“A Christmas Story should be remembered as a small film that had a very large impact.” – Caseen Gaines, author of A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of A Christmas Story, the humorous and now-classic Christmas-themed film based upon the writings of Jean Shepherd and directed by Bob Clark (Black Christmas, Porky’s).
Featuring Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Darren McGavin (Kolchak: The Night Stalker) and Peter Billingsley (The Dirt Bike Kid) as Ralphie, A Christmas Story opened in theaters across North America 35 years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with a trio of historians and pop culture authorities who discuss the film’s enduring appeal. [Read on here...]
The participants are (in alphabetical order)….
Eugene B. Bergmann is the author of Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd (Applause, 2004). Bergmann’s other books include Rio Amazonas (Xlibris, 2001) and (as editor) Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, & Boondoggles (Jean Shepherd, Opus, 2013). His blog is Shepquest: The World of Jean Shepherd (shepquest.wordpress.com).
Thomas A. Christie is the author of A Righteously Awesome Eighties Christmas (Extremis, 2016). Christie has written numerous other books, including The Spectrum of Adventure: A Brief History of Interactive Fiction on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Extremis, 2016), Mel Brooks: Genius and Loving It! (Crescent Moon, 2015), The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Crescent Moon, 2013), The Christmas Movie Book (Crescent Moon, 2011), John Hughes and Eighties Cinema: Teenage Hopes and American Dreams (Crescent Moon, 2009), and The Cinema of Richard Linklater (Crescent Moon, 2008). His latest book, Contested Mindscapes: Exploring Approaches to Dementia in Modern Popular Culture is due for publication later this month from Extremis. He is a member of The Royal Society of Literature, The Society of Authors and The Federation of Writers Scotland. He is online at www.tomchristiebooks.co.uk.
Caseen Gaines is the author of A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (ECW Press, 2013). Gaines is a high school English teacher and co-founder of the Hackensack Theatre Company. His other books include The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History (Insight Editions, 2017), We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy (Plume, 2015), and Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon (ECW Press, 2011), and he has also written for The A.V. Club, Decider, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. He is online at www.caseengaines.com and on social media @caseengaines
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think A Christmas Story should be remembered on its 35th anniversary?
Eugene B. Bergmann: A Christmas Story is a well-deserved, perennial favorite for holiday viewing. It’s a very funny, clever, and, indeed, pointed commentary on the life and ways of kids. It also comments on the way Christmas has been so heavily co-opted by movies and our society as a whole. For these reasons A Christmas Story deserves a permanent place in American culture. It comments on our gift-oriented way of life, and it does its commenting in a subtle/funny way. Not only as Ralphie goes about promoting his BB gun desires, but as narrator, Jean Shepherd, comments while the family opens its Christmas morning gifts – he says their response is “unbridled avarice,” not the most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The film should be recognized as a major expression of Jean Shepherd’s legacy. Those reading the opening titles will note four of them devoted to Shepherd: the film is based on his works; the incidents depicted come from his book of kid stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash; Shepherd co-wrote the film’s script; the voice throughout, of Ralphie as a grown-up, is that of Jean Shepherd.
Thomas A. Christie: I think there’s a good reason why A Christmas Story still enjoys such an esteemed reputation thirty-five years after it first appeared in cinemas, and that is the fact that it captures so perfectly the careful balance between wistful nostalgia for a bygone age and the actual realities of family life with all its idiosyncrasies and occasional absurdities. As the narrator perceptively points out, Christmas is the epicenter of any kid’s year, and we see all the trappings of youth being expressed in larger-than-life terms as though they were high drama. Though the movie may be set in the 1940s, it says so much about childhood that is universal that anyone from the early eighties could easily relate to it, and the characters were so genuinely likeable that even now they are fun to spend time with.
Caseen Gaines: A Christmas Story should be remembered as a small film that had a very large impact. The movie really is a series of vignettes of everyday life, but something about that simplicity made it so universal to everyone who saw it. When you think about the movies that really make a big splash today, they’re filled with special effects and major movie stars. The beauty of A Christmas Story is while, yes, writer Jean Shepherd and director Bob Clark had major successes prior to this film, and yes, several of the actors were very well-known at the time it was released, the enduring beauty of the movie lies in its story and accessibility. Who doesn’t know what it feels like to want something and consistently be told “no”?
Coate: Can you describe what it was like seeing A Christmas Story for the first time?
Bergmann: I didn’t see it when it opened in 1983. When I caught up to it soon after Jean Shepherd died in 1999, I failed to sufficiently appreciate it, but as my family and I have watched it every year since, as broadcast by Turner for 24 hours straight starting Christmas Eve, I’ve come to enjoy it a lot. My wife and I laugh at so many of the funny bits even though we’ve seen them so many times and know just when and how they are about to appear again. That’s how well done this film is.
Christie: It seems strange to believe now, given how enduringly popular A Christmas Story has been in the United States, but here in Britain it didn’t make all that much of an impact when it was first released. In the UK, arguably the best-remembered Christmas movie of 1983 was John Landis’s Trading Places – ironically, a feature that isn’t really considered to be a Christmas movie at all by most critics in the US. But though I didn’t see A Christmas Story until the film was around twenty years old or so, it had by then enjoyed such a stellar reputation within American popular culture that so much of its content was already familiar – Flick getting his tongue stuck to an icy flagpole, Ralphie’s titanic battle of wits with Scut Farkus, and of course Mr. Parker’s infamous “leg lamp.” So the film’s rock-solid cult following came as no surprise.
Gaines: I remember seeing A Christmas Story for the first time and thinking it was actually a very old movie, not made in 1983! I grew up loving the original Our Gang (Little Rascals) comedies, and thought there was a very similar energy to the movie. The flag pole scene was, of course, incredibly impressionable. I had heard of that rumor before seeing the movie, but never actually seen someone fall victim to it. As a black kid in suburban New Jersey, one might not think the film would strike such a strong chord, but it really did. I saw so much truth in all of those characters.
Coate: In what way is A Christmas Story a significant motion picture?
Bergmann: Many people respond to the film with nostalgia, but a perceptive viewer will see that it expresses a sensitive and witty view of the world of kids, families and holidays. It also presents Jean Shepherd’s overall philosophy of life – note that every scene (as we laugh at them all) is somehow a disaster: poor Flick with his tongue stuck to the pole; the dogs snatching Christmas turkey; the longed for BB gun nearly shooting Ralphie’s eye out, etc. The film’s director, Bob Clark, noted that A Christmas Story is “…an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.” Jean Shepherd hated nostalgia. As the dogs go tramping toward the kitchen’s Christmas turkey, past the oblivious father, narrator Shepherd, presenting his ironic philosophy, says, “Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”
As much as I and millions of others can appreciate the nostalgic aspects of the film, one should note that the metal sign that appears sideways and to which Ralphie attaches his BB gun target, is the cause of the ricochet that nearly shoots his eye out – the dastardly sign, proclaiming a long-gone product and era, is emblazoned with the lovely scripted words: GOLDEN AGE. I strongly suspect that – as all we viewers sigh in the warm glow of nostalgia during the ending, that sweet conclusion of mom and dad watching the snow fall and Ralphie in bed embracing his dangerous BB gun – that warm glow was probably mandated by the film studio as the only way to commercially end a story about Christmas.
Gaines: A Christmas Story is a significant motion picture because, somewhat ironically, it shows the power of radio and television. The stories that make up the film largely come from Jean Shepherd’s radio broadcasts and short stories, and it was by listening to the radio that Bob Clark first fell in love with Shep’s characters and childhood experiences. The movie really wasn’t a success when it first hit theaters, but thanks to cable television and the still-ongoing Christmas marathons, the movie found an ever-increasing audience. About as many people who watch the Super Bowl each year tune in, at some point, to the annual marathon. That’s fascinating.
Coate: In what way was Bob Clark an ideal choice to direct A Christmas Story, and where do you think the film ranks among his body of work?
Christie: Bob Clark had already made a huge contribution to Christmas cinema in the form of the wonderfully atmospheric Black Christmas in 1974 – a movie which became a cult classic for entirely different reasons, effectively launching the Christmas horror as a whole new subgenre and paving the way for films like Christmas Evil (1980) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Naturally A Christmas Story is a world away from the shadowy suspense of Black Christmas, and the sense of sheer warmth, nostalgia and childhood innocence make it about as far removed from Clark’s earlier work as it was possible to imagine. So in that sense, Clark demonstrated considerable range in presenting this diametrically opposed rendering of the festive season in comparison to his earlier work. It seemed appropriate, given his diversity as a filmmaker – lest we forget that this is the same director who brought us Breaking Point (1976), Murder By Decree (1979) and Tribute (1980), to say nothing of the raucous Porky’s (1982). Intriguingly, of course, Clark’s ill-fated attempt to recapture the magic of A Christmas Story in its belated sequel, It Runs in the Family (1994), was an object lesson in the futility of trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
Gaines: Bob Clark was an ideal choice, but you may not realize it based on his previous films at the time of A Christmas Story’s release. He truly understood what made those stories connect with the audience and, most importantly, he had this uncanny ability to draw great performances out of his actors and make moments that we’ve all seen in our everyday lives seem like a revelation on screen. Porky’s is obviously a very popular film of his, but it’s no surprise that when he passed away, most of his obituaries mentioned A Christmas Story first and foremost among his body of work.
Coate: Where do you think A Christmas Story ranks among Jean Shepherd’s body of work?
Bergmann: Because the film encapsulates many of Shepherd’s ideas and humor in a form that millions enjoy, it’s valuable. A Christmas Story is the most visible and popular work of Jean Shepherd. His most ardent enthusiasts consider it a very good piece, but not his best claim to fame and the appellation “genius.” That belongs to his decades of improvised monologues and story-telling on radio that influenced aspiring young intellectuals of New York and surrounding territory. Slyly funny on his broadcasts, he taught us to observe, think, and appreciate American culture and the immensely quirky and delightful humanity around us. We listeners are indebted to him for helping to make us more perceptive observers of our world. For example, Jerry Seinfeld, in his “Season 6” DVD sets of his television show, commented, “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”
Coate: Where do you think A Christmas Story ranks among Christmas-themed movies?
Bergmann: I’m not a good judge of how it ranks among Christmas-themed films because I’ve only seen tiny bits of a couple of the many recent ones – I suspect they’re no better than the average, mindless sitcom. I love A Christmas Story and I avoid the rest.
Christie: Certainly within the canon of Christmas movies throughout the 1980s, A Christmas Story can hold its head high. After a long wilderness period throughout the 1960s and 70s, where there was comparatively little in the way of Christmas-themed cinema (with most of the prominent festive features appearing on TV at the time), suddenly the genre burst back into life in the eighties, and by appearing early in the decade A Christmas Story is now closely associated with this renewal in public and critical interest. It may not have enjoyed the huge publicity of Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), displayed the gleeful subversiveness of Gremlins (1984) or the dark humor of Scrooged (1988), but its good-natured take on what it means to be a child during the tortuously long build-up to the festive season – having to impatiently endure school when all you can think of is the allure of opening Christmas presents – has cemented itself into the public consciousness for good reason. Certainly the movie’s regular marathon screenings over Christmas are understandable, given the way in which it has so successfully established itself across generations as a firm favorite with audiences.
Gaines: Christmas movies are so personal to so many people, so everyone will have a different answer to that question, but I clearly think A Christmas Story is one of the most significant Christmas-themed movies of all time. No other film that I know of has an annual 24-hour marathon, and let’s be honest, when you can make a sexy leg lamp and a Pepto-Bismol-colored pink bunny suit symbols of Christmas, you’ve done something right! It’s easy to turn a movie like Elf into a holiday classic; all the elements are there. But A Christmas Story is so beautifully honest and simple, and subversive at times, it’s great to see the legs the movie has had – pun fully intended!
Coate: What is the legacy of A Christmas Story?
Bergmann: The film’s popularity has resulted in a yearly-produced stage play in scores of towns, a musical Broadway production, many theme products, and the “A Christmas Story House” where parts of the film were made and where visitors can tour a recreation of the film house’s interior. There’s a popular book of reprinted A Christmas Story-related tales and a major behind-the-scenes, illustrated coffee-table book. Those are part of the legacy, but there’s also the importance of Shepherd as its creator.
For me the film’s legacy is that it may forever be by far the most prominently known vessel of Jean Shepherd’s world. As fine as it is, Shepherd deserves more recognition in America’s pantheon of creative forces. For those who care to hear his radio voice, one can find hundreds of complete broadcasts on the Internet – free or cheaply for sale on eBay and elsewhere. Acquire them so that at night, when the cares of the world are shoved aside, relax, open your sensibilities, and absorb the unique and always unexpected commentary by ol’ Shep. (One never knows what quirky mix will ensue.) Maybe he’ll tell a story, maybe he’ll comment on the passing scene, maybe he’ll describe his trip to headhunter country of Peru’s Amazon when he helped deliver 500 pounds of Luden’s cough drops to the natives, or maybe he’ll expertly render a little ditty on nose flute, Jew’s harp, or kazoo. Or maybe he’ll knock out a tune by thumping his knuckles on his head.
Long live Jean Shepherd and his A Christmas Story.
Christie: Fittingly enough, for a movie that is so closely associated with nostalgia, A Christmas Story has benefited from audience fondness of its backwards-looking recollections of the golden age of Christmas cinema in the 1940s and 50s as well as now being affectionately remembered by any children of the eighties who grew up with the film at the time. Thus its evocation of what it means to be a child in the approach to Christmas has never lost its relevance, just as its refusal to present too rose-tinted a view of family life (we see many of the disappointments as well as the joys of youth) feels commendably fresh given the occasionally saccharine tendency that the genre has to idealize hearth and home. As the narrator Ralphie himself wistfully admits, there would never be another Christmas quite like the one we see in A Christmas Story, and I’m sure that statement is true for many of the movie’s fans as well.
Gaines: A Christmas Story is proof that low-budget, small-scale movies can stand the test of time. It is such a testament to Jean Shepherd’s ability to recapture his youth into words, and Bob Clark’s ability to communicate that on screen, all through great performances. No one who worked on that film thought we would be talking about it 35 years later, but now everyone involved knows that 35 years from now, it will still be entertaining new generations of fans. That’s a legacy to be proud of.
Coate: Thank you – Eugene, Thomas, and Caseen – for sharing your thoughts about A Christmas Story on the occasion of its 35th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Los Angeles Times, MGM/UA Entertainment Co., MGM/UA Home Video, Warner Home Video. Thomas A. Christie author photo by Eddy A. Bryan.
- Michael Coate