Pleasures of the season

Times Staff Writer

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, at least on DVD. Though the yuletide holidays are more than six weeks away, numerous Christmas-themed TV shows, movies and animated specials have already been released on DVD.

One of the swingingest of the new releases is "Happy Holidays With Bing and Frank" (Hart Sharp, $20), a bizarre but very cool TV special starring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra that aired in 1957. Recently restored, this color special was directed by Ol' Blue Eyes himself and finds Sinatra living in one hip bachelor pad that he's decorating for the holidays. Enter Der Bingle with his latest holiday record in hand and the two start performing some classic holiday tunes like "Jingle Bells." They then decide to join some carolers to bring Christmas cheer to the neighbors. But here is when the special enters the "Twilight Zone." For no apparent reason, as soon as Frank and Bing join the singers, the whole landscape changes to Victorian-era London.

The DVD also features commentary from producer William Self, a Q & A session taped at the Museum of Television & Radio with Self and Nancy and Tina Sinatra, some very kitschy public service announcements with Frank and Bing and examples of Sinatra's painted Christmas cards.

"It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" are two classic Christmas movies from the '40s that are perennial favorites. But 1983's "A Christmas Story" is joining the ranks of one of the must-sees for the holiday season. It has such a devoted following that for the past few years, TNT has aired the quirky holiday comedy for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Warner Home Video has just released an enjoyable two-disc set ($27) of the Bob Clark-directed comedy. Narrated by humorist Jean Shepherd -- the movie is based on his book "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" -- "A Christmas Story" is steeped in nostalgia and good cheer. Set in the 1940s, the film finds a young boy named Ralphie (a perfectly cast Peter Billingsley) who desperately wants a Daisy brand Red Ryder BB rifle for Christmas. However, his eccentric parents (the memorable Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin) fear Ralph will put an eye out with the rifle.

The DVD contains such goodies as radio recordings of Shepherd reading his holiday stories, an amusing retrospective on the making of the film featuring a grown-up Billingsley who looks almost the same as he did two decades ago, interactive trivia, a decoder challenge, two tongue-in-cheek documentaries on the Red Ryder rifle and delightful commentary from Clark and Billingsley.

Throughout its long run on Fox, "The Simpsons" has presented some memorable Christmas episodes. The new DVD, "Christmas With the Simpsons" (Fox, $15) features five of its most enjoyable, including "She of Little Faith" and "The Grift of the Magi." The disc also features "Mr. Burns' Finest Moments."

Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons," is also executive producer of the charming Fox animated special, "Olive, the Other Reindeer" (Fox, $15), which originally premiered on the network in 1999. Based on the book by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, "Olive" is about a sweet-natured dog who learns that Santa is going to cancel Christmas after Blitzen breaks a leg. When she hears Santa talk on the radio about his need for "all of the other reindeer" to help him," she thinks he says "Olive, the other reindeer." So she leaves for the North Pole to help pull the sleigh. Drew Barrymore, a producer of the special, supplies the voice of Olive. The digital edition includes a "making of" documentary.

Ronald Neame directed "Scrooge" (Paramount, $15), a handsome, old-fashioned 1970 musical version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," starring Albert Finney -- sporting decent old-age makeup -- as the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge. Finney gives a strong performance as the miser who learns the true meaning of Christmas, but he can't sing his way out of a paper bag. Leslie Bricusse wrote the pleasant score, which includes the Oscar-nominated "Thank You Very Much."

The most popular of all the Chevy Chase "Vacation" movies was the 1989 holiday farce "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (Warners, $20). And for good reason. Working with a sharp script by John Hughes and good-humored direction from Jeremiah Chechik, "Christmas Vacation" is one of those films that gets funnier on repeated viewings. Chase demonstrates crack comedic timing as the disaster-prone Clark Griswold whose attempts at having a big family Christmas end in disaster. Beverly D'Angelo, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, Diane Ladd, Doris Roberts, John Randolph and E.G. Marshall offer strong support.

Though the DVD is listed as a "special edition," the disc only features a trailer and amusing commentary from Quaid, D'Angelo (who dominates the conversation), Galecki, Flynn, director Chechik and producer Matty Simmons.

The heartwarming, long-running CBS series "The Waltons" actually began its life in 1971 -- a year before the series premiered -- as an acclaimed CBS movie, "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story" (Paramount, $15). Richard Thomas is on hand as John Boy, but in this outing Patricia Neal plays the mother, Andrew Duggan is the father and Edgar Bergen is the grandfather. Ellen Corby, who would continue on the series as the grandmother, and Cleavon Little also star.

Though it doesn't measure up to the Muppets' early feature films, the 2002 NBC presentation of "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" (MGM, $20) certainly is far funnier and charming than the recent films and specials starring Jim Henson's endearing puppets. This clever spoof of "It's a Wonderful Life" finds Joan Cusack playing a ruthless banker who is going to foreclose on the Muppet Theater on Christmas Eve -- the very day Kermit's new Christmas extravaganza is scheduled to open. The only fly in the Muppet ointment is the incongruous appearance of such NBC stars as Carson Daly and the cast of "Scrubs." In this case, synergy doesn't work. The DVD includes a funny takeoff of "Inside the Actors Studio" with Pepe the prawn as "Studio" host James Lipton, deleted scenes and very funny outtakes and bloopers.

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