There was an old box that I found filled with video tapes I had recorded, which in and of itself was a nice surprise. There were so many old TV shows that I had forgotten about. You would be amazed how good Jake and the Fat Man (starring Joe Penny and William Conrad) actually was. I had taped several episodes for my Mom, and now all these years later have discovered it was a great show.
What is really wonderful is when you get a surprise within a surprise. I was watching the last of these shows, and when it was over I forgot to stop the tape. When I came back to shut off the old VCR, I was stunned to see the opening credits for A Christmas Story, the legendary 1983 film directed by Bob Clark that takes the myth of an ideal mid-Western Christmas and turns it upside down. I had completely forgotten taping it and had not written the title on the tape label, so I got a nice little after Christmas present (so much better than three French hens or six geese a-laying).
On the surface A Christmas Story is deceptively simple. It is the story of a nine-year-old boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), an Indiana kid who dreams of getting one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. It is the 1940s and the small town setting is wonderfully realized, with old cars plowing through the snow and everyone appropriately dressed for the time and place; however, the traditions of Christmas are picked apart piece by piece, but the result is less social commentary and more meant for continuous opportunities for laughing your head off.
Ralphie makes his desire for the BB gun known to everyone. His Dad, played by Darren McGavin (in a subtly powerful performance), seems too cranky and distant to approach. Mom (a hilarious Melinda Dillon) is a bit softer touch, but she quickly discounts his wish by saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” This is still not going to stop Ralphie, as he figures Santa Claus will fulfill his wishes.
The film is narrated by Jean Shepherd (writer of the original story), and his delightfully raspy voice as the older Ralphie adds a wistful dash of authenticity to the proceedings. He fills in the gaps as to what the little Ralphie is thinking when he is about to get beaten up, has his mouth washed out with soap, or watches his friend Flick (Scott Schwartz) get his tongue stuck to a frozen pole after being triple-dog-dared by another friend Schwartz (R. D. Robb).
Why this film has become a holiday classic is because it covers so many things about life that are universal. Though it is the 1940s, people in 1983 could relate easily to what transpires, and having watched it again I can say the same thing in 2012. Certainly, there are many outdated things depicted, including the matronly school teacher Miss Shields (Tedde Moore), the Orphan Annie Decoder Ring, the unkempt department store Santa, and the snow suits that make kids look like the Pillsbury Dough Boys, but none of these things actually derail the story but rather add a unique flavor to the magnificent recipe for cinematic gold.
One of the most hilarious elements of the story involves Dad winning a prize: a lamp in the form of a shapely leg in fishnet stocking. Dad decides to display this lamp in the house’s front window, much to the horror of Mom and the rest of the neighborhood. Why Dad wins this contest (he is always entering them in the newspaper) is never explained, but the destruction of the lamp by Mom, who accidentally knocks it over while dusting, is addressed by the narrator. I couldn’t stop laughing.
When Ralphie finally gets to see Santa (Jeff Gillen) at the department store, it is his last chance to state the case for the BB gun. Of course, as with everything else in the film, there is no romanticized Miracle on 34th Street stuff going on here. Instead, Santa is a gruff, drunk, and rude old elf who knows the store is closing and wants to go home. He quickly gets rid of Ralphie’s little brother Randy (Ian Petrella), but Ralphie will not go quietly into the crowd. As he starts falling down a slide away from Santa, Ralphie struggles back up and asks Santa for the gun. Of course, he is once again told that he will shoot his eye out. For good measure, Santa shoves Ralphie down the slide to add insult to injury.
The rest of the story plays out with similar disregard for holiday tradition. The family turkey is stolen by neighborhood dogs (ones that are forever harassing Dad), and thus the clan heads to the only restaurant in town that is open – a Chinese place where Peking Duck is dubbed “Chinese turkey.” This scene once again had me laughing so hard that my kids came down the basement to see what was so funny.
I watched the film all over again with them, but my preschool age son got a little upset with the depiction of Santa Claus. He liked the rest of the story though, but this is not just a children’s film; rather, it is one for adults who wish they were kids again. A Christmas Story can take you there, at least for 90 minutes.
If you have a chance, try to watch this film at least once before the season is over. I triple-dog-dare you to not laugh all the way.
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