube (or catch today's cable marathon).

Bob Clark's nostalgia-soaked comedy about a put-upon 9-year-old (Peter Billingsley) in the 1940s and his disaster-prone Midwestern family owes its popularity to Turner broadcasting, which turned a modest hit into a phenomenon by airing it relentlessly on TBS and TNT. Cherished details like the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, a triple-dog dare on the schoolyard and the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle were lost on Vincent Canby of the Times at the time:

"There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in A Christmas Story, but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them."

• In the Democrat archives, we found a short capsule review for A Christmas Story, described as a "whimsical, slightly twisted comedy" sandwiched, alphabetically, between Stephen King and well, Stephen King. Between Christine and The Dead Zone.

Gremlins (1984)

Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.

Chaos and malevolence come to a Capra-esque small town in Joe Dante's anarchic comedy about an exotic pet from Chinatown that turns out to be a troublemaking Christmas present. Dante's Looney Tunes-style upending of its wholesome holiday setting pushed its PG rating far enough to help trigger the development of PG-13, and the kiddie-movie violence left the Times' Canby shaken:

"(Dante and the screenwriter Chris Columbus) attack their young audience as mercilessly as the creatures attack the characters. One minute they're fondly recalling Frank Capra's sentimental classic, It's a Wonderful Life, and the next minute they're subjecting this Capraesque Smalltown, U.S.A., to a devastation that makes the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers look benign."

• Eric Harrison of the Democrat wrote back then, "Like the gremlins themselves, the filmmakers present everything in a sense of fun, and the picture if full of sly digs and covert wit." It sounds like he was calling it -- in our best Gizmo -- a "bright light!"

Scrooged (1988)

Rent it on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol had been adapted so many times to heartwarming effect -- as drama, in the Reginald Owen and Alastair Sim standards from 1938 and 1951; as a musical, with Albert Finney in 1970; and with Muppets in 1992 -- that it needed Bill Murray to drop a few coals in the stocking. The film's spiked nog of cynicism and sentimentality wasn't easy for some to swallow, including the Times' Canby:

"As Frank Cross, the ratings-mad program chief of the IBC television network, Mr. Murray's contemporary Scrooge is a joy as long as he's making life miserable for everyone around him. When, finally, Frank sees the error of his ways, the movie succumbs to its heart of jelly."

• The Democrat's Harrison wrote "this film ... though it generates a number of laughs, is at its center mean-spirited and cruel rather than warm and generous." He points out, "Dickens' Scrooge was a hard-hearted, penny-pinching old curmudgeon; Murry's version is, unfortunately, basically an ordinary S.O.B. whose redemption, at times, doesn't seem worth pursuing." Bah humbug, indeed.

Die Hard (1988)

Rent it on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

The question of whether Die Hard is a true Christmas movie, rather than merely the template for the last 30 years of action cinema, has been a perennial debate for a long time now. But in 1988, critics like the Times' Caryn James were mostly coming to terms with its blockbuster excess:

"Partly an interracial buddy movie, partly the sentimental tale of a ruptured marriage, the film is largely a special-effects carnival full of machine-gun fire, roaring helicopters and an exploding tank. It also has a villain fresh from the Royal Shakespeare Company, a thug from the Bolshoi Ballet and a hero who carries with him the smirks and wisecracks that helped make Moonlighting a television hit. The strange thing is, it works: Die Hard is exceedingly stupid, but escapist fun."

• The Democrat's Harrison wrote that it was, well, a blast: "The number of explosions not withstanding, Die Hard ... is a thrilling entertaining film. ... Die Hard is easy to disparage in hindsight. ... But while you're in the theater, it is nothing less than riveting."

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

Rent it on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

The idea of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) -- that hapless, foolhardy model of Midwestern fatherdom -- was always more potent than the Vacation comedies themselves, which had already worn out their welcome when this third film came along. Yet the various slapstick catastrophes in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation were a hit with audiences, who laughed over the loud sighs of critics like the Times' Janet Maslin:

"Fatigue is in the air. This third look at the quintessentially middle-American Griswold family, led by Clark (Mr. Chase) and the very patient Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) is only a weary shadow of the original National Lampoon's Vacation, which found a lot to laugh at as it followed the dopey paterfamilias Clark and his quarrelsome brood on a hellish cross-country journey in their station wagon."

• The Democrat ran a Los Angeles Times review of Christmas Vacation that was equally unimpressed with the "hideous vision of a suburban Christmas gone totally amok." Writer Michael Wilmington wrote, "Chase has not been on a roll lately, and to say that in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation he is funnier than his last six movies combined may sound like high praise until you remember those last six movies."

Love Actually (2003)

Stream it on Netflix. Rent it on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube.

Christmas seems like the only occasion big enough to accommodate this oversized mistletoe from Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, who combines about half a dozen rom-coms into one mega-rom-com. The film's too-muchness is an annual indulgence for fans, but the Times' A.O. Scott, in one of his most blistering reviews, is not one of them:

"A romantic comedy swollen to the length of an Oscar-trawling epic -- nearly two and a quarter hours of cheekiness, diffidence and high-tone smirking -- it is more like a record label's greatest-hits compilation or a 'very special' sitcom clip-reel show than an actual movie."

• Karen Martin of the Democrat-Gazette found it a bit more digestible: "Like a cup of low-fat eggnog, Love Actually is crafted to serve holiday audiences a creamy-sweet sip of holiday cheer. The formula is tasty and goes down easily enough, but because it's so frothy, it doesn't satisfy for very long."

Jennifer Christman of the Democrat-Gazette contributed to this story.

Bing Crosby (from left), Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen star in White Christmas.
Photo by Warner Brothers
For decades, viewers have “stuck” with A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, starring Chevy Chase.

Style on 12/25/2018

Print Headline: Better with age: Now-classic Christmas movies didn’t automatically get New York Times and Democrat-Gazette critics’ approval when they first hit theaters

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