'A Christmas Story' Story

  Jean Shepherd's Hammond holiday tale finds a loyal following

  Wednesday, December 24, 1997

  By Sean Callahan
  Staff Writer (Chicago Daily Southtown)  
Look out, George Bailey, here comes Ralphie Parker - and he's got a BB gun. "It's a Wonderful Life," the classic film about good guy George Bailey, used to dominate the airwaves at Christmastime. It was like a fruitcake: sweet and unavoidable around the holidays. But when the copyright to that Jimmy Stewart gem was renewed a few years ago - removing "It's a Wonderful Life" from the public domain - a new holiday classic emerged as the lovable workhorse of yuletide TV. "A Christmas Story," a piece of masterful comic silliness about 9-year-old Ralphie Parker's quest for a BB gun, will air 14 times this week. Based on humorist Jean Shepherd's memories of growing up in Hammond, Ind., the movie will air on Turner Network Television a dozen straight times in 24 hours beginning at 7 p.m. tonight. "We realize 'A Christmas Story' has really become over the past 10 years the new Christmas classic," proclaims Lisa Mateas, a TNT executive, "A lot of people really like this movie, and I'm going to tell you that they didn't see it in the theater; they saw it on television." "A Christmas Story" earned a disappointing $19 million at the box office in 1983. Bob Clark, the director of the movie, believes the film was poorly marketed because studio executives thought "A Christmas Story" was a kids movie. "This guy Jean Shepherd is a sophisticate," Clark says he told the executives. "He had a radio show on WOR (in New York), he writes for the Village Voice and Playboy. He gives sold-out lectures at Princeton and Stanford. This story is on another level. The movie has a sardonic, different twist on the idea of Christmas." Set in the Midwest of the 1940s, the story follows Ralphie and the fate of his Christmas wish for a Genuine Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Lightning Loader Range Model Air Rifle with a Shock-Proof High Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial Set Right in the Stock. Ralphie makes his desire known to his mother, his teacher and even Santa Claus. These authority figures give the boy the same response: "You'll shoot your eye out." Around the lowbrow comedy of Ralphie's mock epic quest for the BB gun, Shepherd wraps a high-brow satiric look at the American family. Ralphie's father - known as "The Old Man" and played by Darren McGavin - is often portrayed as a lovable oaf. His wife, Mrs. Parker, is portrayed as, well, long-suffering. Their major clash in "A Christmas Story" concerns The Old Man's "major award," a garish, garter-belted woman's leg lamp, which he proudly displays in the front window - to Mrs. Parker's horror. She eventually gets her way, "accidentally" smashing the offending lamp to bits. "I always pictured the Old Man as Kolshak," Shepherd said in 1983, recalling McGavin's "Nightstalker" TV character who hunted down vampires. "But this time something really terrible had happened to him - he's married and has two kids." "A Christmas Story" is arguably one the first loving looks at the dysfunctional family, and its influence could be seen later in "Roseanne," "Married With Children" and "The Simpsons." "A Christmas Story" eventually found a second life on video and TV. Repeated viewings have allowed aficionados to savor the movie's finer points. Fan Web sites devoted to the movie and to Shepherd testify to the grass-roots appeal of "A Christmas Story." Marching in step with the main storyline of Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun quest is a parade of humorous vignettes and comic characters. The movie's delicious digressions include Ralphie's friend Flick being "double dog dared" to stick his tongue on a frozen metal pole, an incident that ends with a call to the fire deparment. There's also Ralphie's seemingly endless wait for the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring he sent away for. When the ring finally arrives, Ralphie breathlessly decodes the secret message, which is a "crummy commercial" that reads, "Be sure to drink more Ovaltine." And then there's the time Ralphie utters the "queen mother" of swear words, which gets his mouth washed out with soap and earns him the ire of The Old Man, who, despite his goofiness, appears to his son as a terrifying, larger-than-life figure. In the end, however, it seems The Old Man was the only one paying attention: For Christmas, he gets his son the Red Ryder BB gun he so desperately wanted. Of course, Ralphie promptly pulls the trigger on his "peacemaker" and nearly shoots his eye out. This kind of sardonic, hard-edged humor is a trademark of Shepherd, who not only receives credit as a screenwriter but also as the movie's narrator. Shepherd's rich radio voice, tinged with equal parts satire and affection, comments on the film's action and characters. He is an adult looking backward but still empathazing with a child's skewed and exaggerated view of the world. "It," Clark says of Shepherd's narration, "was the key to the movie." A typical example: As Ralpie writes a prosaic essay on what he wants for Christmas - closing with the kicker, "A football is not a very good Christmas present" - Shepherd's narrator ironically intones, "Ah, the words flowed as never before." Shepherd's narration also adds to The Old Man's battles with a stubborn furnace, skirmishes that are punctuated with "tapestries of obscenity." "Some men worked in oils," Shepherd declares. "My Old Man worked in obscenity." Clark, ever antagonistic of Hollywood executives, contends that the studio types wanted to cut the narration completely. "They were telling me, 'No one has done narration in 10 years,'" Clark says. "'The form is dead; it's gone. Movies move; they don't talk.'" Clark takes no small satisfaction in noting that many subsequent productions have relied on narrators, most notably "The Wonder Years." Many feel the TV series borrowed heavily from Shepherd's style. Shepherd honed his narrative approach on his overnight radio program, which aired on WOR in New York City beginning in the mid-1950s. On the air he perfected his tales about The Old Man. Shepherd's gift is the knack for turning the idiosyncratic into the universal, and that, say his fans, is why "A Christmas Story" has quickly become a classic. "The universal appeal," says Bob Kaye, a New York jazz musician who began listening to Shepherd in the late 1950s and created a Web page devoted to him, "is that he's dealing with the basic human condition: about wanting to be with the family, about wanting a present, about the horrors of being in school, about the double dog dare, about the fantasies of Indians coming in and saving the whole family with the BB gun. "He got a lot more of what kids were like than anyone I've heard." McGavin agrees that "A Christmas Story" has won fans because its emotions are genuine. "Because it's true," McGavin says, explaining the movie's popularity. "It's really the way it happened. People stop me on the street, and they say, 'You're just like my father was.' And I know these kids. I wanted a BB gun, too." Just before the movie hit the theaters in 1983, Shepherd offered his own explanation of why he hoped that "A Christmas Story" would appeal to many generations. "I set a lot of my stories around rituals - Christmas, Easter, the prom," he said. "Times may change, but the rituals don't. I think that's why my books are still popular with kids today. It doesn't matter if I write about sending in for a Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. The kids today identify with the ritual of sending in for something, anything. It's the same with a BB gun. Nowadays it might be a video game that kid wants for Christmas." Clark says he also knew "A Christmas Story" had a timeless quality. "When I was making the movie," he declares, "I fully intended to make a classic. Whether I did or not, well, I'm not making that claim." There are plenty of others to do that - McGavin for one. "I think it will last for the next half century," the actor predicts. "It says, 'That's the way people lived then,' moreso than any spectacular special effects film. It's true. That's the way it was."
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