The low-budget , unsentimental yet nostalgic movie, A Christmas Story is now 35 years old. And it is, in spite of the low expectations of the studio that produced it, a classic. But as the great and recently departed screenwriter William Goldman said about what will succeed in the movie business, “nobody knows anything.” A movie set in the early 1940s about a kid wanting a BB gun for Christmas? It seemed the only two people who believed in it were the director Bob Clark, fresh off a hit with Porky’s in 1982 who threw in some of his own money in the production. And Jean Shepherd, the writer of the short stories the movie was based on: Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid; and others from his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. The two argued constantly until Clark had to eject Shepherd from the set.
Bob Clark had first heard Jean Shepherd on the radio, where he was already a legend among many comics and spoken word /late night radio fans in the 1950s,1960s and 70s, me among them. Shepherd spun tales of childhood life set in fictional Hohman Indiana. His stories were never written until Shel Silverstein began taping and transcribing his radio shows. Shepherd shortly thereafter began writing his own stories. By then Shepherd’s stories were being published in Playboy magazine, where Hugh Hefner was a big fan. So Bob Clark knew he had to make a movie – a Christmas movie – based on Jean Shepherd’s stories. But it took over 10 years to happen.
Bob Clark began working on a script for A Christmas Story with Jean Shepherd along with Jean’s wife Leigh Brown. She was another believer, having worked with Shepherd at WOR Radio and together they had traveled the New York Beat scene years before they maried. With Shepherd’s distinctive voice, it was decided that he would narrate the movie as an older and more jaded Ralphie. He was perfect for this, having perfected his style on the radio. At times he sounded dramatic, at times sounding conspiratorial or world-weary, but always speaking directly to the listener – as the smart aleck kid in an adult’s body.
Finding the actor for the role of Ralphie was critical. Thousands of kid actors were considered and auditioned. Peter Billingsley, who got the part, was already a regular at making commercials in New York. He was considered almost too perfect, even though approaching 12, he was playing the 9 year old Ralphie. As it turned out Billingsley needed a dialogue coach during production to say the name “Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle” that he wanted for Christmas. His angelic face was the perfect contrast to his scheming nature. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Darren McGavin playing the Old Man, but Jack Nicholson was also considered for the role. Melinda Dillon as the mother got the part based on her strong role as the mom in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ralphie is obsessed, as only a 9 year kid can be, with having a Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle. With Christmas around the corner he plants hints around the house to his indifferent parents. A trip to downtown “Hammond” with his buddies Flick and Schwartz and kid brother Randy also serves as occasion to gawk at the Higbees Department Store Window where the Christmas Baccanalia of toys and trains also diplays the “Holy Grail of christmas presents,” the Red Ryder 200 shot BB gun rifle. Ralphie fixates on the window. He lets out to his mother that night that this is what he wants for Christmas, only to be told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But he fantasizes about warding off and shooting bandits with his Red Ryder, with Ralphie the hero to his parents and kid brother. But Ralphie must live in the real kid world, a world Jean Shepherd never lets us forget.
Going to school is one of the daily humiliations in Ralphie’s world. He has to wait for his kid brother to be dressed up for snow – in so much clothing he can barely move. A recess gives Ralphie’s buddies the chance to try out Schwartz’s saying that if you stick your tongue to a flag pole (in freezing weather) it will stick there. Only the triple dog dare convinces Flick to try it, and sure enough his tongue sticks to the pole. It stays stuck as all the kids go back after the recess bell sounds. Only the teacher Miss Shields seems to notice Flick’s absence, the class mates feigning ignorance. Soon she calls the police and fire department to pry him loose, where he barely gets out a whine with his bandaged tongue.
The whole experience results in the need for a class excercise in writing an essy on “What I want for Christmas” – the perfect segue for Ralphie writing a winning essay on the importance of the Red Ryder BB gun for a present. This reverie lasts as long as it takes for the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus and his side-kick to have Ralphie, Flick and Schwartz running home for safety. Little brother Randy, still wrapped like a pig in a blanket, plays possum in the snow. Ralphie’s daily life always seems to sink into a contrast to his daydream reveries. Just as he saw his A+++ essay becoming a stepping-stone to getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, he gets his essay back from Miss Shields. Not only did it just get a C+, but she wrote in red “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Hope dashed again.
Ralphie’s home life is a constant battle of trying to get his wish for the Red Ryder noticed, His mother dotes on Randy and his lack of interest in food. Mother and child play games of “pigs in a trough” with his mom laughing as Randy buries his face in the mashed potatoes. His father is either buried in the newspaper or cussing as he tries to fix the furnace in the basement. The Old Man’s one happy moment is when he won a prize of a leg lamp, “electric sex” as Ralphie calls it, which the Old Man proudly displayed in the window to his wife’s mortification.
These unique scenes from A Christmas Story and several more that follow mostly came from separate stories in Jean Shepherd’s books. They form a remarkable whole because they sprang from one mind, Yet they took form as a film with Bob Clark’s expert and remarkable direction. Each scene builds on another leading to a climax that is perfect. The viewpoint always from that of Ralphie and a kid’s world. This is maximized by the low-angle cinematography, borrowing a technique from film noir: cutting a hole in the floor to sink the cameras for a low angle shot. These are the reasons the audience has continued to build for the movie year after year. As with many classic movies, the end result masks the friction that produced it. With Shepherd and Clark, it was Jean’s continual interference with the actors. Shepherd was always trying to have the scene come out according to his original vision. Clark finally had to have Shepherd removed from the set in order to have this stopped. Still, we can see Jean Shepherd in cameo in the movie, he playing the man in the Santa Claus line at Higbee’s – telling Ralphie when he and Randy get ready to go up to see Santa, “The line ENDS here. It begins THERE.” pointing far away. Shepherd narrates in the movie “The line stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”
On Christmas day the surprises go all around. But being a Jean Shepherd story, surprises are good and bad. As he narrates in the story, “Life is like that. Sometimes at the heart of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, and all is right with the world, the most unbelievable of disasters descend upon us.”
For a low budget movie, production designer Reuben Freed and Art Director Gavin Mitchell still had to look at 20 cities for locales and sets. Toronto served for some outdoor scenes and Cleveland served for others. Higbee’s Store was in Cleveland (and the building is still there). Ralphie’s home, the Parker house exterior, is in Cleveland. In winter 1982-1983 when the movie was filmed, it was a very warm winter and no snow had fallen. The special effects supervisor Martin Malivoire and assistant Neil Trifunovich had to truck in snow, and resorted to using potato flakes for falling snow. Shredded vinyl was also used on set as well as firefighter’s foam for exterior sets.
A Christmas Story was a not a big hit when it opened, although it did make money for MGM when it was re-released. In 1985 it was released on video and word of mouth began to grow. Its unique take on Christmas made it a favorite for many. In 1997, it had reached more than cult-status when TNT began running A Christmas Story marathons. And since 2006, San Diego resident Brian Jones has opened the A Christmas Story Museum at the house in Cleveland that served as the exterior of the Parker house. Nearby properties have also been added as to the compound.
Jean Shepherd died October 16, 1999 at age 78. Bob Clark died tragically on April 4, 2007, age 67 with his son Ariel in a car crash caused by a drunk driver.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is commemorating the 35th anniversary on December 10 of A Christmas Story with a special invitation-only screening of the movie along with hosting members of the cast and crew. Peter Billingsley will be there along with Production Designer Reuben Freed, Set Director Mark Freeborn, and Costume Designer Mary E. McLeod.
TNT is already playing A Christmas Story. So let us enjoy this unsentimental but kid-in-the-adult movie. The movie that screenwriter Robert McKee considered a new genre in the modern era: A Christmas Story.