By Steve Vivona
In 1983 "A Christmas Story" was released with little fanfare and a lukewarm critical reception and so it quickly disappeared. But like that other holiday classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Story" started to gain a following from multiple viewings on video and television. After 17 years its safe to say the film has earned a space along side such classics as the aforementioned "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street" and the myriad versions of "A Christmas Carol."
I identify wholeheartedly with the premise of "A Christmas Story" which tells the story of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a young boy with an overriding desire to get that one perfect gift, the one without which all of Christmas wont be worth celebrating. There was one Christmas in particular where I had one gift that I just could not live without and it became the bane of my parents existence until my father miraculously snatched it from the ether on Christmas Eve, thereby saving the holiday (much to my poor mother's chagrin. Sure she was relieved but also did most of the searching!)
"A Christmas Story" takes place in Indiana in the early 1940s and is based on the life of author Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film). It captures the era brilliantly and is a wonderful slice of old-style Americana that I'm sure makes those who lived through it very nostalgic.
In Ralphie's case he wants an "Official Red Ryder BB carbine action BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time." But all the world rallies against him as he endlessly hears, "You'll shoot your eye out kid!" Throughout the film Ralphie concocts numerous schemes designed to snare him that one magical gift but it looks as though he will be thwarted.
While Ralphie's dilemma is at the heart of the film there is much more going on. The entire film is populated with a wonderful and eccentric cast of characters. His mother (Melinda Dillon) is sweet and loving (although she is his primary BB gun rival), his father, the Old Man (Darren McGavin) is gruff and irascible, but his heart is in the right place. McGavin completely steals the film as the obscenity-snarling, furnace-fighting patriarch with a penchant for crossword puzzles. His younger brother Randy is an annoyance to Ralphie (as most siblings are) and he has a penchant for refusing to eat.
McGavin provides some of the more uproarious moments in "A Christmas Story," especially when The Old Man wins an electric lamp in the form of a woman's shapely leg. He proudly displays the lamp in the living room window touching off a battle of wills with his wife that ends hilariously. In addition to the furnace wars The Old Man is constantly besieged by the Bumpus hounds, a pack of smelly dogs from next door who always chase him.
"A Christmas Story" is the perfect mix of hilarity and sentiment. The actors give genuine performances that seem effortless and their chemistry with each other gives them the appearance of a real family, one that we love revisiting year after year. Anyone can relate to the trials and tribulations they endure. However beneath the laughter there really are some touching moments where each parent does something for Ralphie he will always remember, and will define how he views them from then on.
What I love most about the film is how it captures the wonder of Christmas through a child's eyes. The film is told entirely from Ralphie's perspective and it conjures up memories of a time when the wait for Christmas seemed like decades and the mania was all-consuming. The film perfectly captures the 10-year old mind with its wild fantasies and supposedly shrewd tactical maneuvering with the parents. It also recalls the days of horrors like schoolyard bullies, broken glasses and being caught cursing by the parents. Yet it also brings back memories of a simpler time filled with treasured toys and no worries except missing ones favorite radio (or in my case, television) show.
"A Christmas Story," like "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life" is a film I never tire of. For years to come I'm sure I will delight in watching Ralphie's quest for his Red Ryder peacemaker or hearing the invented profanity of his harried father. It's a film, like the best Chrsitmas movies, that improves with age and makes us remember why we love the holiday.