A Christmas Story - Christmas Review
Ah, Christmas. The season of giving. The most joyous time of the year. The strengths of togetherness and the adage of ‘Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” Every time it creeps around the corner, we quickly anticipate the great little things that come with it, from gift-wrapping to Christmas carols, to gingerbread house decorating, to, of course, Christmas viewing traditions. What family doesn’t have a favorite Christmas movie they watch for the occasion? For some, it would be ‘Home Alone.’ For others, it would be ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ For others still, it would be either ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,’ the list goes on.
For my family and me, however, ours is none other than A Christmas Story.
The story seems relatively innocent and simple when you look at it. Taking place in the late-30s, early-40s Indiana, a young boy named Ralphie Parker prepared for the joys of the holiday with his family. At the same time, he feasted his eyes on one of the most sought-after Christmas gifts imaginable. It was an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle... ‘with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time,’ as Ralphie would’ve added. The rest of the movie detailed one hilarious event after another as Ralphie went through such grounded yet crazy scenarios with his family around the holidays. In the meantime, he devised any methods possible to prove his worth to his parents and his teacher, Mrs. Shields, in the hopes that it all would’ve scored him the rifle he sought out, despite their retorts about Ralphie getting a BB gun, summed up by the classic warning, “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
One of the most striking parts of this movie that always left me awestruck was its more mellow, laid-back atmosphere. Every time I tagged along with Ralphie and his excitement over the Christmas season, the neighborhoods and streets of Indiana leaped towards me with a sense of warmth and softness, as if to make the environment feel more like home. Speaking of which, the Parker home also felt extra cozy, feeling like I’ve lived there for a good portion of my life and known it inside out. The wintry scenery was also exquisite and pretty to gaze at, strengthening the already rampant comforts of Indiana with a glowing, soft, serene sense of frost and chills. The soft shooting styles also worked because this was generally a recollection of a grown-up man recapping and remembering his childhood years.
The characters all felt identifiable, starting with the Parker family, which my family and I can easily relate to. Ralphie and Randy both felt like excitable, pleasant kids. They’re gullible, they did what all kids did best, and they each expressed childlike tendencies to them, though they’re also quite different from one another. Ralphie was always modest, quite observant of what went on around him, and was determined to get what he hoped for, even if it required a little scheming to make it happen. Randy felt like the more innocent of the Parker brothers but was always whiny, wimpish, and had yet to learn how to eat by himself. But they’re so identifiable because, hey, who wasn’t like these kids when they were their age?
Mrs. Parker, the mother, was a very tender, loving woman. She always opened up to her sons and husband, offering thoughtful encouragement. But other times, whenever she was agitated, she could have packed quite a bite in her expressions, as well as, on more than one occasion, some genuinely good laughs of her own.
Mr. Parker, the father, AKA the Old Man, was boisterous and gruff but irresistible and a total knockout. He stammered in his anger whenever he got frustrated and sometimes got in over his head. But other times, he showed a softer, more respectable, and dignified aspect of him that showed that he loved his sons and wife. I won’t tell you exactly why or how Ralphie ever got his BB rifle, but all I can say is that the Old Man had a part in it, and it was one of the most shockingly touching moments in the entire movie, making you respect him more afterwards. It all made him feel as fleshed out and likable as he was wild and hilarious.
One thing about this character I always found interesting was how, in his agitation, he always mumbled to himself and screamed gibberish whenever he fought against something like the rotting Oldsmobile or the malfunctioning furnace, not too different from Harry’s mumbling in Home Alone. Only in this case, I think it was a cleverly veiled mask to hide all the things that the Old Man yelled out loud in his outrage. As adult Ralphie humorously explained:
In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.
And who can forget this eloquently laid out remark about his cursing expertise?
My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium. A master!
The supporting characters left distinct impressions whenever they got their shot onscreen. Flick was a sensible young boy who was sadly always given the short end of the stick. The two most prominent examples were when he had to get his tongue stuck and frozen on a flagpole on a 'triple dog dare' and even when he found himself at the mercy of the bullies who always pushed him and his friends around.
Schwartz was also a funny, energetic, rambunctious kid, though he often came across as pretty smart-alecky. And he knew how and when to demonstrate what he knew was supposed to be true. For example, Schwartz was responsible for pressuring Flick to test out how possible it was for someone’s tongue to freeze onto anything metal in a rapid amount of time, like on the flagpole. Schwartz got that idea after asking his father about that, to which he told Schwartz that he knew of a guy who stuck his tongue on a railroad track, and on a bet, at that, only to have had no success in getting it off. Ouch! That, and his family life, from the little we’ve heard of it, wasn’t quite the rosiest in Ralphie’s neck of the woods.
Believe it or not, I thought the bullies were enjoyably unnerving. Scut Farkus, the duo leader, left a mark in the movie with his intimidating complexion, sneaky ways of moving in on Ralphie and his friends, and always had a blast in constricting whoever he held until they said ‘Uncle’. His sidekick, Grover Dill, was also intimidating, if not as much as Scut. He also had a knack for sneaking up on his victims and scaring them off with his roars, just like Scut would also have done. In the little time these two had, they were rough and not a pretty sight, yet exciting and fun to watch.
I also found it slyly fitting how half of the time Scut Farkus and Grover made their moves on Ralphie, and his friends, the wolf theme from Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf would’ve played in the background. It hit home how innocent kids like Ralphie and his friends would’ve felt like victims whenever in the presence of Scut and Grover, the apex predators in ‘kid-dom.’
Mrs. Shields, the teacher at Warren G. Harding School, didn’t have as significant a role in the movie as the others; she taught her class with a simple and comforting disposition. However, whenever she was in a stricter mood and had to set the record straight to her class, even if it was out of discipline, it made her look almost as stern as Mrs. Parker.
The period setting in this movie was so on point. Besides the atmosphere in Indiana, it was also thoughtful about roping in as many things from the late 30s, early 40s as possible, from the suitable car models, the housing layouts, the proper toys, and even the trolley lines. The trolley lines especially made me feel like I leaped back in time there. The references were also plentiful and fun to catch, from Snow White to The Wizard of Oz, The Lone Ranger, and Little Orphan Annie. I’ll bet that anyone who grew up within this time period could catch on to the references and identify them in a heartbeat.
Watching Ralphie gush over how much he wanted that BB gun tied back to the general feelings of excitement and simultaneous uncertainty that everyone felt at specific points of the year, whether on their birthday or especially at Christmastime. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition, it employed the compelling, relatable, and always exaggerated and humorous portrayals of a child’s daydreams, as we observed through Ralphie Parker. His flashbacks came packed with exaggerated moments that came with the movie’s sense of humor, and they all jibed perfectly with Ralphie’s desires, dreads, and childlike flamboyance.
Even the smaller moments scattered throughout the movie felt like how anyone who went through them would’ve described how they felt. They all strengthened the pleasant atmosphere of the film by showing how the characters did their own thing, how they responded to certain abnormalities, how they thought-processed certain dillemmas, and even how they coped with certain misfortunes. It resolutely captured the tender family moments that unfolded between the child and his family – or even between the family members themselves – and it perfectly observed the family disputes that went on between them, too. It honed the modesty, interest, and frustrations of school, especially regarding studies or other people. And most importantly, look at Randy hiding inside a cupboard when he fretted about how the Old Man might have punished Ralphie. Any kid who was not in a good mood or just needed a minute alone may have done just what Randy did. And that just hit home the sheer strength this movie had in its simpler, more heartfelt, and tender moments.
Now, here’s a funny story regarding my experiences with this movie. I was not very familiar with this movie until I was about eight or nine years old. But even then, I remembered seeing some scenes from this movie on television throughout the 90s, long before I even knew of it. The earliest scene I can recall from this movie was the classic flagpole scene with Flick getting his tongue stuck on it. I remembered watching it all the way through to the end, where Flick was walked into the classroom by Mrs. Shields with a Kleenex in his mouth. I recall feeling a hint of the dread that came with this scene. It left that big an impression on me. The other scene I remember seeing on TV, and I remember seeing it at another person’s house, was the scene where Ralphie pummeled Scut Farkus to kingdom come. I remembered the viscousness of the scene, as well as the intensity slowly dying down as soon as Ralphie’s mother intervened to calm Ralphie down. I felt the heat from this scene and how intense I thought it was. But again, those were just before I saw this movie from beginning to end with my brother when I was eight years old, maybe nine. But once my brother and I saw it...man, we just went nuts over the movie every Christmastime, hook, line, and sinker.
While I’m still thinking about how much this meant to me and my family, one of the things I’m starting to adore about this movie, I can sum up in just two words: its multigenerational appeal. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s approach it this way. As I said, when my brother and I saw this, we went wild over it, constantly rewatching the funny moments, the adult moments, quoting the movie, and we quickly saw ourselves in Ralphie and Randy regarding a childlike point of view on things. So, this was one of the movies of our childhoods. But what I did not look closely at until I was older was, as I mentioned, the period details. Around then, I heard some comments from my parents about such scenes, although they always misjudged the movie’s setting as the 1950s. But, though misstated on their part, the time period still reminded them of how it felt when they were kids around this time period and how many things they caught that called them back to what they had a blast with when they were younger. In other words, this movie reminded my parents of their childhood, just like how it reminded me and my brother of ours. The fact that it relied on such a simple, self-explanatory story to tell and telling it in a way that made it reach out to so many people, regardless of age group, was just a hallmark of its creative expressions of what anyone would’ve gone through as children.
The funny, memorable, or touching moments from this movie? There are just too many to choose from. There is just one iconic scene after the next, and that may be because of how unique or ironically out of the ordinary they felt. They included the famous leg lamp scenes, where the Old Man was so in awe over what the Major Award that he won was, that he displayed it at the front room window for the whole neighborhood to see, much to the consternation of Mrs. Parker. It eventually led to a falling out between them about his attachment with the lamp, showcasing how much of a rift it caused in the family, though temporarily. There were also the fights the Old Man had with the furnace, which always acted up and left most of the house in smoke. There’s also Ralphie’s quest to get himself the Red Ryder BB gun and the small plots necessary to make it all happen, despite his guardians’ warnings. That included writing his thesis centered on Red Ryder’s BB gun and even seeing the shopping mall Santa Claus about it, even if that option was a last resort. Let’s also not forget the quest he also had in securing a secret society decoder pin from Little Orphan Annie so that he could've decoded the next message from Annie. Of course, the ‘message’ turned out to be this:
Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.
In short, it was a sham.
There’s also, of course, the infamous FUDGE scenario where he let loose his first major F-bomb in front of his family, resulting in the always-memorable mouth washing he received with Lifebuoy soap. And the fantasy Ralphie had following this agonizing night was so how anyone would’ve responded, and the cherry on top was the classic ‘soap poisoning’ melodrama. Actually, what do you know? A child was fantasizing about soap opera situations over soap poisoning. Now, that’s a clever little in-joke!
For all of Randy’s whininess in this movie, who can forget his inability to keep his arms down whenever he was in his coat? Or when he shoved his face into his dinner to demonstrate how piggies ate?
Anybody who watched to see Flick live up to his triple dog dare and get his tongue frozen on a flagpole might’ve known by now that this was a risk not worth taking, simply because they already felt it through Flick. But equally as memorable were the run-ins that Ralphie and his friends had with Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, culminating in his ultimate beatdown over Scut.
Even the long-awaited Christmas morning was not without some standout moments of its own. First, there’s the memorable moment when Ralphie got his embarrassing bunny suit from his Aunt Clara and was pressured to try it on. The idea that he had this pitiful suit for a gift was always bound to get a laugh somehow. Even the Old Man was uncomfortable with Mrs. Parker’s justifications with the bunny suit.
Let’s not forget when Ralphie finally got the gun and got set to test it, only for the BBs to ricochet and hit him back, knocking out his glasses. Seeing someone so discouraged that the gift he always wanted turned out to be just as dangerous as his guardians told him it was, that was a big slap of reality if Ralphie ever experienced one. Or... how about when the Bumpus’ dogs ventured into the Parker house and scarfed up the turkey, forcing them, the family, to settle for Chinese turkey, or, as it technically was, roasted duck? Or how about this quote about the family’s now-more-butchered-than-ever turkey?
The heavenly aroma still hung heavy in the house, but it was gone, all gone. No turkey! No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey hash! Turkey a la king! Or gallons of turkey soup! Gone! All gone!
That line from the adult Ralphie about this otherwise dreary scene still cracks me and my family up to no end! We could just quote it forever.
And there’s also one of the final scenes in the movie, which was nothing more than Mr. and Mrs. Parker sitting beside each other by the tree, in darkness, just watching the snowfall outside. This moment felt rich with a comfy sense of togetherness and contentedness with one another, capturing the elegant and uplifting feeling of Christmas.
This movie was filled to the brim with such scenes like that, scenes that would’ve either left you howling with laughter or were so relatable that you can’t help but see yourselves in this movie through those scenarios.
The more questionable moments in the movie worked, too. For starters, when Ralphie’s mother asked him where he heard the F-word, he heard it from his father but instead decided to blame Schwartz for it. So, then, Mrs. Parker went over to tell Mrs. Schwartz on the phone what happened and who Ralphie heard the obscenity from. But when she did, Mrs. Schwartz screamed at the top of her lungs, lunged downstairs, and beat the living snot out of Schwartz...with Mrs. Parker still on the phone. The cartoony pitches, the exaggeration of the scenario as heard through the phone, Mrs. Parker’s shocked, then nervous reaction to it as it went on and as she slowly hung the phone back up… Okay, generally, child abuse is nothing to laugh about. But it can be if it was expressed correctly and carefully. And this scene got down the basics of such humor the way it should have. It was black humor done right.
There’s also the scene with the Chinese waiters singing Christmas carols, or at least trying to sing, only to struggle with the l’s. It was further complicated when the manager came in to lecture the waiters on how to pronounce their l’s for their melodies, with varying levels of success. Now, some people might find this to be in slightly bad taste, as it was poking fun at the Asians’ struggles to pronounce the l’s, and they may find this no different from, say, Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the Siamese Cats from Lady and the Tramp. But here’s the thing: the manager, who was Asian himself, not only spoke good l’s and sang the songs quite nicely, but he was lecturing the waiters on how to get their pronunciations of the l’s right. So, it wasn’t mocking the Asian waiters’ accents, it was mocking their inexperience with singing their Christmas carols correctly. If everyone Asian in this restaurant spoke only in r’s, not l’s, then it would’ve been problematic. But, no, not this time. I came to understand that humor is in the eye of the beholder, and I can tell you right off the bat, this scene still gets laughs out of me, coupled with the whole “smiling at me” scenario. Simply put, this was non-PC humor also done right.
The actors in this movie, across the board, were fabulous. Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Tedde Moore, Scott Schwartz, they all infused their characters with an element of tenderness and modesty. None of them needed to be over the top or convincing to be believable; they just expressed themselves probably as they usually would have. That’s why every time I see them in this movie, they made me feel as if they were close friends or family. It honestly had that To Kill a Mockingbird quality, except it’s more pleasant.
Even Zack Ward and Yano Anaya, who played Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, seemed like standard but rambunctious and troublemaking kids. But they played their roles so wilily and with such theatricality to them that I couldn’t help but recoil from them but also chuckle over them all at once.
Out of all the actors, however, the one who I thought had the most fun with his character was Darren McGavin as the Old Man. He just gave him an extreme sense of finicky energy and a barrage of colorful expressions every time things didn’t go the way he wanted them to. And he also honed his more respectable, knowledgeable elements that made him look like a good father and and a good role model.
Jean Shepherd’s narrations throughout the movie as the adult Ralphie? I don’t know if the way I’m about to describe it will do it justice. It was just a comedic bonanza. The writing was slick, engaging, and compact. The deliveries were warm, eclectic, and hilarious. What made it even more alluring was that half the time, some of his statements were such that it felt like he reacquainted himself with his younger self and perfectly translated what went through his head as a kid with pure brevity and spot-on exposition. It was nicely balanced, energetic, good-natured, and always priceless. Do you know what makes this even better? Around 80% of the dialogue you hear from Jean Shepherd in his narrations, they were all carried, word-for-word, almost, from the book on which the movie was based, called ‘In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,’ by Jean Shepherd himself. It helped that Jean Shepherd, in addition to narrating the movie, co-wrote part of its screenplay, so that only added to its literary strength and authenticity.
As of this writing, I had the good fortune to read this book about five years ago, around the same time I read and critiqued the original Godfather by Mario Puzo. This book, published in the mid-60s, was simply an anthology of stories centered on Ralphie Parker in his adventures in the late 30s, early 40s Indiana, all of them modeled after Jean Shepherd’s own life stories and childhood memories. I was blown away by how nostalgic Shepherd was in this book and how he described all the life events he went through, including those that we saw from the movie. And the book covered more than just the stories centered around Christmas. It covered a lot of his journeys from all year round. Believe it not, some of the events in the movie occurred from other parts of the year in the book, like in the summertime. Nonetheless, these stories delighted with the dry wit, priceless deliveries, and sophisticated reminiscences I adored from A Christmas Story.
It also helped that in his day, Jean Shepherd shared his stories via either Playboy magazine - of all places - or over radio broadcasts. In addition, Shepherd was a radio comedian, which helped mold his sense of humor into the delectable asset it became for such stories as those centered on Ralphie Parker. To see such creativity and so much of one man’s life work embedded into either the book or especially A Christmas Story, it all exemplified Jean Shepherd as a true artist, as well as a true master comedian.
Another part of this movie that I found myself quite perplexed by was its general reputation as a movie, going from one of the most underrated comedies ever made to one of the most…overexposed comedies of all time? I don’t know how people would see this sudden change in attention, but here’s what went down. When it came out in 1983, it was anything but a box office bomb. It made over $20 million on a $3 million budget, which was not too shabby. But it fell under the radar for most of the 80s and 90s. But then, thanks to the magic of reruns on TNT and TBS, the movie slowly but surely found its audience, who then spread the word about its yuletide merits, and pretty soon, it became one of the megahits of the Christmas season ever since. So, why was it generally overlooked after 1983? Looking at the advertisements, they called it “a tribute to the original, traditional, one-hundred-percent, red-blooded, two-fisted, all-American Christmas.” The movie then looked like it would’ve been jam-packed with one bombastic joke after another and poking fun at the inadequacies of how Christmas was celebrated. Many moviegoers were put off by how low-key the humor was and just ignored it for a good while. Being that this was 1983, I bet they were expecting A Christmas Story to be the yuletide equivalent of the showy, riotous, jokes-coming-a-mile-a-minute comedies that were all the rage back in the day. They included Blazing Saddles (even though that came out in the early 70s), Airplane, the Monty Python movies, and probably National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Now, I find that just ironic because, in all respects, A Christmas Story was indeed the “tribute to the original, traditional, American Christmas” with the zany sense of humor they were expecting it to be. It’s just that the movie established and mastered its sense of humor much differently from how the other comedies did. And in a way, that’s what made it stand out so much. It is a relaxed, humble movie that benefited tremendously from its irresistible sense of humor.
By the time this movie received the attention it had deserved, it more than made up for it, but even I can see that the way it was promoted for the past two decades was, dare I say it, overblown. It included extensive merchandise, a musical stage production, a televised version of that musical, and even the house where the movie was filmed was turned into a “Christmas Story”-themed museum. And, that museum was kickstarted by none other than the original actor who played Ralphie, Peter Billingsley.
Excessive as I feel all this newfound recognition has become, I realized that it was not unjustified, and once again, it helped give the movie the reputation it deserved. It makes me glad because that tells me that my family and I are not the only ones who constantly relate to this movie. That was a testament to its ingenious qualities as a film, especially as a Christmas movie; it’s almost lightning in a bottle. This movie is oozing with yuletide excitement, it is 100% nostalgic, 100% relatable, 100% hilarious. To narrow it down to simpler terms, this is not only one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, it is one of my all-time favorite movies, Christmas or not, bar none.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good Major Award!
A strong A
I don’t remember where I heard this from, but in a retrospective special about A Christmas Story, actor Zack Ward, who played Scut Farkus, said that his favorite moment was the soap poisoning fantasy sequence. Why? Because he looked back on this scene for the same reasons I mentioned: he always related to it and thought it felt more in line with the retaliative fantasies anyone would’ve had when in a bad mood with their parents.