A Christmas Story (1983) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for some language
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Scott Schwartz, Jean Shepherd (voice), Ian Petrella, Tedde Moore, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward
Director: Bob Clark
Screenplay: Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, Bob Clark (based on Jean Shepherd's book, "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash")
Review published December 9, 2017
Although widely overlooked, Bob Clark has made some of the most influential films of the 1970s and 1980s, from Black Christmas, which should rightly be seen on the plane that John Carpenter's Halloween resides in influencing horror films of the era, to Porky's, which was one of the primary teen sex films responible for that becoming its own mini-genre throughout the several years that followed it. Clark may not be an auteur from a cinephile perspective, but he sure had a finger on the pulse on what the public was ready for, and A Christmas Story, despite not being a huge hit during its initial theatrical run, has emerged as his most lasting achievement, now considered a perennial Christmas movie go-to for many families around the world, while those other trendy movie cycles have rightfully come and gone.
You couldn't get much further on the spectrum than Black Christmas as far as holiday films as A Christmas Story is a loving and mostly benign (Clark's penchant for dark humor certainly comes through) look at one man's nostalgia for his youth. In reality, that man is Jean Shepherd, the actual narrator of this film. Shepherd was a humorist who penned the 1966 semi-autobiographical memoir, "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash", and a couple of other notable Shepherd short stories, from which A Christmas Story is adapted.
Peter Billingley plays Ralphie Parker, an eight-year-old boy living in Indiana (shot mostly in Cleveland, Ohio), in the 1940s. Christmas is approaching, which has Ralphie contemplating the one thing he wants to get as a present more than any other thing: a Red Rider carbine-action 200-shot range-model air rifle, though he knows that his parents will likely not approve of such a potentially dangerous toy to play with, droning on about how he could shoot one of his eyes out should he ever get his hands on such a weapon. Nevertheless, it's what Ralphie feels he needs to make his childhood complete, hoping to make a plea to his teacher, Miss Shields, as well as to Santa Claus himself, to make such a lovely gift happen.
In addition to the quest for that Red Rider air rifle, A Christmas Story is more of a vignette-style comic take on a Norman Rockwell painting, full of nostalgia and whimsy in describing what it might be like for a typical Midwestern family of the 1940s. Ralphie, his friends, and his younger brother, get tormented by neighborhood bullies, Ralphie's father's profanity-strewn tirades at having to fix the home's furnace, and Ralphie's mother's silent suffering at having to be the one who provides all of the nurturing to three males who often don't treat her with due respect, especially when the father prominently places a racy (and very tacky) lamp on display in the living room window that he proudly won in a contest.
A Christmas Story is truly a family film in the most perfect sense of the phrase, as young children to older grandparents can love viewing the film together and come away with equal enjoyment, even if the reasons are varied as to why they identify with Ralphie's story. The level of detail to period stokes some great nostalgic heartstrings for many, while the story of growing up in a house and trying to find one's own identity and happiness is a universal feeling we all share. The strength of the storytelling comes not just from the way Clark is able to get us to identify with Ralphie's peculiar desire to obtain a BB gun, but from Jean Shepherd's reminiscing, as the adult Ralphie, on how much it meant to him at the time -- it truly is a child's story and an adult's story at the same time, which furthers its appeal to young and old viewers alike, which in the same way a similarly premised TV show, "The Wonder Years" would.
Because of that dual perspective, Shepherd and Clark show not only the absurdly skewed perspective of what's important by youth, but also the persistent folly of adulthood, as exhibited by the older people in the film, specially in a father, brilliantly played by Darren McGavin (Jack Nicholson was originally sought for the role, but McGavin is perfect), who has never quite matured into being a responsible person fully. The young will love it, as will the young at heart, with enough wit and nostalgic insight to make it enjoyable through infinite viewings, improbably transcending its formerly obscure status, eventually becoming a heartwarming holiday favorite for the next generation, and beyond.
©2017 Vince Leo