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Top 12 classic, black and white Christmas movies

Mary (Donna Reed), George (Jimmy Stewart) and Zuzu Bailey(Carol Coombs) discover wealth comes through friendship and family in a scene from the Christmas classic Its a Wonderful Life. (Special Photo)

Mary (Donna Reed), George (Jimmy Stewart) and Zuzu Bailey(Carol Coombs) discover wealth comes through friendship and family in a scene from the Christmas classic Its a Wonderful Life. (Special Photo)

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One of the biggest debates some families run into during the Christmas season is which type of lights on the tree best capture the sentiment of the holidays — color or white?

There’s something to be said for both. Color lights bring a warmth and cheerfulness, and they’re especially popular with youngsters. Christmas is a season that is rich with bold, bright colors, and a tree that is encircled by strands glowing red, yellow, green and blue fits the mood for many people.

White lights, meanwhile, are a classic, evoking images of stars peeking from the heavens. There’s a certain elegance that is unique to a tree with all white lights and a heritage that reaches back to the days when small candles were attached to branches.

But trees are not the only place that the debate over color can come up this time of year. Take Christmas-themed movies, for example.

There are a few Christmas films in full color that have earned the title of classics. “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” “Home Alone” and “Christmas Vacation” immediately come to mind. Even “Elf” may one day find itself on that shelf.

But nothing beats spending a cold winter’s night — with an old black-and-white holiday movie. There just seems to be more heart in the writing and the acting, which had to carry those wonderful stories that were unencumbered by special effects and computer-generated characters. They pull you back to a time when life was simpler, people were more civil and a little holiday sentiment was OK.

So, for the Twelve Days of Christmas, here’s a list of a dozen great black-and-white Christmas films guaranteed to get you into the holiday mood … if you’ll let them. Some might be easier to track down than others, but they’re all worth the effort.

1. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

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Angel 2nd Class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers, left) is charged with showing a desperate George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) that his life is worth living in the Christmas classic Its a Wonderful Life. (Special photo)

If a movie ever fully captured the spirit of the holiday, this was it. “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been redone and parodied more than any holiday fare other than “A Christmas Carol.” It got a bad rap years back when the copyright lapsed and local TV stations, looking for cheap programming, ran it seemingly around the clock at Christmastime. Watch it with an open mind, though, and you’ll be surprised as to how much heart this movie has. Jimmy Stewart’s performance as George Bailey, an everyman who has given up his dreams for his town and family only to find himself on the brink of disaster, has a desperation to it that is too often overlooked. Donna Reed is endearing as his wife, Mary, and Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody is the most unusual Christmas angel you’ll ever encounter. Lionel Barrymore’s Henry Potter makes Scrooge look like a choir boy, while Thomas Mitchell as absent-minded Uncle Billy stumbles through with comic relief.

There was talk of a possible sequel with some of the surviving actors, but that appears to have been quashed. Some movies, and this is one, just don’t need a sequel.

2. “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947)

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Cary Grant, left, gets his turn as a Christmas angel in The Bishops Wife, which stars David Niven as Bishop Henry Brougham and Loretta Young as his wife, Julia. While the bishop learns what is really important, Dudley finds even angels can be envious at times. (Special Photo)

Speaking of Christmas angels, Cary Grant takes a turn as one named Dudley in this marvelous film about a bishop, played by David Niven, who is overly obsessed with building a great cathedral and under attentive to his wife, played by Loretta Young, and the friends and people who aren’t in a position to help him realize his dream. Niven’s Bishop Henry Brougham prays for guidance, but finds it’s not quite what he imagined. Monty Woolley has a great supporting role as Professor Wutheridge, a man with a magical bottle of wine. The skating scene with Sylvester the cab driver is a lot of fun, too.

3. “Scrooge” (1951)

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Charles Dickens classic tale A Christmas Carol has been redone countless times, but the best depiction of the miser who is saved from his wicked ways through the visits of a trio of Christmas spirits was by Alistair Sim in the 1951 version Scrooge. (Special photo)

There have been thousands of retellings of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” in which the three ghosts visit miser Ebeneezer Scrooge and try to get him off the path of destruction. Many of them are quite good, but the quintessential Scrooge is still the one played by Alistair Sim. His was the first Scrooge that had a three-dimensional character, and his performance is still the holiday gold standard.

4. “Holiday Inn” (1942)

This one can get confused with “White Christmas” because (1) Bing Crosby is in both movies, (2) it involves a story about a couple of pals and (3) the song “White Christmas” actually debuts in this movie. While “White Christmas” is superior as far as pure pageantry, “Holiday Inn,” is the overall better movie. The story is about a crooner (Crosby) and hoofer (Fred Astaire) who compete for a young woman who’s a rising talent while operating a hotel that is only open on holidays.

5. “A Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)

If Alistair Sim set the standard for Scrooge, Edmund Gwenn did the same thing for Santa Claus in this heartwarming tale in which he tried to restore belief in a skeptical little girl named Susan, played by Natalie Wood, who hadn’t turned 10 yet. Maureen O’Hara is Susan’s mom who tries to keep her grounded even as Gwenn works to raise her spirits. No version’s come close to this one.

6. “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)

A second entry for Jimmy Stewart on this list. This time, he is in Budapest working for a gift shop, only to find that the pen pal he has fallen in love with is a co-worker named Klara (Margaret Sullavan) who he can’t stand. Frank Morgan of “Wizard of Oz” fame is store owner Hugo Matuschek, and Joseph Schildkraut turns in a fine performance as Stewart’s nemesis, Ferencz Vadas. This, of course, was remade as “You’ve Got Mail.” “Shop” is infinitely better.

7. “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947)

The late 1940s show up a lot on this list. “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” is a fun film in which a homeless New York man takes advantage when a rich man leaves town for warmer weather during the holidays. The household is added onto, including Don DeFore as a military veteran, until the actual owners show up and secretly move in with the squatters. Gale Storm is in it, and you’ll also see a young Alan Hale Jr. sans Gilligan.

8. “The Cheaters” (1945)

This one’s a little hard to find, but it’s worth tracking down. An oddball family used to wealth is on the verge of bankruptcy and hatches a scheme to steal a big inheritance, only to have Christmas charity case in the form of an alcoholic ex-actor (Joseph Schildkraut again) interfere with their schemes.

9. “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945)

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Barbara Stanwyck as food columnist Elizabeth Lane finds her fictional life is catching up with her when she entertains war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays at the behest of her publisher. Two Casablanca alums, Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakill, also star. (Special photo)

Barbara Stanwyck is a big-city food writer who, in turns out, can’t cook and doesn’t have the country farm she claims to own. Unfortunately, those facts are not known to the magazine’s owner (the incomparable Sydney Greenstreet of “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” fame), who believes his writer is a married homemaker. He not only directs her to provide a Christmas meal for a recovering war veteran, he decides to join them. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

10. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1942)

Monty Woolley stars as ascerbic theater critic Sheridan Whiteside, the man who came to dinner, broke his leg on an icy patch and seemingly never plans to leave. The cast includes Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke and Jimmy Durante.

11. “The Thin Man” (1934)

Not a traditional Christmas movie, but this murder whodunit starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles is set at Christmastime. The chemistry between the leads is fun to watch and the dialogue is as snappy as it gets, a Christmas gift in itself. By the way, the title doesn’t refer to Powell’s character, but to the missing professor he’s trying to track down.

12. “Babes in Toyland” (1934)

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy star in a fantasy story in which they scheme to raise money to help pay off the mortgage on Mother Peep’s shoe home so that Little Bo Peep doesn’t have to marry the villain. Then the boogeymen get involved. Also called “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”