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As 1980s Christmases became increasingly cynical, thanks in part to director Bob Clark’s 1974 slasher Black Christmas and its bloody brethren, A Christmas Story breathed new life back into the Christmas genre, exploring a traditional “all American” 1940s Christmas with its tongue remaining firmly planted in cheek. The New Orleans born Clark’s decade in the Canadian wilderness making the commercially successful series of Porky‘s films clearly necessitated a refreshing of his cinematic palette, and this collaboration with raconteur Jean Shepherd perhaps remains his most famous work to date.
Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Shepherd, particularly the fabulously titled In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, A Christmas Story tells the tale of nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a boy who only wants one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB Gun, with a compass in the stock, and “this thing which tells time”. Throughout the film, Ralphie concocts schemes to ask his mother, his teacher and ultimately Santa Claus for his prize. Yet the pleas fall on deaf ears with the constant refrain: “You’ll shoot your eye out”. The film is also filled with numerous subplots involving Ralphie and the rest of the family, with non sequiturs and wry asides that make this one of the most simultaneously heartwarming and cynical films of the season.
Sort of a proto version of TV’s The Wonder Years, Shepherd himself narrates the inner-monologue/memories of his nine-year-old counterpart, allowing the audience to view the wonders of a “simple” childhood through the eyes of a cynical adult, not to mention vice versa. Some school bullies, a father’s constant battles with a malfunctioning boiler, a over-stressed mother and a leg with a lampshade are just some of the subplots that crop up throughout the film. One sequence in which one of Ralphie’s schoolmates gets his tongue stuck to a icy utility pole highlight the real charms of this film. This may be a simple story told through the eyes of a much older man, but despite the adult inner-voice the children react like kids when you least expect it, wailing and weeping or jumping for joy at the tiniest of things. Billingsley, who now enjoys success as a Hollywood producer including being an Executive Producer on Iron Man, plays his character without any hint of artificiality.
While Shepherd later stated that he wanted the story to be set ”amorphously late 30s, early 40s”, with the exception of a few period-specific items, A Christmas Story could have just as easily been set in the 1980s or even today. Melinda Dillon as Mother and Kolchak: The Night Stalker‘s Darren McGavin as The Old Man are not just cardboard cutouts of parents, but real human beings with their own quirks. The Old Man was an Oldsmobile man, who “in the heat of battle…wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan”. His mother simple has no choice but to laugh at times in her endeavors to get Ralphie’s younger brother (who has “not eaten voluntarily in over three years”) to finish a meal.
A Christmas Story, although initially considered to be a sleeper hit, has become something of a Christmas favourite over the years thanks to repeat marathon screenings on US cable television. Adapted into various stage incarnations and a musical, Shepherd and Clark reunited in 1993 for a sequel, It Runs in the Family (a.k.a. My Summer Story). Not as successful as the original, thanks to being recast almost completely including Kieran Culkin as Ralphie(!), one of the things that could not be recaptured is A Christmas Story‘s ability to transport viewers to another time. It is a feel good movie for cynics who don’t want to see another small child save Santa, but at the same time want that warm and fuzzy feeling at Yuletide. Capturing everything that is good and bad about human nature during the Silly Season, A Christmas Story is as much a parody of holidays in general as it is a fond recollection of things past.