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  • nickkarner

A Christmas Story (1983)

There’s a passage in James Robert Parish’s Fiasco, a chronicle of famously over-budget, overblown film projects. In the Battlefield Earth chapter, noted Scientologist and frequent name-garbling Oscar presenter John Travolta was determined to use all of the star power he’d regained after his Pulp Fiction comeback to bring his passion project to fruition. As he told his manager: “If we can’t do the things now that we want to do, what good is the power? It’s a waste, basically. Let’s test it and try to get things done that we believe in.” This would be an admirable statement were it not for the fact that he’s referring to making a big screen version of L. Ron Hubbard’s huge, pulp sci-fi novel Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000. Of course, we all know how that story ends, with one of the dumbest and ugliest films ever made. Seriously, you gift your natural enemy with vast knowledge and still expect it to be subservient? Idiots. Still, just as Travolta’s fame begat Battlefield Earth, so too did The Godfather beget The Conversation, The Dark Knight begat Inception, Requiem for a Dream (eventually) begat The Fountain, and 48 Hrs. begat Streets of Fire. These filmmakers made films which were profitable and/or respected, so they were given permission to make their kooky pet projects. Director Bob Clark, he of Black Christmas and Murder by Decree fame (and unfortunately Baby Geniuses 1 and 2 fame) had wanted to adapt Jean Shepherd’s 1966 best-selling story collection In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash for years, but was unable to secure financing due to the relative obscurity of the material and the fact that in many ways, it doesn’t exactly have much of a plot. A kid wants a BB gun for Christmas. That’s it. And yet, thanks to the wild success of a raunchy, foul-mouthed little comedy that remained Canada’s highest-grossing film for nearly twenty years, he managed to snag a modest 4.4-million-dollar budget from MGM to make what is now widely regarded as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time: 1983’s A Christmas Story.

Porky’s is a divisive film. Critics despised it and audiences loved it. That’s nothing new, but what’s intriguing is the way a scene can be interpreted completely differently based on the viewers. On “Sneak Previews,” an early version of what would become Siskel and Ebert At The Movies, they pan the film and dissect one of the clips shown. It’s the long, single take where Beulah Balbricker (played by Motel Hell’s own Nancy Parsons) is making her case for lining up naked young men in order to ascertain whose penis was stuck through a hole in the girls shower. The two men in the back fight to keep a straight face and the scene devolves into all three males laughing hysterically at Balbricker’s outlandish request. Siskel points out how strained and phony the scene is, particularly the laughter, but I see it another way. Bob Clark’s breakthrough film works because of scenes like this one. The uncontrollable laughter in any number of scenes is an invitation by the movie to the audience to join in the fun. By laughing along with the film’s performers, something untouchable and intrinsic is exchanged. Laughter is natural, and so is desire.

A Christmas Story revolves around Master Ralph Parker (Peter Billingsley); the ‘master’ title being bestowed upon him by the very exclusive Little Orphan Annie Secret Society, whose only desire is to get “an official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time” for Christmas. For those of us who celebrate the religion-based but very much consumer/commercialism-centric capitalist holiday, we’ve all wanted something very special and very specific for Christmas. For me, it was the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Titanus, a giant robotic brontosaurus. My amazing mother told me the harrowing and highly suspenseful story of her journey to Toys ‘R Us and the barren shelves she encountered when searching for the elusive item. She stared upward, perhaps asking the heavens for assistance, and noticed the corner of a box high up above which had a Power Rangers symbol peeking out. Asking a store associate to check it out, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, ironically mentioned in Clark’s Black Christmas, might as well have shown up, because there was Titanus and there was a very happy little boy on Christmas morning. Thanks to the runaway success of Porky’s, Clark used his newfound power in the industry to produce A Christmas Story, although it seems he also had something of a devil’s pact since he also had to churn out a quickie sequel to his hit, Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983).

Clark first heard Shepherd’s sardonic, highly original voice in Miami while driving to pick up his date for the evening. 45 minutes later, he finally arrived at her house, extremely late, due to his desire to hear the conclusion of Shepherd’s story on the radio about a young boy named Flick, whose tongue gets stuck to a flag pole in the dead of winter after he’s triple-dog-dared to do so. Determined to adapt the author’s work for the screen, the script would go through years of development, ultimately being credited to Clark, Shepherd, and Shepherd’s third wife, Leigh Brown. Clark even contributed $150,000 of his own money just to cushion the budget and ensure his vision wouldn’t be diluted by nervous money men. A Christmas Story is ostensibly a slice of Americana, taking place around 1940 Indiana, right before America’s involvement in World War II. Shepherd has railed against observers who viewed his work as nostalgic. He once described his work as “anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact. If you really read it, you realize it’s a put-down of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.” This absolutely makes sense because even the joyful moments from Shepherd’s tales are tinged with a hint of sadness and darkness. Bob Clark was a journeyman director who worked in several different genres, particularly comedy, but while a lot of the work had a light touch, he wasn’t averse to taking the dark humor route. Black Christmas, the antithesis of A Christmas Story, still has a great deal in common with its counterpart besides sharing the same director. Both take a pensively optimistic stance on Christmas but still remain steadfastly pessimistic and even gleefully sadistic when it comes to the trials and tribulations of the holiday season and family life in general.

The Parker family consists of the father, or as Shepherd dubs him “the old man,” mother Parker, Ralphie, and his whiny, non-eating little brother Randy. The main cast is absolute perfection and it’s a shame that A Christmas Story wasn’t the runaway hit it was meant to be since its success likely would’ve fast-tracked the follow-up, My Summer Story, and the original cast likely would’ve remained. Instead, the belated sequel, also known as It Runs in the Family, took eleven years to arrive in theaters and, although it has some fine, spirited moments, simply doesn’t hold a candle to the original. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are brilliant in their respective roles as the irascible father and the firm, but understanding mother. Shepherd said, “In a way, the movie is about people, not Christmas or Santa Claus.” This kind of analysis and wisdom became something of a burden on the set. Being highly protective of his very personal story, it’s understandable that he’d want to insinuate himself into the production and offer his insight. Unfortunately, his lack of decorum and micro-managing ended up getting him barred from the set, although he’d return for a brief cameo as a surly parent waiting in line for Santa. There’s something to be said for a writer protecting his work, but Clark, always fastidious about prep work and storyboards, knew his time and money were limited, so Shepherd’s perfectionism simply couldn’t be indulged during such a tight shoot. Still, there was enough mutual respect and goodwill between the director and writer that things still ran relatively smoothly, and Shepherd felt the casting of his cinematic parental stand-ins was spot-on.

McGavin, a favorite of Bob Clark (Turk 182, From the Hip), had a career which stretched all the way back to the 40’s. His scene-stealing turn in The Man With the Golden Arm led to a great deal of work on television, including the title role on Mike Hammer. Movie stardom somewhat eluded him, but he’d still nab more than a few juicy roles in features like The Natural, Raw Deal, Dead Heat, and Billy Madison. Of course, he’ll forever be known as the tenacious Carl Kolchak, an investigative journalist who just happened to be around whenever supernatural occurrences took place. As “the old man,” he strikes the perfect tone that even a fine, sourpuss actor like Charles Grodin couldn’t equal in the sequel. He’s both tough, soft, crafty, dim, nervous, and confident. He’s not unhappy with his lot in life, even though he can’t stand the (calculated) 785 Bumpus hounds owned by the hillbillies living next door, yet he’s always hard at work solving puzzles which might win him “a major award.” Possibly a bowling alley. This hard work pays off in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, where he pulls a lamp shaped like a fish netted woman’s leg (created by production designer Reuben Freed) out of a far-too-large crate and proudly displays it for the entire neighborhood to see. A cameoing Bob Clark and the rest of the neighbors are dazzled by what the old man describes as “indescribably beautiful.” The faux sexy music by Clark’s regular composer Carl Zittrer and Paul Zaza lend a great comedic touch to such a bonkers moment.

The old man’s other obsession, besides erotically charged “art,” is the malfunctioning furnace. As Shepherd describes during a typically sooty, smoky episode, “My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.” What’s wonderful about these particular sequences of mostly nonsense swear words is the number of bizarre phrases that McGavin angrily shouts. “You filthy sicken hook-aid! Oh, smelly wok buster! Grout shell fratten house stickle fifer! You bladder puss nut grafter!” Shepherd incredible narration always perfectly caps any moment, and here is no exception. “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” These moments, of course, lead to a number of famous moments in a film that is overflowing with classic bits. The “ohhhhhhh fffffuuuuddddge” scene, where Ralphie accidentally utters the mother of all swear words, and later when he gets revenge on the rotten, yellow-eyed bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward, Freddy vs. Jason, Anne of Green Gables) beating the ever-loving shit out of him and uttering phrases which: “I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.” McGavin finds the beautiful humanity to the character though, particularly in the scene where he surprises Ralphie with the Red Ryder gun. It’s a moving father-son moment as he gently whispers instructions and suggestions while his own flesh and blood preps the very same type of toy he had at that age.

Equal to the task of embodying Shepherd’s mother is two-time Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Absence of Malice). Her reaction to the sexy lamp is a great example of theatrical acting that never feels phony. She’s speechless and nearly powerless as she desperately wants to tell the old man not to put the lamp in the front window. It’s clear that she’s got a wild, irreverent streak, particularly in the way she gets Randy to eat his dinner. Little moments like taking a taste of the soap she uses to wash out Ralphie’s mouth after the fudge incident are priceless, and she finds humor in the slightly depressing revelation that “my mother hasn’t had a hot meal for herself in 15 years.” Her finest hour, besides her vigilance over keeping the “turkey junkie” old man away from the bird, is her handling of the Scut Farkus fight scene. She knows Ralphie is a good boy and the nurturing way she handles him as he cries is breathtakingly maternal. It’s made clear that once the old man hears about the fight, Ralphie’s going to, as Randy puts it, die. But, in a goosebump-inducing moment of utter loveliness, Dillon downplays the fight so much that she’s able to not only remain truthful to her husband, but save Ralphie from certain doom. Her light pat on the stunned Ralphie as she sits down to dinner with them gives me chills. The way Ralphie and his mother exchange a look is an example of actors truly embodying characters and creating a believable universe within the world of a film.

Despite being shot in the 80’s, the film’s look, all Earthy browns and greys, transport viewers right back to the late 30’s and early 40’s. This is thanks in no small part to Clark’s regular cinematographer Reginald H. Morris, whose work on Black Christmas and Murder by Decree couldn’t be more different, yet there’s an austere quality to the work on display here. Some films simply can’t shake the fact that their attempts to art-direct another time period comes off as artifice. A Christmas Story has a look and feel that render it timeless. Particularly impressive are the Christmas Eve exterior scenes, complete with a parade, crowds, and period cars. Reminiscent of Clark’s near-two-week search for the perfect Black Christmas house, the production team went on a 20-city search until they settled on Toronto for interiors and Cleveland for the exterior scenes. The winter there was unseasonably light on snow, so they often had trucks full of fake, foam-based snow standing by for outdoor work. In order to help out the production, the city of Cleveland left their holiday decorations up for the production to use, making the parade scene feel wonderfully grand. The antique cars were also donated and had to be carefully cleaned and stored after each day of production. One would think Ralphie would be enamored with the parade antics, particularly from members of The Wizard of Oz and even a potentially libelous appearance by Mickey Mouse, but he’s too busy thinking about his upcoming chance to ask Santa for the BB gun.

Child actors can be brutally awful, but this particular cast contains absolutely no weak links. Billingsley, who was already a very famous child actor from his work on television commercials (Hersheys’ Messy Marvin), and he was described by Clark as being “too perfect and obvious a choice for the role,” is excellent. Upwards of 8,000 kids auditioned for the role, but they ultimately came back around to Billingsley. He gives one of the most natural child performances ever captured on film. There’s a real subtlety to his performance. At the time, the most famous member of the young cast was Scott Schwartz as Flick, who was coming off of starring in the deeply problematic The Toy, starring Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason. His utter freak-out when he gets stuck to the flagpole after being triple-dog-dared by the ironically-named Schwartz (R.D. Robb) is all the funnier when the class teacher Miss Shields (wonderfully played by Tedde Moore, the only cast member to return for the sequel) asks the class who was responsible for Flick’s plight. Billingsley looks around, as if scanning the room to find the guilty culprit. Although it’s pretty sweet being an actor considering all of the perks and the production constantly making sure you’re comfortable, it doesn’t come without a cost. He was both incredibly uncomfortable and embarrassed by the “pink nightmare” bunny suit that he had to wear in front of the crew. During the Western-inspired fantasy sequence, he was given real chewing tobacco (Red Man chaw, to be exact). As we all know from the Big Chief carnival/vomit scene in The Sandlot, it’s not a good idea to give children chaw. The shoot had to stop for over an hour while Billingsley laid down and he ended up chewing raisins for the rest of the shoot. I had to use chewing tobacco for a short film once, but I switched the chaw with a handful of Tootsie Rolls and it was both delicious and effective.

The depiction of kids being adorable little bastards is wonderfully vivid. Schwartz’s first line of dialogue is “Listen, smart ass!” The way they prank Miss Shields, who actually appears slightly amused, says a lot about the way these children are essentially acting their age. Mischievous, but mostly harmless, although Flick does have to have some unfortunate bandages plastered over his tongue. The fact that nobody rats any of the others out is impressive and accurate. Ian Petrella as Randy has very little dialogue, but the physical humor of him being unable to put his arms down in his snowsuit is absolutely hilarious. Ditto his inability to get up, much like a turtle or “a tick about to pop.” Zack Ward and Yano Anaya are suitably assholish as Ralphie and the gang’s tormentors, but the movie belongs to Billingsley. The still of him grinning wildly while clinging to a slide after he finally gets the nerve to ask a cameoing Jeff Gillen (co-director of Deranged) as a department store Santa Claus for the BB gun is often used for the film’s poster art. In a moment which causes both the viewer’s and our hero’s jaw to drop, the store Santa claims “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” a sentiment previously repeated ad nauseum by both his mother and teacher, who appear in one of his fantasies as a court jester-type and a witch. The Santa sequence is shot very much like Billy’s POV in Black Christmas, all frenetic camera work and an extremely wide lens. It’s frightening and rather intense. Little moments like Ralphie muttering “wow, that’s great” after reading the first line of his “theme” for school are a lot of fun, but the tensest scene arrives after he receives his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. Decrypting the radio broadcast’s message, he discovers that after drinking all of that Ovaltine, all he’s left with is a crummy commercial. His angst-ridden delivery of the line “Son of a bitch!” is one of the funniest in the film.

There are so many magnificent bits scattered throughout the film: The old man’s misreading of the word ‘fragile’ “must be Italian!”, Ralphie’s imagined revenge on his family after he’s struck blind by soap poisoning, Randy hiding in a cabinet, Ralphie actually shooting his eye out and whipping up a lie and some quick tears, the Bumpus hounds invading the house and eating the turkey, and of course, the “Chinese Turkey” scene, which is so wrong due to the “fa ra ra ra ra” bit, but it’s so brutally funny that I have to forgive it. The scene plays out in another beautiful long take where the cast is either acting brilliantly or legitimately reacting (i.e. laughing) to both the singing and the duck being served to them. The coup de grace arrives when the owner of the Chinese restaurant responds to the old man’s comment that the duck is “smiling at me” by lopping it’s head off. The final, quiet moment where Randy cuddles his zeppelin, Ralphie drifts off to sleep, and the old man and mother share a tender moment in front of the Christmas tree offer the perfect capper to a film filled with wildly inventive, irreverent absurdities.

After the decent, but not Earth-shattering box office response, the film got very lucky due to the timing of its home video release. Namely, that home video had become a major industry by the mid-80's, so the film not only was purchased left and right, it began appearing on HBO at the same time, giving it a certain pedigree by being on that “special” cable station. Bob Clark described sitting down at a restaurant around Christmas time and overhearing a family endlessly quoting the film. He later discovered this was a family tradition. By 1986, MGM was in serious debt, as is often the case with that particular studio (what would L. B. Mayer think?), so the once-mighty establishment sold its film library to Ted Turner, he of the colorization, Captain Planet-creating, billionaire nutjob variety. The film began getting play on TNT as a perennial December favorite and an antidote to more schmaltzy fare like Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas. Even darker pieces like Alastair Sim’s A Christmas Carol and the non-Christmas Christmas favorite It’s A Wonderful Life couldn’t hold a candle to A Christmas Story’s expert handling of heart and humor. When 1997 rolled around, the Turner-owned network made the bold and at the time-bizarre choice to run the film on a 24-hour loop, encompassing 12 showings with commercials. I recall Christmas Day being a time when we’d go about our regular routine of visiting various family members and each time we’d arrive, we’d pop the TV on and catch maybe 15 to 20 minutes of the film throughout the day. It was fun and whimsical. By 2004, the film was moved to TBS and has remained a tradition for over a decade.

A Christmas Story is a magical film that moves with such effortless confidence and grace that it hardly feels like a movie at all. One would think that the simple tale of a family’s so-called “normal” Christmas strife might be extremely difficult to portray on screen without either being ridiculously campy, unbearably depressing, or just plain phony. The material might be “frageelee,” for lack of a better word. Still, thanks to amazing efforts by a perfect cast, a unique writer, and a director getting to work on his passion project, A Christmas Story is anything but “a clinker.”


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