A Christmas Story

(Canada/USA - 1983)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Jean Shepherd
Genre: Comedy
Director: Bob Clark
Screenplay: Leigh Brown, Bob Clark, & Jean Shepherd based on Shepherd's novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash
Cinematography: Reginald H. Morris
Composer: Paul Zaza & Carl Zittrer
Runtime: 94 minutes

"You'll shoot your eye out!"

Magic and nostalgia are the first two words that pop into my head when I think of Bob Clark's 1983 classic, A Christmas Story. With the probable exception of Star Wars, it was the movie I watched the most during my childhood. Unlike many of the movies I thought were good when I was small (it was scary viewing some of Krull a few weeks ago), A Christmas Story not only holds up to more educated eyes, but breeds more fondness, warmth, and appreciation. It's probably the only movie I return to every year, and even though I know all the jokes, I still laugh as hard as I did the first time.

Very few movies are so poignant and special that you find yourself reciting lines from them almost involuntarily. Whenever I get a gift that's painfully out of my past life, I find myself biting my tongue as the words "Aunt Clara had for years not only perpetually labored under the delusion that I was 4 years old, but also a girl" run through my head. Every time I write fragile on a package, I joke about the receiver thinking the contents must be Italian. Anytime I encounter one of those annoying tagalongs that seems to have been born to agree with his buttbuddy, I find myself referring to the person as a "crummy little toadie" or calling him a Grover Dill. When someone fails to deliver the killer comeback line, it's a "not a finger!" If I don't want to own up to something I did, I find myself turning my head back and forth with my eyes in the corner searching for the real culprit and saying "Flick? Flick who?" The list goes on. Sometimes I feel as if A Christmas Story has somehow defined my life.

Set in 1940's Indiana, but built around themes and incidents that are timeless, A Christmas Story is about a young boy's quest to snag his ideal gift against all odds. For our wide-eyed nerdy yet endearing protagonist Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), this gift is an official Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model BB Gun, the one with the compass in the stock. Ralphie's dilemma is that every adult from his mom (Melinda Dillon) to his teacher Miss Shields (Tedde Moore), hell even Santa Claus (Jeff Gillen) associates BB Gun with shooting your eye out. Although younger generations probably can't relate specifically to this gift and problem and certain aspects like the explosive tire blowout, sitting around the radio to listen to your favorite show, and the peril of Lifebouy soap are out of "ancient times," the film has no problem succeeding as an allegory. It perfectly essays the various strategies you attempted to employ in hopes of attaining whatever item you weren't supposed to get - those annoying and clueless adults said you couldn't have it for whatever reason you considered silly and/or irrelevant - but absolutely had to have to maintain your pride, self-respect, and piece of mind.

A Christmas Story doesn't get sucked into the usual pratfall of a story about a youngster trying to prove he's old enough to safely operate a potentially dangerous piece of equipment. Instead, Ralphie's parents, while certainly having their flaws, are warm, kind, and intelligent. They may not be financially able to provide the best for their boys, but whatever deprivation their children suffer is not due to disinterest or lack of effort. Ralphie's father (Darren McGavin), always referred to as The Old Man, is the kind of person that has some skills ("The old man could replace fuses quicker than a jackrabbit on a date. He bought them by the gross."), but regularly tries to exceed his means, talents, and abilities to provide for his family. He has a temper ("in the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity which to this day is still hovering somewhere over Lake Michigan") and often wasn't able to truly fix anything, but nobody is perfect. Meanwhile, Mrs. Parker hasn't eaten a warm meal in 15 year's because she's always getting up to serve the family and trying against all odds to get Ralphie's little brother Randy (Ian Petrella), who "had not eaten voluntarily in over three years" to eat. Family movies are all too often agreeable at the detriment of the story, but by using the fear of the young boy being seriously injured as the only reason he shouldn't get the BB Gun, this one actually succeeds in being relatively fair to the parents as well as the kids. For that reason, it can be enjoyed by children of all ages, even the 60-year-old ones that have grown up and are now grandparents.

The key to the repeated watchability may not even by that the film is incredibly funny and completely entertaining. It could be how well it understands human nature. Just because the family is nice, that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of little battles going on. There are a lot of battles going on because parents and children tend to inhabit different worlds together, and anyone you spend enough time with is going to get on your nerves at points. Aside from Randy, who is too young to have much tact, the family fights their wars with psychology and subtlety. The most obvious struggle is Ralphie's attempts to implant the BB Gun into his parents' mind, which are not as subtle and brilliant as he thinks but don't deter him from his quest in the least. My favorite example happens early on.

Narrator Ralph: Meanwhile, I struggled for exactly the right BB gun hint. It had to be firm, but subtle.
Ralphie: Flick says he saw some grizzly bears near Polaski's candy store!
Narrator Ralph: They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. I could tell I was in imminent danger of overplaying my hand.

Another classic is the Aunt Clara situation. Ralph's mother, who must be Clara's sister, is impressed by the effort Aunt Clara's puts into her gifts. She says Aunt Clara "always gives you such wonderful presents" and gets Ralph to start off Christmas morning by opening Aunt Clara's gift, which Ralph knows will be the most reprehensible incarnation of crap ever given to a 9-year-old boy. The scene where we first see Ralphie wearing the present is an excellent example of highly effective basic filmmaking. Ralphie walks down the right angle staircase and we are first shown these fluffy little bunny slippers with the giant ears and sappy button eyes staring up at Ralphie as he's approaching the midpoint. When he makes his turn the camera zooms out so we can see the entire pink bunny outfit. While Randy giggles unrelentingly, Ralphie's father saves Ralphie by stating "He looks like a deranged Easter bunny…He looks like a pink nightmare" and gets his mother to allow him to only wear it when Aunt Clara is over. Ralphie, so reluctant to walk down the stairs and expose himself to such humiliation, never ran faster than when his father told him to take it off.

Ralph's parents wage a subtle war over The Old Man's "major award." He's so proud and ecstatic that he won something it didn't matter what it was. Although he knows it's going to be delivered that night, he hopes it'll be a bowling alley since bowling is one of his favorite pastimes. The problem is foreshadowed by the mother, in a nice way, pointing out what an idiot he is by questioning how they could possibly deliver a bowling alley to their house tonight. It turns out to be an extraordinary lamp, a women's leg in a fishnet stocking with the lampshade representing her skirt. Darren McGavin plays this scene with such pride and glee, displaying his prize possession in the front window and bragging to those who are gathering around outside - friends, neighbors, anyone who will listen - how he won this major award with his brainpower. Meanwhile, a disenchanted, disturbed, and disapproving Melinda Dillon, saying "uuh" as if she's in pain, is covering Ralphie's eyes and looking to discuss with her husband the matter of corrupting their children and the neighborhood by exposing this sleazy, sexy object. The conclusion to the battle, gentle playing of taps and all, is classic, but the initial sequence perfectly sets up one of Ralph's revelations in life.

One aspect the film excels at is showing how quickly things change for a child. "Only one thing in the world could've dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window," says Ralph the narrator as he is able to put an end to his awestruck gaze at the seductive lamp and turn on the radio to get his first message from Little Orphan Annie. Ralphie had been rushing to the mailbox every day in hopes his decoder ring would arrive. When it finally does, he can't wait for the message, being conned by the programs sponsors into thinking he was now a privileged member of an exclusive secret society ("honors and benefits already at the age of 9"). They build it up by talking about Annie counting on them and urging the members to keep the message a secret. Ralph rushes to the bathroom because it's the only room in the house where privacy is a guarantee, decoding the entire message in spite of his brother pleading for Ralphie to get out before he goes in his pants. The poor deluded child believed "the fate of the planet may hang in the balance," but what he found was not the Holy Grail, it was "a crummy commercial." Cynicism is cleverly worked in throughout the film. The scene where they buy a Christmas tree from a shady salesman (Leslie Carlson) who builds every tree up to be the greatest for a few seconds until it's exposed as being a DUD and he moves on to the next reject is a prime example.

One of the biggest reasons the film can be watched repeatedly is it nails the fond and miserable moments of childhood. It's not just limited to tossing boring clothes over your head on Christmas morning and scurrying to move on to the next package that hopefully will contain an awesome toy. From the embarrassment of being stuck wearing clothes that you've outgrown because your parents can't afford or are too cheap to replace them to the fear of your friend catching a glimpse of your most unflattering moment and spreading it around the entire school to the joy of outsmarting your know it all friend process even though you know it's at their expense, A Christmas Story has it all. The haunting memories of the evil bully that you were perpetually ducking and fleeing don't have you longing for your schooldays, but certain feelings like the joy, mystery, and surprise of getting up on Christmas morning and digging into piles of gifts ("We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice") are lost with childhood. A Christmas Story captures the excitement of being moments away from seeing Santa Claus, but not without strapping the kid with disappointment, disgust, and most importantly fear that you'll get stuck with a junky gift because you'll never make it to the front of the line. It has the highs and lows, the examples of the kids being naïve and the ones where they learn something that forever alters their life in some way.

The narration of the late humorist Jean Shepherd really brings the movie to life. Shepherd, who did the screenplay based on his semi-autobiographic novel, often worked in radio. This background really shows in the way the narration is written and delivered. It has an enthusiastic yet intellectually descriptive eloquence that paints the picture so well you really don't even need the images. Shepherd's writing is just brilliant and far more than anything else is what makes the film great. The film is loaded with such telling lines as "In our world you were either a bully, a toadie, or one of the nameless rabble of victims."

Hilarious moments are overflowing. We briefly meet Goggles (David Svoboda), a teethy little boy that looks like a girl who got stuck wearing the first reject from the Red Baron goggles line. He talks to a disinterested Ralph, saying things rather pathetically and annoyingly like "I like Santa" only to cry the second he "meets him." There's the tree salesman, who tries to pimp a tree based on it not shedding needles only to accidentally create a circle of about 300 when he jabs the tree into the ground to show them its worth. Who can keep themselves from laughing at Randy when his mom bundles him up so much you can not only barely tell it's him as he waddles around with his arm, which he can't move, almost forming an open clamp? I hate racism and stereotyping of foreigners as much if not more than anyone, but the scene where the Parker's are introduced to "Chinese turkey" at the Chop Suey Palace with the head waiter decapitating the duck with a huge knife after the other waiters sang "Tis the season to be jorry, fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra" always has me rolling on the floor.

There are many dream scenes that, even more than the rest of the film, are beautifully ridiculous and gleefully exaggerated. My favorites are the ones with Miss Shields. Ralphie pours his heart into this lame paper that he believes is going to be so great he'll have to be awarded the BB Gun. He pictures her getting so disgusted with the poor prose of his classmates that she's about ready to quit her job, only to be rejuvenated by the ecstasy of reading his masterpiece. She's so overjoyed she gaily writes a big A on the chalkboard and starts stroking plus after plus after plus. After the real scene where Ralphie gets his paper back and is crushed by not only getting a C+, but a p.s. that says "you'll shoot your eye out," he pictures Miss Shields as a court jester standing at the front of the room with the Wicked Witch from Wizard of Oz taunting him with "You'll shoot your eye out! You'll shoot your eye out!" The witch's neverending cackling laugh is one of the great diabolically evil laughs you'll ever hear.

The biggest nightmare of all is Ralphie's trip to the department store to see the head honcho, Santa Claus. Ralphie had realized that Santa was his last defense against unending list of BB Gun detractors. This dimestore Santa is deranged and demented though. He terrifies the kids with his twisted "Ho! Ho! Ho!" bellow. His elves are probably worse. Santa at least consolidates his comments and complaints like "If Higbee thinks I'm working one minute past 9:00 he can kiss my foot" to the time between kids. The elves get in the kids face even more obnoxiously than he does, growling speed prods while they drag, tug, yank, and push them to ensure as much time as humanly possible is saved. As shown by the 360-degree point of view shot, the whole experience disorients Ralph. He's so confused that for the only seconds in the movie, he forgets his goal of getting the BB Gun and unknowingly agrees to Santa's suggestion of a football while thinking "Football? Football? What's a football?" Half way down the slide he wakes up, regaining his voice to scream "no!" as he stops himself with his foot. He desperately pulls himself back up to the top, blurts out all the specs of the BB Gun, and gives Santa his best phony give me the highest possible score figure skating smile. Santa replies, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid" and puts his big boot to Ralph's face, pushing him down the slide so he can move on to the next brat.

I don't feel strongly about anyone involved in this project, which is a rarity for a movie I choose to review. Every other film Bob Clark has directed not only pales in comparison to this, but usually is downright embarrassing. He's responsible for such gems as the Rhinestone, Baby Geniuses, Loose Cannons, and the reprehensible Porky's & Porky's II. It's a workmanlike production, but somehow in A Christmas Story he always finds the right mood and tone. Most of the performers I've barely, if ever, seen again. Scott Schwartz starred in Kidco the next year - a good movie about farm kids more than making something of themselves by running a manure business but then getting in trouble for violating tax code, but had so much trouble finding any work as an adult that he gave up and did porn. The film was made in Canada for a modest budget of $4,000,000 Canadian and didn't exactly have people flocking to the box office. It's certainly fair to describe A Christmas Story as an unlikely classic, but occasionally almost everything falls into place. 


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