A Christmas Story (1983)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Christmas Treats (Other Than Your Aunt Mildred's Gingersnaps) | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Mumbled swearing (that isn’t the word “fudge”), beating up bullies, triple dog dares, and – as if you didn’t know – shooting eyes out.

A Christmas Story’s appeal is obvious and almost rectifies the 24-hour marathons we gleefully entertain each December. It’s an accurate portrayal of a middle class Midwestern childhood – at least it mirrors a lot of things I encountered – and simultaneously a nostalgic venture for middle-aged adults because childhoods of this generation mean something entirely different. Why ask for a gun for Christmas when you can simulate murdering hundreds in a video game? Why listen to a crummy radio program or read comic books when you can watch TV? I wonder how many of today’s youths know what it’s like to gaze into a storefront window and admire train sets, Radio Flyers, or Red Ryder – and they certainly don’t know Oldsmobiles or Lifebuoy. But, thankfully, this little time capsule will recycle these items for decades to come – if only for one day a year.

The movie takes place in the 1940s, xmas2in a small Indiana town, as the film’s young protagonist recalls a specific Christmas in which he asked Santa for a 200-shot, carbine action BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. “As cool and deadly a piece of weaponry as I had ever laid eyes on,” the narrator says. We primarily follow Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), an imaginative child who sees himself saving his family from backyard marauders, anticipates going blind, and invents ridiculous stories to explain mishaps that he would otherwise be grounded for (haven’t we all?). Challenging Ralphie’s gun-toting dream is his sweet mother (Melinda Dillon), who boasts the classic BB gun block, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” His father (Darren McGavin), my favorite character, is a simple man, who prefers reading about yo-yo swallowing over politics, despises the neighbor’s 785 dogs, and “weaves tapestries of obscenity” mostly directed at the furnace, which he battled more often than Ali and Frazier. He’s a cultured man (“Fraj-eele´ … that must be Italian”), who appreciates the arts (“What a great lamp”). His younger brother Randy (Ian Patrella) refuses to eat his food, despite all “the starving people in China,” but he’s still “Mommy’s little piggy.”

The true charm of the film comes from the routine, daily moments in childhood life such as pranking the schoolmarm, dealing with yellow-eyed bullies, and checking the mail for prizes you spent months saving cereal box tops for. I’m especially fond of the dare ritual – the triple-dog dare being the coupe de gras – and Ralphie looking around the class for invisible culprits when he knows the teacher is directing threats at him. With his mother and teacher clearly in cahoots, Ralphie must ask the “big guy” (aka Santa) for the rifle. He excitedly queues at the mall – amid Tin Man-loving creepsters – to visit him, only to later realize that he’s creepy as hell.

The narrator’s voice carries the passion and exuberance of the original words. Perhaps it’s because, as I now know, the narrator and writer are the same person. The tidbits of A Christmas Story are strung together from Jean Shepherd’s book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, a collection of short stories he penned for Playboy. It’s a surprising gem – that reportedly inspired The Wonder Years – for director Bob Clark, who previously helmed Porky’s and subsequently did Baby Geniuses.

It was released the year I  was born, so it makes sense that I can’t recall a holiday season void of its presence. And it ingrained such an impression that I hope my children won’t remember one either. I’m clearly not the only one fond of the movie – which reached its peak in the 90s after TV broadcasts – as Motorola, Monopoly, and Mythbusters paid tribute to the film. Not to mention a few years ago a true fanatic purchased the Cleveland home used for shooting the movie for $150,000 on eBay. About a year and $500,000 in renovations later, he opened it as a tourist attraction with the house next door as a gift shop and museum. I wonder if it has “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window” …

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