Friday, December 7, 2012

A Christmas Story (1983) - Modern Holiday Classic

Film poster for A Christmas Story 1983
A Christmas Story (1983).
is famous among older folks for being an avuncular radio personality and acerbic author. His "A Christmas Story" (1983), directed by Bob Clark for MGM, has become a modern classic of the holiday season. When you consider that most beloved holiday shows date from the 1930s ("A Christmas Carol," "Babes in Toyland"), 1940s ("It's A Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street"), and 1960s ("Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Christmas"), "A Christmas Story" joins a very select group indeed. "Scrooged" is also a contender from the '80s, but it hasn't quite gotten there.

Ralphie and the old man in A Christmas Story 1983
The stars of "A Christmas Story" Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley and Melinda Dillon.

As with many offerings by Jean Shepherd, the tale is semi-autobiographical. It is set in fictional Hohman, Indiana, a suburban setting where nine-year-old Ralph Parker (Peter Bilingsley) lives. He wants a BB gun for Christmas, and not just any gun: a "Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and a sundial." Ralph pleads with every adult he knows to get him the gun, but they all say it is too dangerous, even the department store Santa.

Ralphie and Santa Claus in A Christmas Story 1983
Peter Billingsley with Santa in "A Christmas Story."

Attacked after school one day by the local bully, Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) and his henchman, Grover Dill (Yano Anaya), Ralph snaps. He hits back and swears at Farkus until pulled off by his own mother (Melinda Dillon). Ralph worries he will be punished, but his mother makes light of it with his father (Darren McGavin).

Darren McGavin looking frustrated in A Christmas Story 1983
Darren McGavin is the gruff but loveable dad in "A Christmas Story."

Christmas comes, and no BB gun. After everything is unwrapped, though, he does indeed get the gun. Mr. Parker explains to his worried wife that he himself had such a gun as a kid. Ralph goes out to play with the gun, which has unpredictable results.

Ralphie in A Christmas Story 1983
Peter Billingsley in "A Christmas Story."

The plot really isn't what gives this film its charm. There are many anecdotal moments that propel the film into the status of classic. For example, one of Ralph's friends dares another, Flick (Scott Schwartz) to put his tongue on a frozen flagpole to see if it will stick. This is the scene most people remember about the film.

Flick with his tongue stuck to the flagpole in A Christmas Story 1983
The tongue scene in "A Christmas Story" is a classic.

Another moment has Ralph swearing while helping his father change a tire on the family car, which gets both himself and his friend Schwartz (R.D. Robb) in trouble when Ralph blames Schwartz for teaching him the bad word. The conclusion, at a Chinese restaurant, is hilarious even though it features awful obvious stereotypes.

A fire engine coming to rescue Flick in A Christmas Story 1983
Working the frozen tongue in "A Christmas Story."

This film actually has a lot in common with other holiday classics, despite its extremely middle-class themes. It did not make much of an impact upon release, and only gained attention years later when some cable stations needed something to air and chose "A Christmas Story." In addition, it is set in an unspecific 1930s-1940s time period. In these respects, it is similar to "It's A Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street" and some of the other recurrent holiday favorites.

The house featured in A Christmas Story 1983
The real house featured in "A Christmas Story."

The actors fill their roles perfectly. Darren McGavin is perfect as the heavy-handed dad who has opinions about everything, while Peter Billingsley gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as young Ralph. Most of the music is traditional carols by singers like Bing Crosby supposedly heard over the radio, so the film does not have much of a dated feel. You might go into this film wondering what you could possibly like about it, but it is almost sure to grow on you, just as soon as Flick sticks his tongue on that flagpole.

Lobby card of Ralphie aiming his BB gun in A Christmas Story 1983
Lobby card for "A Christmas Story."

You probably won't escape too many holiday seasons before seeing this one. It has the advantage of being more about the season itself than the holiday, so just about everyone should be able to find something in it that they like.


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