A Christmas Story has skyrocketed in popularity in the past few years, partly due to TNT playing it in a marathon on Christmas Eve; however, it still remains my favorite holiday film, for its warts-and-all look at the “good old days” so deified in these times. Jean Shepherd, the mastermind behind the movie and its narrator, was a late-night talk radio curmudgeon in the ’50s, probably most famously on WOR in New York City, but also in Cincinnati and Philly over the years. He had a unique, sardonic perspective on ordinary American life, both sentimental and critical, and this spirit is felt throughout the film.
The perfect director helmed the project- Bob Clark of Black Christmas fame- who had only a year or two before cobbled together a bunch of high school tall tales from the ’50s and ’60s from his and his friends’ lives, and made the colossal Canadian hit Porky’s, which not only succeeded due to its titillating low-brow humor, but because it created a warty yet nostalgic past, people with both friendly local cops and legendary strip club magnates. It was more than a story, it was a myth, and A Christmas Story draws on the hard-times childhoods of the pre-WW2 years to create a living world set in the “back when I was your age” era, a time we’ve all heard stories from. When people walked to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, as Bill Cosby would say.
I will not deeply summarize the now famous story, for if you haven’t seen it, tune in to TNT on December 24th at any hour of the day and watch it a few times. It’s a movie that bears rewatching, for many of the little jokes take several viewings to notice. It’s a simple enough story of young Ralphie pining for a Red Ryder BB gun in the days before Christmas, and his quirky family:
The Old Man, played to perfection by “Night Stalker” Darren McGavin, is his profane and temperamental father. Shepherd paints him in a few masterful strokes- “Some men are Catholics, others Baptists… my father was an Oldsmobile Man.” and “My father worked in profanity like other artists worked in oils,” say it all. While everyone remembers him raving about his broken Leg Lamp- sorry, Major Award- he’s best at the dining room table, looking exasperated, just wanting to relax.
Ralph’s Mother, played by Melinda Dillon- a fine character actress who’s done everything from parade around naked in Slap Shot to memorable roles in Magnolia– is another force of nature, embodying the childhood super-heroine known as “Mom.” The scene that captures her character is after Ralphie cusses, and gets a mouthful of soap- when she sends him to bed, she looks around, and tastes the soap. Sure she flies between strict disciplinarian and nurturing caregiver, but Clark gives us little glimpses into her life beyond the kids here and there, which make the film.
Randy, the little brother. Where they found this perfect little menace I do not know, but he manages to be that despised little tag-along younger brother, spoiled by mom. Even if he can’t put his arms down after she bundles him up in a dozen layers of winter coats, and mostly just stares at the screen or cackles his infectious laugh, the movie wouldn’t be the same without him.
and of course Ralphie. Peter Billingsley may have mostly ahem, petered out after this movie, he was the perfect kid actor to portray “the kid with glasses,” which is who Ralphie is in his little childhood gang. He gives pitch-perfect emoting under Jean Shepherd’s narration, whether he’s spellbound by the glow of electric sex gleaming in the window, or furiously pounding Scut Farcus and becoming aware of a stream of profanity leaving his mouth like he was speaking in tongues.
Together they make a rather strange little family but actually seem like they lived together. From singing “Jingle Bells” in the car while Dad tries to concentrate on driving, or celebrating Chinese Turkey after the Bumpus’s hounds devour their dinner, we take one look and know this family will stick together. Even if Ralphie goes blind from Soap Poisoning. But it’s far from idyllic- Dad’s driving an ancient Olds, the outside of the house barely looks better than the hillbillies’ next door. There’s a bully on the way to school who has the kids in terror. Dad curses like a sailor, and while we only get to hear Yosemite-Samisms, that’s as far as the sugar-coating goes. Okay, it ain’t Boyz N the Hood but it’s not the usual Hollywood bullshit family movie crap.
Jean Shepherd brought a lot to the table, but Bob Clark did his share. He has a small cameo as their neighbor Swede, who ogles the lamp in the window. Hardly a virtuoso director, he does manage his subtle little jabs and jokes. My favorite cut is when Ralphie is in the bathroom decoding his secret message from Orphan Annie, and Randy has gotta go. When he finally barges in and hops on the toilet, Clark cuts to later that night, when Mom is opening a pot of boiling red cabbage. Toilet lid opens, pot of dinner opens. Yuck! Without a word, we know what Ralphie thinks about red cabbage. Other touches include the antiqued look of Ralphie’s dream sequence when he turns in his “theme” on why a BB gun is a great Christmas present, and he imagines his teacher giving him an A+++++; the old-timey silent western look of when he imagines shooting “Black Bart” and his gang of criminals with his Red Ryder; but the best is when they finally meet Santa. Look closely, the guy who tells Ralphie to get to the end of the line is Jean Shepherd himself.
When you’re a child, a big man in a red suit with more white hair than a nursing home full of relatives is a scary S.O.B. Of course you want to sit in his lap, because he’s supposed to give you presents, but man is he creepy. Why are his cheeks so rosy? Clark films Ralphie’s meeting from his own POV, as a disgruntled Elf picks him up and swings him around, dizzyingly into Santa’s lap; he slows the soundtrack so Santa seems to growl like a bear, so we understand the kids’ terror. And yet he still has the perfect comic timing to let Santa turn and quip “I hate the smell of tapioca.” We really take Clark’s direction for granted, but he always managed to make things look natural, whether it was kids sticking their tongues to cold metal, or the ridiculous stuff from Porky’s.
Tragically, Bob Clark went on to direct Baby Geniuses and its sequels, and was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver in 2007. A documentary called ClarkWorld, about his life and times, including interviews with the Christmas Story cast and others he worked with, is coming next year.
Jean Shepherd passed on in 1999, but left a great legacy of recorded radio shows, and books like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which includes many of the stories that would be crafted into A Christmas Story. Sadly, a poorly executed sequel to the movie, entitled My Summer Story and including none of the original cast, has barely a fraction of the charm that the classic does. It is best avoided; Charles Grodin tries to fill Darren McGavin’s shoes, and while I like him a lot, it just isn’t the same. But if you want to see the Bumpuses have a hoedown, rent it.