The Christmas spirit isn’t served up with more heartfelt warmth or observant hilarity than in this beloved adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s holiday story. In 1940s Indiana, nine-year-old Ralphie dreams of his ideal Christmas gift: a genuine Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle. But when his gruff dad and doting mom regularly respond with “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Ralphie mounts a full-scale, hint-dropping, Santa-begging campaign. In this tale you’ll be caught up in all kinds of childhood calamities from snowsuit paralysis to the yellow-eyed Scotty Farkus affair to the dreaded tongue-on-a-frozen-flagpole gambit. We triple-dog-dare you to unwrap a more comical Yuletide classic!
A Christmas Story 8.25
eyelights: the pitch-perfect direction. the warmth of the narration. the excellent casting.
eyesores: some of the performances.
“Deck the harrs with boughs of horry, fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra.”
I’ll always remember seeing ‘A Christmas Story’ for the first time. I was ten, and my mom was at an all-day seminar at the local convention center. Thankfully, there was a cinema there, so I scampered off there, in the hope of finding something to kill a few hours. I randomly picked ‘A Christmas Story’, not knowing anything about it.
In my defence, no one did. Although it was mostly made in Canada, the picture didn’t play anywhere and got very little exposure. In the US, the film was rolled out around Thanksgiving, and notoriously didn’t make it to Christmas except in about a hundred cinemas. It totally missed its intended target (the joys of studio marketing).
But I loved it. I laughed like crazy, and I suspect that I related to Ralphie, our 9-year-old protagonist, to some degree – even though the story was set four decades prior. After the movie, I coaxed my mom and her boyfriend to come see it when they were done, and I ended up watching it twice that same day.
It always remained a favourite of mine, even if I never heard of it again. Many years later, when a local furniture store decided to close their video rental operation, I went digging for cheap goodies and stumbled upon a well-worn copy of ‘A Christmas Story’ on VHS. Needless to say, I ended up wearing it down even further.
I never found anyone who liked this film as much as I did. I conceded that it has a slightly sentimental quality that some might not appreciate, but I couldn’t believe that no one had seen this or wanted to. It felt like I was the only fan in the world – that is, until the internet opened up my eyes. There were many of us. Very many.
In fact, there are enough die-hard fans that there was a 25th anniversary convention, and thousands of people are expected to visit the original house used for the shooting of the picture – which, of course, has been transformed into a mini-museum by an über-fan (who bought it on eBay a few years ago and restored it). Madness!
And if you think that this is crazy, you should see the trinkets and other memorabilia that has been made by fans for fans in recent years, including a feature-length location documentary, a treasury book, leg lamp costumes, multiple figurines, replica aviator glasses, games, and even a Triple Dog Dare Kit!!! Utter madness!
But, what is ‘A Christmas Story’?
‘A Christmas Story’ is an episodic motion picture that recounts the days leading up to Christmas, as our protagonist desperately tries to convince his parents and even Santa to get him a Red Ryder BB gun. Based on the works of (and narrated by) Jean Shepherd, it takes place in the late-’30s, early-’40s and is told from Ralphie’s perspective.
It sounds like a fairly plain Christmas picture doesn’t it? So what could possibly have made it garner such a ferocious cult following over the years?
For me, ‘A Christmas Story’ encapsulates my fondest memories of Christmas and what it’s all about. For me. It creates a faux-sense of nostalgia, in that I’ve never actually had Christmases like the one that Ralphie has here, but I sure wish that I did. So it’s a blueprint of what I dreamed it to be and what I wish for now.
Right from the start, there’s a feeling of excitement that abounds in the picture: Ralphie, his brother and his two best friends are staring with awe into a store’s window display. There’s something about the wonderment on their faces that truly warms the heart, and also reminds me of when my attention was drawn in the same way.
Such elaborate displays rarely exist now. These days, we mostly shop in malls – which are a mass of noise and other stimulants competing for our attention. Back then, people used to go from shop to shop, outside, and store owners would make efforts with their displays to get people to stop people in mid-stroll, perhaps coaxing them to walk in.
I love seeing that opening in ‘A Christmas Story’. The streets are lit up, decorated for the season and filled with people, wandering about doing some last-minute shopping. I noticed the other day that many of the more important streets in my city don’t even bother to decorate anymore. They leave it for the mall to do. Sigh…
Aside from the opening segment, what really captures the excitement of Christmas is the longing for a particular gift, and desperately hoping that you will get it. The anticipation is everything: either the knowledge that you will get it, and that you have to wait for it until Christmas, or the possibility, mixed with the uncertainty, that you might.
Everyone’s wanted that one perfect gift, the one thing that they really really really want but can’t get for themselves and hope that they will get it as a gift. Could be at Christmas, could be at your birthday, but we all have wanted that one thing, that one thing that would trump everything else and make the day absolutely perfect.
For many of us , 9 years old is a time when even the smallest thing seemed like it was everything in the whole wide world, like there was nothing else. It’s something that we forget as were get older, more cynical, more experienced. But, for children, many things that we take for granted are entirely new and utterly fascinating.
Really, it’s easy to relate with Ralphie, whose (almost) every moment consists of dreaming of the Red Ryder BB gun or conspiring to get it. At 9 years of age, what would you be willing to do to get your “ultimate” gift? Is it really that different from any of Ralphie’s childish ploys – which he thinks are extremely clever… but aren’t?
‘A Christmas Story’ also revolves around Ralphie’s everyday experiences, which include bantering with his buddies, being chased after by the neighbourhood bully, being saddled by his douche-y younger brother, tuning into his favourite programme, dealing with his parents (and watching them bicker), encountering the neighbours’ dogs, …etc.
Again, it’s all very episodic, but it’s all laced with humour and sentimentality, making all of this charming even when the worst happens. We can all look on knowingly, reliving it from a child’s perspective and seeing it from an adult’s as well; we’ve seen and experienced most of this around us throughout our lives.
What makes it so poignant, though is in the delivery:
For starters, there’s Jean Shepherd’s brilliant narration, which is featured in 60-70 percent of the picture. It’s based on his works, which he had toured many times before, so he could recount the stories with total confidence. Plus he has this soothing, comforting sound to his voice which instantly makes us feel at home and nostalgic.
Then there’s Bob Clark’s expert hand, who made the most out of this very low budget and made it happen. It’s quite an inspired picture when one considers what they had to work with. He invested his heart into it, having collaborated with Sheperd for years to get the picture off the ground, and this translated to the screen.
He made all the right choices, from the daydream sequences, which were shot soft for effect and given a cartoony vibe (which is perfect to represent a kids’ heightened reality), to Ralphie’s visit to Santa, which is partially done from a first-person perspective to help to live out that moment on Santa’s lap, he just nailed everything.
The picture wouldn’t be anything if not for the cast, of course. I’ve read some comments about the performances not being anything special, and I’d have to disagree: there’s some very fine casting here – not because the actors are necessarily stellar, but because they are pretty much universally perfect for the parts:
Ralphie: “I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!”
Mother: “No, you’ll shoot your eye out.”
First, there’s Peter Billingsley as Ralphie. While some might think that he overdoes it a bit, I think that he found that sweet spot between drama and comedy. Or, at least, as much as a child actor ever could. Personally, I think that he was a very good comic actor, knowing when to understate things, when to play it up. He also did it with such sincerity that he sold it. No one else would have done it better.
Randy: “I can’t put my arms down!”
Mother: “Well… put your arms down when you get to school.”
Then there’s Ian Petrella as his brother Randy. For years, I though off him as a whiny, annoying brat; I never thought of him as any good. But I mistook my irritation for a lack of skill on his part. When I saw him this time, however, I saw an actor quite immersed in his character. Look at how wide-eyed he gets looking at the gifts, at how perfectly wimpy he gets. He’s actually pretty good for his age. Seriously.
The Old Man: “Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.”
Mother: “Uh, I think that says FRAGILE, dear.”
Darren McGavin is amazing as Ralphie’s father, “The Old Man”. He is like a cross between Tommy Lee Jones and Jack Lemmon, on the one hand cantankerous and tough as nails, but on the other sentimental and considerate. To think that Jack Nicholson had been considered in his place. Pshaw. Nuanced as he is, McGavin couldn’t possibly be any better; he is the old man.
Mr. Parker: “He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.”
Mother: “He does not!”
Mr. Parker: “He does too, he looks like a pink nightmare!”
Melinda Dillon is terrific as “Mother”; she plays it understated, and makes the mom endearing. You can’t help but feel for her, being stuck with three boys (including The Old Man) and having to pick up behind them all the time. I guess that’s what moms do, especially stay-at-home ones. It just doesn’t look like a fun life – you get this impression that, exasperated, she would choose something else for herself is she thought she could.
Flick: “Are you kidding? Stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That’s dumb!”
Schwartz: “That’s ’cause you know it’ll stick!”
The other kids are all very good in their own way, even Zack Ward, who overdoes it as the bully, Scut Farkus. The thing is, you have to remember that the film is told from Ralphie’s perspective, when he was only 9, and is now recounted many years later – so, obviously, everything is going to be amplified. So, even though they’re not entirely natural, it actually works contextually.
Santa Claus: “Come on up on Santa’s lap. Here’s a wet one. And what’s your name little boy? And what do you want for Christmas, Billy? A toy truck? Get him off my lap and get me a towel. Oh, I hate the smell of tapioca.”
The proof come when Ralphie visits the department store to go ask Santa for his BB gun. First, there’s the creepy kid waiting in line with his goggles on, who is weird enough to leave me unsettled even now. Again, context. Then there’s the grotesque Santa and thuggish assistants, who made almost all of the children cry. They were all dialled up precisely for this reason: because this is how it appeared to that 9-year-old child.
And it’s by tapping into our inner 9-year-old that the film really hits home. When Ralphie’s Christmas finally comes around, we too are wide-eyed at the sight of the ornate tree towering over a litter of gifts, we too are eager to see what awaits beneath all the glitter, we too are content with the knowledge that all is right with the world – if only for one short moment. It is, after all, Christmas morn.
Every year I wish for ‘A Christmas Story’. Every year, I want to go to bed knowing that there is nothing under the tree and that gifts will mysteriously appear overnight. Every year, I want to rise super-early because I just can’t stay put in bed, rush out and unleash weeks of anticipation, curiosity and glee in a delicious unveiling of surprises, disappointments and realized wish-fulfilment.
…and then pass out from exhaustion into sweet, contented bliss.
Every year I want to spend the rest of the day in the company of my loved ones, eating food we kept/made especially for our gathering, each of us awe-struck by some of our long-sought prizes, maybe even indulging in the enjoyment of these gifts collectively, or individually, but together. Together. Every year, I want Christmas to be special, to be different from every other day of the year.
‘A Christmas Story’, with its nostalgic, sympathetic and humourous take on Christmas, reminds me of how truly wonderful it can be.
“Tonight! Tonight! It’s coming tonight! Tonight! Tonight! Tonight! Hot damn, tonight!”
Post scriptum: Did you know that there are TWO sequels to ‘A Christmas Story’? Although I couldn’t help but notice the roundly dismissed straight-to-video ‘A Christmas Story 2’, I also just found out that Bob Clark made a sequel in 1994 called ‘It Runs in the Family’, also based on the works of (and narrated by) Jean Shepherd and featuring the same characters – although none of the cast returned. While I will never see 2012’s blasphemous money-grab, I’m sure to check out Bob Clark’s film someday – it might retain some of the magic of the original.
Date of viewing: December 16-17, 2013