Christmas Story, A (United States, 1983)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A Christmas Story has something no other holiday film - new or old, comedic or serious - can boast: perfect nostalgia. That quality fuels this modern-day classic and has made it one of the season's most beloved motion pictures. One of the Turner cable stations annually runs the movie non-stop for 24 hours and that's the mark of something with which people feel comfortable. A Christmas Story takes place in the early 1940s, but so much material in the film is universal that, irrespective of your birth date or religious affiliation, you're likely to find more than one familiar thing contained herein. Those born before 1940 will see this as a collage of memories brought to the screen. Those of a younger age will mix their own memories of Christmas with a wistfulness associated with how they imagine the holiday once was (and, if it truly wasn't, how it should have been). If I was going to rank recent Christmas movies (those that have arrived after the black-and-white era), A Christmas Story would be near or at the top.

This endearing film is based in part on In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, a collection of short story memoirs by satirist Jean Shepherd. It's interesting to note that many of these received their first publication during the 1960s in Playboy magazine. There's something ironic about a beloved family movie whose source material received its first exposure in a men's magazine. Shepherd's writing is precise: he knows exactly how to use a phrase to evoke a memory. That's one reason why A Christmas Story is so special: because even its most outrageous moments feel grounded in reality. The viewer doesn't simply watch this movie; he experiences it along with the characters. It's as if Shepherd sifted through our memories as well as his. Who hasn't watched A Christmas Story and thought, "Hey! That happened to me!"? (Hopefully, that moment doesn't come when the dogs devour the turkey dinner.)

Although the film never provides a specific date for its activities, one an assume it’s the early 1940s (since it's pre-war, probably 1940). Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) has set his sights on this year's ultimate Christmas gift: the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. When he foolishly reveals his heart's desire to his mother (Melinda Dillon), she dismisses it with a crushing: "You'll shoot your eye out." Undaunted, Ralphie presses the campaign, attempting to enlist the aid of his father (Darren McGavin) (through "clever" hints), his school teacher (by writing a "theme" on what he wants for Christmas), and even the Mall Santa. Alas, all looks lost, since almost everyone (except Dad) agrees with Mom: he'll shoot his eye out. Meanwhile, we get to peer at the Parker family during the holidays and observe their comfortable routines: the purchase and decoration of the tree, the opening of the presents, the preparation of the big dinner, and the visit to a Chinese Restaurant when all doesn't go as planned. Whether or not Ralphie gets his gun is irrelevant in the long-term - next year there will be something as hot that he'll have to have - but watching him try to convince adults he won't shoot his eye out is worth 90 minutes of anyone's time.

The movie is short on sentiment and long on humor, but it's not over-the-top humor. Christmas Vacation is good for a few laughs but it quickly wears out its welcome. A Christmas Story can amuse time after time. The movie understands what's funny in being human: how our foibles and frailties can provide the fodder for laughter. Add to that the sardonic observations of the narrator (Ralphie as an adult, voiced by Jean Shepherd), and you have the mixture for a motion picture that never ceases to be enjoyable. The format worked so well that it was co-opted several years later by the ABC-TV show The Wonder Years. The appeal of the TV show is the same as that of A Christmas Story: nostalgia.

The film's casting is nearly perfect. Peter Billingsley is Ralphie, the hyperactive lovable kid who lives in the moment and thinks he can outsmart adults. Billingsley's cockeyed grin and wide-eyed expression make him instantly likable. Like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, his entire career has been defined by this single childhood role. Unlike Culkin, however, who wants to move on, Billingsley is happy to be known as Ralphie. I don't know what kind of actor he is today (his appearances, few and far between, don't allow much latitude for a "performance"), but it's hard to imagine anyone else as Ralphie.

Darren McGavin had a diverse enough resume that typecasting was never a fear for the late actor, who stopped working in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, more people know him as "The Old Man" than even as cult-figure Kolchak. His approach to Mr. Parker is flawless - a gruff middle class businessman who loves his kids but doesn't make a practice of showing it. He's also a Mr. Fixit, turning flat tires and malfunctioning furnaces into opportunities to display his prowess when it comes to home repairs.

Melinda Dillon is the "Everymom" - more stable than her character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind but not fundamentally different. She's a little on the overprotective side - not only does she reject Ralphie's gift request but she dresses her youngest, Randy (Ian Petrella), so warmly that he can hardly move in his snowsuit. She provides enough nurturing to balance Mr. Parker's hands-off approach to his kids.

A sequel was produced, although not until 1994 after A Christmas Story became a hit in its post-theatrical life. Called My Summer Story and also based on Shepherd's memoirs, the movie continues the adventures of the Parker family. However, although most of the creative team was the same (with Bob Clark returning to direct), My Summer Story lacks A Christmas Story's magic. Part of the problem is the casting - with the exception of Shepherd (as the narrator) and Tedde Moore (as a teacher), none of the original actors returned. Although the cast is fine (Charles Grodin as Mr. Parker, Mary Steenburgen as Mrs. Parker, Kieran Culkin as Ralphie), it's tough to escape the sense of watching imposters. Other spin-offs and incarnations included an American Playhouse series of movies and a stage play.

A Christmas Story contains scenes and set pieces that stay in the memory. The are Ralphie's trips to and from school with the bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) in hot pursuit. There's the triple-dog dare that leads Flick to having his tongue attached to a frozen flagpole. There's the arrival of the Old Man's fishnet stockinged leg lamp, which he doesn't recognize as the epitome of cheesiness. There's the annual trip to the tree lot and the equally annual blown fuse when the decorated monstrosity is lit. There's Ralphie's discovery that not all soaps taste the same. (I never had my mouth washed out with soap, but it was threatened on more than one occasion.) There's the trip to the mall to see Santa and his disgruntled elves (one wonders whether this scene was the inspiration for Bad Santa). There's the Christmas morning race to open the presents and the moment when Ralphie wonders if his mother was right all along. (Anyone with glasses will sympathize with his terror when he hears the crunch beneath his feet. It's something the non-bespectacled can't relate to.) Finally, there's the Chinese Christmas dinner, complete with Peking Duck and singing waiters.

It's those moments and others and the way they are tied together by Shepherd's tongue-in-cheek narration that cements A Christmas Story as one of those rare must-see holiday movies, even for those who don't celebrate Christmas. Director Bob Clark, whose resume is nothing if not diverse (Black Christmas, Porky's, Rhinestone, Baby Geniuses) is the right choice for the material. He understands Shepherd's script and achieves the tone necessary to make this an enduring movie rather than a holiday throw-away. When it was released, MGM saw this as a minor blip on their release schedule - a Thanksgiving morsel designated for a two-week run. They were surprised by the movie's theatrical staying power in 1983 and even more surprised by its long-term appeal. If you're a fan of Christmas movies or films that use nostalgia as a driver, A Christmas Story cannot be missed. Then again, if you're in either category, you have probably already seen it.

Christmas Story, A (United States, 1983)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1983-11-18
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1