In 1983, I was a punk ass little kid. A Hellion.
I was 13. I loved playing games with my Jr High GPA… seeing how close to the deck I could fly without crashing the plane. Spent a lot of time in detention and at the Vice Principal’s office. Drinking and drugs were less than 6 months away. I had already begun my career as a little womanizer. Vandalism was one of my favorite pastimes. It was soon to be joined by petty theft.
I was about to embark on a decade plus reign of terror that would put the kids from “The Omen” and “The Exorcist” to shame.
Why do I tell you this? To set the stage. See, kids like that (me), don’t want to spend time with their families. I would have rather been doing something else. Anything else. I was all about getting AWAY from my family at that age. But when you’re 13, you don’t have a lot of freedom, so you wind up doing what they do on Holidays like New Years.
What I didn’t expect… what none of us expected… was that that day, New Years Day, 1983, would be a day that would go down in Fogarty family folklore forever.
It was the day we all saw “A Christmas Story”.
“A Christmas Story” was written for the screen by Jean Shepherd (in conjunction with Leigh Brown and director Bob Clark). It’s based on his book of short stories, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, along with material from his other works. In addition to being an author, Shepherd spent a number of years as a radio raconteur, regaling audiences with his episodic doses of Americana.
Not only are they his stories being told in “A Christmas Story”, he’s the one telling them. Shepherd is the voice of the narrator in the film (he also has a cameo as the parent waiting for Santa who tells Ralphie he’s not at the end of the line). So when you’re hearing the voice of the grown up Ralphie sharing his childhood experiences, it’s provided by the actual grown up “Ralphie”, sharing his childhood experiences.
This creates a direct connection between author and audience in the movie. It’s one of the many reasons why “A Christmas Story” is such a wonderful film.
The narration is the heart and soul of the movie. If there were an alternate audio track without it, I’m convinced the movie wouldn’t be half as funny. Occasionally, it explains the events of childhood from a mature perspective, but far more often, it aggrandizes them. Makes them sound epic.
Even something as momentous as the Scut Farkus affair, which it came to be known, was pushed out of my mind as I struggled to come up with a way out of the impenetrable BB gun web, in which my mother had me trapped.
With as much dignity as he could muster, the Old Man gathered up the sad remains of his shattered major award. Later that night, alone in the backyard, he buried it next to the garage. Now I could never be sure, but I thought that I heard the sound of “Taps” being played, gently.
The juxtaposition of common childhood events and excessive narrative grandeur is the comedic soul of the film. Toss in a couple of daydream sequences to aid in the effort, and voilà, the mundane becomes the mythical, which in turn is hysterical.
Because, taken at face value, the events of “A Christmas Story” are relatively commonplace. The Family meal. A homework assignment. A child gets his mouth washed out with soap for swearing. The neighborhood bully gets his. And of course, the narrative core, the child who wants a certain Christmas present very badly.
And yet, the movie has a magical way of taking those moments and weaving them together into a tapestry of Americana humor that none of us can forget. Who doesn’t love “Show me how the piggies eat”? Ever “Triple Dog Dare” someone? How many times have you seen “Fragile” on something and pronounced it “Fra-Gi-Le”?
“It. Was. Soap Poisoning…”
Almost every scene in this movie is memorable.
It’s also some of the “cleanest” comedy imaginable. there’s no raunch or bathroom humor, and no actual swearing… even though obviously, swearing is referred to (Oh Fuddddge….). That’s why it was so surprising to me that director Bob Clark’s most notable other projects were “Porky’s” I & II (immediately preceding this film) and “Black Christmas”, one of the few slasher films of note which actually preceded “Halloween”.
The movie’s heart lies in being a child and being a part of a family. Certainly Christmas in inextricably interwoven in its DNA, but the film speaks to the experience of childhood and growing up within a family as much as anything else.
Children daydream (not that adults don’t). Children fight and dare each other to do stupid, regrettable things. Children are forced to wear terrible clothing gifts given to them by relatives who don’t really know them. Watching Ralphie’s experiences remind us of our own youth… even if we can’t relate to the specific events, we can all relate to the overall condition of being a child. Not being your own boss, not fully understanding how the world works, and having an imagination that frequently runs away from you.
No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!
But it’s not just childhood. It’s family. It’s family humor, certainly, but there’s warmth there. The way Ralphie’s mom continually makes sacrifices for her children. The way the father curses and mutters and can barely bottle his frustration. The fear that Randy exhibits when he thinks his father will kill his big brother. The way they all find happiness together at the end.
The Parkers are your classic every family. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard “My father was just like that” in reference to Darren McGavin’s character. Every time I’ve ever watched the movie with someone, the “My mother had not had a hot meal for herself in fifteen years” gets a “That’s so true”. And I think anyone from a colder clime can relate to the sadistic bundling that Randy is subject to.
We can all see ourselves growing up with that family.
And maybe that’s why MY family took to the movie so well. Because that New Years Day, 1983, after we ate at a local restaurant… we all sat in a nearly empty theatre and watched “A Christmas Story” for the first time.
It was new, it had no name for itself, it took each and every one of us completely off guard. This wasn’t the movie that we’ve seen now 8,000,000 times and can quote verbatim… it was a sleeper, held over in a second run theatre, with practically no one else in attendance.
We belly laughed our way through it. And kept laughing on the way out. Hugs were exchanged and we kept laughing. I remember the most animated car ride home we ever had. Excitedly reliving scenes and quotes and characters and still laughing about it all. We went home a very, very happy family, and the memory has always stayed with us. If any of us, still, brings up that day, all our voices will soften and we get a little affectionate as we share the recollection of a treasured family moment. It may very well be the best day my family shared together growing up.
It’s one of the most personal examples I have of how the magic of the movies can bring joy into people’s lives and create wonderful, lasting memories.
This one is for you guys, Mom and Deb. Dad’s no longer with us, but I know he’s happy thinking about it too.
Merry Christmas Everyone.