A Christmas Story
(SPOILERS) I was aware A Christmas Story had a high reputation – in the pantheon of Christmas movies, at any rate – but nothing about its premise really piqued my interest: kid wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Crimbo. It sounded like winsome, highly resistible Yule Americana. And without Jean Shepherd’s splendidly wry narration, it probably would be, give or take Darren McGavin’s hoot of a performance as young Ralphie’s dad. So yeah, I should have sought this out a long while back.
Ralphie: Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year reolved.
The plot is proudly loose and anecdotal – it’s been suggested as inspiration for the horrific The Wonder Years; if so, that show wildly missed the tonal point – but glued together by Shepherd’s wonderful irreverence. His was also the very loosely autobiographical basis for the screenplay (co-written with Bob Clark). I was unaware of Shepherd, I must admit, but I can readily see the connective tissue to the likes of Spalding Gray and Garrison Keillor (slightly less so with Jerry Seinfeld, who claims Shepherd “really formed my entire comedic sensibility”, mostly because the delivery – rather than subject matter – is so different).
Ralphie: Scut Farkus! What a rotten name!
Single-minded Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) juxtaposes with his wiser adult self’s perspective entirely mirthfully, and his family – Mrs Parker (Melinda Dillon), the Old Man and younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella) – are a source of frequent supplementary amusement. There are encounters with Christmas trees, prize lamps in the shape of a leggy leg, the menace that is Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), a horrific department store Santa (Jeff Gillen), and much PG-rated obscenity.
Ralphie: My mother hadn’t had a hot meal herself in fifteen years.
The prized toy gun is the 1940s equivalent of a Buzz Lightyear doll, but with added health warnings (“It could take your eye out”). Crucially, it is seemingly destined never to land in Ralphie’s determined mitts. If Ralphie seems like an entirely normal kid, pursuing his present by hook or by crook, everyone as captured through Clark and Shepherd’s lens is at minimum a skewed eccentric. This feels entirely appropriate. Brother Randy, for example, “had not eaten voluntarily in three years”, cueing a horrifyingly funny scene in which mom uses low cunning to get him to polish off his meal (“Show me how the piggies eat”) as dad is unable to hide his revulsion, cringing behind his broadsheet.
Ralphie: Some men are Baptists. Others are Catholics. My father was an Oldsmobile man.
Dad becomes a colourful madman, obsessed with his cheap lamp (“The old man’s eyes boggled, overcome by the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window”) and prone to electrical and central heating mishaps, launching into a “tapestry of obscenity” from the basement furnace; when Ralphie imitates such language, he is required to eat soap. Later, in The Scut Farkus Affair, Ralphie reaches breaking point, and so also releases a “steady torrent of obscenities” as he pummels the bully.
Ralphie: The old man could replace fuses quicker than a jack rabbit on a date. He bought them by the gross.
Predictably, Christmas goes very wrong – I must admit, I always find movies’ tendency to put a tree up on Christmas Eve weird and unnatural; it’s leaving things much much too late – from presents (“He looks like a deranged Easter bunny” dad observes of Ralphie’s horrifying costume present from Aunt Clara), to an invasion of neighbourhood hounds making off with the turkey (the family go to a Chinese restaurant instead). My favourite moment is almost incidental, however; during a Christmas parade, a hoard of flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz can be seen launching an all-out attack on Mickey Mouse.
Ralphie: It was gone! All gone! No turkey, no turkey sandwiches, no turkey salad, no turkey gravy!
Clark was no one’s idea of a genius director, but his filmography suggests he was one of highly eclectic tastes. His career had one, somewhat infamous, megahit – Porky’s – that gave him licence to make this picture, and subsequently a series of bombs (and Baby Geniuses…) There’s a cult horror (Black Christmas), and a Jack the Ripper yarn that goes the royal route (Murder by Decree); entertaining as that one is, you suspect it would have been even better helmed by someone with more flair. A Christmas Story seems entirely suited to his talents, though, while offering a degree of sophistication his preceding teen sex comedy sorely lacked. It’s place among the best Christmas movies? Definitely a contender for the Top Ten.