Not just the best Christmas film, but one of the best films ever made. It’s a comedic masterpiece performed by an outstanding cast, but its success actually derives from the fact that at its core the film is about a family that loves each other and perseveres together. Sentiments that perfectly match the holiday.
With the slasher-film Black Christmas and the raunchy teen-sex comedy Porky’s on his resume, director Bob Clark would seem an unlikely candidate to have created a beloved family film, but his source material was Jean Shepherd’s, the film’s narrator, brilliant writings about growing up in Indiana from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. The two men worked together on the script for ten years and the hard work is evident as the language is sheer poetry.
In the fall of 1983, A Christmas Story came and went quickly. It began to get airplay in the late ’80s/early ’90s on cable. Then in 1997, the film made the transition from cult hit to mainstream holiday classic as TNT began airing a 24-hour marathon starting on Xmas Eve, a tradition that continues this year.
I used to have a videotape of it and would watch it with the fellas during my Xmas Eve parties. It seemed like a film only our circle knew about. Even though TNT had already been running the marathon, I never fully understood its widespread appeal until a 20th Anniversary screening of the film in 2003.
Held at the Edward Big Newport Theatre with Clark and the main cast sans Melinda Dillon scheduled to attend, the event was a benefit for the Marine Corps Toys For Tots campaign, so admittance cost one new toy. People began lining up four hours before the doors opened and even though the theatre held 1,100, over 1,500 showed up. A later screening was set to quell the angry latecomers.
This appeared to be the first event of its kind for A Christmas Story because the place was a madhouse. Fans looking for autographs mobbed the actors at nearly every turn. The actors appeared surprised to find themselves the focus of Beatlemania-level adoration, yet all were very gracious.
The most poignant moment of the evening was the introduction of Darin McGavin, who played Ralphie’s father, known as The Old Man. He sat in the last row of the theatre. He was still recovering from a recent stroke and appeared weak and frail. His handlers understandably kept autograph hounds and picture-takers at a distance. During the opening Q&A, McGavin was introduced and received a standing ovation. Buoyed by the audience, he straightened in his seat, pulled himself up, and acknowledged the outpouring of affection. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
As the familiar scenes of Ralphie’s pursuit of the Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle despite the grown-ups’ protestation that he’ll shoot his eye out, of Flick getting his tongue stuck to the flagpole after being triple-dog dared, of The Old Man winning a major award (the leg lamp) due to his brain power played out on the screen, it was amazing that watching and laughing at A Christmas Story with 1,500 new friends made the film even better.
Clark had lobbied the studio to re-release A Christmas Story for years, but the small-minded executives didn’t agree. If they had been there that evening, they would have seen Clark had been correct about the potential. Hopefully, Clark’s dream will come true as Ralphie’s did and the film will return to the big screen.