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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "A Christmas Story"

Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker in "A Christmas Story"

For my fifth movie selection for the 12 Films of Christmas, I’m showcasing “A Christmas Story.” It debuted in 1983, but didn’t enjoy box-office success. Feel-good family films about Christmas were not in favor at this time, so the movie languished in theaters. Its reviews were a mixed bag, where the American critics hailed the narration by Jean Shepherd, but then pooh-poohed the rest of the cast as adequate or sitcom standard at best. The New York Times particularly savaged the film, but Roger Ebert (in his Midwestern, commonsense way) gave the flick a big thumbs-up. He had lived a life similar to the one depicted in the script, and it resonated with him.

“A Christmas Story” is indeed a story of Christmas wishing and craving. The hero of the piece, Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), is pining for one gift, and one gift alone. He desires a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Not quite 10 years old, Ralphie seems a bit distracted and irresponsible for a weapon. Upon hearing his request, his mother succinctly states: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” The movie is so very funny because it’s a meditation on a single-minded obsession. It doesn’t matter what else Santa might drag beneath the Christmas tree, Ralphie has a mono desire: He wants that gun.

Santa tells Ralphie he'll shoot his eye out.

Today, the film is even more anachronistic than when it debuted in ’83. Deliberately set in a kind of hazy late 1930s to early 1940s, the behaviors of the characters are growing more and more removed from how people in films interact today. The notion of a small boy relentlessly pushing for a gun, even if it is only a BB model, could not get produced today. Audience members would worry if they were watching a holiday movie or a “Making of a Murderer” prequel. School shootings, mass shootings, terrorism, cultural branding of the NRA as a hate group—all of this has combined to convert the notion of a child wanting to own a gun into something frightening and jarring. “A Christmas Story” can get away with it because it’s set 80 years ago. The question is, how much longer will it air without group boycotts and well-intentioned finger pointing?

So much of “A Christmas Story” was dated even when it debuted. That was the whole point. Original author/narrator Jean Shepherd and the movie’s director/producer/screenplay adaptor Bob Clark wanted to freeze a moment in time. It’s interesting to observe how the Parker family spends Christmas longing and lounging. Darren McGavin portrays Mr. Parker, aka The Old Man, as equally cantankerous and enthusiastic.

Darren McGavin accuses Melinda Dillon of leg jealously!

While he grumbles and grouses, seemingly in a perpetual bad mood, he does have a softer side. He can’t resist a freshly roasted turkey, a crossword puzzle challenge, or the chance to show himself off as an “intellectual.” When he is rewarded with a gaudy leg lamp—a symbol of hot, electric sex—some of the movie’s most memorable scenes occur. The unboxing of the lamp, after Mr. Parker mispronounces “fragile” as “fra-gill-é, it must be Italian,” embodies the tensions that exist in the longest marriages. We see just how many squabbles Mr. and Mrs. Parker must have shared over the years. After all, he prides himself on his big brain. Poor Mrs. Parker has to function as the family’s lone heart.

Melinda Dillon has the tricky role of the Parker mom. Rather than just playing her as a figure of goodness and virtue, Dillon fleshes her out as sort of wacky, a little bit venal, and slightly goofy. Each time the Old Man tries to get his leg lamp to stand upright, and fails, we see Dillon silently bending over with laughter. When Mr. Parker is infuriated by the lighting of their Christmas tree—decked with humongous, electricity-guzzling bulbs—he declares that he’s not color blind. The put-upon mom whispers, “I’m not color blind, either.” Though she’s primarily in the film to aid and abet the children—she stuffs the youngest brother, Randy, into a death-defying snowsuit—we know that she has a backbone and a mind of her own. After coming upon Ralphie finally beating up his tormentor and bully, Mrs. Parker comforts him and leads him away. She doesn’t “tattle” this fighting escapade to the Old Man, covering for her worried son and building a bond based on deception, I suppose.

While many people think of the “old days” as ones dripping with syrupy sentimentality and wholesomeness, “A Christmas Story” dares to be a renegade. When Ralphie learns that crass commercialism can taint decoder rings, he mumbles, “son of a bitch.” His visit to the department store Santa is akin to entering the gates of Hell and being banished in a humiliating manner. Then there is the recurring appearance of the “F bomb.” Shepherd’s narration cites it as “the Word, the Big One, the Queen Mother of Dirty Words.” After Christmas shopping, the family’s old auto gets a flat tire. Mrs. Parker encourages Ralphie to get out and assist the Old Man in changing it. When Ralphie accidentally tips over the screws and lugnuts, he lets loose a “fudge,” except he doesn’t say “fudge”! He has uttered the “F-dash-dash-dash word,” as Shepherd defines it.

The reaction to this faux pas truly shows the nature of the characters. The Old Man seems secretly delighted by his son’s foray into adulthood; he really is becoming a chip off the old block. However, Mr. Parker has to report Ralphie to his mom. Melinda Dillon’s reaction shot to having the “F word” whispered in her ear is priceless, and so is her decision to wash Ralphie’s mouth out with Lifebuoy soap. We see some of her goofiness when she bites down on the soap, too, after Ralphie has been exiled to his room. The adult characters in “A Christmas Story” are laying down the law, trying to function as a united parental front. We know, though, that they don’t always see eye-to-eye on many things, such as whether or not Ralphie will “shoot his eye out.”

The youngest son Randy falls asleep among his gifts.

On Christmas morning, the Parker family doesn’t arise early to head to church. Instead, their day is shown as mainly a hedonistic montage of ripping wrapping paper off gifts, shredding ribbons, and plowing through presents. Mrs. Parker, in a robe with a festive bow in her hair, shares glasses of wine with her husband. Young Randy (Ian Petrella) is so exhausted that he falls asleep among his holiday haul. This is why they work so hard and sacrifice so much: to watch their kids revel in gift greed and unadulterated avarice. The Parkers’ Christmas celebration is all about what is inside the boxes, and how sometimes a single boxed gift can maintain its importance and specialness for decades to come.

“A Christmas Story” has grown in popularity over the 36 years since its initial release. Cable-TV stations run all-day marathons of it; collectible companies manufacture leg lamps, ornaments, T-shirts, boxer shorts, and every manner of memorabilia. It is part of the nation’s cultural collectiveness. Believe me, that is becoming harder and harder to achieve. These days, with so many cable stations, streaming services, subscription platforms, and Web series, there are not a lot of pastimes that capture the desires of all Americans. Like the longed-for Red Ryder BB gun, “A Christmas Story” is a seasonal classic that many folks desire and seek out during the hectic December days.

Peter Billingsley taking aim with his BB gun in "A Christmas Story."

It stands as a testament to a past way of life, and it’s a present to those of us in the present. Yes, Virginia, there once was a time when little 9-year-old boys could beg for a BB gun, a father could buy it and hide it without the mother’s consent, and family services were not given an alert.

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