January 14, 2018

A Christmas Story (1983)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Bob Clark
Stars: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon

What it's about. Apparently set in the early 1940s, in a white Indiana city neighborhood. Pre-adolescent Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) covets a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. But his kindly mother, Melinda Dillon, considers the gift too dangerous for children, and his father, gruff Darren McGavin, appears disinterested. Ralphie turns to his teacher and a department store Santa for help in obtaining the prized rifle, only to be repeatedly told "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Meanwhile, life goes on for Ralphie. Meaningful events include the long-awaited arrival of a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, a triumph over school bully Zach Ward, involvement in the scandal of Scott Schwartz getting his tongue stuck to a pole, and the display of his father's "major award" (a gauche leg lamp) near the living room front window.

How others will see it. A Christmas Story came and went with little fanfare in late 1983, but many viewers caught it in on cable television later that decade, and the film gradually gained a large following. Eventually, it was the subject of 24 hours of consecutive showings on Turner stations TNT and TBS, and today is generally regarded as the most popular Christmas movie. No one loved it more than my late wife, who must have seen the film a hundred times over the years, always on television viewings.

At imdb.com, there is an interesting user ratings gap between U.S. viewers (8.3 out of 10) and non-U.S. viewers (7.3). This gap would presumably grow even greater if Canadian viewers were moved from the non-U.S. to the U.S. column. It appears the difference is cultural. Circa-1940 Midwestern nostalgia has less resonance elsewhere in the world, even among English language viewers.

How I felt about it. The anomaly of this movie within Bob Clark's directorial career is demonstrated merely by listing the titles of his two previous and two subsequent movies. They are: Porky's, Porky's II: The Next Day, Rhinestone, and Turk 182!. These films have respective imdb.com user ratings of 6.2, 4.9, 3.7 (yikes!), and 5.9.

A Christmas Story has a user rating of 8.0, and 115K user votes, more than three times that of Porky's, which was one of the most profitable films of 1982. What makes A Christmas Story so much better than Rhinestone?

Of course, the difference is not Bob Clark. It is Jean Shepherd, who wrote the source book, and provided the endless amusing narration. He also co-wrote the screenplay. The film also benefits from the casting of hammy Darren McGavin, even though he was much too old to be the father of a grade schooler. In fact, he was too old to be ideal as Ralphie's grandfather. But McGavin is so lovable that he pulls the role off.

Not every joke works. McGavin thinks "fragile" is an Italian word, the dog's tail (?) caught in the door appears to be a piece of thin felt, and Ralphie's triumph over the schoolyard bully is both unlikely and needless. The singing at the Chinese restaurant is politically incorrect. But most scenes work, and most lines are funny. Some are classics, such as the "drink your Ovaltine" secret message, the shattering of the leg lamp to the amusement of Melinda Dillon, the mean elf pushing Ralphie down the chute, and the playground "double dog dare you."