Thursday 1 April 2010

A Christmas Story (1983)

Director: Bob Clark
Stars: Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin and Peter Billingsley

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Outside of A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark is best known for Porky's, which was almost the holy grail of forbidden teen movies that it took me years to actually get to see, even though I watched what seems like every other teen comedy of the eighties way back in the day. In the States it was briefly the highest grossing comedy of all time and it singlehandedly gave birth to the entire modern teen sex comedy genre. Whatever you think of the material or its legacy, it's a well made and massively influential film and most of its success is due to Clark. He was already an important influence on another genre through the horror films that began his career, including the horror comedy Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things and the early slasher movie Black Christmas with Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder.

The commercial success of Porky's and its sequel enabled Clark to make A Christmas Story, possibly the most beloved holiday movie of all time in the US. Yet Bob Clark is also responsible for some of the most irredeemably atrocious movies of all time. When I watched this film in 2004 it was his only Top 250 movie but he had three others in the Bottom 100, a feat matched only by people as truly inept as Uwe Boll. In fact, one of these three, Baby Geniuses, is so abysmal that it's almost unthinkable that there could ever be a sequel, but for some reason Clark couldn't resist making one, currently rated as the fourth worst film of all time. Can A Christmas Story restore the karma lost by Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2? How about Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton? How about The Karate Dog or Maniac Magee or Loose Cannons? It would seem that Clark has a lot to apologise for, but fortunately A Christmas Story does have plenty going for it.

For a start it's based on anecdotes by the raconteur Jean Shepherd, mostly included in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, who also narrates the story as the grown up Ralphie, and he's one of the best things about the entire film. Shepherd is so much of a natural humorist that he has a laugh in his voice that's impossible to miss and it's almost impossible not to laugh along with him. I don't think it would even matter what he said as long as he said it in that precise voice, but the focus of his story is of course himself, Ralphie in his alternate guise as a nine year old boy played by the excellent Peter Billingsley, who manages the difficult task of appearing amateur enough to be believable yet professional enough to make it all work. In fact, after Shepherd's anecdotes, the casting is what makes this film so successful.

Billingsley was only twelve years old at the time but he was still one of the most experienced members of the cast. The four films he'd made before this weren't what had made him nationally recognised, it was the hundred plus TV commercials he'd appeared in from the age of three, including a famous run as Messy Marvin in a set for Hershey's Chocolate Syrup. He was Clark's first choice for the part but he auditioned other actors anyway because casting Billingsley seemed entirely too obvious, before he finally decided to go with his gut anyway. Technically the cast is led by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin, but it's Billingsley who most people remember about this film and that's hardly surprising. Dillon was picked as Mrs Parker, Ralphie's mother, because of her work as the mother in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. McGavin got the role of the Old Man, Ralphie's dad, after a brief consideration of Jack Nicholson.

I'm a huge McGavin fan, mostly because of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and while this is a very different role he fits it far better than Nicholson would have done. All these actors, along with Ian Petrella as Ralphie's little brother, are perfectly cast and the film benefits to no small degree from that fact, not least because casting Nicholson would have doubled the budget. I wonder whether the movie would have been anywhere near as successful had the casting gone differently, however many traditional American rites of passage it ran through in an hour and a half. Perhaps I just don't get the importance of these because I'm not American and didn't grow up around the time the film was set. Clark has suggested that it was deliberately aimed at being 'amorphously late '30s, early '40s' and there are cultural reference points for a whole slew of years around that time. The beauty of anecdotes is that it isn't the event or the date that matters, it's the memory of it and memory is never twenty twenty.

A Christmas Story is nominally set on Cleveland Street in Hammond, Indiana, but really that doesn't matter either, because it's just small town America. Ralphie is just one kid in this neighbourhood, a little dorky and prone to flights of fancy, but the run up to Christmas gifts him with what seems like every rite of passage an American boy goes through as part of growing up. We first meet him gazing into the corner window of Higbee's department store at his dream present, a official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. Inevitably nobody, led by his mother and backed up by his teacher and even Santa Claus, wants anything to do with a nine year old kid having an air rifle, and they all come back with the standard response that he'll just shoot his eye out. He naturally accepts the challenge of convincing them otherwise, any way he can.

It's hard to even think of this as a single story, though it does arc through the Christmas season as a coming of age yarn, because it absolutely betrays its roots as a set of reminiscences. Some are recurring themes, others single incident events, but they could each be separated out into distinct unrelated stories. I can relate to a few, like the difficulty trying to get one colour lit on the Christmas tree lights or in trying to get the youngest kid in the family to eat his dinner, but most are quintessentially American so seem to me to be a set of bizarre foreign concepts that seem all the more bizarre because they're related in English without subtitles. I could expect cultural insanity from the Japanese, for instance, but it somehow seems surprising to find it with Americans.

The next closest to my experiences are the consequences of Ralphie letting slip the worst swearword of them all, what he calls the 'Queen Mother of Dirty Words'. In England it was sometimes threatened that our mouths would be washed out with soap and water, though I don't ever recall it actually happening to anyone. Here Ralphie gets to stand with a bar of soap in his mouth, apparently not an uncommon situation, given that his father 'worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay' and that he got so used to it that he could rank different brand names by taste. Apparently all children imagine stories of sweet revenge tied to them going blind by the time they turn 21 on account of something their parents do to them and Ralphie gets to dream about that happening to him on account of soap poisoning.

Bullies are universal but in England they're just a vague problem, some kids having to deal with bullying, others not. There seems to be some sort of system to them thought in American culture as if every child has to conquer bullying through beating up the bully as some condition for graduation. Here Ralphie passes the bully test by going postal on Scut Farkus, nemesis to all the local kids, after he picks on him on the wrong day. I can understand the Little Orphan Annie anecdote through translation to my era. Little Orphan Annie is a cliffhanger radio show that Ralphie tunes into at 6.45pm every night and Annie sends out a secret message to her listeners after every show, at least those who have joined her club and been sent her decoder ring. In many ways what Ralphie discovers through decoding his first secret Little Orphan Annie message is his biggest wake up call to adulthood in America.

There are other things that make precisely no sense to me and I have no reference points to judge them. It's snowy in Indiana around Christmas so Mrs Parker dresses up little Randy in so many warm clothes that he can't put his arms down and he can't even stand up on his own. Quite why a mother would do that to a child I have no idea, but it does at least lead to hilarious lines like, 'Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense.' I have no idea what the Bumpus hounds have to do with anything, a horde of bloodhounds from next door who don't know what boundaries are, but maybe I can see why Judge Judy and her ilk have TV shows. The prize that the Old Man wins from a newspaper competition, a lamp fashioned in the form of a lady's fishnetted leg, is something that is as quintessentially iconic in the States as a pair of pink flamingoes but I can't draw a parallel to anything in England. Perhaps the Old Man's description is reason enough. 'It's indescribably beautiful,' he says. 'It reminds me of the fourth of July.'

The Old Man, for Mr Parker's name is never revealed, is one of the fiercest furnace fighters in northern Indiana, which means that he engages in battle every year with a boiler, perhaps out of some tradition that you don't count as an all American male unless you can fix anything yourself without paying a professional to do it for you. Perhaps the most utterly alien concept to me though is the story of Flick's tongue, the anecdote that introduced Bob Clark to the work of Jean Shepherd as far back as 1968. This revolves around the concept of dares, some sort of arcane hierarchical system that, when raised high enough, simply cannot be refused. Dares to me only ever had one level, either someone was dared into something or they weren't, but here it becomes a complex sport, reaching the heights of the dreaded triple dog dare. By this point, Ralphie and Flick and Schwartz become something akin to Martians to me.

To the target audience of course, this is nostalgia and it rang so true that the film became a perennial. It's about coming of age at a certain point of time, and just as Stand By Me is a godsend to people who grew up as the fifties turned into the sixties, A Christmas Story is a godsend to those a couple of decades older. It became so successful on initial release, just before Thanksgiving of 1983, that it was pulled from cinemas before Christmas as already played out. Only when the public complained to theatre owners did it return and run successfully all the way into 1984. Another sad measure of success of any movie is whether it turns into a TV series and this one led to the long running hit, The Wonder Years, which was built around the same logical design, winning awards for the new mode of storytelling that this film had pioneered. By comparison the film's actual sequel, 1994's It Runs in the Family aka My Summer Story, was a massive flop, pulling in only $71,000 from its theatrical run compared with $20m for the original.

The nostalgia goes beyond the general themes to the details too. The people of Cleveland, where much of the film was shot, volunteered the use of classic vehicles from all over the city, so that Bob Clark's fictional version of Hammond looks very much like it would have done in 1940 but without the usual budgetary expense. During filming, members of a local classic car club repeated circled the town square. The rest of the film was shot in Toronto, a surprising choice as it could hardly be described as a hotbed of American nostalgia. I wonder what the locals think of fans of A Christmas Story visiting the shooting locations. Another surprising choice of filmmaking technique that aids the timeframe is that the film was shot in the old school 1.37:1 aspect ratio, usually described today as fullscreen, to better mimic the style of the time, but Clark didn't go as far as to shoot in black and white.

All in all, this is an enjoyable film, even to someone who doesn't get half the cultural references, but it's a peach to those who do. I have the same problems with this film that I do with Stand By Me, problems that stem primarily from my being far from the target audience. My wife is American and has seen the film more times than she can count, at least a dozen, and I'm sure she's far from alone. In fact while this seems utterly insane to someone who remembers when three TV channels became four and never had more than five until he moved to the States in 2004, a tradition built up around A Christmas Story by 1997 when the TNT channel dedicated a 24 hour slot beginning on late Christmas Eve to showing nothing but this film a dozen times over. No wonder so many Americans have seen it so many times. While I'd expect people to just switch off the TV at this point, they don't. Every year the number of viewers increases, by 2008 reaching 54.4m people tuning in at some point during the marathon. That's how beloved this film is.


Hal C. F. Astell said...

Nope, but perhaps you doth protest too much.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Hal, what exactly do you mean by "perhaps you doth protest to much"?, i`m just trying to provide you and your readers with some laughter.