by Steve Habrat
It is damn near impossible to find someone who loathes the idea of watching Bob Clark’s now classic A Christmas Story around Christmas. Unless you’re my mother, everyone else can’t get enough of young cherub-faced Ralphie’s epic quest to make sure there is a Red Ryder BB gun nestled underneath his family’s Christmas tree come the big day. For some odd reason my mother hates this film and I have never been able to figure out why. For me, I love watching it on Christmas Eve, but then again I am someone who falls head over heels for schmaltz. I remember watching this film as a kid and relating to it because who didn’t have that one gift that they were dying to find Christmas morning? The one where you anxiously tear off the paper, hands a bit shaky with anticipation, and then your eyes growing as big as saucers as you see the glorious treasure that was hidden behind Santa Clause stamped wrapping paper! It’s about the gift that makes you forget about every other gift that has your name written on it. But A Christmas Story ends up being about a little more than just getting that special gift. It’s about the trials and tribulations as a kid–swearing in front of your parents (Fudge!), getting beat up by older bullies, not paying attention in class, receiving average grades in school, dealing with siblings, etc. It touches on your father’s passive attitude about Christmas, your mother’s efforts to make sure it’s a cozy holiday with hearty food, the journey to meet Santa, and more! Even if you don’t watch it as a Christmas film, there is still something that can be cherished and reminiscent about your own childhood.
Set in 1940, in Hohman, Indiana (It was actually filmed in Cleveland, Ohio. My stomping grounds!), A Christmas Story follows young Ralphie Parker (Played by Peter Billingsley) and his adventures during the Christmas season. The film picks up with Ralphie seeing the Red Ryder BB gun in a storefront window and falling in love with rifle. He then launches a massive campaign to convince his parents, his stern mother (Played by Melinda Dillion) and his grumpy Old Man (Played by Darren McGavin) to get the gun for him for Christmas. Each attempt is met with “You’ll shoot your eye out” and disappointment for little old Ralph. But every door closed is another door opened and Ralphie takes advantage of every opportunity. Along with his little brother Randy (Played by Ian Petrella), the two Parker boys also face a terrifying visit with Santa, neighborhood bullies, a tongue getting frozen to a light post, embarrassing winter gear, flat tires, and their father’s prized lamp, all with hysterical results.
Director Clark approaches A Christmas Story with a dreamy haze that lingers through the entire movie, appearing as the flashback it is. The film is enthusiastically narrated and guided along by a much older Ralphie (Voiced by Jean Shepherd) and boy if that voice isn’t iconic now. This film is loaded with unforgettable moments, from the soap shoved into Raphie’s mouth after he drops the F-bomb to the tongue stuck to the light post that is both uproarious and pitiable. Who can forget that notorious lamp being delivered and the jubilant Old Man outside the house basking in the sensual glory? But there is also some beautiful shots in this film, from Ralphie peering out his bedroom window on to a snow covered lawn on Christmas morning, to one of the final shots of the Old Man and the mother sitting together on the couch, tree lit and watching the snow fall on to the front yard. These images look like they are ripped from 40’s Christmas cards. They are both vintage and modern, all in the same breath.
A Christmas Story wouldn’t be as popular if it wasn’t for those performances from all involved. Billingsley’s Ralphie is all starry-eyed innocence. A true product of the time he is growing up in. You can’t help but adore him. His brother Randy is a whiny little runt, one who is always pleading for the sympathy of Ralphie. Their mother is an incandescent woman, bursting with love and affection but stern when the chips are down. The Old Man is a gruff chap, one who comes down hard if the boys step out of line, but he has a heart of gold buried beneath all of his toughness. They all add up to be the face of a true old-fashioned family. There is also the rabid Scut Farcus (Played by Zack Ward) and Grover Dill (Played by Yano Anaya), the two nasties of the neighborhood. There is also the hilarious and creepy Santa Claus who bears down on children with intimidating and booming “HOOO! HOOO! HOOO!”s. He has the red nose and rosy cheeks, appearing almost too real at times.
There is a whimsical side to all the chaos in A Christmas Story, with knee-slapping fantasies that only a kid could come up with. Ralphie fantasizes that he returns to his parent’s home and has been stricken blind. Another fantasy finds him as a gun-toting cowboy picking off stereotypical black and white stripe clad burglars. As they “die” they wear black Xs over their eyes. The Wizard of Oz characters consistently pop up too, adding a much desired and achieved eeriness. Yet A Christmas Story finds the quirks in real life too. Ralphie is forced to wear an atrocious pink rabbit suit. A trio of Chinese waiters sing Christmas carols and mispronounce the “fa-la-la-la-la” parts. A bowling ball is dropped on the Old Man’s groin, sending his voice through the roof. According to Clark, the world itself and everything that happens around us is outlandish with a touch of cartoonish.
If you find yourself as one of the only people on the face of the earth who has never seen A Christmas Story, do yourself a favor and see it immediately. It has become a Holiday tradition for it to play continuously on television networks on Christmas day. My ritual, if I am able to, is to watch it on Christmas Eve, as it always really helps you get into the spirit of Christmas. In my eyes, it stands next to classics like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s A Wonderful Life (One of my all-time favorite films), The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Christmas Vacation. Perhaps my adoration of this film stems from the fact that it was filmed in the area which I hail from. Either way, the film remains a tradition every year, allowing those who see it to take a break from relentless shopping, wrapping, cooking, and decorating to reminisce about what Christmas looked like as a kid. Reminisce about a time when life was so much simpler. I think that many new viewers are not as hip to the film as many older viewers are, but the film still lives on. It lives on and replays just like our fondest Christmas memories.
A Christmas Story is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.