You knew it was coming.
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983).
Ralphie has to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that a Red Ryder BB gun really is the perfect gift for the 1940’s.
I think this movie, with rare competitors like Stand By Me, might be one of the best depictions on film of the weird mix of the jaded, the melodramatic, and the credulously bittersweet that encapsulate experiences that comprise childhood.
A Christmas Story is a 1983 American Christmas comedy film based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of author and raconteur Jean Shepherd, including material from his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. The film has become a holiday classic and is known to be shown numerous times on television during the Christmas season.
Man, whose leg do you have to hump to get “and raconteur” appended to your primary job description? That is sick as hell. I think I’m going to start referring to my friendohs like that. “This is my old friend Ben, chef and raconteur.” “I’d like you to meet noted drafter and raconteur, George.” “Will executive assistant and raconteur Dre be joining us?”
Three of the semi-autobiographical short stories on which the film is based were originally published in Playboy magazine between 1964 and 1966. Shepherd later read “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and told the otherwise unpublished story “Flick’s Tongue” on his WOR Radio talk show. [Director] Bob Clark states that he became interested in Shepherd’s work when he heard “Flick’s Tongue” on the radio in 1968.
When we’d first moved to a large city and I was very small, we had a neighbor who told her children, in front of me, that if they didn’t stop screaming when they played, she was going to cut off their hands and bury them in the backyard. What made the threat chillingly genuine was how batshit insane this poor woman was. Like, unhinged, so’s as a child can see it in thirty seconds of conversation. I could not get out of that house fast enough. It was not even up for debate — I ran out the door, and the only issue on which I was torn was whether to run to my own house or to the police station.
I remember sitting in the bathtub after telling my mother, who assured me soothingly that Rich would never let Debbie cut off the children’s hands, sure that the next time I saw my friends, they’d have stumps at the end of their wrists. Kids know when grown-ups aren’t fooling around. She used to wear ankle weights to her doctor’s appointments so he’d think she was eating, and crowed about only needing a training bra. She told me I had “real potential” as a ballerina, but I couldn’t start talking to boys. That’s when everything would go south, she warned.
Once, when my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up (before the backyard hands-chopping thing) I told her, “I want to be just like Debbie.”
Whenever I think of her, Debbie is thin and fabulous in our community swimming pool, resplendently 80’s-riffic and prepubescently cocaine-and-gin anorexic in her hot pink and black bikini, sporting mirorred Ray-Ban knockoff sunglasses and a super-long Virginia Slim. Debbie would pitch nickels across the kidney-shaped pool and let them settle at the bottom, and then I would kick-launch off of her sunscreen-slicked thighs from the shallow end to claw frantically for the coins ahead of her daughter: I wanted so desperately to impress her. I hated to see my reflection in her super-cool shades, so imperfect with my lanky, boy-pixie-cut uselessness. She would ruffle my hair and call me Miz Liz. I thought she was sensational but terrifying — so pretty, so “different,” and so. danged. crazy.
She’s dead now. Brain tumor. When we were caught up by a neighbor we ran into at a grocery (we’d left that neighborhood many years before), the neighbor said, “Sad. It was enormous when she died; I guess she’d had it for years and it had just been pressing on her brain.” My father said, “I wonder if that’s what made her —” then turned and looked at me and said, “Um, you probably don’t remember her, but she was a little … erratic.”
No fucking shit, I thought.
Miss Shields is depicted as the Wicked Witch of the West, standing beside Ralphie’s mother, Mrs. Parker, in a jester outfit. Later, the kid with the goggles in line to see Santa tells Ralphie, “I like The Wizard of Oz. I like the Tin Man.” The Wizard of Oz was released in August of 1939, which has become part of the chronology fans try to pin on A Christmas Story to make a definite timeline for when the events are supposed to take place. (Waste of time: the writer and the director deliberately kept it vague.) Kind of funny though since both movies received middling critical acclaim at their release and went on to quietly become classic frequently-aired favorites.
Tedde Combs returned as Miss Shields in the sort of sequel, My Summer Story, making her the only original cast member to reprise his or her A Christmas Story role.
It’s a major award!
Both [author Jean] Shepherd and [director Bob] Clark have cameo appearances in the film; Shepherd plays the man who directed Ralphie and Randy to the back of the Santa line and Clark plays Swede, the neighbor the Old Man was talking to outside during the Leg Lamp scene.
The infamous leg lamp, the Old Man’s “major award,” was based on an actual lamp, in the shape of a logo for Nehi soda.
The character of Red Ryder, whose name bears the BB Gun Ralphie is desperately trying to acquire, is a real comic book (and radio) character that existed in the 1930’s-40’s, akin to popular western heroes like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Lone Ranger.
But of course here he is fighting Black Bart.
The Red Ryder BB gun was available beginning in 1938 and for many years afterward (and indeed, still is), but never in the exact configuration mentioned in the film. The Daisy “Buck Jones” model did have a compass and a sundial in the stock, but these features were not included in the Red Ryder model. The compass and sundial were placed on Ralphie’s BB gun but on the opposite side of the stock due to Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) being left-handed.
The film was written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. Shepherd provides the movie’s narration from the perspective of an adult Ralphie, a narrative style later used in the dramedy The Wonder Years.
Which is exactly why I always ascribed to Fred Savage and Peter Billingsley an adult intelligence and wisdom that is developmentally unlikely for their ages as child stars. But I couldn’t help myself. The kid from Sandlot too. They just sounded so smart.
You simply cannot swing your arms without hitting someone who has run in to this guy at the grocery or the library or a blindfolded furry party. By all accounts he is a rad dude, but I need to say, Enough with the accounts. We get it: he is a man, who is affable and does not have yellow eyes, and he prefers haricorts verts to cut green beans. No, please, continue to regale me with your riveting story of how you briefly encountered a person who exists. He likes puppies? No way. How about oxygen, does he breathe it? He does?
Aw, I’m fronting. I’d totally tell you if I met him. Unless it was at a blindfolded furry party. What happens at Paws Off* events stays there. Except the staph infection. That, unfortunately, comes home with you. Sorry.
In 2008, two fans from Canada released a fan film documentary that visits every location used in the movie. Their film, Road Trip for Ralphie, was shot over two years and includes footage of the film makers saving Miss Shields’s black board from the garbage bin on the day the old Victoria School was gutted for renovation [to be converted in to a women’s shelter], discovering the antique fire truck that saved Flick, locating all the original costumes from the movie and tracking down the real-life location of the movie’s Chop Suey Palace in Toronto.
I don’t really feel the need to catch you up on what all the cast members are up to these days, because it seems like the news outlets run a “Where are they are now” story on the A Christmas Story cast, like, every single December. But you can easily look it up, some of the stuff is pretty fun.
In the meantime, Merry Christmas and may all your holiday wishes be granted! Try not to shoot your eye out.
*Rejected blindfolded furry club names:
•Bad to the Boner
•Call of the Wild (I know, not even funny, right? now you see why it was rejected)
•Charlie Sheen’s house on Wednesday nights
Got any more?