Movie review: ‘A Christmas Story’

OK, I have to admit it took me several viewings to come to fully appreciate the timeless classic that is “A Christmas Story.” I didn’t like it at first because I thought the flick was too saccharine, but came to appreciate the sublime (and not so sublime) details of a child’s Christmas wishes and all the accompanying run up to the big day. The Christmas season gets started earlier and earlier each year (it’s no longer just Black Friday, stores open now on Thanksgiving Day afternoon for Christmas shoppers) and so you get a chance to do your own movie marathon of “A Christmas Story.” Now, sit back (or watch as you walk by doing chores) and enjoy one of what I consider the best two Christmas films ever made. Hint: the other is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (click here for my review).

‘A Christmas Story’
(1983; 94 minutes; rated PG; directed by Bob Clark and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin; the film runs almost continuously each holiday season on cable movie channels – and has a traditional marathon beginning Christmas Eve on TBS)

YOU’LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT!

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional trivia and opinion and I updated links on May 29, 2018.)

I would have to believe that “A Christmas Story” is the most viewed Christmas film of all time. After the movie’s run in theaters it went to video. After going to video it became a staple running several times a week on cable networks and now for several years has run as a 24-hour marathon each year on TBS beginning Christmas Eve and running into Christmas Day. Whew! That’s the mark of a great Christmas film.

(CLICK HERE FOR ALL MY MOVIE REVIEWS)

Along with “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “A Christmas Story” is the best Christmas movie you can watch – even though it passed its 30th anniversary on Nov. 18, 2013. I’d say that’s my opinion, but you cannot deny fact. A Christmas season without “Ralphie” and his gang or “Clark” and his gang would be like that first Christmas when a member of your family didn’t make the celebration. It’s just unthinkable.

It’s somewhat odd that Bob Clark was the driving force behind “A Christmas Story” (besides directing the film, he was the co-writer in adapting it from Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”). Clark had previously only directed one holiday film and it was a horror effort called “Black Christmas” from 1974 where a serial killer knocks off sorority members during Christmas break (one of the networks agreed with a request from Florida’s governor at the time to pull a rerun of the film in the wake of the Ted Bundy murders in Tallahassee at a Florida State University sorority).

Further, Clark had just released two raunchy teen comedies (“Porky’s” – click here for my review – and “Porky’s II: The Next Day” in 1982-83), the second only five months before the release of “A Christmas Story.” However, it was the success of “Porky’s” that allowed Clark to make “A Christmas Story,” which he had been wanting to do.

A Christmas Story” is about a boy and his wish for Christmas to receive a Red Ryder BB rifle from Santa. It deals with all the childhood delights and frustrations of the holiday and its most famous scene is where one of the kids gets his tongue stuck to a metal pole in freezing weather. It goes from seeing stores’ Christmas displays to buying a tree to wheedling his parents for the BB gun. In between are a bunch of kids’ frustrations done very well.

Since everyone knows what happens in the movie, I’m going to give you a rundown today of the key actors and what’s happened for them. Here we go (all details from IMDb.com):

  • As the headliner and featured actor, Peter Billingsley as “Ralphie Parker” only had 93 lines of dialogue in the film. He is the quintessential kid at Christmas in this film and does a great job (he was 12 at the time of the film’s release). Since then he has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy (“Dinner for Five”) and has been in another Christmas film (“Four Christmases” from 2008). Most recently he has been the executive producer for the TBS sitcom “Sullivan & Son.”
  • Two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Melinda Dillon played “ ‘Mother’ Parker.” She nurtured her two boys and had to balance everything against their father’s excesses. Dillon was nominated for two dark roles – a suicidal woman in “Absence of Malice” and a confused one in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” She hasn’t notched an acting credit since 2007 with TV’s “Heartland.”
  • Primetime Emmy nominee Darren McGavin played “ ‘Old Man’ Parker” and is Billingsley’s father. He is pitch-perfect as the harried, longsuffering dad who has to deal with all mechanical challenges of the household from a rat’s nest of wires by the tree that blows the house’s electrical fuse (no mechanical ones then) to the furnace, he’s in a constant state of conflict. McGavin had already been in the biggest TV movie of all time (to that date: “The Night Stalker” – click here for my review) and was also in Clark’s delightful “Turk 182!” – click here for my review. McGavin had 183 credits over seven decades of work in film and on TV and died at the age of 83 in 2006 of natural causes. The first film I remember McGavin in was a TV flick called “The Challenge” in 1970 and he did tons of TV shows including two of my favorites: “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Mission: Impossible.”
  • Scott Schawartz played the iconic friend “Flick,” who gets his tongue stuck on the frozen flag pole. While he would go on “Kidco” the year after “A Christmas Story,” he would spend some time doing pornographic films by cashing in on his fame as “Flick.” He was also in “The Toy” with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason (click here for my review) and remains active in Hollywood today and his latest credit is for “Community College” in 2009.
  • Zack Ward played the bully “Scut Farkas,” who was the nemesis of Billingsley and his friends. Along with Yano Anaya, who played “Grover Dill,” the two tormented the other kids until Billingsley finally opens a big can of whoop-ass on him. Ward, who was 13 when the film was released, has had a somewhat prolific career of 109 credits and is most recently in TV’s “Fallen Cards.” Anaya, who was 11 at the time of the movie’s release, had only been in three films at the time and “A Christmas Story” was his first. His last credit was from 2008 as producer of the documentary “The Untold Christmas Story” about the filming of “A Christmas Story” but he resurfaced in 2017 in the movie “Sunday Mornings.”
  • Tedde Moore played “Miss Shields” and was Billingsley’s hard-nosed teacher (one of several people who said he’d shoot his eye out if he got a BB gun). Moore hasn’t been as prolific in her career as her peers here, but has notched 39 credits with the most recent being the TV movie “Magical Christmas Ornaments” in 2017.
  • Ian Petrella played “Randy Parker” and was the tag-along brother of Billingsley. Petrella was 8 when the film was released (he turned 9 the next month) and has since had a sporadic career in Hollywood, with TV’s “Crafty” in 2009 his most recent credit came in 2015.
  • D. Robb played Billingsley’s friend “Schwartz.” He was 11 at the time the film was released and has now been out of acting (and into production) for more than a decade. Robb’s last two acting credits (outside of a 2005 voicing on a video game) was the TV show “Touched by an Angel” in 2001 and then an episode on the TV series “The Goldbergs” in 2017.

Clark, whose real first name is Benjamin, would direct 18 more films and television productions. His career totaled 29 directing credits. He directed an eclectic group of films including the little-remembered but great “Turk 182!” (also with McGavin) as well as “Rhinestone” that paired Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton and “Baby Geniuses.” Clark was in a vehicle crash in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and died on April 4, 2007, at the age of 67.

From the written creative side, Shepherd, who was a longtime resident of Sanibel Island here in Southwest Florida, died in October 1999 at the age of 78 after being in semi-seclusion for a number of years. Shepherd was the voice of an adult “Ralphie” … the film’s narrator.

Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoy it and have a very Merry Christmas!

Audiences apparently didn’t believe that “A Christmas Story” was an instant classic, since it was only the 39th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1983 with $19.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $4 million, according to Wiki. However, Clark’s “Porky’s II: The Next Day” did better, coming in 21st with $33.7 million.

A Christmas Story” was just ahead of the wonderful “Max Dugan Returns” (40th with $17.6 million – click here for my review) with Jason Robards and Matthew Broderick in his first film and, fer sure, “Valley Girl” (41st with $17.3 million). All lagged far behind the year’s No. 1 film: “Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi” with $252.5 million). The highest ranked holiday-themed film of the year, “Trading Places,” was fourth with $90.4 million.  Here are the other films from 1983 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • “Ralphie” says he wants the BB gun 28 times.
  • Shepherd’s book on which the film is based was itself taken from a series of short stories the author wrote for “Playboy” magazine.
  • McGavin did my favorite kitschy TV series “The Love Boat” (click here for my look at the series). Thanks, Darren. Well done!
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “For the scene in which Flick’s tongue sticks to the flagpole, a hidden suction tube was used to safely create the illusion that his tongue had frozen to the metal.”
  • Wil Wheaton of “Stand by Me” and TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame (and also who has been having cameos on “The Big Bang Theory”) auditioned for the part of “Ralphie.” Sorry, Wil, I’m glad you didn’t get it.
  • Jack Nicholson was reportedly interested in playing the father character, but the movie studio wouldn’t pay his fee (as it would double the budget). In the end, Clark was reported as saying that McGavin wound up the better choice.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “It has long been thought that The Old Man’s first name was ‘Hal.’ When The Old Man is in front of the house admiring his major award/lamp, his neighbor, Swede, comes up to him and says ‘Damn, hell, you say you won it?’ Some fans believed that Swede said ‘Damn, Hal…’ leading them to believe that ‘Hal’ was The Old Man’s first name. But according to the script, Swede actually says, ‘Damn, hell,’ not ‘Damn, Hal.’”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the film …

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
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