Blog Directory CineVerse: From soap to fudge, A Christmas Story remains the go-to movie for fans this time of year

From soap to fudge, A Christmas Story remains the go-to movie for fans this time of year

Friday, December 22, 2023

Let’s talk turkey here—Chinese turkey, if you will. What’s America’s most beloved and rewatched Christmas movie? Many would say the honor goes to a black-and-white classic like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or Miracle on 34th Street. Others argue a more modern Yuletide film is deserving of the crown, such as Home Alone, Christmas Vacation, or Elf. But based on continual cable replays, strong polling, and endless repeat viewing value, the champion is A Christmas Story—currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Consider that the film was only a modest commercial success upon its original release in November 1983 and garnered mostly mediocre notices from critics. It quickly vanished from theaters but years later began snowballing into a huge fan favorite thanks to home video and cable. This is a case study of a little engine that could: A film that defied the odds and became a pop culture sensation.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted this week, click here. To listen to the latest episode of the Cineversary podcast celebrating A Christmas Story, click here.  

Amazingly, A Christmas Story has been played in a 24-hour marathon every year on TNT since 1997 and on TBS for the past 20 years. In 2008, over 54 million people are estimated to have watched the marathon, which represents almost one in six Americans tuning in to the cable channel for their yearly dose of A Christmas Story.

As proof of its continued popularity, In 2019 and 2012, the film was named the favorite or best holiday movie ever based on the results of surveying by OnePoll and Marist Poll, respectively. It’s also placed tops on the list of greatest Christmas films of all time by IGN and AOL.

A Christmas Story earns extra points in the authenticity column for being a period piece that gets all the small details and references right: the fact that kids would use a decoder pin to decipher secret messages on popular radio serials like Little Orphan Annie; Lifebouy soap would have been considered the worst tasting among foul-mouthed kids; sparks and electrical fires were a more serious concern due to overloaded outlets in early 1940s America; the Chicago Bears football team—world champions three out of four years in the early 1940s—was the squad you rooted for if you lived in Northwest Indiana like the Parker family did; many a mom had a copy of Look Magazine in her home; and the Wizard of Oz would have been on the minds of many kids at this time (if you pay attention, you can catch a bit of a meta joke: the costumed Oz characters at the Christmas parade chase away Mickey Mouse and his Disney-ites; remember that the film A Chrisstmas Story was made by MGM, also the studio behind The Wizard of Oz).

It’s deserving of accolades, too, thanks to nearly perfect casting. Peter Billingsley has the ideal face, size, and acting instincts for the role of Ralphie, using his big blue eyes, sheepish grin, and expressive eyebrows to maximum effect, while Ian Petrella as younger brother Randy never looks like he’s acting at all, so natural is his performance. All of Ralphie’s friends absolutely look their parts, and the freckled countenance and wicked smile sported by Zach Ward as Scut Farkus is unforgettable. But the crowning touch casting-wise comes with the presence of Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin as mom and dad Parker, who know exactly how and when to play it straight and when to yuk it up for maximum laughs. McGavin as the “Old Man” chews a bit of scenery, but that’s entirely appropriate considering these are hyperbolic childhood memories.

This picture also has one of the all-time great lines in movie history, which is a fantastic running gag: “You’ll shoot your eye out”; among the greatest movie villains ever in the town bully Scut Farkus; and one of the best David versus Goliath feel-good underdog wins in the movies when Ralphie finally fights back and defeats Farkus.

What gives this film its staying power and longevity over the past four decades – especially considering that this is a story set in 1940, 83 years ago, and was released 40 years ago? It’s more than simply blind tradition and comfort viewing of a film we’ve seen so often that we can’t help but revisit it that explains its evergreen appeal. A Christmas Story serves as a mini pop-culture history lesson, teaching new generations about what life was like as a kid 80-plus years ago and reminding viewers that the childhood experience and its ups and downs are universal, regardless of what era you grew up in. Younger viewers who pay attention may find it fascinating that the most advanced entertainment technology in 1940 was a radio, that many families brought home and decorated a real Christmas tree much later in the Christmas season, that tires often blew out loudly and suddenly on cars, or that Red Ryder and Little Orphan Annie were as popular to youngsters as Spongebob Squarepants or The Avengers. And yet many can also relate to Ralphie and his life, including the challenges of living in a middle-class family, worrying about Santa getting you the present you want, stressing about a school assignment, or trying to avoid neighborhood bullies, profanity-spewing fathers, report cards, getting punished for a misdeed, your parents arguing, being embarrassed by a younger sibling, and discovering the ugly truth about crass commercialism and consumerism.

Per Emily St. James at AV Club: “It’s the Christmas movie I’d most want to live in. The movie’s Norman Rockwell America seems further and further away with every year—and that’s a good thing in a lot of ways…But at the same time, I miss a world that I came in at the tail-end of—of downtown department stores and small towns that weren’t just bedroom communities for larger cities, of boisterous, copyright-flouting Christmas parades and two-story houses a family could live in on one income.”

It remains a cut above in the Christmas cinema subgenre perhaps because it’s refreshingly postmodern in its tone and sensibilities while also being traditional in its themes and intentions. Put another way, it’s sentimental yet cynical, nostalgic yet streetwise, although not overly so in any of those departments.

Ruminate on how the film’s department store depiction of Santa is certainly not sweet, touching, or precious, or how there is no saccharine scene involving Ralphie having a transcendent moment of spoken kinship with his father, who remains so intimidating, curious, and idiosyncratic to him throughout the story. Also, the boys, while often cute and innocent, are sly and precocious for nine-year-olds, often using adult vernacular like “old man,” “smartass,” and “son of a bitch” and demonstrating a prepubescent interest in the opposite sex, as we see Ralphie fondling his father’s leg lamp. And Ralphie proves to be an undependable friend, abandoning Flick twice and ratting on Schwartz. There’s little sentimentality to be found in these and other examples.

Yes, Clark and his collaborators wrap things up in a tender, poignant bow by the conclusion. But many of the vignettes are colored by hilariously sarcastic quips and tinged by the sardonically articulate insights of our narrator, the now-adult Ralphie, who is looking back upon a cherished time in his youth with a fondness that’s nevertheless framed within the aged lens of experience. He’s being honest in his reminiscences, but we can discern that Ralphie the grownup acknowledges that a lot of the things he found wondrous and mysterious as a child actually can be more easily understood now. The wisened and older Ralphie yearns for those simpler, happier times, as we can, too, but he relays how being a kid was more often frustrating, disappointing, confusing, unfair, and downright frightening.

“A Christmas Story threads an incredibly difficult needle,” St. James continued in her review. “It’s nostalgic both for a more universal childhood holiday, one full of longing for presents and negotiating bullies and writing down a Christmas wish list—things kids will probably always do as long as the holiday exists—and for a very specific kind of American holiday that’s mostly disappeared… filtered through grown Ralphie’s point-of-view, it becomes this weird nostalgic thing, a memory of something unpleasant that becomes pleasant because of the gauzy haze of nostalgia.”

Vanity Fair’s Sam Kashner called this “a new kind of holiday movie, one that acknowledged—even relished—the “unbridled avarice,” the commercialism, the disappointments, the hurt feelings, and all-around bad luck that, in reality, often define the merry season. In other words, what real Christmas was like in real families. It brought a bracing blast of satire and realism.”

This was one of the very first holiday films to be told from a child’s point of view. Our main protagonist is Ralphie, now a grown man as the narrator who recalls his experiences as a nine-year-old at Christmastime in the Midwest in 1940. As in E.T. a year earlier, the filmmakers often shoot at the kids’ level and keep the adult characters to a minimum.

What’s also significant is that, like Home Alone seven years later, it’s that rare Christmas picture involving child characters or geared to kids in which there are no supernatural phenomena—the real Santa doesn’t appear and save the day, for example.

In 1983, it was arguably the most significant movie set during and themed around Christmas since Disney’s Babes in Toyland, a 1961 musical that no one remembers or rewatches. You could make a case that the last cherished holiday film before A Christmas Story was 1954’s White Christmas starring Bing Crosby.

Unlike many other holiday movies, this one is less driven by plot, serving more as a series of vignettes strung together, many of which have little to do with Christmas. Still, these various episodes work as mini-movies within the movie, scenes that play as self-contained stories you could watch out of context or order and still get immense satisfaction from viewing.

As further evidence of its staying power, ponder that A Christmas Story has three sequels: It Runs in the Family, also directed by Clark, released in 1994; A Christmas Story 2, released straight to DVD in 2012; and A Christmas Story Christmas, which debuted on Max in 2022. Additionally, following the debut of A Christmas Story, PBS’ American Playhouse featured two TV film adaptations using Sheperd’s narration and the same characters from the 1983 work: The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. In 2000, there was also a stage play adaptation of the film, in 2012 the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical, and in 2017 that musical was aired live on Fox.

The late Bob Clark – who had previously helmed completely different films like the horror movies Black Christmas and Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, as well as the teen sex comedy Porky’s – would seem an odd choice to direct A Christmas Story. However, although he’s not known for any particular stylistic tendencies and won’t be called an “auteur” anytime soon, Clark seemed to have a knack for bringing out memorable performances in children, as later evidenced in the family comedy Baby Geniuses and its sequel. It was his idea to cut into the set floors and place the camera at Ralphie’s height, better reflecting the perspective of a nine-year-old boy.

He used detailed index cards to storyboard each shot, demonstrating careful planning. And when writer and voiceover narrator Jean Shepherd tried to outflank Clark by attempting to supervise some of the actors and scenes, Clark quickly took charge and prevented the author from accessing the set.

The filmmaker also had a gift for visual comedy. Case in point: The scene segues of kids running to and from school between vignettes, the Black Bart gang-on-the-run imaginary sequence, and the turkey-stealing Bumpus dogs hastening a quick retreat from the Parker kitchen—all of which are exaggeratedly sped up and impeccably edited for comedic timing. Likewise, his other fantasy sequences – his teacher transforming into the Wicked Witch of the West and a blind Ralphie returning home to shame his parents – are equally effective funny bits. It’s also a nice touch to have Ralphie break the fourth wall and sneak a rascally smile to the audience after he convinces his mother that an icicle broke his glasses.

“Clark knows when to play things straight, as in the unbroken long shot of the final Chop Suey Christmas Dinner. He also knows when he can be clever, as shown in Ralphie's disastrous visit to Santa. Clark's wide-angle Santa-boot-in-the-face shot expresses the trauma of childhood powerlessness as well as anything in David Lean's Great Expectations,” per DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson.

Perhaps Clark should also be given credit for some minor racial inclusivity. Ralphie’s classroom has a few African-American students in it, and we have a quick shot of African-Americans caroling on the street, although none of these actors are giving lines of dialogue or listed in the end credits. (On the other hand, Clark and company poke some uncomfortable fun at a group of Chinese restaurant workers in a very dated scene that hasn’t aged well.)

Thematically, it may not be Citizen Kane, but A Christmas Story has some valuable messages and subtexts to share. First, it teaches us that the secret to life is turning lemons into lemonade. Time and again, Ralphie and his family are unexpectedly and suddenly challenged but find ways to turn a bad situation into something good. Exhibit A: Thwarted by his subtle attempts to persuade his mother to get him a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, Ralphie then tries to advance his aims in writing via his class paper; when that falls through, he pivots to petition Santa toward his cause; that fails, too, but ultimately he is rewarded, surprisingly, when his father makes Ralphie’s wish come true. Exhibit B: After the neighbor’s dogs ruin their Christmas feast, the Parkers buck tradition and enjoy a meal at a Chinese restaurant. The line that sums up this overall life lesson? “Life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

Big takeaway #2? Frustrations are fleeting, but family is forever. A Christmas Story reminds us that life is often unpredictable and upsetting, but things work out when you have a good support system, as in a loving family. Ralphie’s mother covers for her son after his fight with Farkus, helping gloss things over with his father. “From then on, things were different between me and my mother,” the narrator says. And, despite long dreading the punitive nature of his father, the Old Man proves he can be loving and sensitive; remember that it’s Ralphie’s old man who comes through in the clutch by getting him the Red Ryder BB gun, to the mild objection of his mother. (The Old Man undoubtedly recognizes some of his younger self in Ralphie and gets his son the same toy he had when he was nine years old.)

This is also, to some extent, an innocence lost narrative. A Christmas Story is really about how Ralphie learns how the world works and how every childhood eventually matures into adulthood. The eloquent voiceover narration from a grown and more sophisticated Ralphie reminds us that we’re being shown two perspectives here: the POV of a nine-year-old but filtered through the weathered lens of a grownup who is wistful about his past yet expresses a worldly sarcasm disguised by florid language. The young Ralphie is wise to the commercialism around him and more perceptive to the power dynamics that drive his parents’ relationship. “We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught,” he says, and so it’s no surprise that he conjures up a lie about an icicle breaking his glasses to avoid having his BB gun confiscated and hearing, “I told you so” about shooting his eye out. Yet, Ralphie is still young enough to believe in Santa Claus and put his trust in St. Nick to deliver the goods. This story depicts that precious pivotal age when blind belief and childhood fantasies didn’t yet surrender to plausible realities and more critical thinking.

An official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred-shot range model air rifle may be the greatest Christmas gift Ralphie would ever receive. But the greatest gift a Christmas Story bestows on viewers is stellar storytelling. This tale and its voiceover by Shepherd demonstrate the author’s exceptional talent for wordsmithing and weaving a transfixing narrative pieced together from brilliantly articulated recollections of his own childhood, many of which were captured in his 1966 tome In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, some among them that became legendary stories he famously shared on the radio decades ago. Shepherd’s remarkable linguistic skills, Seinfeld-like observational humor, and penchant for relaying relatable yarns that underscore life’s many ironies, foibles, and otherwise routine occurrences that become bigger-fish-story astonishing moments through the prism of fallible memory are deservingly front and center throughout this film. (The television series The Wonder Years, launched a few years later, would successfully steal this adult voiceover narration approach.)

Imagine, for a moment, A Christmas Story stripped of this audible storyteller. Sure, it would have been a fun flick with Billingsley as Ralphie doing the heavy lifting. However, it’s the audio narration and verbiage crafting by Shepherd that gives this movie its comical gravitas, nostalgic power, and undeniable charm. His disembodied presence is also crucial to better appreciate one of the key messages of this work—loss of innocence—because without that voice we aren’t reminded how important it is to cherish our childhood memories, both good and bad, and appreciate a time when we maintained a trusting sense of wonder about the world’s mysteries just before its harsher truths came into full light.

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