Do you remember 1983?? I do…sort of. I was 11 years old and in the 6th grade. Ronald Reagan was in office and proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly referred to as Star Wars. The U.S. Invaded Grenada, an island that very few had ever heard of and probably 95% of the population still cannot locate on a map. Everyone wanted their MTV, a channel that at that time still aired music videos. Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday. Return of the Jedi ruled the box office, or one could buy a $3 ticket to see films like All the Right Moves, Flashdance, The Big Chill, Mr. Mom, Terms of Endearment, Valley Girl, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Right Stuff, Scarface, Eddie & the Cruisers, Jaws 3-D, Octopussy, The Outsiders, Risky Business, Trading Places, and War Games. DeLorean stopped making cars two years before a DeLorean was used as a time machine in Back to the Future. McDonald’s started selling something called Chicken McNuggets. Chrysler introduced us to the minivan. Legendary college football coach Bear Bryant died. Sally Ride…well…rode the space shuttle Challenger, becoming the first woman in space. Challenger would carry the first African-American astronaut into space just a few months later. Underdogs NC State, lead by coach Jim Valvano, shocked Hakeem Olajuwon and his Houston Cougars to win the NCAA basketball championship with a last second shot. Michael Jackson’s album Thriller spent over 9 months at the top of the charts and Madonna released her self titled debut. The Red Hot Chili Peppers also had a self titled debut album. The Japanese started selling some sort of video game system named Nintendo. Poison and Run DMC began their careers while ABBA and Sly & the Family Stone ended theirs. The Price is Right began having contestants play a game called Plinko. CMT, The Disney Channel, & The Nashville Network launched. Every child in America wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid. We said goodbye to Archie Bunker, MASH, Taxi, CHiPs, Laverne & Shirley, Square Pegs, and Little House on the Prairie while saying hello to Webster, The A-Team, and Mama’s Family.
And quietly, right before Thanksgiving, a little movie called A Christmas Story came to your local cinema. Most folks didn’t pay much attention at the time, and by Christmas it had ended its brief run. 27 years later it is among our most beloved holiday classics and one of my all time favorite films.
There are certain benchmarks that measure the passage of time, touchstones that commemorate life’s events and happenings. Auld Lang Syne and the big ball drop signify a New Year. The Jerry Lewis Telethon envelopes Labor Day. The kickoff of football season means summer is over and autumn has arrived while baseball ushers in springtime. And for me, the first time I catch A Christmas Story on television (usually on Turner Classic Movies on Thanksgiving or the day after) means the Christmas season is in full swing, while the final showing of the annual 24 hour marathon that ends at 8pm on Christmas Day is the unofficial end of our most glorious holiday.
I cannot imagine that there are many people that have never seen this most nostalgic of Christmas classics. It is the story of a 9 year old boy’s dogged determination to overcome the persistent objection “You’ll shoot your eye out!!” and receive the only gift he truly desires…a Red Ryder BB gun. Along the way we see typical snippets of boyhood Americana…the school bully, overbearing but lovable Moms and gruff, foul mouthed, well intentioned Dads, interactions with neighborhood chums, teachers who are much more aware of their students’ shenanigans than the kids realize, inadvertent use of foul language resulting in a child’s mouth being washed with soap, and a visit to a mall Santa who isn’t exactly jolly. The story is set somewhere around the late 1930’s/early 1940’s and of course was thrust upon the public in the 1980’s, another case where a sense of timelessness and wistful nostalgia crosses the time-space continuum and adds to one’s eternal enjoyment of the experience. Based on stories written by humorist Jean Shepherd about his childhood in pre-WWII Indiana, A Christmas Story has well developed characters and a rapier sharp script that is funny yet poignant and maybe even a little subversive. I have read Shepherd’s works, or atleast the one’s germane to this movie, and he is a very good writer. However, I think we have a rare example of the movie being better than the book.
It will forever be amusing to me that A Christmas Story was directed by Bob Clark, whose other notable films include Porky’s (and Porky’s 2), Rhinestone, and the original Black Christmas. Clark’s sensibilities would not seem to lend themselves well to the family/holiday comedy genre, but somehow it works perfectly. If one pays close enough attention there is an edginess…just the slightest hint of twisted, dark humor…present. But overall A Christmas Story is a movie to be enjoyed by, if I may steal a line from Nat King Cole and Mel Torme, “kids from 1 to 92”. The cast is absolutely perfect, with my personal gold star going to Darren McGavin as The Old Man, aka Mr. Parker, the father who is never given a name. McGavin did some other notable stuff in his career…the sci-fi cult classic TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, supporting roles in Airport ’77, The Natural, & Billy Madison, and a host of guest starring roles on various television shows from the 1960’s through the 1990’s…but his legacy will forever be tied to our current subject du jour. The Old Man is an odd combination of tough talking disciplinarian and clueless buffoon. In other words, he embodies a typical Dad. Sure the kids and their escapades are cute, and Ralphie’s schemes to somehow land that BB gun are the centerpiece of the movie. However, I submit that the sublime pleasure that is A Christmas Story is just as much about The Old Man’s potty mouth, his disdain for the redneck neighbors and their dogs, the ongoing battle with an old broken down furnace, and of course the overwhelming pride he feels after winning a trivia contest and being awarded with a hideous pop art lamp in which only he can see the beauty. The Old Man isn’t quite a slapstick fool in the vein of Clark Griswold, but one can see shades of Griswold-iness in he and his family. I recall reading somewhere that Jack Nicholson was the first choice to play The Old Man, but that he would have been too expensive. Just another one of those happy accidents in cinema where creatively working with a low budget ended up being so much better than just throwing money at the issue.
As mentioned, few took notice of A Christmas Story when it hit theaters in 1983. But television gave it new life, first on HBO in the mid to late 80’s and then on the Turner family of networks in the 1990’s. Momentum built slowly but surely and was given a huge boost when a 24 hour marathon, spanning 8pm on Christmas Eve to 8pm on Christmas night, began airing annually in 1997. In the ensuing 13 years the rise from forgotten theatrical disappointment to quite possibly the most popular Christmas film of all time has been meteoric. I cannot say that I have ever watched all 24 hours of the marathon because I do have a life, but I usually catch bits & pieces throughout and probably sit down and watch the whole thing twice. I would like to believe that A Christmas Story would have been recognized by the masses for its genius without the less-than-subtle marketing blitz, but let’s face it…the American public will fall for the hard sell and can be goaded into bandwagon jumping. I suppose scoffers will always believe this to be a movie that the public had to be convinced to like, and that may be true on some subliminal level. But I think it is safe to assume that we have all been sold lemons of far lesser quality (look at the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for example) than A Christmas Story, a film that deserves its place in the pantheon of traditional holiday entertainment, and has earned its high spot on this particular list as well.
- Movies That Never Get Old (everyjoe.com)
- The Traveling Eye Visits the “A Christmas Story” House (chicagonow.com)
- Reader Question: How and when is it okay to use narration? (gointothestory.com)