I guess this could go one of a few ways… Given that the title is remarkably similar to Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 film A Christmas Tale, maybe it’s another film where an angry bourgeois French family filled with bitterness, loathing and very dark family secrets drink too much and fight about bone marrow transplants. Although, as it’s Bob Clark’s first film following the hugely successful sex comedies Porky’s and Porky’s II: The Next Day, maybe we can expect some zany, madcap hijinks with Pee Wee, Meat and the gang at Angel Beach High School, possibly celebrating Christmas in 1954. That said, Bob Clark’s previous foray into Christmas movies was 1974’s Black Christmas, a slasher film about sorority sisters being stalked and murdered by a deranged psychopath, so maybe it’s a bit of a return to his previous unique brand of Christmas cheer.
Based on several stories contained in radio personality Jean Shepherd’s possibly autobiographical, possibly fictional, possibly both collection of short stories In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story is a humorous and highly nostalgic, recollection of Christmas in the early 1940s from the perspective of young Ralphie who may or may not be based on Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film as the adult Ralphie). The film follows the bespectacled nine year-old Ralphie as he obsesses over his perfect Christmas gift: The Red Rider 200 shot range model air rifle. Ralphie spends much of the film trying to convince every adult from his parents to his teacher to Santa that he should be given one for Christmas, and that’s pretty much the story… However, A Christmas Story is so much more than that.
Peter Billingsley is perfect as Ralphie, putting in one of the most memorable child performances and one that stands up well to repeated viewings. Billingsley is able to perfectly portray the eagerness he feels for both Christmas and the air rifle, as well as his disappointments when told by seemingly every adult in the film that if given the air rifle “you’ll shoot your eye out”, without coming off as the least bit annoying. A lot of this, in fairness, comes down to the writing. Jean Shepherd’s Ralphie is a fully drawn character and one who you instantly like, simply for his enthusiasm and innocence.
I’m probably making the assumption that anyone reading this has already seen A Christmas Story, I mean Harold and Kumar certainly have, but the narrative is very straightforward and doesn’t really require any detailed analysis. There’s also nothing to really pull apart, as the film is so well made and filled with such good humour that any criticisms feel a bit forced. What does stand out, however, are the countless priceless moments that the film contains: From the tongue stuck to the pole, to the disorienting visit to Santa, to Ralphie saying “Fudge” (but not “fudge”) and having to stick a cake of soap in his mouth, to Ralphie snapping and beating up the perfectly named weird, ginger bully Farkus.
However, most of my favourite scenes in the film involve Ralphie’s father (Darren McGavin), or as he is referred to throughout the film “The Old Man”. The Old Man’s battles with the “at least 785 smelly hound dogs” owned by their neighbours the Bumpuses, who constantly harass him when he returns home from work are priceless. A battle which the dogs eventually win outright by stealing the Christmas turkey away from the proclaimed “turkey junkie”. The Old Man is also constantly at war with the furnace and the various fuses in the house, to continued comic effect and which leads to my favourite quote from the movie: “My father wove a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know is still floating in space over Lake Michigan”.
The Old Man’s great battle, however, is “The Battle Of The Lamp”, where he and his wife (wonderfully played by Melinda Dillon, who really should have been in so many more films) are in disagreement over the aesthetics and appropriateness of a prize that he won in a competition. That prize being a beautifully hideous lamp comprising of a lampshade over a stiletto wearing, fishnet stocking clad leg, which the older Ralphie perfectly refers to later as “the soft glow of electric sex”. The mystery over the eventual demise of the lamp is a long held bone of contention for the family.
As you’d expect from a movie called A Christmas Story, Christmas Day holds so many of the highlights of the film. Beginning with the perfect frozen landscape Ralphie and his brother see as they wake up on Christmas Day, followed by Jean Shepherd’s breathless narration of “Santa Claus had come!” as the boys look under the Christmas tree and on to the priceless moment where they each unwrap a pair of socks, look at each other and throw them over their shoulders, Bob Clark perfectly captures a child’s wonder of Christmas Day. The first standout moment from Christmas Day comes from Ralphie’s (understandable) dread at opening his present from his Aunt Clara who “had for years laboured under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl”, which turns out to be a bizarre pink rabbit outfit which his mother forces him to wear. Following a perfect shot of a pile of wrapping paper and presents strewn across the floor, in the middle of which Ralphie’s brother is asleep hugging the toy zeppelin he was given as a gift, is the highlight of this and pretty much any Christmas film. The Old Man surprises Ralphie (and his mother), by giving Ralphie one final gift and as happy as Ralphie is to receive it (and Ralphie is very happy to receive it), the pure joy on the Old Man’s face at seeing his son get the present he wants the most is incredibly moving.
Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story is a pretty much perfect family holiday film. Filled with affection, intelligence, great humour and nostalgia, A Christmas Story has not only something for the kids and something for the adults, it’s simply a great piece of filmmaking. Also unlike pretty much every other Christmas movie ever, the central premise of the story is actually Christmas, it focuses on a family who genuinely love each other and at no point does any character in the film stare deeply into the darkness of the abyss. So that’s kind of refreshing. There’s not really any objective criticism to offer on a film which is as well made, fun and fluffy as the rabbit outfit that Ralphie is forced to wear on Christmas day, so I’ll just give it nine out of nine reindeer and leave it at that.