Wednesday, December 16, 2009

12 Days of Christmas: A Fudging Good Time in Bob Clark's "A Christmas Story"

Getting something for someone who has everything hardly seems possible. But imagine what it's like to be someone who only wants one thing, and your longing is being thwarted by a constant threat of shooting your eye out.

Christmas is fast approaching, and young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) has but one thing on his mind: an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. But it turns out that everyone -- at least the people in authority -- believe that a simple BB gun is dangerous. Along the way towards that beautiful 25th day of December, Ralphie is burdened by numerous obstacles: leg lamps, ridiculously long lines to see Santa, a Christmas theme for his class, the Queen Mother of all dirty words, and the evil, yellow-eyed bully, Scut Farkus. But the Red Ryder is Ralphie's ultimate goal, and if he and his meatloaf-hating little brother and triple-dog-daring pals can make it to Christmas, maybe there will be something waiting for him under the Christmas tree... you know, aside from a pink bunny costume.

Upon initial theatrical release, Bob Clark's A Christmas Story (1983) did not fare well and received mostly negative critical responses. It certainly didn't help that he'd directed the raunchy comedy, Porky's, the previous year, with a sequel released mere months before A Christmas Story. (Clark had also helmed two notable horror films in the early '70s, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and Black Christmas.) But thanks to TV broadcasts, Clark's film eventually became a holiday favorite. Many sequences, such as when Ralphie is helping his old man change a flat tire and lets slip the F-dash-dash-dash word, are memorable and frequently quoted by fans.

Clark's movie is wonderful, a sweet and touching story told from the perspective of a young boy. The cast is topnotch, with Billingsley breathing life into one of the most lovable cinematic characters of all time. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, portraying Ralphie's parents, are likewise outstanding. The rest of the supporting cast, from Ian Petrella as Randy and even Zack Ward as Scut Farkus, is terrific, and the actors all have their time to shine.

The movie is loosely based on a book by author and radio personality Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Shepherd narrates the film (presumably an adult Ralphie) and even has a cameo in the film, as the man who tells Ralphie and Randy that "the line [to see Santa] ends here... it begins there." Ralphie mentions a specific Red Ryder gun (including a "compass in the stock and this thing which tells time" -- he's referring to a sundial), and although Shepherd clearly recalls such a model, no such gun had previously existed. (The Daisy "Buck Jones" model had a compass and sundial, but not the Red Ryder.) Director Clark also has a cameo. He's the neighbor standing on the street with the Old Man as he finds the perfect window spot for his "major award."

A sequel,
My Summer Story, was released in 1994. Like A Christmas Story, the script was based on stories from Shepherd's book. Clark returned to direct, and Shepherd was once again the narrator. The cast, however, was almost completely replaced, with Kieran Culkin (Macaulay's brother) as Ralphie and Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen as his parents. The film performed poorly at the box office and has since fallen into obscurity.

A Christmas Story is obviously about more than just Ralphie's quest for an official Red Ryder... well, you know the rest. It's a snapshot of childhood, a healthy slice of life that many people would love to have back. So while we can never be kids again, we can certainly have fun watching Ralphie, who will forever remain that little boy, wholesome and squeaky clean, and not just because he had his mouth washed out with Lifebouy soap.


  1. Sark, you have done justice to a true modern classic! You mentioned most of my favorite scenes and included a photo from another fave: where Mom gets Randy to eat his dinner by encouraging him to show her how piggies eat at the troth. I also like the outcome of the highly anticipated code that Ralphie excitedly cracks--only to be bummed by what it reveals. I think many of us have had similar childhood experiences. And that's beauty of A CHRISTMAS STORY--a lot of it rings true for a lot of people because Shepherd perfectly captures a place and a time from a childhood perspective. There's another sequel that was made for cable, I think, called OLLIE HOPNOODLE'S HAVEN OF BLISS. My wife and I saw it once and enjoyed it, but I think it's pretty rare these days. Isn't it ironic that Bob Clark made both this sweet holiday movie and BLACK CHRISTMAS? (If anyone is interested, Sark did a great review of that movie in Oct 09...check the index in the sidebar.) Thanks, Sark, for a greatly entertaining review.

  2. Sark, I love to read your posts! You have truly captured the movie magic that occurs when "A Christmas Story" fills our screens. The pictures you posted are classics. Like Rick, the eating like a piggy scene is a favorite with its sheer parental brilliance to get a reticent little boy to consume something nutritious. I also feel Ralphie's pain when he has to don that pink bunny garb that should only be given to children under four years of age. I had so much fun reading your loving tribute to this realistic slice of America film. Brilliant work, Sark! I am grinning from ear to ear!

  3. Great review. For many years I had only seen snippets of this film--my brothers watch TNT all day and I'd look over to see what was on TV and catch a random scene. A few years ago I decided to watch the film from beginning to end, and it was very funny. Ralphie reminds you of what it was like to be a kid.

  4. Sark, you really captured the good feeling of this movie. I never get tired of it, and don't feel that Christmas is complete without watching it. I also loved Ollie Hopnoodles Haven of Bliss which, although different cast, was really funny. Thanks for this wonderful article about a movie that evokes a place and time we all would like to have back.

  5. Sark, I have not seen this Christmas movie. But it sounds very funny.. I'm trying to imagine the story behind the pink, bunny suit..poor little guy:(

  6. Sark, this is a excellent review of one of my favorite holiday movies. Our family will watch it one evening next week. Thanks for sharing all the moments that make Christmas complete.

  7. fans of this film should hunt for the youtube of "phantom of the open hearth" an older jean shepherd movie which contains a far superior leg lamp sequence