(1983) Holiday Comedy (MGM) Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Zack Ward, Yano Anaya, Jeff Gillen, Jean Shepherd (voice). Directed by Bob Clark
The Christmases of our childhood are special and priceless. Sometimes a single Christmas can be defined by the things we get, but sometimes what we get is more than the presents we’re given.
Ralphie Parker (Billingsley) lives in an Indiana town in 1940; a very Norman Rockwell kind of place with department stores, middle schools and Chinese restaurants. Ralphie is a pretty normal kid who wants just one thing for Christmas; a Daisy Red Rider BB Gun. He knows exactly the one he wants; it has a compass in the stock as well as a sundial; he even knows the serial number.
Unfortunately, no adult in their right mind is willing to get that kind of gift for him. He could shoot his eye out with that thing. So he does what he can to convince those in charge that he deserves the gift of his dreams and will use it safely. Unfortunately, he has to contend with a whole lot of things, like the school bully Scut Farkas (Ward) and his minion Grover Dill (Anaya). On his side is his little brother Randy (Petrella) and his friend Flick (Schwartz) who is foolish enough to affix his tongue to a frozen metal post with predictable results.
He has a mom (Dillon) with the patience of a saint but a firm and steadfast refusal to let him get the BB gun. His old man (McGavin) is far too busy dealing with the neighbor’s mutts who drive him crazy, as well as the anticipation of the arrival of a major award, which turns out to be a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg with a fishnet stocking on it. He sticks it in the front window, mortifying Ralphie’s mom.
When Ralphie gives one final try to see if the big man – Santa (Gillen) will come through but when he goes to the local department store to ask the Man in the Suit for his beloved BB gun, the response is “You’ll shoot your eye out with one of those things, kid. Ho ho ho” followed by a shove by his jolly boot. With Christmas days away and nowhere left to turn, how could this be anything but the worst Christmas ever?
This has become a modern classic of the holiday movie genre and the most bizarre part is that it was directed by the man best known for directing Porky’s. If two movies on the same filmography could be more diametrically opposed, I can’t think of any. While A Christmas Story has a feeling of Americana (courtesy of Jean Shepherd, who wrote the collection of short stories the movie is based on and also narrates), the other is raunchy and outrageous at times, a precursor to things like American Pie.
McGavin and Dillon are perfectly cast in this. Dillon, who was cast based on her work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is much more of an idealized American mom here. She is patient (for the most part – don’t think of cursing in front of her though) and nurturing although there are times her patience grows thin. McGavin, who was mostly known as Carl Kolchak on the “Night Stalker” television series, was cast when Jack Nicholson turned down the role and the movie benefitted I think. McGavin is equal parts loving dad, bumbling husband and antagonized neighbor. He mutters vague expletives that the movie serves to keep from being specific, which makes it actually funnier.
Billingsley is not the most talented child actor that ever came down the pike, but he does a decent job here. Most of the child actors here are by modern standards somewhat wooden, but they were more or less equal to the standards of the time. It helps that Shepherd moves much of the plot along with his narration, leaving the kids less to do.
Shepherd was the kind of writer who inspired people like Garrison Keillor and Spalding Gray; he was quite a raconteur and left behind a body of work that is as impressive as any 20th century author, but it will be this movie he will most be remembered for. Like Charles Dickens, his insights into human nature and the power of Christmas to make things better are timeless and needed. Sometimes things just come into confluence as if guided by fate, unseen hands or whatever – this is one of those things. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, y’know?
WHY RENT THIS: One of those timeless movies of Americana that have to do with family, love and Daisy Red Rider BB Guns.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor may be a bit too dry for some..
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and swearing, although there are allusions to much worse language than is actually used onscreen.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was featured in the exterior shots was actually in Cleveland, not in Indiana where the movie is set. A fan of the film bought the home in 2005, refurbishing the interior to match the movie. It opened in 2006, along with a gift shop and museum dedicated to the movie in the house next door which the fan also purchased. You can learn more about the house and the movie at their website here.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Because the movie is a classic and has gone through several DVD releases, there are a plethora of features out there in the various iterations. While the original DVD just contains the film and the trailer, the Blu-Ray and Special Edition include a couple of games, a fascinating featurette on the Daisy Red Rider BB Gun, Jean Shepherd reading two of his stories for a radio show, an 18-minute “Another Christmas Story” which features the now-adult members of the cast reminiscing about their time filming the movie and its impact on their lives and a funny featurette known as “The Leg Lamp: Shining Light of Freedom.” The Ultimate edition contains all of these and the scripted “Flash Gordon” scene that was eventually cut from the film, as well as a recipe book, cookie cutters and an apron (it comes in a cookie tin).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20.6M on an unreported production budget; although it’s likely that the movie broke even at best during its theatrical run, it has more than earned its keep on cable and home video.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.