Is it too early for Christmas movies? Not if this weekend’s box office is any indication, with The Best Man Holiday giving Thor: The Dark World a run for its money. Also, it was pretty much this weekend 30 years ago that a little classic called A Christmas Story debuted in movie theaters nationwide. Today, Bob Clark’s beloved adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s autobiographical stories is a staple of the season. Back when it opened on November 18, 1983, however, it bowed in third place behind fellow newbie Amityville 3D and the ongoing hit The Big Chill. But it rose to first place in the following week, only to fall back down and eventually way out of the top ten by the very holiday in its title. More people saw Yentl on Christmas weekend that year than A Christmas Story.
As is the case with most holiday movie favorites, this one really gained popularity and became canon through cable television airings. Now, of course, it’s run on repeat in marathon form every December 24-25. Last year, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry, where it joined It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Like those movies, this is now almost as big a part of the holiday as visiting Santa and decorating the tree. For some people, it’s probably even inspired new annual traditions. I bet there are fans out there who have duck for Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant in honor of the movie.
There are so many memorable moments, partly because of the episodic nature of being based on multiple essays. I’m even going with double the usual number of scenes for this one because you have to do 12 for Christmas movies, and I’m still likely leaving out a few of your own favorites.
The Leg Lamp Arrives
For three decades now, it’s been impossible for me not to jokingly pronounce “fragile” as “frah-jeelay,” out loud or in my head whenever I see it. If you had Clark Griswold or any other movie dad misreading the stamp on a package like Darren McGavin does in this scene, you’d chalk it up to the character being an exaggerated idiot. Here, though, it’s probably quite plausible that the Old Man was undereducated. One thing I somehow never knew until now is that the leg lamp in that package, which he’s won in a sweepstakes, was based on ads at the time for the Nehi soft drink brand (as in “knee high”). More trivia: the neighbor the Old Man chats with outside is played by the film’s director.
“I Can’t Put My Arms Down”
Another piece of dialogue we quoted immensely growing up. Probably even when we didn’t have any appropriate reason. But certainly we’d say Randy’s whine whenever we got bundled up in our snowsuits, even though we actually could put our arms down. We also never had to wear snowsuits to school or out in public at all except when we were actually going to play in the snow or go sledding and whatnot. I feel bad for any of you who could never relate on some level to this bit.
Flick’s Tongue Sticks to the Flagpole
Who out there still isn’t sure if this can really happen? Well, it can, and you know there are tons of skeptics who’ve actually tried and found out the hard way. What I love about this scene is that it’s a good representation of kids being kids — particularly boys being boys — in the schoolyard, in a way that’s universal and timeless. It’s a kind of identifiable moment for youth that I don’t feel we had in the same way until The Sandlot came out.
Ralphie Beats Up Farkus
There are a number of scenes in this movie that play on childhood fantasies. There are actually literal fantasies portrayed, in fact. But what bullied kid has not especially cherished this scene when Ralphie can’t take the abuses of Scut Farkus and his toadie, Grover Dill, anymore and goes on the attack? Our little hero turns into an animal here, wailing on the older boy and swearing like a sailor. Good thing he doesn’t have a gun yet…
Who can remember the first time they accidentally swore in front of a parent or teacher or other authority figure? It’s pretty neat the way this movie can manage to have so much swearing in it and have that swearing be a significant issue, yet the actual words are censored in a way that doesn’t seem censored. Most family movies would try a similar approach and just come off as false for the sake of the audience and rating. The mumbled swears and the “fudge” replacement here feel natural for the tone of the storytelling.
Washing Ralphie’s Mouth Out
I don’t recall ever actually having my mouth washed out with soap. I bet by our time, soap didn’t taste nearly as bad as in the ’30s anyway. I enjoy this scene more for how Ralphie rats out his friend. I do recall doing that sort of thing, at least in more innocent sort of scapegoating. Fortunately, moms didn’t really go the next step and tell that friend’s mom, unless it was something really bad. I wonder if when Ralphie’s mom tasted the soap and realized how awful it was she also realized how awful it was to get Flick in trouble, too. After the clip below, you of course have to watch the “soap poisoning” fantasy, as well.
We think advertising is ridiculous now, but look at how companies were reaching kids 75 years ago. More than the fact that it winds up being a “crummy commercial” to “Remember to Drink Your Ovaltine” and how that relates to viral marketing of today, the secret decoder ring vignette now makes me think more of the disappointment we have with any sort of time-invested mystery programming. It’s like the let down of something such as the Lost finale. Clark shoots and edits this scene with such perfect tension that it doesn’t even need the added stress of Randy having to go to the bathroom. That just makes it all the more comical.
“I Like the Tin Man”
Before we get to the real Santa visit moment, we have to give isolated attention to this short bit while Ralphie is in line at the department store. I thought I was the only kid who was obsessed by the boy with the goggles and spent the last 30 years flatly quoting “I like The Wizard of Oz. I like the Tin Man” at any old random time. But everyone loves that boy and that line. Why isn’t the actor who played him, David Svoboda, more famous as a result? The character should have an action figure. Or an ornament. He and his popular line are on t-shirts, at least. Apparently Svoboda, not to be confused with the Czech Olympian, co-wrote the short film The Last Blow Job in 2001. If it is indeed the same guy (IMDb says so), you can watch his later work here, though you’ll need to know German to understand the dialogue.
Visit to Santa
Who else grew up envious of the set up Santa had at this department store? I was always too busy looking at the production design in this scene to even notice how mean the elves were. I just wanted to go down that slide. Seems pretty dangerous for unaccompanied children to go through this whole procedure, but that was the late ’30s and a lot of things were dangerous then. Little kids even got guns for Christmas.
Deranged Easter Bunny
We’d all get one present during the holidays every year that we hated, and yes it was usually from a distant relative. For me, it was usually just some awful board game I never wanted to play. I’d love to hear about anything worse than Aunt Clara’s gift to Ralphie, which is obviously supposed to be an exaggerated extreme. Thanks to Aunt Clara, we get to include this scene when we talk about favorite Easter scenes, too. Right?
Ralphie Actually Does Shoot His Eye Out
The twist: after all those people tell Ralphie he’ll shoot his eye out, he does just that. Fortunately, he wears glasses and it wasn’t too literal, but yes of course the 9-year-old kid hurts himself on his first use of the BB gun. That’s a great lie he tells, though, because I’d believe icicles are more dangerous than BBs, too. And in the end we all learn that lying works!
Chop Suey Palace
The movie ends on a sort of racist note with this scene in the Chinese restaurant. Ignore the caroling part with its cheap politically incorrect humor, though, and you forget that this is a memoir from another era. Cultural strangeness is funny to most people, even if that’s not okay. You don’t have to laugh at it, but accept that it’s not only played as comedy for the movie’s audience but it’s also just from the perspective of Shepherd. Anyway, the part with the duck “smiling” is worth spotlighting the scene alone.