Movie Review: A Christmas Story (1983)

“You’ll shoot your eye out.” (10/10)

christmas_storyA Christmas Story is becoming the It’s a Wonderful Life of the Baby Boomer generation… maybe more so for the Tweener Generation—a designation I just made up for folks born between, say, 1930 and 1946.  The movie is especially meaningful for those who were boys in the context of a loving family where Pop worked, Mom kept house (and kept you out of trouble), and the Popsicle Index [1] was nearly 100%.

The year is somewhere around 1940—some reviews claim it’s the depression era, one says it’s 1940, some say it’s the 1940s in general, and it always looked to me something like 1949—in Hohman, Indiana, a mythical northern industrial city approximating Gary, Indiana.  The movie is based on several narratives from Jean Shepherd’s book of reminiscences, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

Mr. Shepherd narrates the movie, which was filmed in the early 1980s in Toronto, with some downtown shots set in Cleveland. He’s Ralph Parker, a New York writer thinking back to the days when he was Ralphie, a nine-year-old everyboy growing up there in middle-class Indiana off the smokestack-laden southern shores of Lake Michigan with Mom (Melinda Dillon) and the Old Man (Darren McGavin) and his exasperatingly, though often funny, infantile five-year-old brother.

After introducing his home on Cleveland Street in the snow-belted neighborhood, Ralphie tells us this is Christmas, “lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolved.” Ralphie and his friends run into the downtown area straight to the annual Higbee’s department store window display, where all the latest toys that the kids long for—including (for boys) electric trains, model airplane kits, baseball gloves, wagons, sleds, and so on—are spread out in their artistic splendor.  Ralphie has his eye on only one thing, “the holy grail of Christmas gifts, the Red Ryder 200-shot range-model air rifle….”

Thus we’re transported into the mind of a bundled-up cute little blue-eyed youngster as he spends every waking moment trying to figure out how best to trigger (no pun intended) his parents gift-giving sentiments along the Red Ryder lines.  The mission to secure the holy grail, this prize that launches Ralphie on flights of save-the-day fantasy heroics, becomes the plot by which we enter the warm, familiar, often uproarious lives of Ralphie and family Parker.

The next morning, when Ralphie and his brother Randy are called down for breakfast, Ralphie goes to some trouble of running to the parents’ room, inserting a full-page ad for the Red Ryder BB-gun from Boy’s Life into his mother’s Look magazine, and laying it on her pillow.  When he comes down to the table, his father is reading the newspaper and trying to answer a question to a puzzle (that he says could bring a $50,000 payoff!).  The Old Man poses the question out loud:

“What is the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse?”
“Victor, his name is Victor,” replies his wife immediately.
Astonished, he asks, “How the hell did you know that?”
“Everybody knows that,” she says.

A few minutes later, Ralphie, trying to drop a “firm but subtle” hint of the need for BB-gun protection, comes up with: “Flick [his friend] says he saw some grizzly bears near Pulaski’s candy store.”  Which of course elicits incredulous stares… “as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.”  As the Old Man is making ready to drive off to work, his mother point-blank asks, “Ralphie, what would you like for Christmas?”  To which Ralphie blurts out his one true desire: “I want an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range-model air rifle.”  Followed by the classic insurmountable “no” from Mom, heard by boys the world over for generations:

“You’ll shoot your eye out.”

The recognition and nostalgia for such little common moments makes us laugh and sigh for what was so uncommonly good about the good old days.  Shepherd and Clark deliver scene after scene of classic family qualities.  One of my favorite phrases comes shortly after breakfast when the Old Man can’t get the car started—”the goddamned Olds is froze up again”—and goes to the sink for some hot water.  Shepherd’s observation:

Some men are Baptists, others Catholics. My father was an Oldsmobile man.

Then immediately the coal furnace acts up and the Old Man walks into the basement to do battle with the clinkers.  I grew up in the burbs around Kansas City, and we always had some form of natural gas heating.  But my friends tell me in the cities, into the early 1950s, the typical middle-class/working-class home was heated by coal.  It was an entire operation by which men in trucks would deliver it to a bin in the basement and one of your husbandly duties was to “keep the home fires burning.”  The process was anything but automated… and you definitely got your hands dirty.

So by pointing out cars that don’t work so well in the cold and problems with heating, the writer is telling us that “sure, a lot of these problems we can live without, and good riddance.”   But the writer is also reminding us of those rituals of survival, literally, when a lot of people’s time was taking time motivated on a very basic level to “make a living” for themselves and their loved ones.  In such elemental surroundings one can see the relevance of true family values, or values of any meaningful, ethical sort: thrift, honesty, good manners, honoring your father and mother, respecting legitimate authority, etc.

The remainder of the film is simply precious for evoking the era:

  • Mom’s dressing you up for winter weather
  • How the kids dare one another to do something silly
  • Contending with bullies, and finding out what they’re made of
  • Using profanity and Mom’s special soap mouthwash
  • Changing a flat tire in record time
  • Getting the absolute best deal on a real Christmas tree
  • The affliction of redneck hillbilly neighbors and their dogs
  • The enthusiasm of Dad for a tasteless prize that Mom abhors
  • Kids playing with their food, not eating
  • Radio entertainment
  • The disappointing radio-program secret decoder ring message
  • Visiting Santa Claus when kids weren’t put on tethers
  • Watching a magnificent parade in the town square
  • Christmas morning and the gift orgy
  • Mom and Dad in love

This is a way-fun flick to talk about, but the reason it’s moved to the front of the pack in terms of popular viewing—TNT typically runs it with commercials for 24 hours on Christmas eve day (get the DVD)—is that it’s imbued with the deepest of love.  Yes, the young Billingsley is great as Ralphie, but Mom and the Old Man (Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin) provide the spiritual sense of family many of us remember as kids.  They are pictured toward the end in the tenderest, sensual embrace: the kind of love we know doesn’t happen very often but we like to see glimpses of.  We also see and feel the parents’ gestures of profound love for their children.

I have a sense that if we as Americans, or even we as a species, can come to regard A Christmas Story as a seasonal peak experience, the world will unfold toward benevolence.  The ultimate therapy.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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[1] The Popsicle Index is an idea of Catherine Austin Fitts of Solari.com: “The Popsicle Index is the percentage of people in a community who believe that a child can leave their home, go to the nearest place to buy a Popsicle and come home alone safely.”

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