Monday, November 18, 2013

Thirty Years of 'A Christmas Story'

"You'll shoot your eye out!"

Mrs. Parker (Melinda Dillon)

I guess most people have some kind of Christmas movie tradition, something they absolutely must see during the holidays.

For some folks, the holiday isn't complete until they have seen "It's a Wonderful Life" or "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (my personal favorite). My mother's favorite Christmas movie was "We're No Angels," a somewhat obscure comedy from the 1950s that featured Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov as inmates planning a Christmas escape from Devil's Island.

There are others, of course. More recently, I have known people who absolutely must see Will Farrell in "Elf" or the holiday season is incomplete, and the numerous TV networks we have today churn out new holiday–themed movies every year — so many that at least one cable network has taken to showing Christmas movies 24/7.

And Thanksgiving is still a week and a half away.

Several of my acquaintances would tell you "A Christmas Story," which was released 30 years ago today, is their favorite holiday movie, and it is hard to argue with that.

So many lines from that movie have become iconic. Certainly, Melinda Dillon's admonition to her son (Peter Billingsley) — "You'll shoot your eye out!" — has achieved a kind of cult status by itself, although I have one friend who looks forward to the scene in which Darren McGavin ("The Old Man") saw the word "FRAGILE" on the crate containing his "major award" and said, "Fraa–jeel–aay, huh? Must be Italian!"

Everyone seems to have a certain line like that from "A Christmas Story." I don't know if my mother ever saw it. We never spoke about it, but I am sure that, if she did see it, she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Knowing her as I did, I think she might have enjoyed certain dialogue exchanges even more than others. Our tastes were similar enough that I think we would have found most of the same things amusing.
Ralphie (Peter Billingsley): Oooh fuuudge!

Ralphie as Adult (Jean Shepherd): Only I didn't say 'fudge.' I said THE word, the big one, the Queen Mother Of Dirty Words, the F–dash–dash–dash word!

Mr. Parker (Darren McGavin): What did you say?

Ralphie: Uh, um...

Mr. Parker: That's ... what I thought you said. Get in the car. Go on!

Ralphie as Adult: It was all over. I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? The human sacrifice? Hmmph. Mere child's play compared to what surely awaited me.

I suppose my very favorite parts of the movie came when the Old Man was unpacking and displaying his "major award," running out to the sidewalk to see how it looked through the window and telling (mostly disinterested) passersby that it was a major award — and when Dillon was coaxing Ralphie's brother to eat.

Or when the family went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant, and the Chinese waiters serenaded them with Christmas carols ("Deck the harrs with boughs of horry, fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra ...").

There are always parts I forget — until I see the movie again. And I haven't forgotten much because, I have to admit, "A Christmas Story" has become a holiday tradition for me. As long as I have cable, that won't be a problem. For the last few years at least, it has been shown back–to–back for 24 hours stretching from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. (Last year, I had my TV on all day on Christmas, and this movie was on constantly.)

That is its special quality, I guess. Even though it was released about a month before Christmas, my memory is that it wasn't particularly successful when it was at the theaters. Maybe part of the problem was its director — Bob Clark — who was probably best known to the general public for his bawdy "Porky's" flicks.

My guess is that hindered the film at the theaters, but, whether from word of mouth or the rise of video tape/cable TV in the 1980s (or perhaps both), it gained a devoted following as a modern Christmas classic.

And now it is a Christmas tradition.