“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”
Think for a second about that sentiment expressed in “A Christmas Story” (1983). As we were getting ready to celebrate the holidays a year ago, none of us could have suspected what was going to happen in 2020. A couple days ago I spoke to my mom on the phone, and she confessed she wishes things could go back the way they were. What this movie captures are the different levels of disappointments that we undergo leading up to the morning of the 25th. There’s too much expectation built around it. I know we all long to be closer to loved ones – and gather with friends to celebrate. I promise you one thing, there will be other Christmases, and they will be very special because we will remember what we didn’t have this year.
One of my favorite scenes in this now Christmas classic comes towards the end of the movie, when the Parkers’ holiday turkey is devoured by the next-door neighbor’s army of dogs. The family’s forced to go a Chinese restaurant instead – and they order Peking duck. The waiters aren’t familiar with Christmas carols – but their attempt at “Deck the Halls” draws big laughs from the family. The server brings out their meal, and the duck still has the head. Mrs. Parker is at first horrified but then cannot contain her laughter. The Father says, “It’s a beautiful duck, it really is, but you see…it’s smiling at me,” showing the beak to the waiter. Without missing a beat the Chinese server grabs a meat cleaver chops it off. Mrs. Parker and the kids burst out loud – tears mixed with cackles. “That Christmas would live in our memories as the year we were introduced to Chinese turkey.” There’s such a lesson to be learned in there. To make the best of what we have and most importantly to laugh even at our most adverse moments.
All nine-year old Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. It’s the late 30s in Hohman, Indiana – and the Parkers are middle class – mother stays at home looking after her two boys while dad goes to work. The film unfolds episodically following the shape of Jean Shepherd’s semi-biographical work “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” – which was itself a collection of anecdotes. It is the author’s warm and passionate voice you hear as the narrator – and older version of the young boy. He describes Ralphie’s obsession thus: “As cool and deadly a piece of weaponry as I had ever laid eyes on.” To poor Ralphie’s disappointment, his mother is adamantly opposed to that present. “BB guns are dangerous – I don’t want anyone shooting their eye out,” she says.
It is a warm nostalgic remembrance of the way things used to be – of a childhood full of parental love and the things that at that age seemed life and death. There are so many vignettes that are laugh out loud funny or deeply touching. At times you will get both at the same time. Like when Ralphie finally stands up to the bully with all his might – uttering curse-words – and he and his brother are scared to death his father will kill Ralphie when he finds out about it. Randy – the brother – hides underneath the kitchen sink. At the dinner table the Old Man asks what happened today – and the mother brushes the subject off to the relief of both boys. “From then on, things were different between me and my mother,” comments the narrator.
Directed with a fine touch by Bob Clark – responsible for the raunchy teenage sex comedy “Porky’s” (1981) – “A Christmas Story” has some truly terrific set pieces that I never get tired of watching. The way Mr. and Mrs. Parker handle the special award that the old man receives in the form of a plastic lamp in the shape of very sexy leg is priceless. And mother getting little Randy to eat his meal calling him “mommy’s little piggie” gets me smiling. It’s these seemingly small moments that add up to a life – and in A Christmas Story, they’re so well observed. “My mother had not had a hot meal for herself in 15 years,” says the adult Ralphie. The family’s visit to the department store Santa is one of the best holiday sequences in movie history. The giant stage and poor Ralphie literally gets the boot.
My dear readers, I wish you unexpected joy in all of that surrounds you.
Ralphie: “Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty. The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive. Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.”
Available to stream on TBS, TNT, Sling, DIRECTV and Spectrum.
Available to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, YouTube, Redbox, Amazon, DIRECT and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark
Based on the novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd
Directed by Bob Clark
Starring Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley, Ian Petrella, Tedde Moore, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward, Yano Anaya, Jeff Gillen and Peter Billingsley
Writing “A Christmas Story”
The movie was based on a handful of monologues by the comedic radio personality and writer Jean Shepherd. (That’s Shepherd’s folksy, streetwise voice you hear in the voice-over narration as Ralphie’s adult self, telling the tale.) Shepherd’s radio career spanned four decades, ending up at WOR, in New York City. His semi-autobiographical stories were performed without scripts and were characterized by colorful titles, such as “Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back” and “A Fistful of Fig Newtons.” The screenplay adaptation was written by Shepherd himself, along with Bob Clark and Shepherd’s third wife, Leigh Brown. It all started when Clark was in Miami driving to pick up his date, and he heard Shepherd on the radio telling the story of Flick, a boy who is triple-dog-dared into putting his tongue on a metal pole in the dead of winter, instantly freezing it to the pole. Clark had never heard a story told quite like that. He was so enthralled he was 45 minutes late for his date, just circling the block to hear the rest of the story. He resolved right then, “I will do a movie of this man’s work.” It took 12 years.
Shepherd’s stories were first improvised on his radio program in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. The children’s-book author and Playboycartoonist Shel Silverstein and Shepherd’s second wife, actress Lois Nettleton, encouraged him to write the stories down. In 1966, they were collected and published in “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash,” which became a best-seller. Wildly popular, Shepherd performed at Town Hall in New York City in a sold-out performance, and had three solo shows at Carnegie Hall. Shepherd hated the idea that people thought his work was nostalgic. He described it as “anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact. If you really read it, you realize it’s a put-down of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.” Shepherd’s biographer Eugene Bergmann points out that the line in the film that best describes Shepherd’s attitude toward life is when they’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and the Old Man is sitting in the living room reading the funny papers. “The viewer can see the Bumpuses’ hounds starting to trot past him, but he doesn’t see them, because the paper is blocking his view. And, of course, we know what’s going to happen—the hounds are going to get hold of that Christmas turkey.” So Shepherd says, in his voice-over narration, “Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.” (vanityfair.com)
Bringing “A Christmas Story” to the Screen
It took Bob Clark’s success as the director of the high-grossing gross-out movie “Porky’s” in 1982—which ushered in an era of raunchy teen-sex comedies—before MGM green-lighted “A Christmas Story.” That’s not surprising, Billingsley has pointed out: “I think it took so long to get made because the movie, by modern-day standards, is about nothing. It’s a family a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the kid wants a BB gun. That’s not exactly a pitch in which you’d say, ‘Let me get the president of the studio on the phone!’ ” MGM finally gave Clark $4.4 million to make “A Christmas Story.” According to a 2013 book on the making of the film by Caseen Gaines, he was so eager to make the movie that he gave up his director’s fee and contributed $150,000 of his own money. Once he had his cast assembled, there were production challenges. First was the problem of location. They scouted 20 cities, finally settling on Toronto for the interiors and Cleveland for the exteriors. It was appropriately winter, and cold, in Ohio, but there was no snow that year. Snow had to be hauled in from ski resorts hundreds of miles away. René Dupont, a producer along with Clark, even had additional trucks of snow standing by (that’s what made him so good at his job—anticipating the unanticipated). When the weather got warmer, they concocted falling snow out of potato flakes, used shredded vinyl as snow set dressing, and further employed firefighter’s foam. In vignettes where Ralphie, his friends, and his little snowsuited brother, Randy, are fleeing from Scut Farkus (the bully “with the yellow eyes”), they are in fact sloshing through foam as if from a washing machine that’s lost its mind.
Another brainstorm of Clark’s was to cut the floors out of the set so the camera would be at Peter’s height, at four feet two inches, so that the perspective is not that of the adults looking down on the child actors but Ralphie’s point of view, looking up, trying to make sense out of the frustrating and unfathomable adult world…The set was mostly harmonious, but there was one particular source of friction: Clark and Shepherd didn’t get along. Shepherd was just too protective of his material, looking over Clark’s shoulder and making suggestions. When the director’s back was turned, he would come up to one of the actors with his own ideas of how the character should be played. The director would call “Cut,” and as soon as he left the set, Shepherd would lean in and say to Billingsley, “Ralphie’s really like this.” Bob would come roaring back and say, “Jean, get away from the actors!” Clark had storyboarded every shot in the movie on index cards, down to the smallest detail. He had to quickly countermand Shepherd’s interference—the shoot couldn’t afford two directors. Finally, Clark had to bar Shepherd from the set. Bergmann recalled, “Shepherd was a perfectionist with his own material, but Bob Clark had a budget and a schedule that he had to meet, and he already figured out how this all should be done, and he couldn’t have Shepherd constantly interrupting.” Shepherd does make a cameo appearance in the movie, Hitchcock-like, as a stern older man scolding Ralphie for breaking into the long line to see Santa at Higbees department store. (vanityfair.com)
Casting “A Christmas Story”
Clark auditioned 8,000 kids for the role of Ralphie, beginning with the 12-year-old, bespectacled Billingsley, who was already one of the most successful child actors in commercials in New York in the 1970s (appearing as “Messy Marvin” for Hershey’s, selling hot dogs with New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, and promoting video games with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Clark shied away at first, thinking Peter was perfect for the role but too obvious a choice. Gail Billingsley, Peter’s mother, told V.F., “They [auditioned actors] in California, and in a couple of other countries,” before they went back to their first choice. Clark later admitted to Gail, “He walked in, and he had us from the beginning.” (vanityfair.com)
About Author Jean Shepherd
Jean Shepherd was a writer, humorist, satirist, actor, radio raconteur, and television and film personality. A master storyteller, he took bits and pieces from his youth in Hammond, Indiana, his adventures in the Army Signal Corps and stories of the obscure and infamous were all fertile sources for his tales. For almost three decades, he told these stories to eager radio audiences, in Cincinnati from 1950 to 1954 and on WOR in New York from 1956 to 1977. His other radio enterprise was live broadcasts on Saturday night from The Limelight, a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Shepherd began his entertainment career in Chicago as a performer at the Goodman Theatre. He did nightclub acts on Rush Street, appeared on Broadway in Leonard Sillman’s revue, “New Faces” (1962) and in “Voice of the Turtle,” and played a dance instructor in the film “The Light Fantastic” (1963). He was also a sportscaster and did baseball broadcasts for the Toledo Mudhens and Armed Forces Radio. In the seventies, he took his talents to television in a series of humorous narratives for PBS called “Jean Shepherd’s America,” later continued on the PBS New Jersey Network as “Shepherd’s Pie.” Here he was able to show us the more offbeat aspects of America, particularly his own home state, which he loved to ridicule. This led to a series of teleplays for PBS/WGBH’s American Playhouse: “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters,” “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss” and “The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski.” His most popular and well-known work is the film “A Christmas Story” (1983) which he co-wrote and narrated. In 1994 he did a sequel, “My Summer Story” (aka “It Runs in the Family”). Shepherd wrote articles for several magazines, including Playboy and Omni, and was an early contributor to The Village Voice, most notably in his “Night People” column. His books include “The America of George Ade”; “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”; “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters”; “The Ferrari in the Bedroom”; and “A Fistful of Fig Newtons.” Shepherd passed away on October 16, 1999, at the age of 78. (dramaticpublishing.com)
About Director and Co-Screenwriter Bob Clark
Born Benjamin Clark in New Orleans, he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I was quite a savage little being – we were very poor, my father died, my mother was a barmaid, so I pretty much ran the streets.” After majoring in philosophy at a college in North Carolina, Clark won a football scholarship to Hillsdale College in Michigan. Turning down offers to play professional football, he studied theatre at the University of Miami, where he met his frequent screenwriter partner Alan Ormsby. It was in Florida that he began to make cheap exploitation movies like “She-Man” (1967), which he preferred to forget. Clark’s first “real” film was “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things” (1972), which he was preparing to remake at the time of his death… “Deathdream” (1974) was another zombie movie, but with a topical angle…Clark went up to Canada to edit Deathdream and “fell in love with Toronto and became a landed immigrant”. His next films were financed and shot in Canada, where he settled for some years…(theguardian.com)
Clark produced, directed and co-wrote “A Christmas Story,” which was released in 1983…Set in the 1940s and adapted from humorist Jean Shepherd’s novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” the film starred Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, a young boy determined to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas despite everyone’s fears that he’d put his eye out. In 1997, TNT showed the film for 24 hours straight — a first for the cable channel. On the film’s 20th anniversary in 2003, a two-disc commemorative DVD was issued. In a 1997 interview with The Times, Clark said the movie struck a chord with audiences because it deals with a “special time and special feeling. Shepherd’s material had the truth and heart in it.” Clark’s prolific movie and TV directing career spanned four decades. In addition to producing and directing the cult classic “Porky’s” and its first sequel, he also directed “Turk 182″ with Timothy Hutton, Robert Urich and Robert Culp; “Rhinestone” with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone; “Loose Cannons,” a Gene Hackman-Dan Aykroyd cop comedy; “From the Hip” and “Baby Geniuses.” The “Porky’s” franchise earned an estimated $150 million domestically after taking years to get off the ground. The films were based on Clark’s experiences during the ‘50s with five high school buddies in Florida…Clark also made darker, more brooding pictures. His seminal horror film, “Black Christmas,” was recently reissued on DVD. Though hardly the first slasher film, some fans credit it with influencing other horror films. “Whether you are a fan of the genre or not, we never would have had films like ‘Friday the 13th’ without ‘Black Christmas,’ ” said Paula Haifley, who in December saw Clark introduce a screening at the New Beverly. “He was funny and friendly, had true respect for the horror genre and its fans, and seeing him was an experience I will never forget. He will be sorely missed by his fans.” Clark was scheduled to sign a letter of intent tonight to begin production of “There Goes the Neighborhood,” one of three movie projects he was ready to begin, Leavy said…In 2007, A head-on collision killed Hollywood director Bob Clark and his son Ariel in Los Angeles…Clark, who was divorced, is survived by his second son Michael. (latimes.com)