I saw A Christmas Story at the Hudson Mall Cinema in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. My parents took my siblings and me, and while I don’t recall my Pops’ reaction to the film, I vividly remember my mother hating it with the heat of a thousand suns. Her opinion reflected the general film critic population, most notably the New York Times’ Vincent Canby. Canby wrote that while the actors “are all very able, they are less funny than actors in a television situation comedy that one has chosen to watch with the sound turned off.”
One critic who did like A Christmas Story was Roger Ebert. Roger began and ended his review with the words “Of course,” and evoked his own sense of nostalgia for the things director Bob Clark and co-writer Jean Shepherd detailed in the film. Urbana, Illinois was a mirror image of the northern Indiana town where the Parker family lived. They were “Middle American outposts where you weren’t trying to keep up with the neighbors, you were trying to keep up with Norman Rockwell.”
Neither critic could have imagined how the cult of A Christmas Story would grow over the years, though both were around to witness it. Like The Wizard of Oz and It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story seeped into the American consciousness by osmosis, aided by numerous viewings on television every year. I’ve yet to meet a person who hasn’t seen it at least once. Since 1997, Ted Turner’s cable channels have run marathons of A Christmas Story, with TBS taking up the 24-hour mantle Christmas Eve 2013. It has become a holiday tradition for many, and though I own it on DVD, I still watch it once every year on commercial TV. It just feels like it belongs there, like all those Rankin-Bass holiday cartoons I loved so much as a kid.
A Christmas Story turns 30 this year. When it opened in November, 1983, it followed Porky’s and Porky’s II: The Next Day in its director’s filmography. I finagled my way into seeing the former. The same lady who accompanied me to A Christmas Story stood at this same box office with my cousin and me the year prior. Since she had plans to shop at the mall, Mom asked the box office if she could buy our tickets to see Porky’s. When the ticket lady politely reminded Mom of the R-rating’s requirement of adult accompaniment, my Mom asked the woman behind us if she were going to see Porky’s. The woman, who was clearly going to see something else, told my Mom she’d be our chaperone.
If only Mom had seen Porky’s with us! It would have added an ungodly amount of embarrassment to my 12-year old psyche, and she would have kicked my behind because I told her the R-rating was for profanity only. (“Siskel and Ebert said it only has cursing in it,” I said—a blatant lie.) But she would also have gotten a taste of Bob Clark’s work, and would either have banned him from my viewing list forever or stayed home and let me take my siblings by myself. It would have spared us the yelling we received for asking to see A Christmas Story.
The story of Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), and his quest for “a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time,” started out as a story told by humorist Jean Shepherd in a 1964 edition of Playboy magazine. That story, and several others that flesh out the plot of A Christmas Story, were collected in Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.” I finally got around to reading that book last month, and was surprised to find whole sections of the film’s narration lifted directly from it. It was almost like watching the movie.
Shepherd, along with his wife Leigh Brown and Clark, collaborated on the screenplay. They takes the best material and stories from the book, which, as a whole, is a little darker than the film. As he had done on the radio, Shepherd reads the narration throughout the film. His voice perfectly suits his words, and his ability to turn the smallest event into grandiose embellishments is A Christmas Story’s biggest pleasure.
Though I grew up in the Northeast, and was born 30 years after the story takes place, I can still identify with Ralphie, his adventures at school, and his interactions with his Mom (Melinda Dillon) and his Old Man (Darren McGavin). There are some similarities, and it’s that common bond that endears so many of us, from different walks of life, to A Christmas Story.
I remember wearing a snowsuit, much like Ralphie’s little brother, Randy (Ian Petrella). It took forever to put on and take off, and though my arms weren’t as stiff as Randy’s, my Mom would throw enough Vaseline on my face for me to take a punch from Mike Tyson. “It cuts the wind,” she’d tell me. I’d wipe it off the second I got to the bus stop. At school, the teacher let me enter the coatroom 5 minutes earlier than everybody else so I could fight with that damn suit.
My grandfather—my Mom’s dad—worked on furnaces and boilers. The house my Mom grew up in had a coal furnace, which fascinated and terrified me as a kid. I liked the fiery aspect of it, and my cousins and I would fight over who got to shovel coal into it. But when it made scary noises and smoked, I was the first one to run away from the “heatholes” in the floor. Whichever adult went down into the basement to deal with it usually did so with as much profanity as Ralphie’s Old Man, though in my family, almost everything is dealt with while using profanity.
“Some men are Baptists, others Catholics,” says Shepherd’s adult version of Ralphie. “My father was an Oldsmobile man.” My Pops drove an Oldsmobile, and he worked for GM. Eventually my parents both went Dodge crazy, but I remember riding in a Delta 88 and helping my Pops change flat tires and the oil. I was so incredibly anal about getting dirty, so my Pops would force me to lay on the ground under the car while he worked on it. I never said “Oh fudge,” like Ralphie does, at least not as it pertained to car maintenance.
On more than one occasion, I did say “THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!” as Shepherd defines it. I got Schwartz’s punishment, not Ralphie’s. My Mom didn’t like to waste soap, and she wielded a belt with unmatched skill. Besides, I was a goat as a kid, and I probably would have eaten the soap if she made me put it in my mouth.
I was too scared to ask for a BB gun. They still made them when I was a kid, and as clumsy as I was, I would have blown my own head off with it, if that were possible. My mother did say “you’ll shoot your eye out” when I pointed one out in the Sears catalog. Not having a BB gun didn’t save me from losing an eye, however. So maybe I should have asked for one.
And last but not least, I too had a Scut Farkus (Zach Ward). The bully “with yellow eyes” had his equivalent in my own personal grade school tormentor. After three years of torture, I finally snapped, and the story here turns too violent for me to continue in a respectable site such as this one. But like Ralphie, my retaliation included “a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds…pouring out of me as I screamed.”
Just thinking about A Christmas Story brings back all these memories, and others from the film itself. The “major award” leg lamp that glowed like “electric sex in the window.” The dreaded C+ theme grade Ralphie gets (which would have killed overachieving me). The mean Santa’s way of dealing with annoying kids. Ralphie and Randy tossing the socks they got for Christmas aside. Ralphie’s Aunt Clara, who in the book just makes him pink bunny slippers. And the way that the Wizard of Oz characters beat the hell out of Mickey Mouse during the Higbee’s Christmas Parade. (This IS an MGM picture, you know.)
Maybe that instant evocation of one’s childhood and scenes from the movie are what makes A Christmas Story a classic. The film itself is rather disjointed, it has some directorial bumpiness and some of the acting is a little suspect (though Dillon and McGavin are both excellent). None of that matters when I sit down to watch it, though. It’s like visiting an old friend, whose stories send you daydreaming about your own.
(As a side note: Bob Clark tied for the Canadian equivalent of the Best Director Oscar with David Cronenberg. Those Canadians sure know how to make a tie memorable. Videodrome and A Christmas Story are forever linked in awards history in the Great White North.)