Director: Bob Clark
Producers: René Dupont, Bob Clark
Writers: Jean Shepherd (novel and screenplay), Bob Clark, Leigh Brown
Photography: Reginald H. Morris
Music: Stan Cole
Cast: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella,
Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Yano Anaya, Zack Ward, Jeff Gillen
“I triple dawg dare ya!”
“Hmm, Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the triple dare and going right for the throat!”
One of the most eccentric, oddball, yet lovably enduring holiday movies, A Christmas Story should be one to last forever, certainly if recent airtime is any indication. Since 1997, the Turner networks have broadcast the film on 24-hour TV marathons every Christmas, allowing one to conceivably watch A Christmas Story 12 times in a row if they like.
For fans, the marathons are great; for Turner Broadcasting, it’s just good business. In 2002, director Bob Clark reported an estimated 38.4 million people tuning into the marathon at some point in the day, which was almost one sixth of the country. (A) The numbers have only continued to grow, with TBS reporting 45.4 million viewers in 2005 (B) and 45.5 million in 2006. (C) Not bad for a film that did only lukewarm at best at the box office in ’83.
Based on a series of semi-autobiographical stories by radio and TV personality Jean Shepherd, who also narrates the film, A Christmas Story takes viewers to 1940s Indiana with all the nostalgia of post-war America. In a Rockwellian home live the Parkers, where the mother (Melinda Dillon) fixes supper and gets the kids ready for school, while the father (Darren McGavin) reads the paper and fusses about the broken furnace.
But this is no ordinary time; it’s almost Christmas, “upon which the entire kid year revolves,” and nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is extra excited this year. All he wants for Christmas is a “Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Lightning Loader Range Model Air Rifle … with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” There are only five words that will ruin his dream — “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Despite this consistently crushing response from his mom, his teacher and Santa himself, Ralphie is admirably persistent, asking for the gun 28 times throughout the movie to combat what he calls “a conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker.” (B)
Billingsley, in his black-rimmed glasses and pudgy cheeks, is as iconic a figure as Christmas movies get, and for a child actor he delivers a brilliantly controlled performance, covering a range of emotions from embarrassment in front of his teacher to pure, mitten-flying fury. As for Ralphie’s kid brother Randy, the casting is priceless, as young Ian Petrella is the perfect amount of weird, snorting up his food with that classic high-pitched laugh, all in the amusement of his mother. Dillon, memorable as the terrified mother in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), is perfectly cast for this motherly role, bringing a quirky cookiness to her loving warmth, while the late McGavin as the father gives the grumbling, grouchy performance of his career.
But beyond any of these superb on-screen players, the real triumph is Shepherd’s overarching hold on the script, brilliantly written by himself (with help from Clark and Leigh Brown) for the purposes of his own expertly-timed narration. Its this continual commentary that makes the film special, turning a mundane concept into a uniquely-articulated event — “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of profanity which to this day is still hovering in space over Lake Michigan.” The narration no doubt utilized the skills Shepherd perfected in his days as a radio personality from the late ’40s through the ’70s, broadcasts which Jerry Seinfeld credits his career.
“He really formed my entire comedic sensibility,” Seinfeld said. “I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.” (D) Seinfeld wasn’t the only thing influenced by Shepherd’s style. A Christmas Story practically set the formula for films like Stand By Me (1986) and The Sandlot (1993), narrated by Richard Dreyfus and David M. Evans, respectively, not to mention the entire TV series The Wonder Years (1988), narrated by Daniel Stern and referencing the film by casting Billingsley as Fred Savage’s roommate in the series finale.
In mining the small eccentric details of reality, Shepherd had really started something that comics admired, but the originality of A Christmas Story took a few years to fully catch fire with audiences. Perhaps this is because its material is so unashamedly off-center, much different from most anything of its day, but material that over the years has increased from strangely unconventional to curiously capricious to now belovedly idiosyncratic. In other words, its oddness has moved from turn-off to turn-on, and in many respects, has reshaped the comedy standard.
Any number of plot points can be cited as favorites: Ralphie’s daydreams, either blasting badguys with his BB gun or the blinding effects of tasting soap; kid brother Randy eating his meatloaf like the piggie’s eat, or bundled up in so many layers of winter clothes that he looks like “a tick ready to pop” (“I can’t put my arms down!”); or Ralphie’s Peter and the Wolf encounters with the coonskin-capped bully Scut Farkus and his toadie Grover Dill.
You also have to love his parents’ battle over a leg lamp that looks more like a prop from Clark’s Porky’s (1982) than it does a living room piece (“fra-gee-lee…must be Italian”); “poor Flick” getting his tongue frozen to an icy pole (“Holy smokes, the fire department!”); Ralphie screaming “Fudge!” after spilling some lugnuts (only he doesn’t say “fudge”); the suspense of the Orphan Annie decoder pen and its “crummy” conclusion; the terrifying Macy’s Santa Claus kicking kids down a giant slide with a menacing “HO, HO, HO!”
And in its final act, we’ll never forget the “pink nightmare” bunny rabbit pajamas knitted by Ralphie’s aunt; the convenient “icicle” breaking Ralphie’s glasses; the dinner out at the Japanese restaurant with a “smiling” duck entree and the waiters’ accented rendition of “Deck the Halls;” and the kids peacefully passed out amongst piles of wraping paper and new toys. By the time the film’s final image hits, a shot of the Parker house with their decorated tree visible through the window as snow falls to an instrumental “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” audiences know they have witnessed a true Christmas classic, holiday Americana at its best.
CITE A: DVD commentary by Bob Clark and Peter Billingsley
CITE B: Coshocton Tribune, article by Patricia A. West-Volland, Dec. 9, 2007.
CITE C: The Times, Munster, Indiana, article by Molly Woulfe, Dec. 25, 2007
CITE D: “Seinfeld Season 6” DVD, commentary on the episode “The Gymnast”