Our reviews of A Christmas Story (published December 19th, 2000), A Christmas Story (Blu-Ray) (published November 4th, 2008), and A Christmas Story (HD DVD) (published January 8th, 2007) are also available.
You'll shoot your eye out!
Man, have we ruined Christmas. We is, of course, used in the strict pejorative sense since there is not a single member of the human race on the planet Earth that hasn't vamped their Visa in the over promotion of Jesus' day of birth. It used to be that a simply decorated tree festooned with fire-roasted popcorn and laden with a few discrete presents made the holidays seem bright. But now, unless it rocks, rolls, strobes, streaks, emits shape-shifting laser beams, and/or recreates the Nativity with robots, it cannot find a place in the con-global Xmas celebration. In today's competitive climate, everyone is not only trying to keep up with the Joneses but hoping to whip their candy-caned ass to the neighborhood front porch light display award. Parents pummel each other for the "must have" doll that suggestively shakes its rump or that digital pocket pet that teaches Junior about loss and starvation at far too young an age. Christmas used to be about tithing. Now it's about ornately wrapped bio-toxins from Neiman Marcus and insignificant social climbing.
Where are the simpler times, the snow covered cottage days when family and fellowship signified the birth of the Savior, not Wal-Mart super-sales and fiber optic reindeer strippers regaling the front lawn? Where are the days when children really had viable reasons to go bi-polar over a gift, when the want of a simple semi-dangerous weapon meant never-ending joy to the world? Thank the manger boy's Pappy that we have A Christmas Story. Newly re-released in a special edition by Warner Bros., within its digital diorama is everything the celebration circa 2003 has forgotten: deprived, slovenly children; coarse cursing fathers; bullies with yellow eyes; and the dreaded triple dog dare. Oh yeah, and the pure wonderful spirit of Christmas.
Facts of the Case
It's the 1940s and Ralph "Ralphie" Parker lives with his family in small town Indiana. It's almost time for Santa's annual visit and Ralphie wants only one gift for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 Shot Lightning Loader Range Model Air Rifle, or as our quick draw dreamer constantly refers to it:
Every time he mentions this pellet popper as a potential bequest, however, some adult warns him "he'll shot his eye out." The battle between the forces of prudence and the wanton desire to blast BBs across the backyard heats up as the big day approaches, and is waged within a lost world of schoolyard politics, family feuds, and a ravenous pack of neighbor dogs. Throw in a few colored lights, a lamp resembling a lady's leg, a little brother who only eats when imitating hogs, and a pink tongue frozen to a flag pole, and you've got a wicked winter wonderland of delirious delights, the perfect recipe for A Christmas Story. Or one of those really horrible fruit cakes.
If it wasn't for puppets and felt, pen and ink, we'd have very few Christmas classics to warm our sugarplums come festive holiday time. Without Crow T. Robot's stirring rendition of "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas" or Mr. Hankey spreading his fiber-filled nuggets of Noel, we'd be stuck. This is not to say that there are not some timeless live action films spreading joy to the world, but for every Miracle on 34th Street (Edmund Gwenn only people!—mention Sebastian Cabot or Sir Richard Attenborough, and it's time for a coal cramming in the you-know-where), there's a Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Sure, it may be A Wonderful Life, but somewhere in suburbia someone is watching The Santa Clause or Ernest's Krazy Kwanza and is thinking "oh, how hall decking." Frankly, they are full of it—it being hot wine grog with a cinnamon stick. The most reliable reasons to be cheerful and wassailin' come from names like Rankin and Bass, Seuss and Simpson. From Evergreen Terrace to the Island of Misfit Toys (and numerous humorous burgs in between), our animated friends have provided more moments of uncontaminated seasonal salvation than midnight mass and suicide hotlines combined (and that's not even counting that "Jingle Bells" jingoism Christmas Is). Still, it would be nice to see the flesh and bone brethren work up something terrifically tinseled, not overblown with effects or false feelings of Feliz Navidad. Oddly enough, it's thanks to the man who gave us Porky's and Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things that we have a homespun human harbinger of holiday cheer.
A Christmas Story is an example of Xmas bliss that should not have shaken like a bowl full of jelly. It was based on the droll, dry memory-laning of Jean Shepard, noted radio personality and humble humorist. His old-fashioned tales of forgotten times and woe be gone eras (take that, Garrison Keillor) seemed perfect monologue material. But trying to recreate their trite, treasured events on screen was tantamount to visualizing scents or recreating feelings. Bob Clark, that visionary who brought us the dingle dangling from the girl's shower peep hole, Sylvester Stallone as a country star, and genius babies took on the Herculean task. Heck, he was at least in the right ballpark, having helmed the malevolent massacre movie Black Christmas. So A Christmas Story must have been some kind of karmic realignment for the uneven auteur. Then there was the setting and scenarios—a story about BB guns (how non-Bowling for Columbine), snowsuits, and ravenous radio listening featuring a cast of underused (Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon) and unknown (Peter Billingsley et al) actors. Added up, there was not much hope for this trifle topping the traditional Tannenbaum. After all, where were the magic pixies sprinkling marzipan holly berries over pre-Colonial scenes of people broasting chestnuts? Where were the tin soldiers slaughtering the mouse king for the nutcracker's soul? Come on, there wasn't even a good set of ghosts here, spectral place holders in the space time continuum to teach us that our miserly ways were wrong for 1802 (but perfectly fine in 2003). And still, A Christmas Story excelled—completely, totally, and brilliantly.
It is a movie that manages the minor miracle by offering three wholly different yet equally compelling storylines wrapped together in perfect herald harkening harmony. Where other yuletide takes would be satisfied with merely one underdone turkey of a tale, A Christmas Story has the holidays, the playground, and a wistful trip into the past all crammed into one belly bulging narrative strand. Within the season saga, we see the Parkers, a family filled with glad tidings of great joy, even if it is warped through a decidedly tough edged, cynical viewpoint. Then there is the epoch nostalgic throwback, a brilliant art design and directing flourish that recreates a bygone era for a public, long removed from it, to witness. Interspersed like oysters in cornbread stuffing is the standard school as social order stuff, bully versus victims dynamic, and interpersonal pal relationships explored within a snow globe setting. Anyone wondering why A Christmas Story is so wonderful need merely know this: it's a simple story told with flair and real feeling. The fact that Christmas happens to be the central event in these characters' lives is almost superfluous. Indeed, this film could have been about any other time of the year (Halloween, Thanksgiving) and still worked. But with the added touch of ornaments and stockings, a strong bond of recognition is created with the audience, many of whom are simply channeling their mistletoe memories into and onto the screen, matching their moments with the ones experienced by Ralphie and the gang.
A Christmas Story transcends its yuletide trappings to become a timeless film of holiday cheer because it doesn't condescend to or magically mess with its audience's expectations. Sometimes a movie about holidays can overload its narrative with desperation (1969's J.T.) or outright surrealistic somersaults (the Mexican sweatshop strangeness of 1959's Santa Claus). Then there are those times when sentiment is the main selling point (The Christmas Box, The Christmas Gift, The Christmas Infection, et cetera) hoping that a few tears will meld with Yule log to weep your winter wonderland. A Christmas Story is not out to try and make some overblown point about terminal disease or forgotten promises. It doesn't promote interplanetary understanding, toy prejudice, or the mystical belief in an overweight St. Nicholas as a "reality." No, this movie simply wants to tell a tale about how lower middle class America discovered the true meaning of the holidays in the emerging post-war wastelands of suburbia. It's a movie about community, about wandering down to the town square and checking out the marvelously decorated window in the local department store. It's about visiting Santa and sharing secrets with the obese elf. And at its core, it's a film about that one magical gift, that special offering under the tree that would make your holiday so complete that words and thoughts escape you and pure joy sweeps across your being in waves of wonderment.
Make no mistake, A Christmas Story is first and foremost a comedy, utilizing those classic comic elements like cursing, physical violence to children, and the brandishing of weaponry as the laughter fodder. Ralphie and his father are foul-mouthed artisans working the epithets in a family friendly razzen-frattas frenzy that keeps it clean for the kiddies and highly suggestive (and hilarious) for the adults. Getting one's mouth washed out with soap (does a modern audience below the age of say, 25, even know what that means?) has never been more full of mirth than in this movie. Equally evocative of chuckles is the way in which small urchins are bludgeoned, tormented, beaten, berated, and bravadoed into all manner of bodily bruising buffoonery. From Scut Farkus' egg breath bulling to parental protection as the snowsuit from hell, little kids in potential peril is the snickering salve for our over-commercialized rat raced Saturnalia. Then there are the gun fantasies that fill little Ralphie's head like moist NRA daydreams, bad guys and burglars biting the dust as our pint-sized sharpshooter blasts the "X"s into their eyes, all in the name of healthy outdoor activity for growing boys. Director Clark is a comfortable professional able to work in any and all genres (horror, comedy, exploitation, drama) and he uses that journeyman quality to milk A Christmas Story for every laugh and lighthearted moment he can find. Scenes are sped up to recall a silent movie slapstick style and his comic timing is impeccable. While he may not have been able to make the pairing of Dan Akyroyd and Gene Hackman hilarious, he sure gets substantial yucks here.
Luckily, Clark has the perfect cast to place the final glaze upon this holiday ham. As good as he was as Karl Kolchak in The Night Stalker movie and series, Darren McGavin is priceless as "the old man," patriarch of the Parker family and meanest furnace smashing SOB in all of Indiana. It is part of McGavin's genius that he can take what is a near cliché of antique man of the house mythology and make him both human and uproarious. In the less compelling role, Melinda Dillon gives a new definition of ditzy as the harried housewife and mother trying to balance a demanding husband and a couple of growing boys. She exudes forceful understanding, deceptive manipulation, and occasional cluelessness with a rich helping of heart that radiates maternal concern. But the movie really belongs to the kids. From Peter Billingsley's gun nut Ralphie to Scott Schwartz's Flick or even Zack "Scut Farkas" Graves, Clark's kids have authenticity and acting chops to match. Never once do these children come across as modern actors trying to recapture the times. They feel right at home with the radio, the old toys, and simpler way of life. It's interesting to note that we hardly see the children interacting indoors. Yes, they go to school together and Randy and Ralphie share a couple of in-house tussles, but most all the fun, fights, and fellowship occurs on playground, back alleys, or city streets. This is another brilliant point in A Christmas Story, a subtle way of showing that the life of a child before television and video games was an exterior world of exploring and adventure, where the shortcut home from school could hold untold escapades.
That's what's great about A Christmas Story. It's a funny movie that does a direct job of explaining the life and time in which it is set, and yet never forgets that its ideals are equally modern and universal in nature. It's a movie about the gift of love, about parents trying hard to make their children safe and happy, and of kids learning to appreciate their youth before it is gone in a flash. This is not a yuletide Stand by Me or some manner of multi-cultural PC caroling crap. A Christmas Story is about the purity of the holiday, of a time when commercialism was in its place and human contact was the gift that kept on giving. That, and a badass piece of artillery, of course.
Those of you sniping at Warners (and rightfully so) for releasing this movie back at the beginning of DVD in a full screen only fiasco should get out your praise pens and fire off a laudatory letter to the Looney Tunes cage cleaners, pronto. They have done a remarkable job with this DVD presentation (and they've even kept the family friendly cathode ray tube optimized version for those with their cinematic heads stuck in the sand). But don't go overboard and start sending them stripper-grams or anything. The transfer is far from perfect. How far you may ask? Well, about the distance between career choices for one time child star (and now porn executive?) Scott Schwartz (gives a whole new meaning to the name "Flick," huh?). The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is very soft, almost too soft, as if trying to capture the long ago era through a self-applied haze. The contrast is way off and there doesn't seem to be a great deal of detail or definition. On a very large screen, one can almost "look beyond" the print to see the real movie behind the fuzziness. It's not bad (thank god it's in widescreen) but don't be surprised to see a future re-release double dip touting a newly remastered image. While it's better than what you'll see passing before your eyes on TNT for 24 hours straight, it could sure use some improvement.
Sonically, the DVD still retains the film's original mono soundtrack without attempts to faux 5.1 it up. This is a blessing and a curse as well. The aural aspects of the film have always been old-fashioned, helping to play off the radio Rialto nature of life in the 1940s. But there is some thinness here and occasionally, the musical and narrative elements battle each other for speaker superiority. The sound is indeed bright and clear most of the time, all the better to hear the glorious pop songs playing from the wireless.
But what most fans are frothing over are the extras: an entire disc of bonus material and the chance to hear a commentary track over their beloved Christmas tradition. Well, be prepared for a little post-package opening disappointment. All the bonuses leave just a little to be desired, like a gift of socks or a gift certificate to a stationary store. One look at the commentary track and who's involved and you'll understand why. Director Bob Clark and actor Peter Billingsley give it the old treacle try in the alternative narrative track, but we end up with a very narrow perspective. Where is Melinda Dillon? Darren McGavin? Any of the other child actors? Clark and Billingsley are interesting at first, discussing the movie's connection to Jack Nicholson, Porky's, and the disorienting shooting and location schedule (interiors were filmed in Cleveland, exteriors in Canada). But they tend to repeat their stories after a while and toward the end they let long gaps travel by without saying much of anything. This is not a great commentary, just a decent attempt to add some insight.
Another failed feature is the brand new documentary Another Christmas Story, which tried to reunite the cast for a trip down the recollection roadway, but only finds four members willing to make the journey. Billingsley (again) is joined by Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, and Zack Ward in a far too regimented series of interviews. Instead of a behind-the-scenes we get a strange amalgamation of attempted character recapturing and routine Q&A. Topics like "best gift" and "worst Xmas memory" are set up with title cards and then the cast members try to add humorous or heartfelt responses. Some are up to the task (Billingsley and Ward) while others (Robb, Schwartz) seem simply happy to be on camera again. Clark is also here to repeat stories we heard on the commentary. Aside from Zack Ward looking exactly like the yellow-eyed fiend he played in the film (the poor guy), we don't get very much amusement out of this lame look back.
There are a few extras that do work, however. The original readings by Jean Shepherd will instantly recall his narration in the film and exemplify why this man was a well thought of precursor to other modern radio storytellers. The "Get a Leg Up" and "History of the Red Ryder" featurettes are interesting looks at products and companies with a direct tie-in to the movie. In "Leg" we talk to a man who manufactures the now infamous sexy "gam lamp." "Red Ryder" discusses the BB gun from the inside out and why the Red Ryder air rifle was so popular. Along with some hidden Easter eggs, a fairly simple trivia game, and another variation on interactive DVD with a quote matching Decoder game, this is a digital presentation that is loaded with material, even if most of it is fluffy and forgettable. Again, it's easy to see Warners revisiting this title sometime in the future. As its cult of collectibility grows, A Christmas Story will get a far more definitive DVD offering. But for now fans will have to make do with this acceptable, if unexciting presentation.
Perhaps we are too hard on the current state of the Christmas holidays. Sure, it's ludicrous to see tinsel and blinking lights just after Labor Day and that annual mad rush to get to the post-Thanksgiving sale will seemingly get more press coverage than the bombing of another nation, but that's how we respond to the possibility of presents in our contemporary times. We have forgotten what it's like to genuinely be together and focus far too much on the material status symbols that dictate our acceptability as human beings. A Christmas Story reminds us that toys (or cars or clothes or computers) are just an extension of love, but they are not the only way to express it. One can be loved as part of a family that functions without the flaws and fears of the world constantly interrupting. One can be loved as part of a group of friends who stand by each other through thick and thin, unless it means getting their butt kicked by the school bully, and then it's every idiot for themselves. And one can be loved if they merely stop, take a moment, and realize what they have in life: a wide-open world of possibilities, where disappointment and happiness are waiting around every corner. A Christmas Story is a joyous celebration, a comedic care package for those who feel the season has gotten over-hyped and under appreciated. It may not win you points at the next Country Club cotillion, but understanding the finer aspects of recess etiquette, the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring and furnace repair may just make your Yule too cool for school.
A Christmas Story is found not guilty and is free to go. Warner Brothers is sentenced to seven years in the Transfer Perfecting Labs of the Special Edition Rendering Wing of the Digital Detention Hall. They are also concurrently sentenced to seven years of Bonus Features labor camp, in an effort to improve their extra inclusion skills.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Bob Clark and Actor Peter Billingsley
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