24 holiday hours of Ralphie, The Old Man, and the leg lamp? Bring it on!
By Andy Dehnart
Repetition can sometimes kill otherwise great material. A song with a catchy beat and interesting lyrics can lose its punch after being overplayed, and or replaying movies can reveal their flaws over time. A lot of great pop culture can become predictable and lose its power once it’s been viewed, read, or listened to multiple times.
However, the reverse is true of “A Christmas Story,” the now-iconic film that captures cross-generational, near-universal mixed feelings about the holidays.
In fact, even after more than a decade of 24-hour Christmas eve and day marathons on television, repeated viewings of the film actually make it stronger.
The now-beloved but initially ignored 1983 film has its 25th anniversary this year, and TBS will once again air it for 24 hours straight. TNT started that tradition 11 years ago, and sibling network TBS eventually picked it up. In other words, “A Christmas Story” is viewable simultaneously as the holiday it attempts to deconstruct unfolds.
One of the advantages to its 12 consecutive broadcasts, which start at 8 p.m. on Dec. 24 on TBS, is that watching individual scenes is often just as satisfying as watching the whole film. Of course, that’s difficult to do without having seen “Christmas Story” from start to finish a few times, which is an absolute requirement. Without that, Jean Shepherd’s brilliant narrative (adapted, as was the screenplay, from his books) and Bob Clark’s engaging direction aren’t quite as obvious.
What’s so remarkable is how relevant their material remains, despite the fact that the film was produced a quarter-century ago and its story is set in the 1940s, more than 50 years ago.
How does a film set in the midwestern 1940s invoke nostalgia not only for those who remember that era, but even more significantly, work just as well for those who were born 50 years later and have never even visited the Midwest? That’s the film’s true magic, as “A Christmas Story” and its characters connect to universal, unchanging attitudes toward the holidays and family, never mind friends, bullies, school, and commercialism.
Reveling in the reality of being nine
The film does not over-idealize Christmas; instead, it revels in the reality. This is not some fantasy about the idyllic nature of anything, including what it’s like to be nine.
From relatives who give terrible Christmas presents (the hideous pink bunny suit) to crass attempts at marketing (the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring), from dealings with the school bully to his little brother’s constant presence in his life, poor Ralphie’s life is not exactly easy.
That the story adopts Ralphie’s point of view is a critical choice that makes a significant difference. At nine, he’s just on the edge of childhood wonder, where skepticism is growing but not yet enough to crush the magic of the holiday. And that’s something kids and adults alike can identify with, regardless of their age or how jaded they’ve become.
The now-legendary danger associated with Ralphie’s desire for an “official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle” is both real and a ridiculous adult overreaction, and the fact that adults declare it in such an immature way (“you’ll shoot your eye out”) makes that point flawlessly. Likewise, everything from Ralphie’s visit to the department store Santa to his interaction with his teacher are tainted with the unnamed recognition that something’s not quite right with adults, but they still hold power in his world.
The adults in the film are viewed through Ralphie’s eyes, but they’re also fully formed, realistic people, not the mere stock characters of lesser holiday films. The characters in “A Christmas Story” are familiar enough to have become archetypes, but they still avoid being caricatures.
Ralphie’s dad swears, makes irrational arguments, pretends he’s right even when he’s obviously not, and doesn’t communicate well with his wife. The scene where he receives his “major award” is hysterical (“fra-gee-lay”) and yet devastating, as he clings to some form of affirmation even when it’s revealed to be absurd.
Ralphie’s mom is passive-aggressive (the demise of the leg lamp is the best example), babies her kids, and says and does what she thinks she’s expected to, even as she realizes the absurdity of it all.
“A Christmas Story” pulls all of that together to construct a family that comes together in the final act. Its ending turns farce into such gritty realism that the Parkers’ dinner feels more authentic than other cinematic holiday dinner scenes. Of course, no place except a Chinese restaurant would be open on Christmas day; and they wouldn’t have turkey; and the ridiculousness of it all would cause the whole family to devolve into laughter instead of tears.
That’s why the film has such obsessive fans; there’s something here that is relatable even as it’s ridiculously entertaining. It’s easy to want the Parkers’ lives, because they manage to be both screwed-up and perfect.
Why else would the Parkers’ house now be a Cleveland, Ohio, tourist attraction with a museum of artifacts from the film located across the street? Why else would people by replicas of that awful, ridiculous lamp? And why would two fans have produced a documentary, “Road Trip for Ralphie,” that follows them as they visit all of the filming locations and uncover artifacts from the production?
Clearly, people connect to “A Christmas Story.”
That’s not true of all holiday films, which follow a familiar template now, as nearly every holiday season brings movies that attempt to make holiday dysfunction heartwarming and fun.
Such movies are sometimes successful in the short term, but it’s hard to imagine, say, “Four Christmases” being replayed in 2033, or having its sets visited by tourists. They’re too limited, too quick to ring familiar bells and not worry about the quality of their sound.
“A Christmas Story,” on the other hand, is perfectly orchestrated, at once celebrating, deconstructing, and transcending the holiday movie.
That’s the gift that Jean Shepherd, Bob Clark, his cast, and now TBS — never mind Ralphie and the Parkers — have given for years, and now multiple times every year.