Weekend Film Recommendation: A Christmas Story

I am on holiday break this week, so I re-run a prior yuletide film recommendation that should please the whole family. Merry Christmas everyone!

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”

Some mediocre films earn a reputation as American Classics entirely because the producers and marketers (or the critics and other members of the chattering classes) have so declared them, and the rest of us are cowed into submission. But sometimes a movie attains this status honestly by slowly accruing a devoted following because it really deserves one. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, this week’s holiday film recommendation belongs in the latter, honorable camp: A Christmas Story.

Amazingly, when it was released in 1983, A Christmas Story was shown in less than a thousand theaters and was outgrossed by such mediocre cinematic products as Two of a Kind and High Road to China, as well as an utter stinker by the same director, Bob Clark (Porky’s II: The Next Day). But it became more and more popular each year on television (Thank you, Ted Turner), such that you can’t find many people today who don’t smile at the memory of this warm and funny film.

The remarkable talent behind this movie about a boy’s overwhelming craving for a particular Christmas present is Jean Shepherd, who co-wrote the script based on his novel “In God we trust, all others pay cash”. He narrates recollected events as an adult while 12-year old Peter Billingsley, as his younger self (“Ralphie”), gives one of the funniest performances by a child actor in cinema history. Billingsley’s gestures and expressions coupled with Shepherd’s wry narration are a match made in comedy heaven. Added laughs come from Daren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as Ralphie’s very human parents. Both are solid actors who also fortunately look like real parents (in Hollywood today, the parts would likely have gone to a rap star and a supermodel).

The film charms because it pokes fun at children’s capability for silliness (e.g., Ralphie’s rich fantasy life) yet also respects their capacity for earnestness (e.g., It *is* a breach of etiquette to go straight to a triple dog dare without an intervening triple dare). Though sweetly nostalgic about childhood in some ways, the film does not overly romanticize it: A Peter and the Wolf-esque subplot features a fearsome bully named Scut Farkas.

The film was shot on location in Cleveland (standing in for Shepherd’s hometown of Hammond, Indiana) and its production design, art direction, costume design and set decoration evoke the period achingly well. It is hard to think of a better moment in which this tale could have been set than during all-too-brief, comparatively innocent interregnum after The Great Depression had waned and before the horrors of World War II had begun.

A Christmas Story holds up very well under repeated viewings, as the countless people who will watch it again this holiday season will attest. So gather with the kids on the sofa and sit back and enjoy this marvelous piece of Americana.

p.s. Look fast for Jean Shepherd as a customer in the department store scene.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.