Review: “A Christmas Story”
Directed by: Bob Clark
Produced by: Bob Clark, René Dupont, Gary Goth
Written by: Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, Bob Clark
Edited by: Stan Cole
Cinematography by: Reginald H. Morris
Music by: Carl Zittrer, Paul Zaza
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Jean Shepherd, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward, Tedde Moore
Based on In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd
It’s easy to forget how good a movie is when certain cable networks play it non-stop for 24 hours. There was a point where I simply had no desire to watch this movie. I was even sick of seeing the ads on TV for the “24-Hours of A Christmas Story” marathon. Luckily, we got rid of cable and, after a couple years, I oddly kind of forgot that the film even existed. It wasn’t long before the film came back up, however, when, one Christmas, my stepdad admitted that he had never seen it before. Somehow, here was someone who somehow had cable all this time but who had managed to avoid a holiday classic his entire life, despite this annual onslaught. I suddenly felt like I was prepared to revisit what was once the scourge of our Christmas season festivities, if only for the fact that here was someone who had yet to be touched by Ted Turner’s cynical yet depressingly successful grab for viewership. So, of course, none of us could let this stand any longer. We had to secure a copy of the film right then and there.
Luckily, for me at least, the magic had returned. The years of distance had, indeed, made my heart grow fonder for what I had once begun to feel was the most overrated holiday film of all time. It was as if I were seeing it anew, all over again, and with age even came more identification with the main character, Ralphie, who, through voiceover, told the story of one particular Christmas season in his childhood, when all he wanted was a Red Ryder BB Gun. While I had always been a fairly content kid who was happy to receive even the annual pair of cartoon boxer shorts in his stocking (usually The Simpsons), each year did, in fact, bring with it the hope of getting that one particular Christmas gift that would just make that year all the more special. For me, this was usually video games — probably thanks to my mom caving and allowing me to get a Super Nintendo when I was 6-years-old.
Despite being set entirely within the 1940s, the film still remains relevant to kids today — just swap out the BB gun for an iPad or something, and you’d pretty easily be able to figure out how studio execs may one day hope to monetize the film even further through some modern retelling of the basic story — beyond the recent direct-to-video and apparently horrible sequel, that is. A lot of the film’s success and lasting power relies not just on Ralphie’s quest to convince his parents (and even his teacher, despite the hilariously implausible logic behind that idea) that the BB gun is a good idea, but also in his interactions with friends and family outside of what is admittedly a sturdy string upon which multiple other vignettes are also threaded, providing the film with variety and allowing it to become better realized world that audiences can find any number of things to identify with. What child hasn’t also acted upon a few stupid ideas while hanging out with your goofy friends? Whose father wasn’t an often aloof enigma at some point in their kids’ lives? Who hasn’t gotten in trouble for swearing in front of their parents, intentionally or not?
While it’s certainly easy to critique A Christmas Story for relying primarily upon nostalgia and easily relatable story developments to earn audiences’ affections, it’s also in the film’s execution of these particulars that makes it truly stand out from others. Performances across the board are pretty much perfect. Peter Billingsley’s charming as the day-dreaming, often self-important young Ralphie, an average kid who treats every day as if there’s something significant about to occur. As the older Ralphie, Jean Shepherd provides older audiences a connection to their childhoods by providing a narration that lets us know that, though this may all be exaggerations and idealistic memories, it’s nonetheless authentic in its sentiments.
This nostalgia trip wouldn’t be complete without the parents — Melinda Dillon the long-suffering but always understanding and compassionate mother, and Darren McGavin as “the Old Man” who is constantly swearing nonsensically at some project down in the basement and hoping for some odd bonus as a reward for his hard work — and the childhood friends — Scott Schwartz and R.D. Robb as Flick and Schwartz, respectively, Ralphie’s best friends who are constantly getting each other and Ralphie into trouble and yet remain the best of friends, especially when it comes to their passive means of dealing with Scut Farkus, the sadistic school bully. There’s also Ralphie’s little brother Randy, a whiny, picky eater and one of the most accurate portrayals of a younger sibling put to screen.
Perhaps one of my most favorite things about A Christmas Story, however, is that it’s not a coming of age film. Here is a film that manages to touch upon all the wonder and perceived importance of childhood events without the need to look back on it as a development that led to some sort of epiphany about the universe and where Ralphie fits into it. Those can be wonderful, and all, but, at Ralphie’s age, there’s really not too much deep thinking to do beyond telling Santa what you want for Christmas and figuring out just the right way to do it. When I wanted that Super Nintendo, I certainly wasn’t thinking about how years down the line I would suddenly realize that a career in video games meant killer hours and extensive programming knowledge. All I wanted was to go on an adventure through the Mushroom Kingdom. And Ralphie wants to live out the Red Ryder serials in his backyard, too. It’s great, for once, to have a film that acknowledges and portrays childhood as something a bit more whimsical and pure without the need to philosophically examine any sort of deeper meaning behind it. That’s probably also why it’s become so widely beloved in the first place — enough to become one of the recent inductees to the National Film Registry.