Peter Billingsley as Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story’/Image courtesy of MGM
It’s hard to believe, but this will be the thirtieth yuletide season featuring the iconic cry of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” That’s right it’s been thirty years since holiday movie fans were first treated to “A Christmas Story,” the 1983 Christmas classic directed by Bob Clark and based on the book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd, about the misadventures of young Ralphie and his quest to receive a Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Riffle for Christmas, 1940.
Contrary to public belief, the film wasn’t a box office bomb. It didn’t break records in regard to ticket sales, but it did well enough to earn a profit. Yet, most critics failed to appreciate the movie that today sits high atop many “best holiday movies” list.
“The reviewers when it opened in ‘83 didn’t get it,” explains Eugene Bergmann, author of Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. “Most just thought it was a nothing movie, only a few of them said, ‘Hey this has got a little edge to it that makes it more than just a fluffy movie.’”
It wasn’t until media mogul Ted Turner purchased the MGM library in a quest to own content for his basic cable empire that “A Christmas Story” finally found its place. Beginning in the mid-nineties, Turner Broadcasting’s airings of the film increased to the point when in 1997 the media giant ran its first twenty-four-hour Christmas Eve marathon airing of “A Christmas Story.” It’s estimated that nearly fifty-five million Americans tune every year to watch the film, making it a Christmas movie juggernaut.
“You can say lines from the movie and the majority of people around you will know what you’re saying,” says Brian Jones, owner of the Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland. “The multiple airings have led it out of cult status and into mainstream Americana.”
But despite all those repeated views, there are still a sleighfull of themes, jokes, and aspects to “A Christmas Story” that you probably never noticed before.
Here are a few.
It’s Not Really About Christmas … Or Even “a” Story
The use of “Christmas” in the movie’s title is a bit misleading. The film doesn’t even come close to touching on themes that are the usual Christmas movie fare: holiday spirit, family, friendship, togetherness, etc. Instead it’s more a film that just happens to take place during the Christmas season with storylines and plot points that could have easily been set during any other time of the year.
“I mean what’s a leg lamp have to do with Christmas?” asks Jones, who sells replicas of the infamous home lighting decoration/major award from one of the movie’s most beloved storylines. “Nothing,” he says a second later.
But the real misnomer is the film title’s use of the singular “a story.” In reality, the movie is more a series of vignettes thinly held together by the longer spread-out plot: Ralphie’s mission to get a BB gun as a Christmas gift. It’s similar narrative device in how the source maternal of Shepherd’s book was structured.
“[Shepherd] referred to that book as a novel and it says so on the front cover, but it really wasn’t,” says Bergmann, who explains that In God We Trust started out as stories that Shepherd told on his radio show that were then transcribed as individual short stories and collected and tied together in the book via a connecting narrative story of the narrator visiting his hometown and reminiscing with a grownup Flick (of the tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole fame).
So the film adaption jettisons the book’s original narrative story and instead opts to feature all of Shepherd’s childhood anecdotes to run at the same time with the one set during the Christmas season featured most prominently.
“It’s almost like the quest for a Christmas present is more an underlying theme that ties a bunch of side stories together,” admits Jones.
It’s Got Some Dirty Jokes
You’d think that a movie that most people gather with their family to watch every year would be G-rated in its humor, but look closely enough and you’ll see some off-color comedy in “A Christmas Story.”
Case in point: In the scene where the family is setting up the Christmas tree and a fuse blows, sending the living room into darkness and the father into barely contained excitement at the challenge to replace it, the narrator (voiced by the real Shepherd) explains, “The old man could replace fuses quicker than a jackrabbit on a date.”
“Probably most people won’t get that all and it sort of floats over and past you before you think of what jackrabbits are famous for and what they would do on a date,” Bergmann says with a chuckle. “It’s an amazingly racy thing to say.”
But such raunchiness is par for the course in director Bob Clark’s filmography. Another of his most famous films is “Porky’s,” the precursor to the modern teen sex comedy, and the success of which allowed him to make “A Christmas Story” after ten years of trying.
According to Jones, Clark and Shepherd, who collaborated closely on the film, originally wanted to make a not-so-kid-friendly cinematic look at what it was like to be a kid … with cursing. So in the scene where Ralphie gets in trouble for saying “Fudge” (though the narrating Shepherd explains to the audience that wasn’t what he actually said), the script read for the nine-year-old Ralphie to actually say “fuck.”
“From my understanding, they wanted to make it more like ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,’ where there are curse words and whatever, so you can imagine how that changes the movie,” says Jones.
In the end, the R-rated script was scrapped when the vice president of Higbee’s, the Cleveland department store featured prominently in the movie, refused to allow the store to be associated with a movie depicting a kid dropping the F-bomb, and the filmmakers were forced to change it.
“I guess they were desperate for a place to shoot inside,” says Jones, who believes that the decision to tone down the film actually helps it. “I think a lot of its success comes from the fact that there aren’t many curse words in there and it becomes a family-friendly movie. There’s an edgy sense of humor, but that’s lost on little kids.”
It’s a Satirical Celebration of Commercialization
A lot of movies that revolve around Christmas highlight the over-commercialization of the holiday and almost always end with their characters discovering “the true meaning of Christmas.” Not “A Christmas Story.” Practically from the start, with the early scene of children literally pressing their noses up against a toy store window, the film revels in the season’s modern consumerist nature to the point that it’s a sarcastic commentary on the trend.
The film continually raises the issue of childhood wonder and excitement being mined for profit, from Ralphie’s disappointment at being tricked into buying a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring that’s really just a “crummy commercial” for Ovaltine to a surly department store Santa who, along with his “elves,” doesn’t seem to like children.
But the theme peaks on Christmas morning when Ralphie and his brother, Randy, tear into their presents as the narrating Shepherd describes them “quivering with unbridled avarice.”
“Yeah, ‘unbridled avarice,’” Bergmann says, explaining how the line highlights the cheapening of the holiday to greedy spectacle. “They should be paying attention to giving and how giving is a wonderful thing … You’re supposed to be thinking of the wonder and marvelous religious aspect of Christmas, which is what you’re supposed to be celebrating and of course the kids are just celebrating getting stuff. The objects themselves, the products are just after your money.”
It’s Not Nostalgic
By definition, nostalgia is to wishfully look back at the past with affection. And for some reason many fans of “A Christmas Story” confuse the movie as nostalgically remembering childhood. It doesn’t.
From Flick’s tongue getting stuck to the flagpole to the smashed demise of the father’s prized leg lamp, most every storyline in the film ends in realistic misfortune.
“It takes a very real look at childhood,” says Jones. “It doesn’t take the nostalgic sappy sense of ‘oh yay, kumbaya.’ It’s more of real gritty look back at how it really was to be a kid.”
“This is pretty much Shepherd’s view of the world,” Bergmann explains. His philosophy was like that, that most everything in life was going to end in disaster. He always hated when people accused him of [being nostalgic] and he says, ‘The past was no better than the present … and the future’s not going to be any better either.’”
It’s a cynical attitude that’s most obvious in the scene just after Ralphie unwraps the prized air rifle he spent the whole movie pining for and races out to his backyard to shoot it. He tacks a target to a metal sign for Golden Age soda, takes aim, and pulls the trigger. The BB promptly bounces back and hits him in his face.
“They’re making fun of the whole idea of nostalgia,” says Bergmann. “Because it’s the golden age that in a sense ricochets the BB back and almost puts his eye out.”
Above: Peter Billingsley as Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story’/Image courtesy of MGM