This is second of two entries that I am writing as part of The Happy Holidays Blogathon hosted by The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society (PEPS). You can check out all of the participants here:
For this entry, I have chosen to briefly look at A Christmas Story.
A Christmas Story is based on the works of Jean Shepherd. He was a radio DJ for about 40 years, and he was known for these amazing semi-autobiographical stories on the air (and later in books). The movie itself is a sort of compilation of some of the stories. The stories used can be found in his books In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.
Last March my wife and I had a chance to tour the Christmas Story House in Cleveland. They told the story of how the movie’s director, Bob Clark, had been driving to pick up a date. Shepherd was on the radio telling the story about a boy named Flick. He explained how the boy was was “triple dog dared” to stick his tongue to a metal pole in the middle of winter, where it immediately froze to it. Bob had never heard a story told that way before. He was so into the story, that he was 45 minutes late to pick up his date! The story goes that he resolved right then to make a movie of Shepherd’s works. 12 years later, he did.
Jean wrote the adaption of his stories for the screenplay with Bob Clark. You can get a sense for the way he worked on the radio simply by listening to the narration that he does in the film as “adult Ralphie”. He also makes a cameo appearance in the movie. Watch for him when Ralphie is standing in line to see Santa – Jean is the guy who tells him where the line starts and ends!
As any writer might do, Jean was very protective of his characters, and was on set quite often. This often didn’t sit well with the director as Jean would often go up to an actor and tell them how to play their character, often suggesting something opposite of what they had been told by Clark. Eventually, Shepherd was barred from the set.
A Christmas Story
If you look at the plotline of the film, it really is nothing special. “A young boy wants a BB gun for Christmas. He tries to convince his teacher, his mother, and Santa that it is the perfect gift.” Does that sound like something you’d rush right out to see? I don’t think so. Even movie critic Roger Ebert said, “My guess is either nobody will go see it, or millions will go to see it.”
I am drawn to this movie each and every year for many reasons, the first being the sense of nostalgia. We have “adult Ralphie” telling us the story of one particular Christmas in which he received the BEST gift ever. While telling us this story, we are introduced to his family, his friends, and other memories of his childhood. These memories make up the vignettes that surround our main story line.
Stop and think for a moment about YOUR favorite Christmas. Think about YOUR favorite gift. No doubt, you’d be as excited as Ralphie is to tell you about it. The narration of Jean Shepherd conveys that childhood anticipation and excitement. He says, “Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolved.” In the opening scene, Ralphie Parker, his brother, and his friends are looking in the store window and spot the Red Rider BB Gun. His description of the gun and all the things he could do with it – he remembers it well.
I connect instantly with this moment! I remember hating being dragged to the store as a kid, but when I saw the amazing toy displays, I stared in awe and wonder and began adding things to my Christmas list!
One thing I love about the film is the element of fantasy and daydreaming done by Ralphie. He wants this BB gun. The gun will be something he can use to save his family from peril and bandits!
Early in the film he drops hints at dinner, in magazines, and in other ways hoping that the BB gun will show up under the tree.
Sadly, his mother states that guns are dangerous and “you’ll shoot your eye out.” But that doesn’t stop him from dropping hints.
When his teacher asks the class to write a theme on what they want for Christmas, he writes about his BB gun. When the theme is graded, he get’s a C+ and the teacher has scribbled at the bottom “You’ll shoot your eye out!” This leaves him with one more chance … he’ll go to the “big man” – Santa! He’ll ask him directly.
While waiting in line to see Santa, he is focused. He needs to “get it right”. The store is closing and this is his last chance. He is anxious and nervous. When he finally gets to see Santa (after being rushed up by two very annoyed elves), his mind goes blank!
He cannot even speak when he gets on Santa’s lap. Who wouldn’t freak out?! I have a picture of me on Santa’s lap crying like crazy! I am sure I couldn’t remember what I wanted either! Anyway, Santa suggests a football and sends him on his way (down a slide). Ralphie, however, comes to his senses and stops himself at the top of the slide. He then tells Santa he wants the BB gun, only to be told “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”
Spoiler Alert – Ralphie gets his BB Gun, thanks to the one person he didn’t ask…
The Old Man
Ralphie is obviously the main character, but if there was a second, it would have to be The Old Man – Ralphie’s father. Believe it or not, Jack Nicholson was considered for the role. It’s hard for me to see anyone but Darren McGavin in this role. He plays the old man perfectly.
Much of the movies subplots feature the Old Man. We learn that he was constantly fighting his furnace! When Ralphie asks him want he wants for Christmas, he looks up dreamily and says “a new furnace”.
While fixing the furnace he would cuss. Ralphie says, “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” Regarding his father’s profanity, Ralphie said, “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”
Another subplot was his “major award”. It seems he is always entering newspaper contests in hopes of winning it big. One day he gets a telegram informing him that he has won and his prize will arrive that night. He comes home to tell the family, he ponders what it could be stating it could even be a bowling alley! When the prize arrives in a huge crate marked “Fragile”, the old man can hardly contain himself. “Frageelay. It must be Italian.” He shakes with excitement as he opens the crate and pulls out … a leg.
It takes a minute before he finds the lamp shade, and realizes it is a lamp. He states that it should go right in the front room window, much to the disgust of his wife!
Upon placing it in the window, you can see the Old Man beaming with pride at his major award!
He immediately runs outside to see how it looks. The excitement draws a crowd of people. He brags about his major award to a neighbor (director Bob Clark, in a cameo). he yells to his wife, “You should see how it looks from out here!”
We see conflict between him and his wife regarding the lamp (“Ralphie calls it the Battle of the Lamp”) until one day, she walks into the living room to water her plants. There is a huge crash, and the old man rushes into the living room to find Mrs. Parker holding his broken lamp.
The old man is very upset and asks for glue. She states they are out of glue. He accuses her of using all the glue on purpose, saying she was jealous of the lamp. Then her true feelings come out by telling him how much she disliked the lamp.
The old man leaves (presumably to get glue) and returns home to attempt to fix the lamp. He is unsuccessful. Ralphie explains that he buried the lamp in the backyard, while taps played.
In another vignette, the family goes out to buy a Christmas Tree. I love this scene because the boys and mom are singing loudly while the old man drives – almost emotionless.
While driving, they blow a tire. The old man tells his wife to “time” how long it takes to change the tire (He supposedly always wanted to be in the pit crew of the Indianapolis speedway). Mom suggests that Ralphie should go help his father. So he goes out and holds the hubcap where the old man places the lugnuts. In an instant, the old man accidentally hits the hubcap and all the bolts fly all over. Ralphie exclaims “Oh Fudge!” Adult Ralphie explains that he didn’t say “fudge” but the other “F” word!
Upon returning home, his mother “washes his mouth out with soap.” (What mother didn’t threaten their child with that?!) Lifebouy!
Ralphie explains, “Over the years I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference was for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor – heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness. Lifebuoy, on the other hand… “
They return home with the tree and they decorate it. Watching the old man decorating the tree reminds me of so many Christmases growing up. My dad always had to reach up and put on the star (which was never straight). I always chuckle at how many things are plugged into the outlet! There is so much going on that a fuse eventually blows and the old man has to put in a new one.
We see the tender side of the old man a couple times in the film, the first is after all the gifts are opened. He asks Ralphie if he got everything he wanted. He didn’t. However, the old man spies a package behind the desk and sends him over to get it. Ralphie unwraps the BB gun he wanted! His mother asks about it and the old man replies that Santa must have brought it. He also states that HE had one growing up, too. This moment has always stuck out for me – the one person Ralphie didn’t ask for the gun, knew that he wanted it!
One final vignette featuring the old man involves his love for turkey and the annoying hound dogs from next door. We learn early on that the family’s “hillbilly neighbors” (the Bumpasses) have hound dogs that are constantly bothering the old man. We see them harass him when he comes home from work, and they will ruin Christmas dinner.
After opening presents, the old man looks forward to a turkey dinner. He is in and out of the kitchen, trying to eat it before it is even done. The way he looks at that turkey – you know he loves it!!
While reading the paper, the Bumpass dogs get in and go right to the kitchen, where the turkey is cooling.
Needless to say, they devour the turkey by the time the old man gets to the kitchen. As he chases them out the door, he stands on the porch and yells one of my favorite lines in moviedom, “Sons a bitches!! Bumpasses!”
Without a turkey, the family is forced to go out to eat a Chinese restaurant, where they are treated to “Chinese Turkey”.
Other highlights –
There are many memorable scenes throughout this film, but for this blog, I chose to focus more on the family aspect (and I will explain why in a second). I certainly didn’t want the reader to think that I had forgotten about Scut Farkus, the bully and his minion Grover Dill. I guess it wouldn’t be a story about kids, without a subplot including a bully. I also don’t want the reader to think I forgot about the “triple dog dare!” The story of poor Flick, sticking his tongue to the metal pole, after all is what lead Bob Clark to make the entire movie!
I read where Jean Shepherd said this about the film, “In a way, this film is about these people, not Christmas or Santa Claus.” I would tend to agree. One of my favorite moments of the film is at the end. We see Ralphie asleep with his BB gun next to him, and there is a shot of the old man and Mrs. Parker sitting on the couch watching the snow – what an amazing piece of film here! It is beautiful!!
Peter Billingsly, the boy who plays Ralphie in the film, said this in an interview:
“I don’t know if it was the first, but it certainly was one of the best embodiments of a real family. There’s tension, there’s some fear of the father, there’s anxiety in the household, there’s very much a sibling battle, there’s a mother trying to hold things together, and hold her place, there’s probably financial trouble, the father’s do-it-yourself aspect of the household: nothing is sourced out – he’s going to handle it! Yet through all that, there’s a genuine sense of love and protection within the house, and yet the words ‘I love you’ are never uttered in the movie. Still (one of the last shots) is just that simple gesture touching the mother for the first time in the movie. And in that moment it says all you need to know about that relationship … it tells you how that guy loves her, he’s there for her and that’s it.”
If that doesn’t sum it up perfectly, I don’t know what does.
A Christmas Story is a film that takes us back to a simpler time. It is a time where Christmas didn’t start before Halloween. There was no Black Friday. There was no online ordering or shipping to your front door. Christmas was “shorter”. There are no holiday parties to attend in the weeks leading up to the day. They plan for the day to arrive and then celebrate.
As I have stated in previous blogs, when I think about past Christmases in my life, I get very nostalgic. I remember those simple times. I remember grabbing the Sears, JC Penney, and Montgomery Ward toy catalogs and circling the stuff I wanted for Christmas. I remember the excitement of putting up the tree, and how hard it was to fall asleep on Christmas Eve night. Christmas was a time for family. As I look back, I think of those wonderful times and the family members who are no longer here.
I am left to wonder about “adult Ralphie” as he looks back on this particular Christmas. He speaks often about the old man. Does he do so because the old man has passed away? Does he still talk with the kids he hung out with during the movie? Does he still have that BB gun somewhere? Does he still drink Ovaltine, or did that “crummy commercial” steer him from ever touching the stuff?
This movie is a “must watch” for me every year. Despite the fact that it didn’t do well at the box office, thanks to HBO, TBS and Netflix, it is watched faithfully as a family tradition by millions, including me.
Thanks again to The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society for allowing me to take part in this blogathon.
Happy Holidays – Don’t shoot your eye out!