A Christmas Story [retro review]

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”

The Scoop: 1983 PG, directed by Bob Clark and starring Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin and Peter Billingsley

Tagline: A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas

Summary Capsule: A perfectly picturesque Christmas finds one boy on a quest to arm himself.

PoolMan’s Rating: This is what Christmas is all about. Drunk Santas, sexy lamps, and boys with weapons.

PoolMan’s Review: Holy smokes.

I can’t believe it. I have been toiling here at the MRFH for YEARS under the impression that I’d already reviewed A Christmas Story. I kind of had, actually. I had written up a post for the now-and-forever-defunct PoolMan’s Picks exclaiming my great love for this movie, only to file it in my brain under the ‘Done’ bin. Of course, the Picks has sat under a fine layer of dust for over a year now, so it’s not exactly under our main Review section. I can’t stress to you enough how much this bothers me. Christmas or not, this is one of my favourite movies EVER, and here I am, totally neglecting it! I shall have to kneel before the Statue of Our Glorious Justin and begin the Ritual Beating of Myself With Reeds.

(I have an interesting hypothesis to pose at this point, by the way. While looking around for some research points, I noticed this movie is rated 8.1/10 in the IMDb. I think EVERY movie ever created that doesn’t totally suck scores an 8.1 on their scale. Anybody ever notice this?)

So. Finally. The movie. A Christmas Story is yet one more of those movies that I probably love more than I should, another nostalgia sponge just laying around the sink that is my memory (whoa… strayed into “Justin Metaphor” territory there!). It’s the story of Ralphie’s family, a nuclear unit straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and their struggle to reach Christmas and retain their sanity. It’s really that simple. It’s told from Ralphie’s perspective via a series of voiceovers from his adult self, looking back on his childhood in the 40’s, which may have you looking around checking for Kevin Arnold.

Ralphie has a problem. Well, several problems. After all, this is a ten year old boy trying to cope with school, bullies, an alarmingly goofy little brother… the list goes on. But his chief concern is his lack of a BB gun. This kid wants nothing more for Christmas than an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. Naturally, his mother instantly vetoes the idea, claiming he’ll immediately shoot his eye out. The story goes through the life of Ralphie in the weeks preceding Christmas as he deftly tries to maneuver his family, his teacher, and even Santa Claus himself into believing it’s the perfect gift idea to give a kid a gun.

Sounds like a thin premise, I know. But believe me, never has so much come from so little. Ralphie’s escapades will inevitably remind you of your own childhood innocence, regardless of the setting and time period. This movie depends entirely on the ability of Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) to convincingly take you back to your own inner kid, often with nothing more in his arsenal than a pair of thick rimmed glasses and a desperate/confused look. And it works. One scene has Ralphie lying awake in bed having had his mouth washed out with soap for swearing. He fantasizes how sad his parents will be one day when he turns up a beggar, blinded by… “soap poisoning”. Naturally, nothing in his fantasy makes much sense; Ralphie’s still a ten year old kid, selling pencils from a tin cup, and his parents cry in two-tone harmony. It’s flat out hilarious.

This is a movie suited for kids, but really best enjoyed by adults. Seeing the parents’ stressed out antics is particularly fun. I love Ralphie’s dad (continuously referred to by the Narrator as The Old Man) and his endless strings of meaningless profanity, battles with furnaces, and general curmudgeonly behaviour. The guy’s a hoot. Oh, and be sure to keep your eyes out for the drunken Santa. So very much of this movie SHOULD be offensive, and yet it just never seems to be. A neat trick that seems to be relegated to The Eighties (cue heavenly choir).

There are lots and lots of great Christmas specials and movies that come and go every year. But I’ve found that Charlie Brown got preachy, and Rudolph got seriously annoying. No, if there’s one special thing I have to see each and every holiday season, this is it. Infinitely quotable, and full of great gags you’ll be reliving with friends for years, consider A Christmas Story a gift from me to you.

So… what’d you get me?

Sue’s Rating: I TRIPLE-dog-dare ya!

Sue’s Review: It’s seventy-three degrees here in my living room. The ceiling fan is humming right along and I’m settled in with a bag of popcorn perched on one side of the desk and a strawberry slushie (that’s goooood slushie!) on the other. The only fly in the ointment of early summer perfection is… well, not a fly. It’s a mosquito and it seems to have acquired both a Klingon-esque cloaking device and an affinity for my right ear.

What I really need right now is an official Red Ryder carbine action, two-hundred shot, range model air rifle. That’d do the trick! I’m not sure what the insurance company would say though.

To be honest, because of the holiday excesses of cable television, I don’t think I could write about A Christmas Story within a two-month radius of December 25th. Not without going into some kind of cinematic anaphylactic shock anyway. Classic and amusing as this movie is, there is such a thing as a saturation point. Twenty-four straight hours of pink bunny jammies, demonic elves, mashed potato facials, Scut Farkis’s yellow eyes and a lamp that looked much better in fishnet than I ever will is… well, perhaps too much of a good thing. Sort of like a triple pint Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough binge.

But it is a good thing.

While A Christmas Story is, in essence, the story of a boy and his quest for the ultimate Christmas present, it isn’t a cohesive plot as much as it is a nice, thick nostalgic chunk hacked out of the purgatory of pre-pubescent boyhood and served up with a garnish of furnace soot, Yosemite Sam-esqe obscenity and Life Buoy. Narrated by Jean Shepherd as the adult version of Ralph Parker, we follow his young, towheaded (do people still say that?) bespectacled alter ego (cheek-pinchingly cute Peter Billingsly) through the ups, downs and accurately aimed snowballs of the holiday season right through the Big Day itself.

While Ralphie’s story is circa 1940-something, my childhood era was *gasp* the 70’s, a decade in which my greatest personal achievement was a stellar Jimmy Carter impersonation. Despite the gap, there are enough similarities between Ralphie’s experiences and mine for me to laugh, wince and relate all at the same time.

Hideous clothing sent by clueless, but well-meaning, female relation? Check. (Pea soup green and sherbet orange are not my colors… certainly not at the same time.) Being lined up at the mall for hours to see Santa, like pre-processed beef at a slaughterhouse? Check. Agreeing to absolutely anything the way-too-jolly-to-be-real old elf suggests, even if it’s a family of dolls and your only possible use for them would be as Rebel Alliance cannon fodder? Check. The coveted Christmas gift, which no one thinks is a good idea except yourself? Check. (To this day I maintain that there’s no reason a pony couldn’t have lived comfortably in our basement.) Sitting in a darkened bedroom waiting for “the old man” to come home and mete out justice? Oh yes. Double check. And when, just last December, my own offspring exchanged horrified and suspiciously guilty glances at Ralph’s utterance of “the F-dash-dash-dash word”, it struck me that this movie still has serious multigenerational staying power… and that I need to stock up on soap.

In the meantime, that darned mosquito is still dive bombing my ear, so I think it’s time to pull out the heavy artillery.

Eh, never mind. I’d probably shoot my eye out.

Justin’s Rating: The only morning of the year where children WILLINGLY get up early

Justin’s Review: In a world full of opinionated movie-goers, there’s never a more heatedly contested debate than when asked for your top Christmas movies. There are the old-schoolers, of course; It’s A Wonderful Life is a perennial fave of my mothers, and the avalanche of sugary nonsense that Miracle on 34th Street cascades has buried many black-and-white viewers. There’s about a billion versions of A Christmas Carol to choose from, from the Disney version to the Muppet version to the Bill Murray Sarcasmotron version. You have your off-kilter Christmas viewers who prefer a little more blood (Die Hard) or anarchist monsters (Gremlins) in their diet. My list has for years included The Ref, Christmas Vacation, and Better Off Dead for my seasonal movie flavor.

But on quite a few people’s lists — maybe just about everyone’s list — is A Christmas Story. And that is how it should be.

Christmas Story’s near-universal popularity doesn’t just come from the jokes or the ho-ho-ho’s of the holidays. While there are many children’s Christmas movies out there, and many more adult Christmas flicks (no, I’m not suggesting… forget it), A Christmas Story bridges all generational gaps by presenting us with a film about a child’s Christmas told from the perspective of an unseen adult narrator, remembering fondly of this particular past Christmas season. Played out as a 1940’s period piece, the setting and sheer love for the magical and often mythical world of kids makes this an experience that will have a lot of people remembering, with nostalgia, their own childhood during this special time of year.

Unlike many bungled Hollywood attempts where the “kid” in the movie is more grown-up than most people I’ve worked with, Ralphie and his chums are nothing more than who they’re supposed to be: young, crazy, imaginative, emotional, selfish, easily-impressed kids. Ralphie doesn’t quite understand the adult world (he’s strangely attracted to a curvy leg lamp without realizing why), but instead goes about his daily adventures while the narrator unravels kid legends and superstitions for us.

Ralphie, a pudgy blonde with hilarious eye-blinks and dead-pan stares, is the ship on which we sail through the rocky shoals of childhood. His family includes his doting, silly mother; his profanity-laced “Old Man” of a father, cranky and irrepressible; and his whiny snot of a little brother. His world consists of triple-dog-dares with friends, yellow-eyed bullies, secret decoder rings, bars of soap in his mouth for bad words, painfully earnest trips to Santa, and the worst Christmas present ever. He’s nothing much to look at, but his world is expansive and entertaining, and to have a little kid be the “straight man” in all of the ruckus of Christmas actually works well… as does the marrying of visual comedy to the jokes the narrator spells out.

As Christmastime draws near, Ralphie seizes upon the one gift that will truly make him happy: a BB gun. And not just any BB gun, oh no. The way he fawns over this particular weapon brings to mind the detailed attentiveness that college males give to certain drool-worthy celebrities. Ralphie decides that his Christmas cannot, will not be perfectly complete without owning this rifle — and the lengths he goes to combat the proverbial wisdom of “You’ll shoot your eyes out, kid” and attain his prize are incredible. The irony, as the narrator obviously realizes, is that Ralphie’s having the Christmas of his life while he miserably focuses on attaining this one present.

However, the BB gun storyline is just one of dozens featured in A Christmas Story. Set up in a series of short episodes, the film dives into all things kids, Christmas, and ridiculous. From throwaway lines — “My brother looked like a tick about to pop” — to the sublimely funny — as when a goggled kid grins relentlessly to an earnest Ralphie as they stand in line to see Santa — this movie just pushes all the right buttons to not only create a unique, believable Christmas mood, but also to make it darn worth your while. Sure, you may be one of the rare few who hate it, but that just means your soul is as black as coal and there will be no eye-piercing weapons under the tree for you come December 25!

Hm. This is less tasty than I once hoped.

Intermission!

  • You’ll never, ever again in this day of political correctness enjoy the beauty that is the Choir of Chinese Waiters.
  • Next on Fox: When Hungry Dogs Attack!
  • Kyle has that same lamp! Well, no he doesn’t, but he sure wishes he did.
  • The Double Dog Dare! (bum bum BUMMMMM!)
  • If my little brothers had eaten like Randy, I wouldn’t have eaten at all as a kid.
  • When a group of school children dare you to do something, it’s probably best to just take the hit to your credibility and NOT DO IT.
  • Jean Shepheard, the writer/narrator, is the irate man waiting in the Santa line at the department store.
  • 1980s cars can be seen passing by the school at the flagpole scene.
  • When Ralphie is using his Orphan Annie decoder, the first number in the coded message is 12 which the decoder equates to the letter “B”. Another 12 is later given as part of the code, but the final decoded message is “be sure to drink your Ovaltine” which contains no other “B”s.
  • Filmed in Cleveland, OH, the filmmakers had the misfortune to choose the warmest, least snowy winter on record during which to film. The special effects supervisors spent days tracking down snow, assessing the cost of bringing in truckloads from as far away as northern Michigan and Buffalo. In the end, they used three different types of artificial snow: Potato flakes were used with wind machines to resemble flying snow; huge bales of shredded vinyl were used as set dressing; and firefighter’s foam was used to simulate snow on the ground, trees and house of an entire neighborhood in the Tremont area of Cleveland.
  • Little-known is that A Christmas Story is part of a series of childhood-themed films, preceded by The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (on TV), and followed by Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (TV) and It Runs in the Family.

Groovy Quotes

Ralphie: No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!
Santa Claus: You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

Narrator: I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.

Narrator: My little brother had not eaten voluntarily in over three years.

Narrator: Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.

Ralphie: Ohhhhhhhhhhh fuuuuuuuudge…
Narrator: Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the Queen Mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
Old Man: What did you say?
Ralphie: Uh, um…
Old Man: That’s… what I thought you said. Get in the car. Go on!
Narrator: It was all over — I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.

Narrator: My father wove a tapestry of profanity which to this day is still hovering somewhere over Lake Michigan.

Narrator: Aunt Clara had for years not only perpetually labored under the delusion that I was 4 years old, but also a girl.

Old Man: He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny!
Mom: No he doesn’t.
Old Man: He does too, he looks like a pink nightmare!

Narrator: Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.

Mr. Parker: Fra-gee-lay! Must be Italian.
Mrs. Parker: Uh, I think that says FRAGILE, dear.
Mr. Parker: Oh, yeah.

Narrator: Over the years I got to be quite a connossieur of soap. Though my personal preference was for Lux, I found that Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor — heavy, but with a touch of mellow smoothness. Life Buoy, on the other hand… YECCHH!

Old Man: Where’s the glue?
Mom: We’re out of glue.
Old Man: You used up all the glue on purpose!

Narrator: Meanwhile, I struggled for exactly the right BB gun hint. It had to be firm, but subtle.
Ralphie: Flick says he saw some grizzly bears near Pulaski’s candy store!

Narrator: We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.

Narrator: Some men are Baptists, others Catholics, my father was an Oldsmobile man.

Narrator: Getting ready to go to school was like getting ready for extended deep-sea diving.

Miss Shields: Now I know that some of you put Flick up to this, but he has refused to say who. But those who did it know their blame, and I’m sure that the guilt you must feel would be far worse than any punishment you might receive. Now, don’t you feel terrible? Don’t you feel remorse for what you have done? Well, that’s all I’m going to say about poor Flick.
Narrator: Adults loved to say things like that but kids knew better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.

Narrator: Randy lay there like a slug! It was his only defense!

Schwartz: Well I double-DOG-dare ya!
Narrator: NOW it was serious. A double-dog-dare. What else was there but a “triple dare ya”? And then, the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare.
Schwartz: I TRIPLE-dog-dare ya!
Narrator: Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette by skipping the triple dare and going right for the throat!

Narrator: My kid brother looked like a tick about to pop!

Santa Claus: If Higbee thinks I’m working one minute past 9:00, he can kiss my foot. Ho ho ho.

Narrator: My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.

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10 Comments

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