How “A Christmas Story” Came to be…
The movie A Christmas Story is arguably one of America’s favorite holiday films. Over the years, this modest little movie has grown into a Yuletide perennial.
The movie “A Christmas Story” might never have been made had it not been for another, decidedly less reputable comedic creature – “Porky’s.” That’s right. One of the most beloved holiday movies largely owes its existence to an infamous, unabashedly crude teen comedy.
In the late 1960s, “A Christmas Story” director Bob Clark was driving to a date’s house when he happened upon a broadcast of radio personality and writer Jean Shepherd’s recollections of growing up in Indiana in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Clark wound up driving around the block for almost an hour, glued to the radio until the program was over.
“My date was not happy,” Clark said, but he knew right away he wanted to make a movie out of the stories, many of which first appeared in Playboy magazine and were collected in Shepherd’s 1966 book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”
Clark’s adaptation, however, didn’t happen overnight. At the time, he was a journeyman director who specialized in low-budget B movies. For years Clark tried to find a studio to finance the film. But none were interested. Nevertheless, Clark held on to his ambition to bring Shepherd’s stories to the screen, and, in 1981, he directed Porky’s. Which became a hit at the box office. Suddenly he had some clout to bargain with. In the wake of that hit the studio wanted a sequel to Porky’s. Clark agreed to make a sequel if the studio agreed to let him do “A Christmas Story” first.
The modestly budgeted little comedy opened in 1983 the week before Thanksgiving on fewer than 900 screens. The film took in about $2 million its first weekend and double that Thanksgiving weekend – solid business for the time. The movie was getting strong word-of-mouth support. But, MGM hadn’t counted on the movie receiving much success and did not schedule distribution to more than the opening screens for the lead up to Christmas.
Thus A Christmas Story disappeared from theatres. Abruptly elbowed into the theatrical void by the bigger seasonal studio movies of the day, most notably Scarface and Christine. Ultimately, A Christmas Story collected about $19 million at the box office. It was a good showing, but not great.
At the same time, however, home video and cable television were just beginning to grow in popularity, and A Christmas Story crept into the mainstream through videotape and cable broadcasts. The rights to the movie were sold in 1986 to Warner Bros. by MGM as part of a 50-movie package deal. In fact, MGM practically gave the movie away when it tossed A Christmas Story into the deal in order to simply meet the 50-movie quota agreed to. The cable network TNT first aired its 12 showing, 24-hour marathon as a stunt in 1988, but popular demand turned stunt into tradition. The annual marathon (now aired on TBS) starts every Christmas Eve and attracts more than 40 million people who tune in at some point to watch. A Christmas Story is now one of the most popular holiday movies of all time earning a place along side “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
A Christmas Story Trivia Fun Facts
Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash”, which “A Christmas Story” is based on, is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories that Shepherd wrote for “Playboy” magazine during the 1960s.
The character Scut Farkus, played by Zack Ward, was created specifically for the movie, and never appears in the book. In the book, Grover Dill is the only bully who torments Ralphie. The setting for the movie was based on Hammond, Indiana the home town of author Jean Sheperd. Sheperd grew up on Cleveland St and went to Warren G. Harding Elementary School. Just like Ralphie.
The movie was actually filmed in Cleveland, Ohio and Toronto, Ontario. The house from the movie is located just outside of downtown Cleveland and the Higbee building still stands in downtown Cleveland. The Christmas tree shopping scene and many of the inside shots of the house, were filmed in Toronto, Ontario . One of Toronto’s trademark red trolleys can be seen driving by the shot of the outside of the tree lot. Ralphie’s school exteriors were filmed at Victoria School in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.
To find an American city resembling an Indiana town of the 1940s, director Clark sent his location scouts to twenty cities before selecting Cleveland, Ohio, as the site for filming. The decision to film in Cleveland was due to the willingness of Higbee’s (an actual department store) to allow the movie to be filmed inside the store.
In addition to providing the voice-over narration, writer Jean Shepherd had a cameo appearance in the movie as a grouchy department store customer who tells Ralphie to go to the back of the Santa line.
Director Bob Clark has a brief cameo appearance as Swede, the Parker family’s dim-witted neighbor with a southern-accent who stops to marvel at the leg lamp from across the street.
The role of Mr. Parker, Ralphie’s father, was originally offered to Jack Nicholson, who reportedly was interested in playing the part. Director Clark, however, lobbied hard for Darren McGavin. The producers, worried about Nicholson’s typically large salary requests, eventually approved McGavin.
Yano Anaya, who played Grover Dill (the toadie), appeared in only two other films but is probably best known as the evil paperboy with the war cry, “Two dollars!” in the 1985 John Cusack comedy, “Better off Dead.”
For the scene in which Flick’s tongue sticks to the flagpole, a hidden suction tube was used to safely create the illusion that his tongue had frozen to the metal.
Author Jean Shepherd’s concept for the “major award” leg lamp was based on a real lamp: an illuminated Nehi logo. The style of the leg lamp for A Christmas Story was created by production designer Reuben Freed who had never before seen or heard of a leg lamp. Three leg lamps were made for the movie and all were broken on set during the filming.
The Radio Orphan Annie decoder pin that Ralphie receives is the 1940 “Speedomatic” model, indicating that the movie takes place in December, 1940. Different decoder badges were made each year from 1935-1940. By 1941, the decoders were made of paper due to World War II metal shortages.
Some of the “snow” used during the scenes between the kids and the bullies was actually soap flakes and fire fighters foam. The stars later remarked that they were slipping and sliding during the filming of the scenes.
An elaborate fantasy sequence – in which Ralphie joins Flash Gordon to fight Ming the Merciless – was filmed but dropped from the final cut. Picture of this scene and the costumes used in it are on display at A Christmas Story House and Museum.
A Second fantasy sequence involving Blark Barts men was cut from the film in favor of the back yard fantasy sequence. The deleted sequence involved Ralphie rescuing Santa from Black Bart’s men while Santa is stuck in a chimney. Little brother Randy (in disguise) played one of Black Bart’s men in the scene. His costume from the scene is on display at A Christmas Story House and Museum.
The film was released just before Thanksgiving and became a surprise hit. By the time Christmas rolled around, the movie had already been pulled from most theaters because it had been “played out”. After complaints were lodged at the theater owners and the studio, the film played on select screens until after the first of the year 1984.
A Christmas Story” Inspired the creation of “The Wonder Years” television show.
Prior to “A Christmas Story,” Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie, gained fame as a correspondent for the variety show “Real People.” He also played Messy Marvin in Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup commercials. Peter is now a producer often working with his close friends Vince Vaugh and John Favreau. His credits as a producer include: Iron Man and The Break Up. He often appears in cameo roles in the movies he produces.