How ‘A Christmas Story’ became the ultimate holiday movie

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Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

Every week, “A Christmas Story”
Released Nov. 18, 1983
Directed by Bob Clark

Melancholy and cynicism have become two nearly essential elements in any holiday movie, so how exactly did “A Christmas Story” become the top modern classic without either?

The modest family comedy about Ralph “Ralphie” Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy dreaming of a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle, continues to stand out in a sea of Christmas movies that multiple and reproduce faster than rabbits in heat. “A Christmas Story” is easily the most beloved holiday movie in the modern era, and its only peer is the Frank Capra classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but while the latter is steeped in melancholy, the former covers itself with childhood nostalgia like a warm blanket on a cold winter night.

Adapted from the book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film as an adult Ralphie), the film chronicles Ralphie’s childhood winter adventures in the suburbs of Chicago just before World War II. “A Christmas Story” lacks a traditional narrative, and instead uses its time with a series of vignettes involving the Parker family, loosely connected together by Ralphie’s desire to obtain his beloved Red Ryder air rifle. Ralphie lives with his younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), his mother (Melinda Dillon), and his father, the Old Man (Darren McGavin), all of who portray their traditional roles in the family. The Old Man reads the paper and swears, Mom makes dinner, the little brother is a tag-along, etc.

Throughout the movie, Ralphie plots various ways to convince the adults in his life, including his Mom, teacher, and department store Santa, to give him the Red Ryder, only to be met with the dismissive, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” One of the keys to the endurance of “A Christmas Story” in our culture is a child’s anxiety and fear over losing out on their favorite Christmas toy, an instantly relatable problem that crosses all demographics from age 9 to 99.

Mixed in with Ralphie’s quest is several other vignettes depicting his childhood, including dealing with bullies, swearing in front of his parents, and being entranced by his favorite programs. There’s a surprising amount of “A Christmas Story” that has nothing to do with the holiday itself, as all of these stories mentioned above could have taken place at any point during the year. Including these stories within the movie does deepen the life experiences and situations involving a young boy, further connecting Ralphie to children watching the movie. While the story is set about 80 years ago now, the sketches of life devised by Shepherd remain timeless in nearly every instance.

Upon its release, “A Christmas Story” had some modest success at the box office. It was only the top box office release once in its second week, a Thanksgiving weekend against weak competition like “Amityville 3-D,” which came out a few weeks after Halloween. Nonetheless, “A Christmas Story” grossed less than $20 million upon its initial release. A re-release in 1984 added little to its lifetime earnings.

And yet, the film began drawing an audience during replays on cable. I recalled first seeing “A Christmas Story” on one of the premium film channels in my home in the mid-80s, at almost the same age as Ralphie was in the movie. Despite the more than 40 years difference, I found Ralphie to be immensely relatable as I walked to school in a snowy suburb of Buffalo, NY, getting into fights, and pining for my own “Red Rider,” the original release of the Optimus Prime figure from Transformers.

Clearly, a lot of kids found Ralphie relatable. Many adults did too. The children who first encountered “A Christmas Story” upon its release are now parents, and the film has become a multi-generational favorite. Its power over us continues to echo and amplify as we age, given the movie’s conceit of an adult looking back on his childhood. Now I’m of a generation who watches “A Christmas Story” as a parent, finding common ground with the Old Man and Mom, but also still seeing myself in Ralphie as I recall the events of my own childhood 30 years ago, as I sit next to my daughters, enraptured by the dreams of a little boy. One movie that echoes over an entire lifetime.

Replays of “A Christmas Story” moved to regular cable networks, including the ones owned by Turner Broadcasting. A decade after its original release, the film saw multiple airings on Turner stations around Christmas. By 1997, Turner station TNT began airing “A Christmas Story” again and again in a 24-hour marathon from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. It’s still unheard of a network to devote an entire day to a single movie, and yet the marathon proved to be a massive success for the network as it has become an annual tradition that continues to this day.

It’s easy to see why the movie would be so successful with the marathon, as the film’s “slice of life” structure allows viewers to simply leave the television on in the background while they celebrate the holiday, peeking in once in a while to catch their favorite scenes. It’s all sugary content and warm feelings too.

The only other holiday movie that remains this beloved is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s a movie that I only watched as an adult, and that’s probably best, as it’s also a story about a life that is at turns bittersweet and filled with regret. It’s a Christmas movie made by adults for adults, and we need the wisdom and knowledge that can only come from making countless decisions that alter the course of our lives. It is a gift, but a melancholy one.

The gift of “A Christmas Story” is that it looks back to a time before we were forced to make so many decisions, to the only one that mattered: What we want for Christmas. Its lack of cynicism is refreshing and joyful, a film in which allows us to forget our troubles for a few hours and cleanse the palette of our souls.

If you had any doubt, just look at the eyes of the Old Man when Ralphie unwraps his last present. He remembers his childhood fondly too.

The Weekend: Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and box office activity begins to really pick up again as several high-profile studio releases drop weekly from now until Christmas. This particular weekend is notable for the debut of several films that went on to achieve massive success.

This week saw the release of Disney Plus, and given its dominance at the box office this year, it’s hard to remember a time when the company wasn’t at the top of the entertainment industry. However, the studio had a series of failures in its famed animation division in the 80s up until the release of 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” The surprise hit not only sold millions of tickets for Disney; it revitalized the division to become a powerhouse animation studio in the 90s.

One year later came the story of another family during the Christmas season, except this one left the young son at the house. 1990’s “Home Alone” became a massive hit thanks to director Chris Columbus, writer John Hughes, and the charm of its young star Macaulay Culkin.

Meanwhile, the James Bond franchise saw not one but two high profile debuts this weekend. Pierce Bronson suited up in the iconic tuxedo for the first time in 1995’s “Goldeneye,” which is generally regarded to be the best of the Bronson era and even spawned a hugely popular video game spinoff. Over a decade later, after Bronson’s time as Bond came to an end, Daniel Craig was handed the baton for 2006’s “Casino Royale,” which rebooted the entire franchise for the better. It’s my personal favorite of all the Bond films.

Finally, one more franchise bowed for the first time this weekend in 2001. The highly anticipated “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was released to the delight of millions of fans, becoming the first film to top $90 million in its opening weekend.

Next Week: “Toy Story”

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on November 14, 2019.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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