Merry Christmas!!: A Look Back at "A Christmas Story"

Photo Credit: MGM/UA Entertainment Company

Merry Christmas!!: A Look Back at "A Christmas Story"

Rating: R (violence and language)
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 1983
Directed by: Bob Clark
Genre: Comedy / Family

"A Christmas Story" has grown to become one of America's favorite holiday films for a variety of reasons. On many lists of the best holiday films, it topples even Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" from its long-held number-one position. One reason surely has to do with exposure, which has as much to do with business matters as it does with the quality of the film. Because its rights were acquired by Turner Broadcasting, the film got repeated television airings in the late '80s and early '90s. This helped establish it as a holiday tradition.

Of course, other things also helped it become an American classic. Most of these reasons have to do with the nature of the film itself, including the elegant simplicity of its plot and the connotations of the story not only in regard to the holiday season but also relating to the very essence of the American dream. The protagonist, Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, as a boy), like all great American heroes since Ahab, is obsessed. In the opening scene, he sees a Red Ryder BB gun in a department store window and decides he must have it for Christmas. Even his fear of objections from cautious adults about a boy possessing a gun doesn't stop him from following his dream. He resorts to dissimulating tricks at first; he starts inserting torn ads for the BB gun in between the pages of his mother's favorite magazines. Later, he sublimates, writing what he considers to be a masterpiece essay about his longing in his class at Warren G. Harding Elementary School. He expects his essay to make his teacher, Miss Shields, swoon with admiration at his eloquence and passion. When all else fails, he goes directly to the top and pleads his case with Santa himself at the local department store. Unfortunately, all his attempts are doomed to fail, because the adults all respond with the same refrain: "You'll shoot your eye out, kid."

Ralphie is a sappy romantic type, however, and the voice of the older Ralphie (Jean Shepherd) who narrates "A Christmas Story" is as grandiose about the importance of the quest as Ahab is about seeking vengeance on the white whale. The American dream simplified to a little boy's Christmas wish is what makes this movie hilarious at every turn. Lest viewers miss that point, director Bob Clark beautifully weaves in the subplot of the lamp. Ralphie's father, known only in the narration as the Old Man (Darrin McGavin), receives a mysterious box from his employer as a prize for outstanding work. The family happily pries open the wooden box and pulls at the shipping stuffing to discover a lamp in the form of a female leg in fishnet stockings. To the horror of Ralphie's mother, his father proudly displays this tawdry piece of mock Americana right by the front window for all passersby to see and admire its beauty. The Old Man continuously loses in his hand-to-hand combat with the old furnace, filling the house with the echoes of his cursing, and he cannot prevent the neighbor's dogs from wolfing down his family's Christmas dinner. In spite of this, he can admire the lamp and see it as a symbol of some victory, however vague, and he can indulge his son's dangerous passion and get him the thing he most longs for—a Red Ryder BB gun. Ralphie immediately takes it in the back yard and proves the other adults all correct. The gun ricochets when he shoots it and knocks off his glasses, leaving him momentarily blind.

In the end, though, the attainment of his dream has made the quest worthwhile, and he and his brother sleep peacefully on Christmas night, clutching their gifts. Their world is imperfect; school yard bullies still need to be dealt with, the message to decipher from the spy kit that has taken months to collect from the breakfast cereal boxes is nothing but an ad for the company, and Christmas dinner has to be at an empty Chinese restaurant. However, on a deeper level, all is right with the world, as Ralphie says.

Part of the magic of this film is that near the end, the viewer is made to feel that even though the lamp and the BB gun are illusions that can never quite live up to what they represent in the imagination, they are still worth holding onto no matter how ridiculous it may seem at times. In that sense, maybe this vision of the holiday is more in keeping with the times than Capra's vision of the good deeds that make a life invaluable. In "A Christmas Story," it is the sincerity and intensity of the longing that counts, and such a thing is more deeply personal than Capra's communal vision.

Rating: 4 out of 5