Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stubs – A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story (1983) Starring: Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley. Narrated by Jean Shepherd. Directed by Bob Clark. Screenplay by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, Bob Clark. Based on the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. Produced by Rene Dupont, Bob Clark. Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S. Color, Christmas, Comedy

Most of the time, when we think of Christmas movies, we’re talking about films like It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947) or one of the many films based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But not all classic Christmas movies are that old or black and white. Case in point, A Christmas Story (1983), based on a book by Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, which NBC shows every year in December and usually in a marathon at some point, A Christmas Story is shown every year by TBS often in a 24-hour marathon.

Jean Shepherd was an American story-teller as well as a radio and television personality, sort of his generation's David Sedaris. Like some of Sedaris’ work, Shepherd wrote humorous stories about growing up. Interestingly enough, both are perhaps most famous for stories about the Christmas season. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash was a series of short stories, first spoken by Shepherd on his radio show and published in Playboy magazine, before being published in book form in 1966.

The story takes place in Hohman, a fictionalized version of Hammond, Indiana, Shepherd’s hometown, during his youth, roughly the late 30’s/early 40’s (no actual year is given). The Parker family is a typical white family of the time, consisting of a housewife/mother (Melinda Dillon), a foul-mouthed father, aka The Old Man, (Darren McGavin) and two children, the nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his younger, more immature brother Randy (Ian Petrella).

Christmas is coming soon and after seeing it in the display window of a downtown department store all Ralphie wants is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.” But it’s a hard sell. His dilemma is how to bring in it up to his parents. He knows that he has to be delicate in his approach. He first tries to plant an ad for the rifle in his mother’s Look magazine.

Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), far left, sees what he wants for Christmas in a store window.

When sitting around the kitchen table, which is where the Parker family eats all their meals, he tries to be nonchalant about the need for such a gun, by mentioning a sighting of bears in town. Since that tact isn’t working, he tries to change the subject, but when his mom asks him what he wants for Christmas, he blurts out the Red Ryder BB gun. Of course, his mother retorts with “you’ll shoot your eye out” and Ralphie asks for tinker toys instead.

Ralphie continually blows his chances to drop a hint about what he really wants for Christmas.

Not everything about the movie is about the quest for the Red Ryder. The film tries to show the comings and goings of Ralphie, Randy, and their neighborhood friends, who attend the same school, Flick (Scott Schwarz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb). One such incident revolves around a bet between Flick and Schwartz and whether or not your tongue would freeze against a cold flagpole. Flick doesn’t think it would and resists Schwartz's daring to prove it. But when Schwartz triple dog dares him, in front of the schoolyard, Flick has no choice; lo and behold it does stick. And when the bell rings, his classmates leave him stranded there until the teacher sees him and the fire and police departments are called.

Flick (Scott Schwarz) gets triple dog dared by Schwartz (R.D. Robb) into sticking his tongue on a frozen pole.

The boys are also harassed by neighborhood bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) and his minion Grover Dill (Yano Anaya). Farkus doesn’t seem to be after money or goods, he just really enjoys terrorizing these smaller and younger kids.

Bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), right, and his minion, Grover Dill (Yano Anaya).

There are other touches from the era. Little Orphan Annie was a popular daily comic strip that ran from 1924 until 2010. Long before it got the Broadway musical treatment as Annie, it was serialized on the radio. Originally sponsored by Ovaltine, listeners, mostly children could redeem proofs of purchases for a secret decoder ring which would allow them to decode messages from the show. Ralphie, overjoyed by finally receiving his ring, is quickly disappointed when the first secret message he decodes is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”

Father, who beyond being a furnace fighter and curse word connoisseur, is also a dedicated contest entrant. Finally, he receives notification that he's won a major prize. Anticipation runs high as to what’s in the box that gets delivered after dinner. Mother is visibly disappointed that it turns out to be a lamp made from a plastic replica of a woman’s leg in fishnet stockings and high heels. Father, happy to have finally won something, wants to proudly display it in the front window, much to Mother’s chagrin. Later, while Father is busy fighting the furnace, Mother “accidentally” knocks the lamp over, breaking it. Father tries unsuccessfully to glue it back, but it proves to be hopeless.

The Old Man (Darren McGavin) proudly shows off his
hideous prize. Mother (Melinda Dillon) is not as pleased. 

Next up is getting a Christmas tree, for which there doesn’t seem to be much selection, though they do haggle the price down a few dollars. But the big incident happens on the way home when the car has a flat. Thinking Ralphie is old enough to help, Mother sends him out to help their father with changing the tire. Father, who has always visioned himself working in the pits at a car race, is slowed down by Ralphie’s assistance. But things go from bad to worse when the hubcap Ralphie is holding gets knocked out of his hands and the lug nuts it contains go flying into the snowy night. Ralphie sums up the incident by using an expletive, aka the F-word, fudge.

Father rats him out to Mother and Ralphie is forced to have his mouth washed out with soap until he confesses who taught the bad word. He chooses a friend rather than blaming his ever cursing Father.

Ralphie gets his mouth washed out with soap for saying a bad word.

Back on his quest for the Red Ryder, Ralphie tries to go around his mother and hopes to use a theme paper they have to write for school to get his teacher, Miss Shield (Tedde Moore), on his side. In his paper, he pleads his case for the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.” However, his hopes are dashed when his teacher echoes his mother’s sentiment, writing at the bottom of his C+-graded paper that he would probably shoot his eye out with the gun.

Disappointed beyond belief, Ralphie is in no mood for his daily dose of bullying from Farkus. Losing it, Ralphie fights back, knocking Farkus to the ground and wailing on him. The other kids watch in amazement until Randy goes to get their mother. Farkus is left bleeding on the sidewalk while Mom takes Ralphie home and tries to calm him down.

Ralphie wails on Farkus while his friends watch on in amazement.

Ralphie and Randy are both worried about their father’s reaction, but when he gets home, both are pleasantly surprised when Mother downplays the incident and tells Father that she’s taken care of everything.

Having failed to persuade his mother or his teacher, Ralphie hits upon Santa Claus, who, after all, has the final say about Christmas gifts. But the line to see Santa is long, the store is closing and lap time is at a premium..Once again Ralphie blows his chance and goes mute when asked what he wants. Shaking his head "yes" when Santa suggests a football, Ralphie is put on the slide down from Santa’s perch before finally coming to his senses. Scrambling back up the slide, he asks Santa for the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time.” Little Ralphie sells it with a smile, but is crestfallen when Santa, sounding like his mother, warns that he might shoot his eye out. Adding insult to injury, Santa uses his boot to push Ralphie down the slide. Feeling defeated, Ralphie goes home.

Ralphie proud of himself for finally asking Santa for the Red Ryder.

Christmas morning finally arrives and Ralphie and Randy dive into the pile of presents. One of the presents is a pink bunny suit hand sewn by an Aunt, which Ralphie is forced to put on. It looks ridiculous and the Father allows him to change out of it.

Worst gift ever. Ralphie receives a custom-made pink bunny outfit from one of his aunts.

After all the gifts are seemingly opened and Randy is passed out on the floor, The Old Man directs Ralphie to a box that is hidden between the desk and wall. When Ralphie pulls it out and unwraps it, he is surprised that it is the Red Ryder he’s been longing for. Father waves off Mother’s concerns about the gun and Ralphie anxiously runs out to play, again warned not to shoot his eye out.

Ralphie takes aim with his new Red Ryder.

No sooner is he outside and shooting at a target, the backfire from the gun knocks him down. With his glasses off and his cheek cut, Ralphie considers for a second if he has actually shot his eye out. When he realizes he’s okay, he tries to find his glasses, stepping on them, of course, and breaking them. Mustering up a few tears, Ralphie’s cries get Mother’s attention. He tells her that an icicle fell and cut his cheek and broke his glasses. When Mother believes him, Ralphie looks at the camera as if to say, “I can’t believe I got away with that.”

Ralphie convinces his mother that an icicle fell on his face.

With the outside door left open, the neighbor’s dogs invade the Parker house and devour the turkey that was being basted on the table when Ralphie had his accident. With no turkey to eat and few options, the Parker family end up being serenaded with Christmas songs in a Chinese restaurant.

For Ralphie, all’s well that ends well and he ends up sleeping that night with the Red Ryder in his clutches, the best Christmas gift he had ever gotten or would ever receive in his life, according to the narrator, Jean Shepherd.

Ralphie Parker stories would not end with that Christmas night. Though there were only supporting cast leftovers from A Christmas Story, there was a sequel made, My Summer Story (1994) and some TV movies featuring the Parker family, based on other Jean Shepherd stories, followed. An “official” sequel would be made: A Christmas Story 2: Official Sequel (2012). The direct-to-video feature was not based on the writings of Shepherd, just his characters, which is never a good sign.

Melinda Dillon, who plays Ralphie’s mother, began her acting debut on Broadway as Honey in the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Her first film was The April Fools (1969). She has been nominated twice for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Absence of Malice (1981). She would also appear in several TV Movies including State of Emergency (1994), for which she was nominated for a CableACE Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or a Movie.

Darren McGavin would start his film career as a painter at Columbia Pictures in 1945. That same year he would win a bit part in A Song to Remember and from that an acting career was born. He would appear in such films as The Man With the Golden Arm (1955); Mrs. Pollifax – Spy (1971); Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973), which he would also direct and produce; Airport ’77 (1977) and the Martian Chronicles (1980) before appearing in A Christmas Story. He would also appear on many television shows starting with Crime Photographer (1951-52) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-60). McGavin, however, maybe best known for the TV movies The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) and the series that would come after them Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75).

Like many child stars, Peter Billingsley started young, doing his first TV commercial at the age of 2. In all he would do about 120 commercials. He would make his first movie appearance in If I Ever See You Again (1978). After A Christmas Story, though, roles would slow down. He would make appearances on many sitcoms of the time, Punky Brewster, Who’s the Boss? and The Wonder Years, but roles would be harder to get. On an afternoon special for CBS: The Fourth Man (1990), he would meet and become friends with Vince Vaughn.

He would move behind the camera working with Vaughn and Jon Favreau, co-producing Made (2001), and Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), and became Executive Producer on The Break-Up (2006), Iron Man (2008) and Four Christmases (2008). Billingsley currently is an Executive Producer on Sullivan & Son on TBS, which Vaughn is also involved in.

Jean Shepherd’s humor, much like Sedaris’, isn’t for everyone, and not everything either write is as funny or as fascinating as they may think. I have to imagine that the sense of humor reflected in A Christmas Story met with Shepherd’s approval. since he co-wrote the screenplay. And there are many very relatable and quotable sequences. I like the fact that the movie is pulling back the covers on the Norman Rockwell ideal holiday family without completely blowing it up.

Still, there are some bits I could do without. As an example, I have to turn my head away whenever Ralphie’s brother Randy is around food. Randy, like many children, has an aversion to eating. He plays with his food, especially mashed potatoes, which he sculpts, but nothing like Richard Dreyfuss does in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Mom gets Randy to eat by having him show her how pigs eat. Gross.

Gross out humor: Randy plays with his food rather than eat it.

I’m not sure how accurately the film actually reflects the time period. In the 30s/40s time frame, America was either recovering from the Great Depression or was involved in World War II; neither event is mentioned, though either would have undoubtedly effected their lives. And I’m not one of those who can tell a 1938 Plymouth from a 1943 Ford, so I can’t tell you if other things like clothes and cars are accurate or not. But nostalgia is about remembering the best of how things were supposed to be, rather than how they really were, so you forgive a film like this if it isn’t spot-on period accurate.

The film is really a series of vignettes, pulled from other Shepherd stories, with the Red Ryder for Christmas theme holding everything together. As such, there are some time-bending issues, like giving their teacher Christmas gifts, but school continuing afterward. I would have thought those would have happened concurrently.

It also seems a little incongruent, to me, that a boy who still believes in Santa Claus would have some of the vocabulary Ralphie has. Usually the first time you say the F-word is after you figure out the Santa Claus scam not while you still believe it. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be the first time he’d have had his mouth washed out with soap. But it probably makes for a good story, as does the salacious lamp The Old Man wins. What sort of contests was he entering anyway?

Still, I think the film does create an atmosphere that is, for the most part, believable, especially from a child’s point of view and an adult's remembrance. Ralphie’s schemes seem to make sense if you don’t know how the real world works. And his daydreams are worthy of Walter Mitty. Once he’s a glamorized cowboy holding off bad guys in the striped prison shirts, led by Black Bart the outlaw, using his Red Ryder. In another, his parents learn their lesson when he goes blind from soap poison. When he turns in his theme paper, he imagines a reception worthy of Babe Ruth winning the World Series with two out bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

While I would recommend the film, I would do so with the caveat that this is not meant for small children. The PG rating the film received at the time of release suggests that the audience was meant to skew a little older and would have already gone through this time in life, rather than going through it when they watch the movie.

A note about the Blu-ray of A Christmas Story. The copy I have is from 2008 (the copyright on the package) and the disc does not offer chapter breakdowns, so you can’t skip to your favorite part like you can with the DVD. Usually, Blu-rays will have more bells and whistles, not less, so imagine my surprise to find that in this case, it doesn’t. It seems like a simple thing to have added to the viewer's experience. I don't know if this error has been rectified in future releases.

Still, the story resonates beyond the media. There is a universality about Ralphie's story that continues to be a part of the season. It would not be the same Christmas season without A Christmas Story.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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