A Christmas Story has become an iconic Christmas holiday movie since it hit theaters in mid-November 1983 that it’s almost a surprise to hear by Christmas Day of that year, the movie was only playing in a hundred of venues or so as the studio felt it had run its course. The movie based on the writings of humorist Jean Shepherd was a passion project of Bob Clark who spent a decade since his early days of making low-budget horror movies in Canada to get it made. Only after the success of the R-rated raunchy sex comedy Porky’s did he have the clout to make it. Jumping from a raunchy movie where a woman character tries to pull a man’s penis through a hole in the wall to a family-friendly comedy is an amazing transition.
Over time, the movie found its audience on the home video market as well as on cable viewings where it initially became marathon viewing TBS and TNT on Thanksgiving day and then on Christmas. So, a sequel was inevitable. And there was a sequel, too many of them that flew under the radar. You may not know that both Jerry O’Connell in Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss and Kieran Culkin in My Summer Story played Ralphie Parker as well as Matt Dillon in The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, released in 1982. Even Matthew Broderick played Ralph as an adult in the ill-fated A Christmas Story Live in 2017.
But Peter Billingsley seemed to excel in the role as Ralphie mainly for the way he just seemed to look like the average Midwestern child. Ralphie is an observer. He’s not really the hero, but he’s not really the comic-relief. I think that’s the appeal. We all kind of feel like Ralphie where we’d just like to hang out with our friends. While his friends Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb) seem to be too busy trying to one-up each other, Ralphie hangs back and watches the madness.
A Christmas Story Christmas recently released on HBO Max reunites Ralphie, Flick and Schwartz about 33 years after the events in the previous movie thankfully ignoring all the events of the productions since the 1983 original. Now just going by Ralph, he’s living in Chicagoland with his wife, Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and son, Mark (River Drosche) and daughter, Julie (Julianna Layne). Ralph has been working on a novel for the past year and Christmas is approaching and more importantly, the publishing houses are rejecting his work. Ralph took a year off work to write the novel and is worried about having to go back as the family expenses are starting to become an issue.
The plan is for Ralph’s parents to come visit but his father dies, changing things up. (Darren McGavin who played The Old Man in the 1983 movie died in 2006.) Ralph drives his family to fictional Hohman, Ind. in their beat-up Plymouth that needs a new radiator that Ralph fixes by dropping a raw egg down it. Mrs. Parker (Julie Hagerty replacing Melinda Dillon who has retired from acting) has received enough casseroles as condolensces to feed an entire army. While they are welcomed by his mother, Ralph is hesistant to reunite with his friends. Flick has taken over operating his father’s bar and Schwartz has become a barfly sap having run up an outrageous bar tab. He hangs around in the bar to get away from his mother.
While the first A Christmas Story seemed episodic at times, it was all glued together by the Christmas holiday. Based on Shepherd’s collection novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, it painted a picture of the early 1940s before World War II that seemed a lot longer away. Imagine someone making a movie about Christmas at 1979 now and think to yourself, that wasn’t too long ago. The movie is less episodic but on the bad side, it seems to mimic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in its slapstick adventures that has Schwartz at one point riding a huge ramp to clear his bar tab and an impromptu snowball fight among the Parkers that happens as they wait for the radiator to cool down. I’m not going to say what happens, but I found myself laughing too much at this part.
The movie seems to mimic the other Shepherd adaptations, most notably My Summy Story, which finally let us see the Bumpus family. Mark and Julie befriend one of the Bumpus kids and are also bullied by some kids on a snowmobile that mimics Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) and Grover Dill (Yano Anaya) who both appear but not on screen together. The grown up version of Farkus might come as a surprise that I won’t reveal.
Since Dillon retired from acting in 2007, Hagerty does her best to fill the shoes, but she’s a little closer to what Mary Steenburgen brought to the role in My Summer Story. She’s too animated as she does what she can to avoid having to deal with Christmas carolers or cheat with made up words at Scrabble with Sandy. Dillon had a certain motherly warmth to her with a touch of realism that she was going to squeeze her son, Randy (Ian Petrella) into clothes that were a little too small for him rather than buy him new more comfortable clothes. When she dismissively said, “Put your arms down when you get to school,” as Randy’s coat was too tight, I think a lot of people watching could relate.
I’m not saying that I didn’t like Hagerty in the role. She does seem to work best when she’s trying to do her own thing rather copy Dillon. As for Billingsley, he’s still the same Ralph except grown up. I wished they had trimmed some of the narration a little bit. There’s some things that don’t need any further explanation. That was what Shepherd and Clark were able to bring to the narration. One of the biggest joys was Ralph’s outrageous imagination as he daydreamed. We really only get one good one this time around as he imagines what will happen after being in jail for many years.
However, the chemistry between Billingsley and Hayes is what makes the movie work. Hayes, who was on Children’s Hospital, got a raw deal on Kevin Can Wait where they killed her character off after the first season and reduced her death to a joke about a coupon. With that show’s cancellation in its second season, it’s obvious the problem was Kevin James, not her. There’s something that she brings to the role as Sandy that feels natural.
The ending is a little sappy for my taste. Even in 1973, I’m not sure that Ralph’s writing career would hinge on something in a local newspaper. But there’s a suspension of disbelief you have to take to enjoy the movie. Part of the reasons I think the other adaptations didn’t work as well is that we couldn’t see anyone by Billingsley in the role. Even though he helped get the MCU started by producing the 2008 Iron Man, this will be the role for which he is most remembered. He makes the movie worth watching.
What do you think? Please comment.