The greatest Christmas gift: But Ralphie, you’ll shoot your eye out!

No matter the era of your childhood, Bob Clark’s second Christmas movie classic, set in pre-war Indiana will take you back to yours

YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR BEST CHRISTMAS EVER!

A JINGLY Deck The Halls is on the opening soundtrack as the scene rises on a snowy townscape before focusing in on ‘my house on good ol’ Cleveland Street. How could I ever forget it? And there I am..’ – a boy is seen running out of that same house to meet his friends – ‘The dumb little ace, his stupid stocking list. Ha, no matter. Christmas was on its way: lovely, glamorous, beautiful Christmas around which the kids’ entire year revolved.

Of course, it is not the season of Christmas per se which excites the children of 1940s’ Hohman, Indiana (a fictionalised version of co-writer Jean Shepherd’s hometown.) As his older self, voiced by Sheoherd, recalls, for nine year old Ralphie Parker and his classmates, ‘Higbees corner window was traditionally a high point of the pre-Christmas season.’ We observe Ralphie squeezing himself to the front to visually feast on ‘the golden tingling display of mechanised electronic joy.

All A Child Could Ever Want

The display is indeed a wonder to behold. A railway track runs around the foot of a white mountain which is the centrepiece. A Snow White figure, Little Orphan Annie cloth dolls, sledges, a German plane and parachutes and a wind-up tank draw the eye. One small child has his nose and mouth squashed up against the window as two trains cross paths on the tracks before him. And for the bright and imaginative Ralphie (a charmingly mischievous Peter Billiingsley), ‘Ah, there it was. The holy grail of Christmas gifts: a Red Rider 200 shot range model air rifle!‘ His mouth is open in utter awe..

What is so clever – and funny about A Christmas Story (1983) is how contemporary it all feels regardless of it being set in small-town America before the US entry into the Second World War. Regardless of age and nationality, the vast majority of Western audiences recognise their own memories of childish wonder, excitement and joy as the festival approached. We were once all fit to burst by Christmas morning at the thought of opening our presents. Perhaps what makes the film special is the combination of its retrospective gaze and the attention to detail of, say, Ralphie’s little Randy (Ian Petrelin), his arms left sticking out by his nothing-but-natural fibre winter all-in-one.

Christmas Cheer Mixed With Childhood Fun And Fears

A Christmas Story is essentially a collection of amusing short stories based on Jean Shepherd’s bestselling novel, ‘In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash’ (Doubleday, Broadway, 1966), and strung on pegs like Christmas cards along the green thread which is Ralphie’s determined scheming to make sure his parents get him the gun. There is slapstick and speeded up action, and even the breaking of the fourth wall as Ralphie smirks to us after he’s hoodwinked his Mom.

What is more, the screenplay balances heightened seasonal expectation with classroom and playground fun and fears as well as family dynamics. The film captures the vivid imagination of a bright nine year old: this is how small boys tend to think and act regardless of the era. And the relationship between The Old Man (Darrnen McGavin) and Mom (Melinda Dillon) is just as astutely drawn as the children’s. The recurring adult warning to Ralphie that his yearned for Red Rider BB gun ‘will shoot your eye out!’ resonates soundly and humorously with us too.

A Slow Burner To Become A Recognised Classic

Interestingly, as with the initial reception of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Story took a good while to catch on. The ‘New York Times’ review[1] was notably dismissive. However, numerous television screenings made it a holiday classic, and since 1997 it has featured as the sole film in a 24hr US tv marathon running between Christmas Eve and CHristmas Day. In 2012, A Christmas Story was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

It is familiar enough, then, to be referencedin other films. In Iron Man 3 (2013). Tony Stark tells a young lad in specs: ‘I loved you in A Christmas Story’. In A Very Harold And Kumar Christmas (2011), A Christmas Story‘s very funny ‘boy’s tongue stuck to a frozen post’ sequence not only appears on the telly in Harold’s front room early on, but will be later re-enacted with a different part of the male anatomy (and leavened by the opportunity it gives for Harold and Kumar to reveal what they mean to each other).

Sadly, such references will be very likely lost on British audiences since the film is rarely screened here. I first saw it – and laughed loudly – at what has become the annual Christmas film programme throughout December of the Prince Charles Cinema off London’s Leicester Square. It as now one of my seasonal favourites alongside Bob Clark’s fellow Black Christmas. Both films notably feature grumpy Santa Clauses who do not actually like children.

Loving Moments And Laughter Trump Family Chaos

Shepherd’s laugh-out-loud tales all but culminate on Christmas morning as the Parkers gather before the tree in the unabashed plunging ‘into the cornucopia, quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice!’ Nevertheless, before the day is out, there will have been a rather lump-in-throat moment when Ralphie receives his heart’s desire, as well as humilation in a pink bunny outfi;, a self-inflicted wound; and a realdog’s dinner that will end in a Chinese restaurant. Family-size chaos and disaster of a sort will continue to reign that Christmas Day, but nothing so bad a solution cannot be found.

As Shepherd reveals in his embroidered monologues of his childhood,it is loving and funny moments between family and friends that are seen to be vital and important, even when things do not turn out as planned.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D05E4DF1339F93BA25752C1A965948260

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