No. 39: A Christmas Story
We arrive at the first movie on this list that I’ve already seen, Bob Clark’s holiday classic A Christmas Story. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve decided to give a fair re-watch of all the films I’ve already seen on the list, in the hopes of gleaning something new from them in the context of all the other major releases of 1983. Upon my most recent viewing, which has to be at least the 10th time I’ve watched the all the way through, my feelings and overall opinion of the film hasn’t changed but viewing it in the context of the other films of its day that I’ve now seen, my appreciation for it has perhaps grown a little.
Unless you don’t have cable or live under a rock, you’ve probably seen A Christmas Story. It’s a collection of Depression-era stories surrounding one Christmas season in the life of young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) narrated by an adult version of the main character. The narration is in fact voiced by the author of the stories upon which the film was based, writer and radio personality Jean Shephard. When it was released in November of 1983, the film opened to respectable numbers, finishing with a total of $19.2 million on a $4 million budget, a success by anyone’s measure.
But it wasn’t the theatrical run that made this film into the classic it has become today (I’d say without a doubt this is the most widely-known and popular of the films I’ve reviewed on this list thus far). In the late ’80s the film began to fill time on some of the smaller broadcast networks around the holidays (FOX, TBS and WGN) and after seeing the success it was having, Turner decided to start using the film as a part of its regular holiday programming on its various cable channels, including TNT and Turner Classic. By the late ’90s, the film was ubiquitous around Christmas time and these days you can regularly find 24-hour marathons of the film running every Christmas Eve.
So of all the Christmas movies out there, what about this film made it take American pop culture by storm and become one of the great modern classics of the genre? There aren’t many big names in the film in terms of stars. Billingsley had a moderately successful TV career after the film and the movie’s biggest name, Melinda Dillon, while a major name in the ’70s and ’80s has since faded from popularity.
In my opinion the film’s cultural appeal comes down to two contrasting elements: dark comedy and nostalgia. This is a strange combination and not one you’d expect to see in a Christmas movie. I think when you ask most people about this film they wouldn’t think of it as a dark comedy but a quick review of the film’s biggest laughs shows that there’s definitely an edgy quality to the comedy in the film. The Skut Farkus scenes, the frozen tongue incident and particularly the department store Santa scene are all prime examples of dark comedy, certainly much darker than what we see in the vast majority of Christmas films. They help highlight the embarrassing absurdity we often feel when thinking back on certain childhood memories, which is a unique angle to take when making a nostalgic film about childhood.
Director Bob Clark is certainly no stranger to exaggerated, edgy comedy. He directed the now infamous sex comedy Porky’s as well as its sequel released earlier in 1983. The more outrageous scenes in A Christmas Story showcase Clark’s particular comedic strengths as a director, none more so than my favorite scene in the film, Ralphie’s fantasy sequence involving soap poisoning. The acting in the scene is so perfectly cartoonish, exactly the right tone for the fantasy sequence of an indulgent, short-sighted child.
This scene happens to stand out as my favorite but if you ask anyone who’s seen the film about their favorite scene, you’ll probably get a variety of answers. This film has the amazing quality of having almost every scene qualify as a classic, memorable film moment. That’s due in large part to the episodic format, which worked similarly well in other nostalgic films like Radio Days and Meet Me In St. Louis. Our memories are broken up into little episodes and stories so it only makes sense that a movie about nostalgia and memories should be formatted the same way.
The film works on so many levels, from the story to the pitch-perfect delivery of the narration. But what elevates it to the classic it has become and will always be are the three excellent lead performances. Billingsley’s chubby face and awkward glasses embody what we all felt like as children, the weakness, the vulnerability, the innocence and the foolish ability to remain hopeful and happy throughout all that. Melinda Dillon has some terrific comedic moments as the loving and selfless mother and Darren McGavin as the father, or “the old man” as he’s called in the film, delivers a truly classic comedic performance embodying the absurd confidence of a father emboldened by his status as head of the household.
A Christmas Story‘s position so far down this list is the perfect example of a film outliving its box office performance to become a classic through video and television. It was a story that would be told many more times in the years following the dawn of home video but A Christmas Story remains one of the earliest examples of the rule that classics are rarely established instantly.
Next Up: An American remake of the French New Wave classic Breathless.