A Christmas Story (1983)
Nine years after the Yuletide slasher flick Black Christmas, Porky's director Bob Clark once again took on the holiday genre, switching from gasps to laughs with A Christmas Story. Adapted from a memoir by humorist Jean Shepherd (who narrates), the film centers on Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in 1940s Indiana, desperately yearning for a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas. Despite protests from his mother (Melinda Dillon) that he'll shoot his eye out, Ralphie persists, unsuccessfully trying to enlist the assistance of both his teacher and Santa Claus. All the while, Ralphie finds himself dealing with the constant taunts of a pair of bullies and trying to not get in the middle of a feud between his mother and father (Darren McGavin) regarding a sexy lamp. ~ Matthew Tobey, All Movie Guide
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The Christmas movie can get away with sappiness in a way that most other family-friendly movies can't. It's okay to have peace-on-earth and goodwill to all men as your message if you also have a Christmas tree or at least Santa Clause in there somewhere. If you do this with a killer whale, for example, you run the risk of making Free Willy 2.
Released in 1983, A Christmas Story consistently appears in the top three all time greatest Christmas movie lists. Usually under It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. This should come as little surprise to anyone who has seen all three (interestingly, there are lists where it does not appear at all--these lists include such greats as Rambo: First Blood and Batman Returns which, I think, speaks for itself).
A Christmas Story
When it was released Thanksgiving 1983 it did decently well but was mostly gone from theaters by December. Protests kept it in a bout 100 theaters until Jan 1, 1984--which is good, because while today, Thanksgiving has been 'thrown under the Christmas bus,' back in the early 80's they were still two separate holidays. If you haven't seen it, it's the inspiration for the Wonder Years TV show where a narrator reminiscences about his experiences growing up as a young boy. In Story, the boy Ralphie wants, more than anything, "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and 'this thing' which tells time". There is, of course, an adult-based conspiracy against this dangerous toy which, as his mother and many other grown-ups, admonish him, could result in him shooting his eye out.
The movie uses dream-sequences, episodic vignettes, and narration to create an excellent sense of both the period (ostensibly 1939 or thereabouts) and the sense of anticipation of Christmas when you're around nine years old. As raw material, it's pretty good--in fact, despite a mediocre opening, it has gained a powerful second life on television being shown at first around Thanksgiving (the night of or, perhaps more appropriately, the night after, in order to "open the holiday season"). As its popularity grew, though, TNT moved it, during 1997 to a 24-hour marathon beginning the night before Christmas and ending Christmas day. With some changes in station format, TBS picked up the marathon and played it this year for 12-in-a-row showings for the 11th year.
So it's popular, why's it brilliant?
In my opinion, more than the other two heavyweights (34th Street and Wonderful Life, both of which are better actual movies) A Christmas Story captures the wonderfully paradoxical combination of innocence and avarice that uniquely characterizes the American Christmas holiday season. With the presence of giant department store displays (the movie-store Higbee's kept the signature 'Santa-slide' for several years after the debut), the is-Santa-real kid's version of Pascal's Wager, and the ever-present tension between what kids want and what their parents want to get them, it occupies a spot that is not just real but manages to be insightful without a cynically bitter edge. The movie is true in a way that goes beyond the simple observation that if you want to find a restaurant that's open on Christmas day, Chinese food is a pretty good bet.
A Christmas Story's performances are also nothing short of exemplary. The Old Man (Ralphie's dad, played by Darren McGavin) is nothing short of show-stealing with his expressions that speak louder than his (often colorful) dialog. The way he cringes when Ralphie endures Aunt Clara's bunny-suit humiliation is far more evocative than what he finally says when he tells him to take it off.
But what I really admire is the structure. Story works as well as it does because although it is draggy (and it really is 'a bit too long') it creates a sense of a far greater passage of time. Everything is carefully set up from one 'disconnected' story to the next. From the 'fudge' scene with the swearing during the tire-change to the far-different and more meaningful scene when Ralphie takes on his school bully, the grounds are established. The cadence of the school scenes (with the iconic tongue-sticking scene which was proven out in a holiday episode of Myth Busters) create a heart-beat that is familiar to every kid waiting for the penultimate freedom of Christmas vacation. Even the seemingly extraneous Orphan Annie Decoder thread sets up potential dissatisfaction with the BB-gun.
A Christmas Story is a film everything works together. The end scene with the parents together, the kids asleep upstairs (each clutching their favorite toy), and the final 'battle of the lamp' resolved, gives us a snow-fall outside lit only by the lights of the Christmas tree and the Old Man putting his hand on his wife's shoulder to tell us everything is right with the world. When Ralphie's narrator tells us that the BB-gun is not only the best gift he'd ever gotten to date--but the best gift in his life, we not only believe him: it's hardly necessary to say it.
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