A Christmas Story (1983)
Written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark
Directed by Bob Clark
A Christmas Story is a great little holiday comedy about childhood but also one of the most disgustingly overhyped pieces of Americana in recent years. The TBS 24-hour marathon of the film definitely didn’t help things and has honestly led to the oversaturation of the picture. It’s a look back at the Depression Era Midwest and dramatizes Jean Shepherd’s memories of his childhood. The film is done in a series of vignettes that make it easy to consume by casual viewers or kids whose attention spans might wan after too long. But it definitely doesn’t deserve as much licensed merchandise or a Broadway musical based on the picture.
Ralphie narrates the events of one particular Christmas when he desired a Red Ryder BB gun more than anything else in the world. He’s met with the refrain of “You’ll shoot your eye out” from the key authority figures in his life as he attempts to manipulate them into purchasing the gift. Interspersed among this long-running plot thread are smaller stories about the ebbs & flows of childhood and family. Ralphie’s Old Man (Darren McGavin) has ongoing battles with the heater in the basement and the pack of wild roaming dogs that live next door. He also receives a major award for completing word puzzles in the paper that drives a wedge between him and Ralphie’s mom (Melinda Dillon). Ralphie gets into misadventures with his schoolmates from one getting their tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole and a final confrontation with the neighborhood bully.
A Christmas Story is similar to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in its structure. There is a very thin A plot but most of what endears the films to people are the numerous B plots and episodes sprinkled throughout. Unlike Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story shies away from becoming too cynical and still manages to find reasons for us to like this family.
That doesn’t mean the picture presents a false image of the American family though. Ralphie’s dad lets profanity flow from his mouth like a river, though the movie presents this as cartoon-style angry mutterings. Ralphie and his friends are little rat bastards to each other just like so many little boys were and still are. This isn’t an overly cynical portrayal of American life but a more honest one than Christmas movies typically deliver.
The two pillars that hold the film up from falling into just being okay are Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as Ralphie’s parents. These two actors are so perfectly cast and embody their roles so fully you honestly cannot see anyone else in these parts. At one point, Jack Nicholson was being considered for the father’s role but McGavin feels more real than Nicholson ever could have in this part. You can see how McGavin is likely drawing on his own father and older men he grew up around, while also likely mining Shepherd for details about his dad.
Melinda Dillon serves as a beautiful counterpoint to McGavin’s gruff but still loveable persona. She’s the mom who listens, who questions her choices on disciplining her kids, and wants more than anything for them to be loved and happy. Without actors this strong in these roles the entire film would have fallen apart and I think that is the magic that makes A Christmas Story endure.
On its release a week before Thanksgiving 1983 the movie was considered a box office failure. In Roger Ebert’s glowing review in his Great Movies book, he notes that holiday-themed films were not popular at the time which is what likely attributed to its sleeper status. The reruns on TBS are what reminded audiences in the early 1990s that this picture even existed and from there it has risen up the ladder to become a film people immediately associate with the Christmas season.
The problem with its success has been the nauseating scramble to capitalize on and recreate what can’t really be recreated. There’s the musical mentioned earlier that got an abysmal live broadcast on Fox in 2017. An adaptation of Shepherd’s other work was made in 1994 titled My Summer Story that serves as an example of why this property should be left alone. In almost an effort to prove a worse picture could be made we got A Christmas Story 2 in 2012 that doesn’t use any of Shepherd’s writings and tries to tell a story about a teenage Ralphie that I don’t think any audience was looking for. A Christmas Story is a fine movie but my god, let’s just leave it at that.