Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Jean Shepherd, Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin

Alright, ladies and gentlemen, the gauntlet has been thrown down.  In a few weeks time, A Christmas Story is the movie of the week at my blog club.  I have been avoiding writing about this film for years, ever since I started to dabble in writing my own reviews six years ago.  Every Christmas I have tried to write about A Christmas Story in my head, but have never been able to get anything onto the page.  Last year I came pretty close – I wrote about two paragraphs or so – but then couldn’t write anymore.  No more fooling around though; this year I *will* finish this review!  Challenge accepted!

Why is it so hard for me to write about A Christmas Story?

Because I love it so dang much.

And not in a way that I love any other movie.  In its very own, very unique, incredibly particular way that even I have yet to figure out completely.  I love it with a passion so intense, it actively prevents me from writing about it in any coherent manner.  There are only a very small handful of films I love this much.  A Christmas Story is in rarefied company, believe you me.

Plot.  I usually have a paragraph about the plot.  OK, will do.  Young Ralphie Parker (Billingsley) is in elementary school in pre-WWII Indiana suburbia, and all he wants for Christmas is (wait for it) an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle.  But his mother (Dillon) is convinced he’ll shoot his eye out.  In the lead up to Christmas, we watch the Parker family deal with a myriad of little nothings, including Ralphie’s father (McGavin) getting a lamp shaped like a leg, Ralphie accidentally swearing, and Ralphie and his friends being terrorized by the school bully.  Through it all, though, Ralphie has his eyes set on the Red Ryder BB gun.

A Christmas Story has ascended to near legendary ranks in the American Holiday Movie Pantheon.  Unsuccessful in its initial release (it was pulled from most theaters by the time Christmas actually arrived), this is a prime example of how television made a film.  Once the film started airing around the holiday season by various Turner networks, its popularity grew to the point that TNT began showing it for a full 24 hours from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day in 1997.  Its numbers for this marathon have only grown over the years; according to Wikipedia, in 2009, the initial airing (now on TBS) that kick started the marathon beat all major television networks, and in 2010, TBS was the top ranked cable network for the duration of the marathon. 

When I went to college in the late nineties, I had never heard of A Christmas Story, let alone seen it.  Friends at college ranted and raved about how AMAZEBALLS it was; I believe I caught some of it when it was on in the background in college and was remarkably underwhelmed.  I didn’t get it, I really didn’t.  Why were my friends so entranced by a movie so incredibly random? 

I’m not sure when my paradigm shift occurred exactly, but I believe it had a helluva lot to do with me growing up and becoming a full-fledged adult with my own residence, my own bills, my own job.  Somewhere in the mid-2000s, probably coinciding with my mid-twenties quarterlife crisis, I gave A Christmas Story a real chance, and it quickly turned into my favorite holiday film.  I was feeling the pressures of adulthood while also feeling like I was failing at adulthood pretty spectacularly, and along comes a film that perfectly encapsulates the utter joy of a child’s Christmas.  It was like a warm blast of glowing nostalgia to what were some pretty bitterly cold years for me.  I started watching it on repeat, over and over and over again.  I passed this on to first my husband, who had also not been a fan, then my sister, then my parents, all of whom were previously Christmas Story neophytes.  Now, my mother requests that we watch A Christmas Story every year (she, in her cute way, just refers to the film as Ralphie).

Nostalgia.  That is what A Christmas Story is to me.  Pure, warm-hearted, straight to the vein nostalgia.  When I watch this movie, it makes me feel the same way I did when I was a kid at Christmas.  The older I get, the more that feeling slips away from me; this makes A Christmas Story that much more special.  It’s a way of recapturing that beautiful, golden feeling of joy and bliss.  I had that year that there was the one present I wanted more than anything else in the world (a Samantha American Girl doll, by the way), and my parents hid it, and it was the last present I opened.  I still get teary-eyed when Ralphie finally opens his BB gun at the end (spoilers?  I don’t really think so).  When Ralphie’s mother says to his younger brother, “Randy, wait for Christmas to start,” I keel over from laughter, because my mother said that exact same thing every single year.  I don’t get the same feeling from other classic holiday films; instead, they tend to remind me of being around my family, which is a very nice feeling, but A Christmas Story specifically triggers a lot more.  It taps into very distinct Christmas Eve and Christmas Day memories, and more than that, a great deal of specific memories of being a child.

Which, frankly, is tremendously impressive given that, y’know, I didn’t grow up in pre-WWII Indiana.  I was a child of the eighties and nineties growing up in New England, but I watch this movie and think, ‘yep, that was my childhood.’  It’s odd, because it WASN’T, but it *feels* so much like my childhood.  Ralphie’s overly-bundled brother?  I’ve been there, man; I always felt like the Michelin Man in my snow pants and huge parka, plus scarf, hat, boots, and mittens.  Ralphie’s classroom reminds me forcibly of my own elementary school classrooms, to the point where I can actually feel the chilly draft from the windows of those rooms whenever I watch this film.  I attended, and then marched in, many Christmas parades like the one Ralphie and his family watch, and I remember going to the mall to see Santa, with it usually feeling like a bit of a letdown – just like Ralphie.  The chenille bedspreads were similar to ones my grandparents had; Ralphie’s bathroom reminds me of that of my best friend, where I spent too many sleepovers to count.  

And these are all relatively superficial similarities.  The emotional ones, those in the narrative, are even more.  I mean, who wasn’t a little scared of their parents when they were angry, a la Ralphie after he accidently swears in front of his Old Man?  And later, when Ralphie imagines his parents’ grief after he goes blind from soap poisoning, a childhood recollection was stirred in me that had long been forgotten, that feeling of selfish vindictiveness, that feeling of “They’ll be sorry!”  Man, do I remember having THAT feeling as a kid!  I have just one sibling, a younger sister, and you’d better believe that we had the same sort of relationship Ralphie has with Randy in this film.  My father, when asked if we fought a lot as children, has said in his wry way, “No, not much, just when they were in the same room as each other.”  I love the tiny little scene at the beginning where Ralphie and Randy break into a totally random punching match, because yeah, that was me and Meaghan.  And, as I referred to earlier, the ultimate feeling of excitement on Christmas Eve, of anticipating Santa coming, of that magical moment on Christmas morning when you realize he *did* come, of the first sight of the tree in the morning, and that wonderful feeling of getting that ONE toy you REALLY wanted.  I connect emotionally with this film in such a phenomenally powerful way.  This connection is not about making me happy or sad, or moving me in a dramatic way like other films do; instead, this film just flat out channels my childhood.

Really, Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd crafted an extraordinary movie if it can make me feel so powerfully nostalgic about my own childhood despite the fact that my childhood came forty years after the childhood in A Christmas Story. 

But there’s so much more that I love about this film apart from how it reminds me of my childhood.  There is a level of attention to detail here that I am constantly in awe of.  When the Old Man pulls up in his Oldsmobile outside the family house, I giggle that his car is covered in snow, but he didn’t bother scraping the windshield – he just used the wipers, that’s it (maybe that’s just funny to people who live in snowy areas).  The conversation between the Mother and the Old Man at the beginning of the film, when he says, “a whole damn TEAM of utility infielders” and she responds with a distracted “That’s nice; Ralphie, ON THE DOUBLE!” is endlessly amusing.  How Ralphie checks the mailbox for his envelope containing his decoder ring, and when it’s not there, he doesn’t bother bringing in the mail, he just closes the mailbox back up; when the envelope IS there, he leaves the rest of the mail in the box – with the door open, of course.  How every light in the house is on except for the leg lamp when the Mother says “We don’t want to waste electricity!”  How the department store Santa says “Here’s a wet one” and “Get me a towel” when he lifts a small boy onto his lap – ew.  I’m constantly discovering these small details in this film, despite the fact that I’ve seen it I don’t know how many times.  The great films stand up to repeated viewings, and hoo boy, does A Christmas Story stand up.

I love love love Darren McGavin as The Old Man.  He is so perfect as a loveable, excitable grump.  His every eyebrow twitch is funny.  His ridiculous enthusiasm over the silliest of things is hysterical.  His nonsensical cursing is wonderful.  I love how tired and annoyed he is on Christmas morning.  His gag with the bowling ball is classic, and my husband and I constantly tell each other, “Yes, very much!”  (It’s a quote from this movie, but it has to be delivered in just the right way.)  What I love about The Old Man, too, is that he is the character who ultimately gets Ralphie his beloved Red Ryder BB gun.  This is significant because he is the one adult that Ralphie DOESN’T ask for the gun.  Ralphie asks his mother, then his teacher, then the department store Santa, and they all tell him “No.”  It’s downright heartwarming watching the curmudgeonly Old Man getting giddy as a schoolboy on Christmas morning as he watches Ralphie load the BB gun.  And Melinda Dillon matches him step for step as the Mother, alternately caring and thoughtful, then stern and strict.  I love her delivery of “Don’t you give me that look, you’re gonna get it!” 

Speaking of which, in case you can’t tell, I love to quote this film, and my husband and I do so constantly.  It makes the film even more special to me, because it’s helped form a great deal of little in-jokes between the two of us.

Me being, well, me, I have to talk about the music used in this movie.  All the holiday-themed music is music of the era, and I love hearing Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.  But what I really mean here is the use of classical music as part of the soundtrack.  While there was original music written for the soundtrack, most is derived from various classical pieces.  Imagine my surprise when I popped in a forgotten Tchaikovsky CD and heard the opening strains of the Hamlet Overture – because that’s the same music when Ralphie says ‘fudge.’  Imagine my surprise when I attend a concert where they are performing the Grand Canyon Suite, which is, seriously, half the soundtrack of this film.  And then, of course, there’s the inspired use of the theme for The Wolf from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as the music for the bully, and going back to Tchaikovsky again with his Romeo and Juliet Overture when Ralphie has his Miss Shields fantasy.  Really, this film is surprisingly rich in its use of classical music, which naturally makes it a winner in my book.

I love the narration in this film, and I think it’s a big reason why the film so powerfully triggers “childhood” to me.  Jean Shepherd, the author on whose works A Christmas Story is based, does the narration, speaking as Ralphie as an adult.  But it’s a different sort of narration; usually, the adult speaks with level of cynicism or jadedness.  The adult is world weary, and looking back with poignancy at their past.  Not really so in A Christmas Story.  Yes, the very initial narration at the opening of the film has that sort of retrospect, but everything else in the film is decidedly in the present.  It’s not Jean Shepherd narrating Ralphie as an adult looking back on his childhood, but rather, Jean Shepherd narrating Ralphie’s childhood in the present tense.  He has all the excitement of a child, and that’s what is typically missing in such narration.  This juxtaposition (an adult commentating on his childhood in the present tense with childish enthusiasm but with an adult vocabulary) is best exemplified in the scene where Ralphie writes his theme on what he wants for Christmas.  Ralphie’s essay is utter garbage, but the narration is eloquent and feverish.  I think the whole thing is hysterical.

Another small thing I love about this movie is how it approaches the Santa issue.  In the world of this film, Santa is real.  No mention is made about Santa not existing.  Ralphie is a 9-year-old, which is an age where most children still believe in Santa.  Ralphie believes, and so the film believes.  If you watch it, if you watch how the film is cut, there is just one small throwaway line that hints that Santa might not be real, but for everything else, the magic is still there.  And that one small throwaway line would, I’m certain, go unnoticed by small children.  I like, then, that this is a film that can be seen by small children and it doesn’t ruin Santa for them, but at the same time, it hold incredible appeal for adults as well.

If I have yet to make it abundantly clear, I love this movie.  It’s cynical without being bitter, sprinkling just the right amount of sour and sweet together.  It’s never, EVER sappy, and it never gets too down either.  Bob Clark, after this film, is most famous for directing Porky’s.  He later did Baby Geniuses.  Clark is not a director for the history books, but this film goes to show that every director, ANY director, has at least one genuine masterpiece in them.  Not only have I seen this movie more often than I can count, but I’ve listened to the commentary with Billingsley and Clark more times than I can count.  I love to listen to the commentary, just to hear Clark talk so passionately about it.  He loved this film, and I think it shows.  He poured his heart and soul, his own childhood, into A Christmas Story, and it shines through. 

Whenever I think of my favorite films of all time, I tend not to think of A Christmas Story simply because it’s season-specific, but this would easily be a frontrunner for my Desert Island movie.  I can watch this over and over and never get tired of it.  Every year, I love it more.

Challenge: completed! (with one of my longest reviews too, natch!)

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.  IT’S A CLINKER!


  1. Every time I watch this, I think "This is my favorite scene." And then another scene shows up and I think, "No, this is my favorite scene." I always remember so many great moments, but I always seem to forget a lot of great moments and laugh at them anew every time I see it.

    1. Agreed. Every year, when I watch it again many times over, it's like coming home again. And every year, it surprises me just how GOOD and FUNNY and CHARMING it is.

  2. It's so surprising to hear this film praised so very highly, seeing as it's virtually unheard of in the UK. I've yet to find someone who has even heard of it, and the only reason I've seen it is because I found a DVD in a second hand shop for 25p (40c). I wasn't overly enamoured when I saw it (from an outsiders point of view, it seems too American to relate to), but by the sounds of it I need to give it another go. Very good review Sio, very entertaining.

    1. I was rather wondering if this film had the same reputation it has in the States in other countries as well, and you've answered that question. I can totally understand this being a very "American" film, as it's channeling classic mid-twentieth century Americana.

      I recommend giving it another try, but I'll almost always recommend seeing a film twice before pronouncing final judgment.

      I've found with "A Christmas Story" that's it's not really a children's movie about Christmas, but more a movie FOR adults ABOUT a child's Christmas. It's INTENT is the feeling of honest yet wistful nostalgia.

  3. "quarterlife crisis" - love it

    For someone concerned about not being able to describe what the movie means to you, you do a very effective job of communicating your love of it to us.

    I'll be honest, I laughed at this movie and had fun watching it, but I've never bothered to see it again. I saw it some time in the 90s before it really took off in popularity, but after it had become part of pop culture. Maybe because there wasn't any particular wave or trend around it when I saw it, I didn't get caught up in it.

    And as a fellow New Englander I can completely relate on having my mother bundle me up so much to go outside in the winter that I could barely move. Those scenes were probably the biggest laughs for me in the film, especially when it showed the kid running and his arms were partially sticking out at the sides because of all the bundling.

    1. I remember reading an article about quarterlife crises before my own hit. Dude, it's a real thing. College is over, and you have no job, no money... finding purpose and meaning is challenging. My twenties blew. The best part was getting married, but career-wise and money-wise, holy hell, I never want to go through that again.

      There's a lot in this film that channels the regular everyday realities of childhood in a wonderfully unpretentious way. I love that the Christmas morning in A Christmas Story does not involve wacky situations or a wacky in-law or anything really all that wacky. It's just a regular Christmas, and that's grand.

  4. Oops. Forgot to mention - I sent you an email about your thumbdrive. I've seen all your DVDs, so I'm just waiting on some guidance there and I can get them on their way back to you.