Film.com readers looking for the family perspective on home video releases already have the redoubtable Sue Harvey and her thoughtful "Mom on Film" branded line of disc reviews. This review of Warners' new release of A Christmas Story probably poaches on Sue's turf, so we'll try to bring it up to her high standard. The movie itself sure is a rare item -- a comedy about a rather dysfunctional family that's also a delightful celebration of family life.
Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd, the 1983 yuletide movie has supplanted It's a Wonderful Life as America's holiday favorite. The semi-satirical but wholly affectionate view of childhood in the 1940s has been showcased for round-the-clock cable TV Christmas screenings; many fans can recite entire passages of dialogue by heart. Raconteur and radio legend Shepherd fashioned the screenplay from memories of his upbringing in Hammond, Indiana, carrying over many of the characters from his stories and recitations, like "Flick's frozen tongue episode." Shepherd provides the film's hilarious narration, a reverie for his own childhood. The nostalgic images often evoke the life and warmth of classic Saturday Evening Post illustrations.
Only about half of the content is Christmas related, with the rest devoted to comical vignettes about the Parker family, filtered through the memory of a daydreaming eight-year-old. Little Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) must avoid the local bully Scut Farkas (Zack Ward) while combating adult resistance to the Christmas gift of his dreams, an official Red Ryder BB gun. Ralphie's home life is an exaggeration of lower middle class values -- the Parkers barely communicate with each other. They seem more a loose association of individuals than an organized family. Ralphie's temperamental Old Man (Darren McGavin) enters silly contests, does battle with the noisy, smoky oil furnace and curses the neighbor's pack of smelly hound dogs. Mom (Melinda Dillon) is slightly ditzy and cowers when her husband becomes furious over various household disasters. Doting on her two boys, she entertains herself by encouraging her little Randy (Ian Petrella) to stuff his face with food and make noises like a pig.
A Christmas Story nails the specifics of pre-television Americana in the same way that Stephen King pegs the old-time tradition of the scary campfire story. Children have their own social structure separate from adult affairs, and adults keep kids separate from their grown-up concerns. Mom isn't the only one who's repressed: Ralphie hears but does not hear his Old Man's obscene outbursts, as if clinging to the sheltered ignorance of childhood. Dad's constant cursing is expressed in colorful substitute verbage: "Dolly wop dopter crop dop fratenhouse stickelfeiffer!"
Ralphie directs his psychic energy to his main obsession, making sure that a Red Ryder BB rifle is under the tree on Christmas morning. His daydream fantasies cast himself as a frontier hero, protecting his family with the magical weapon. Ralphie is mortified when his mother, his teacher (Tedde Moore), and even Santa dash his dreams with words that no pleading can overcome: "You'll put your eye out!"
Essayist James Thurber could write a thousand hilarious words about his grandmother's belief that unplugged electrical outlets would allow deadly electricity to leak into the house. Jean Shepherd's anecdotal episodes are in the same vein, sharing similarities with Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories. Ralphie's Old Man wins a contest, and the prize is a tacky eyesore table lamp in the shape of a female leg. Mother is too shy to express her objections, and must find a roundabout way of destroying the unwelcome symbol of sex. Ralphie directly confronts his father's frightening temper. Helping out when a flat tire needs changing, Ralphie loses all the lug nuts and accidentally utters a swear word. The moment pushes the father-son relationship into unknown territory -- what dread penalty can possibly fit such a crime? Little Randy wails his fears to his mother: "Daddy's gonna kill Ralphie!"
Ralphie's biggest disillusion comes through his patient efforts to acquire a special decoder ring from a radio show. When the decoder finally arrives, the secret message turns out to be: "Drink More Ovaltine." In Ralphie's own words, it's just a "crummy commercial." He's been made the fall guy of meda-savvy marketers. In a few years he'll surely be drawn to the cynical satires in Mad magazine.
Is A Christmas Story really the perfect holiday film? The modern Christmas season is so frontloaded with cynicism and irony masquerading as humor, it's unlikely that any intelligent eight-year-old believes in anything -- especially if he's been watching commercial television. In 1983 I had small children of my own and was concerned about shielding them from comedy fare that trashes the holiday spirit. Happily, A Christmas Story pulls back from revealing sensitive secrets about the true nature of Santa Claus, leaving it kid-safe for all but the most restrictive families. Ralphie and Randy's parents can afford a modest but warm holiday celebration with a tree surrounded by gifts to unwrap. Happily, not all of the packages are new socks or grotesque baby gifts from some clueless aunt. Randy gets his zeppelin toy and a football. And hidden 'round the back is an unusually long box for Ralphie ...
Director Bob Clark's filmography is all over the map: who would expect the man who brought us Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Black Christmas and the execrable Porky's to helm the sweet-natured A Christmas Story? Clark knows when to play things straight, as in the unbroken long-shot of the final Chop Suey Christmas Dinner. He also knows when he can be clever, as shown in Ralphie's disastrous visit to Santa. Clark's wide-angle Santa-boot-in-the-face shot expresses the trauma of childhood powerlessness as well as anything in David Lean's Great Expectations. Even better, Clark knows that childhood can be downright icky. None of Ralphie's friends are candidates for prize citizenship and others seem like budding psychos. Before video games and Children's Rights, childhood was mysterious, magical and largely invented from one's own imagination.
A Christmas Story comes as a free-standing disc but also in elaborate "Ultimate Collector's Editions" on both DVD and Blu-ray (official site). The deluxe DVD packaging is a large holiday-themed cookie tin containing cookie cutters, a Christmas Story apron, and a 48-page recipe book adorned with images and info from the movie. The Blu-ray cookie tin adds a string of electric holiday lights suitable for the hearth or the tree, all in the shape of little leg lamps! They're sure to get the attention of house guests. What does the discriminating video fan put on his tree? His own chorus line of leg art! "It's a major award!"
Warners' DVD and Blu-ray versions of A Christmas Story present a solid transfer with bright colors and fine detail. Don't expect razor sharpness in every shot -- to lend the movie a gauzy Norman Rockwell nostalgia, many scenes were filmed through heavy diffusion. Restored to its proper widescreen dimensions, the show probably looks better than did original MGM theatrical prints.
The extras provide additional insights into the filming and allow us to see little Peter Billingsley as he is now, twenty-five years later. Several of the items were part of an earlier 20th Anniversary special edition. Billingsley joins the late Bob Clark for an amusing commentary, where the director speaks openly about both the filming and his unusual career. He reminds us that the runaway success of the vilified Porky's gave him the clout to get Christmas Story green-lit.
Clark and Billingsley join other young cast members for Another Christmas Story, a general making-of piece. An amusing featurette profiles the company that's made Red Ryder air guns for over sixty years -- it got its name when a demo of the first toy pellet gun elicited the response, It's a daisy!" Another show takes us into a small factory that makes replicas of the Christmas Story leg lamp, an unlikely piece of kitsch Americana.
Along with a trailer, a script excerpt shows pages of what must have been an expensive deleted scene. Daydreaming again, little Ralphie uses his Red Ryder rifle to defend his hero Flash Gordon from the evil Ming the Merciless. The scene itself is long gone, but a still from it is included in the making-of docu.
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