It has no ghosts of Christmas past nor visions of what life would be had we never been born, but A Christmas Story is one of my personal favorite Christmas movies. However, when it was released in November 1983, it went unnoticed. Earning only $2 million in its’ first weekend, critics hated it and it was gone in most theaters by the time Christmas arrived. It’s journey from failure to being recognized by the Library of Congress in 2012 is an interesting one.
The movie is based the short stories of Jean Shepherd and his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Set in Christmas somewhere in the late 30s or early 40s, it centers on nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) who wants only one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. Of course, everyone instantly tells him he’ll shoot his eye out, so he tries in vain to convince his teacher and parents just how important it is. His teach gives him a C+ on a report about and his parents seem oblivious to his efforts. His last hope is Santa Claus. However, the trip to visit Santa at a local department store turns disastrous due to his freezing up at the last moment. Now, one can argue, that particular scene is quite horrific. A pretty traumatic moment many people can probably relate to regarding a visit to see Santa or the Easter Bunny. Of course, along the way, we have a series of vignettes that are truly a slice of Americana circa 1940. We have the bully and his sidekick who torture Ralphie and his friends, the tongue on the freezing flagpole incident, Ralphie cursing while trying to help his dad change a flat tire, the Chinese restaurant carolers, etc. The list goes on and on and funny events leading up to the big day. And all along the way, we are dealt a visual feast with a soundtrack of classic Christmas music from days gone by.
In 1983, nostalgia for the past really hadn’t kicked in yet. Christmas movies hadn’t quite become the craze they are today. It’s A Wonderful Life hadn’t quite become an annual institution and cable television was in its’ infancy. But what was lost on theater audiences in 1983 would soon find its’ way into our homes. It was released on VHS in 1984 and first appeared in cable TV in 1985 on HBO. By the mid-90s, it had become a holiday staple at Turner Broadcasting, culminating in the first 24-hour marathon on TNT in 1997. Since 2004, the marathon is viewed by millions every year on TBS. That’s not even counting all of the home video releases on VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, DVD, HD DVD and Blu-Ray. Not bad for a film that flopped.
The cast is charming. Besides the adorable Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, Darren McGavin (Kolchak The Night Stalker) plays The Old Man while Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is Ralphie’s mom. Add young Ian Petrella as Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, and you have the Parker family. Jean Shepherd provides the wonderful narration as an older Ralphie reflecting on year’s gone by. Often forgotten is a 1994 sequel called My Summer Story. It’s cute but rather forgettable due to an entirely different cast with two exceptions. Tedde Moore returned as Ralphie’s teacher and Jean Shepherd was back as the narrator. There are also several PBS special that are also forgotten. And we won’t even mention a horrendous sequel called A Christmas Story 2 that was released in 2012.
Many of us get nostalgic for Christmas past this time of year. And while this movie was set a little before my time, it does give me a fairly accurate glimpse of the life my own parents would have had as they were born in the early 1930s. Take a break from the monsters and killer Santa Claus to take a step back into a simpler time. Its 90 minutes you won’t regret spending on one of the very best Christmas movies of all time.