A Christmas Story (1983)

15 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“A Christmas Story” is a delightful holiday movie that recaptures something that is so rarely done well in movies like this—childhood. This movie knows exactly what it’s like to be a child and how the world around the child is imagined. It brings innocence, fantasy, and humor to the screen. In treating the whole film with all three of those elements in a delicate way, it turns out as a modern-day classic. Today, it’s considered one of the most beloved holiday movies, if not the most beloved holiday movie. On Christmas Day, the TV channel TBS even shows it nonstop for the whole 24 hours.

The movie is told as a childhood memory as the old narrator looks back on his ninth Christmas season with joy. In the early 1940s, he was a young boy named Ralphie Parker, who knows the one Christmas gift he wants to find under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning—an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 Shot Range Model Air Rifle (or in other words, a Red Ryder BB gun). His mother is not going to get him one, as she warns, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” So Ralphie continues his crusade, dropping hints on his father and writing a school theme about what he wants for Christmas.

We get a great deal of Ralphie’s family life as we view their comfortable routines around Christmastime. We have the father—or as he’s known, the Old Man—fighting a faulty furnace. We have the mother using subtle tactics to get her youngest son Randy to eat. We also see her trying to fit the kid into a winter coat that he has outgrown. We see them all go out to buy a decent Christmas tree at a…just-decent price.

The narrator, Jean Shepherd, who wrote the source material for this film—a collection of short story memoirs entitled “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, tells everything with a satirical reflection. Also, “A Christmas Story” is very funny because it remembers many events in childhood and slightly exaggerates them for comedic effect. Some are basic but taken further, like when the mother has Ralphie’s mouth washed out with Lifebuoy soap after he says a swear word. First of all, that moment when he cusses is censored with “fudge” and there’s no doubt that he heard the real word from his father. Second of all, following the scene where Ralphie’s mouth is blocked with soap is when the mother tries it herself out of curiosity and gags on it. That’s a great moment, but third of all, there’s Ralphie’s daydream in which he has become blind from “soap poisoning” and his parents feel guilty about objecting him to that punishment in the first place. Wonderful.

Then there are scenes that show something that a kid shouldn’t do but is curious about. Most particular is an early scene in which one of Ralphie’s school chums puts his tongue on a flagpole for a dare. Of course, it sticks. It’s painful to watch, but show it to any kid and they’ll get the idea never to do something like that. But there’s something all too familiar that brings us to what is arguably the funniest scene in the movie. It’s a trip to see a mall Santa Claus. It may seem like a delightful visit, but in truth, it can be unnerving and sometimes downright disturbing. That’s how Ralphie’s visit to Santa to ask for the BB gun goes—a complete nightmare. Santa looks all too red in the face, and his “ho-ho-ho’s” need toning down, while the “elves” are complete jerks. And when a kid goes up to see Santa before Ralphie and his brother, he screams in terror.

Peter Billingsley is perfect as the little protagonist Ralphie. He’s an energetic, adorable kid who tries desperately to get what he wants and thinks he can outwit the adults around him. Billingsley, with his smile, glasses, and wide eyes, is an absolute natural—he doesn’t seem to be acting at all. The parents are very well-drawn-out and wonderfully portrayed by Melinda Dillon as the mother and Darren McGavin as the Old Man. Dillon’s mother character may be overly controlling, but she’s also loving and caring. Her best moment, in my opinion, is how she cares for little Ralphie after he beats the school bully Scut Farkas in a fit of rage. She knows he’s hurting because of the bully’s verbal abuse and his rage was out of his control, so she nurtures him rather than scolds him. McGavin’s father character is an absolute hoot while his performance is flawless. He’s a gruff middle-class businessman, but he loves his family and finds joy in the small things that he feels are important. I love the scenes that show his desire for a leg-lamp he won in a contest, and how the mother uneasily reacts to it. When she unplugs the lamp as the family goes out, she tells the Old Man it’s to save electricity. We all know the real reason.

The movie’s time range is from a couple weeks to Christmas to the Big Day itself. And who would have thought that a story about a kid wanting a BB gun for Christmas could be suspenseful? With the spirit of this movie, it’s hard not to wonder whether or not he gets the gun on Christmas Day. However, it is hard to believe that the director of “A Christmas Story” was Bob Clark, the director of the previous year’s sleazy, smarmy, unpleasant comedy “Porky’s.” Then I came across this piece of information—apparently, the box-office success of “Porky’s” (which is a surprise to me) gave Clark permission to direct whatever movie he wanted to make. So he made “A Christmas Story,” a treasure of a movie that is so loveable and wonderful that it’s easy to forgive Clark for “Porky’s” (and even “Porky’s II: The Next Day,” released the same year as “A Christmas Story”). In my eyes, “A Christmas Story” is a perfect movie.

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