Just how close is "A Christmas Story" to reality? In 1955, when I was in the fifth grade, I wanted more than anything in the world a BB gun for Christmas. My father had no objections, but my mother was adamantly against it: "He'll shoot his eye out!" After a year of nagging and cajoling, I got a BB gun the Christmas of 1956, and although my eyesight today is poor, my eyeballs remain intact.
I don't know if BB guns are still popular among youngsters, but for anyone over a certain age, my experience appears to have been universal, making it the perfect focal point for this 1983 Christmas classic.
Understand, Christmas classics are hard to come by. Nothing tops "It's a Wonderful Life," of course, but several others are high on the list: "A Christmas Carol" (1951) and "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947), surely; and more recently "A Christmas Story" and "The Santa Clause." Several other contenders, like "Gremlins," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," and the various Muppet adventures are either too dark, too vulgar, or too juvenile to attract a wide family audience. But of all of them, "A Christmas Story" may be the one that touches people closest to home. A Warner Bros. two-disc Special Edition DVD set is a fitting tribute to the movie's enduring appeal.
Based on the book of short stories "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" by humorist Jean Shepard, who also narrates, the movie tells the story of one Christmas season in the life of a nine-year-old boy, Ralphie Parker, living in a midsized city in Indiana in the late 1940s. Everything that might happen to a nine-year-old boy around Christmas time is crammed affectionately into the story line, with the BB gun the centerpiece.
As Ralphie puts it, "The Red Ryder 200-shot, Range Model air rifle" was the "Holy Grail of Christmas gifts." But it was also the last thing a mother wanted her child to have. Yes, "You'll shot your eye out" was every Mom's stock reply to this gift request. So Ralphie has to scheme his mightiest to direct his parents' attention toward the matter and scheme even harder to persuade them to buy it for him. For instance, he subtly leaves a BB-gun advertisement tucked away in his mother's copy of "Life" magazine, where she is sure to find it and immediately realize the gun's worth. Like most nine-year olds, Ralphie has a well-developed and ever-hopeful imagination.
The movie is made up of a series of short vignettes involving Ralphie and his family, Ralphie and his school friends, and Ralphie and his teacher. You'd think that among them there would be at least a few that didn't work, but, in fact, they're almost all of them equally appealing. Preparing to go to school in the winter in a new snow suit, Ralphie's little brother, Randy, is described as looking like he's going "deep-sea diving," his stiff garb rendering him unable to move his limbs. A triple-dog dare forces a friend, Flick, to place his tongue on a frozen flag pole, where it naturally gets stuck until the fire department comes to his rescue. Miss Shields, Ralphie's teacher, gives the class an assignment to write a paper on "What I want for Christmas," and Ralphie writes what he considers a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper about his BB gun. Dad wins a prize in one of the many contests he enters and wins the most god-awful lamp shaped in the form of a female leg, which he proudly insists upon displaying in the front window. The neighborhood bully, Scut Farkus, whose eyes Ralphie swears are yellow, terrorizes the kids on the way to and from school. Ralphie lets slip the Queen Mother of dirty words, the dreaded "F-word," and gets his mouth washed out with soap. The buying of the Christmas tree, the Little Oprhan Annie secret-decoder ring, the department-store visit to Santa, the Christmas socks you never wanted, everything a person might remember from his or her own childhood holiday season is represented.
Moreover, the cast is dead-on perfect in their roles, adding to our acceptance and enjoyment of the stories. Ralphie is played by Peter Billingsley, who is not only cute and cuddly but the very picture of youthful innocence. Mom and Dad are played by Melinda Dillon, patient and long-suffering, and Darren McGavin, whose outbursts of invective are legendary and hilarious. Randy and Flick are played by Ian Petrella and Scott Schwartz respectively, both of them looking and behaving like every kid everywhere. The bully, Scut Farkus, is played by Zack Ward as the fellow we've all met and hoped for a comeuppance. And it's all brought together by the warm and knowing narration of the author himself, Jean Shepard, as an adult Ralphie.
Yes, Christmas WAS the center of every kid's universe, and I suppose it still is. It was the day of the year that every child waited for, and the nostalgia surrounding the holiday has become mythic for most of us. "A Christmas Story" mines this territory the way Woody Allen's "Radio Days" mined the fertile ground of radio drama in the thirties and forties, with sharp, insightful observations, a careful attention to period detail, and, most of all, a gentle good humor.
I should mention in closing out this section that the movie was directed by Bob Clark, whose career as a filmmaker has been anything but a smooth succession of critical successes. You may remember that one of his first feature films was "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things," a movie whose only saving grace was its title. You don't remember that one? OK, how about "Porky's" and "Porky's II"? Ah, now you know who I mean. He also did the excellent Sherlock Holmes film "Murder By Decree," a definite plus, and more recently "Baby Geniuses," a definite minus. Oh, well. To have created so winning a film as "A Christmas Story" makes up for everything else.
The film is offered in two screen formats, an anamorphic widescreen measuring a 1.85:1 ratio and a 1.33:1 fullscreen, both located on disc one of the set. The fullscreen version appears to be the original negative size from which the widescreen was later matted for theatrical release, since the fullscreen provides more top and bottom information with little or no loss at the sides. Still, the widescreen format seemed to provide the better image quality, and because that's the way it was intended to be seen, that's the way I watched it. However, there are some variations of quality within the film itself; sometimes the colors are dark, deep, and rich, while other times they appear slightly washed out. When it's good, it's very, very good, so there's little to worry about. The definition is reasonably good, too, although it also varies from very sharp to somewhat soft. The transfer is free of grain, and the print is in excellent condition, so there are no worries in those departments, either.
Not much to talk about here. The Dolby Digital monaural sound only needs to reproduce dialogue, which it does just fine. Like the video, it's mostly clean and clear, rather limited in bass output but pretty impressive, actually, at the high end. You'll find little background noise to hamper your listening pleasure and a fairly smooth, balanced response. I can't knock it; it works.
This particular Warner Bros. Special Edition two-disc set is not as impressive as the ones they've been producing for some of their other classics. In fact, I questioned whether there was really enough material included to justify two discs. Anyway, disc one mainly contains the standard and widescreen presentations of the film with their Dolby Digital mono soundtracks. Then we get an audio commentary with star Peter Billingsley and director Bob Clark, thirty-two scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are the spoken language choices, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The second disc is not really very well filled out. It opens with a newly made, eighteen-minute featurette, "Another Christmas Story," in which the major child actors and the director reminisce about the film and how it has affected their lives. Then there is a segment called "Radio," featuring some original readings by Jean Shepard, who was the writer and the voice narrator of "A Christmas Story." Next are two interactive trivia games, "Triple Dog Dare" and "Decoder Match Challenge." Finally, there are two more short featurettes of four and five minutes each: "Get a Leg Up," about the Leg Lamp, and "A History of the Daisy Red Ryder" air rifle. The two discs are housed in a foldout package, found within in an attractive, metal-foil slipcase.
It would take a pretty cold heart not to be moved by "A Christmas Story." Male or female, young or old, the story contains enough varied experiences to make almost anyone remember a similar episode in his or her life. And the film's experiences are so sweet, so tenderhearted, and so common, they should touch virtually any audience. Like most of you, I've seen the film again and again, and each time I do, I find myself laughing and smiling all over again. "A Christmas Story" is a joy to watch any time of year.