I love Christmas movies but many of them have the unrealistic qualities in them. Granted, you’re supposed to watch a movie with a suspension of disbelief but it’s hard sometimes to see movies like Jingle All the Way, Elf of even National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation without their exaggerations. Maybe that’s why A Christmas Story remains so well loved by many nearly 40 years later. It seems real.
Set in the Midwestern fictional town of Hohman, Ind., circa 1940, it focuses on the Parker family told through the eyes of the 9-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) who is your typical all-American child. All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Rider air-rifle but everyone he tells including his mother, teacher and even department store Santa respond by telling him “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Ralphie and his younger brother, Randy (Ian Petrella) live in a nice house along with their parents referred to in credits as The Old Man (Darren McGavin) and Mother Parker (Melinda Dillon) as the typical nuclear family. We don’t know what the father does except that he wears a suit to work. He reads the newspaper, messes around with home appliances, not really fixing them, but not exactly making them worse. Mother spends most of her time either in the kitchen or doing something around the house. It’s a basic lifestyle of middle-class WASP families back then.
But they do have their eccentricities. One of the funniest scenes is Mother trying with great effort to dress Randy in clothes that he’s almost grown out of so he can bare the walk to school through snow and freezing temperatures. The clothing limits Randy’s mobility. I can imagine a lot of people watching this saw themselves or their siblings and definitely their parents. There’s no point in buying newer winter clothes when next year, Randy will be bigger. If it barely fits, it still fits.
That’s not to say Mother isn’t inconsiderate. She’s actually a very caring and loving mother. To get Randy to finally eat his dinner, she turns it into a game allowing him to pretend to be a “piggie.” Later when Ralphie loses it and finally beats up Scut Farkus (Zach Ward) for his constant bullying, she doesn’t yell at him nor punish him. She realizes he needs some TLC. And when she tells the Old Man about the fight, she quickly brushes it off to get his mind off of it.
As for the Old Man, he may come off as a buffoon as he wins an atrociously tacky leg lamp in an office contest, but he’s a loving father. The fact that he’s the only one Ralphie doesn’t tell about the BB gun but gets it for him shows that fathers know more than their kids think they do. There’s something heartwarming and charming as he hides it and then on Christmas morning when Ralphie seems disappointed, the Old Man tells Ralphie to check behind furniture. He chuckles and laughs even as Mother looks a little upset that he didn’t check with her first. But as she watches the Old Man’s excitement just as much as Ralphie, she realizes why he did it.
This wouldn’t have worked if McGavin and Dillon didn’t play their roles as real people rather than caricatures which is often the case in these movies. Sometimes, comics play them and they forget they’re in a family movie, which is the cause with the awful 8-Bit Christmas, a poor imitation of this movie.
But at the heart of the movie is the way director and co-writer Bob Clark shoots the movie. Ralphie and his friends, Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb) aren’t over the top. They are real kids playing real kids. One scene I noticed is as they are walking to school Ralphie looks up in the sky for no reason the way a kid would be slightly distracted by something. Like young boys, they might bicker amongst themselves but they don’t speak hateful of each other as other movies portray kids as more enemies than friends.
During one of the most memorable scenes is when Schwartz dares Flick to stick his tongue to a metal pole to see if if sticks. They both talk a big game at each other until finally Schwartz triple-dog dares Flick. And he does it. And it sticks. And all the kids at the recess do what all kids do, they run away. Later, they sit in the classroom as their teacher asks where Flick is not one of them willing to speak up. Only a young girl slightly raises her hand sheepishly and points out the window.
Later when they get Flick free, Miss Shields (Tedde Moore) stands mostly over the desks of Ralphie and Schwartz speaking to the entire class but eyeballing them how “awful” whoever put Flick up to this must feel. Miss Shields knows they did it. Ralphie and Flick know Miss Shields knows. But it’s best not to let on. When she turns her back and goes to the front of the classroom, they try to hide their laughter.
Nowadays, a director would make this a big scene of a comic actress to overact trying to get the last laugh, but the scene works well on how it’s played. And many people watching have sat in a classroom where a teacher tried the same thing on them.
Other things in the movie make it seem more natural as Ralphie writes a theme paper “What I Want For Christmas” thinking Miss Shields will consider it the best thing ever written but he gets a C-Plus on it, because well, it’s very short and brief and if you look very closely he misspells Christmas. Another part of the movie has Ralphie discovering there’s too much commercialism. He’s awaiting a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring from sending off box tops from Ovaltine. When it arrives, he nervously awaits to hear the secret message and as he frantically decodes, he realizes it’s just a “crummy commercial” reminding him to drink more Ovaltine.
But Clark and co-writers Leigh Brown and Jean Shepherd write many scenes with the imagination of a child. Ralphie often daydreams about how his BB gun will turn him into the toughest cowboy sheriff around. Or when he accidentally drops the F-bomb while helping his father change a flat tire, his mother puts a bar of soap in his mouth. Later he imagines himself blind from soap poisoning as his parents weep melodramatically over how they permanently injured him.
Clark spent 10 years working with Shepherd to make the movie. Shepherd had written many stories over the year and included them in the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Clark had been making movies in Canada mostly famously Black Christmas until he made Porky’s in 1981. The critics hated it but it made a lot of money at the box office, giving him the clout to finally make this.
And just like in Porky’s, Clark doesn’t hold back by breaking through the common myths of the early part of the 20th Century. When Ralphie and Randy go to meet Santa, they are surprised to realize that there is a long line of people waiting as it’s “stretched up all the way to Terre Haute.” As the store nears its closing time, the store Santa (Jeff Gillen) and his elf workers get irritated with the kids who are awestruck and even terrified of Santa.
There’s really something funny about how one elf worker will literally drag a child by one arm screaming, “Come on, kid!” and another elf will spin the child around and place him on Santa’s lap. After the child has told Santa what they want, the bigger elf will pick them up and then push them screaming down a slide. The fact there was a time where people didn’t care much for children’s safety is both funny and painfully true. Ralphie and Randy are just one generation away from having to work in the coal mines and clothing factories as was the case before child labor laws put a stop to it.
Some of the jokes may not work as much today as they did 40 years ago. I don’t think a child being spanked angrily off-screen would be considered funny if made today. And when the Parkers’ Christmas turkey dinner is ruined when the Bumpus hounds sneak in and devour it off the table, they go to a Chinese restaurant where the staff is singing very badly Christmas songs. This type of “Me So Solly” humor stopped being funny not much longer after this movie was released.
But these are a few minor problems. Overall the movie works as it doesn’t talk down on children nor doesn’t go for cheap-out touching moments. It earns them. At the end, when The Old Man and Mother sit in the dark watching the snow fall, it’s heartwarming because you feel that despite the arguments over the leg lamp and how to string the lights on the Christmas tree, they have a loving healthy relationship. Too often in movies, you can tell actors are just collecting a paycheck to pay a couple with zero chemistry.
Ironically by the time Christmas Day 1983 rolled around, A Christmas Story wasn’t even in theaters as the studio, MGM, felt it had already run its course. Nowadays, holiday movies are almost expected each year with all the potential to be the next holiday favorite. Time will tell if in another 35-40 years if this movie is still as loved by people.
Part of the reason I think it’s endured so far is how well it’s been made and each year it finds newer viewers.