It’s amazing how Bob Clark’s little Christmas movie “A Christmas Story” has vaulted into full Christmas Classic status. Today everyone is familiar with the movie and it’s story of Ralphie and his endless pursuit of a Red Ryder BB gun. Everyone has their favorite moments and almost everyone has an opportunity to see it every holiday season. In fact, the TNT network dedicates 24 full hours to the film starting on Christmas Eve night and going through Christmas Day. But is this just a sentimental favorite or is it truly a good film? For me the answer is a loud and certain “BOTH”.
I couldn’t count how many times I have watched “A Christmas Story” and there is no doubt that I have a sentimental affection to it. But I also think that it is a tightly crafted story that’s masterfully told through some really good performances and snappy writing. It plugs right into the Christmas season but also looks at everything from childhood bullying to American family life in 1940. It sifts through different subplots but never strays too far from its main story. Better yet, it is genuinely funny. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments as well as hilarious lines that I can quote with ease. It’s the humorous sincerity that’s employed in every performance that makes it work so well. Even the narration by “Older Ralphie”, a tool that often times hurts a movie more than helps, works flawlessly here.
As I mentioned, everyone probably knows the story. Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is desperate for “an official Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”. He begins to strategize on the best way to get it for Christmas. He goes through his parents, his teacher, and ultimately the big man himself, Santa Claus. But a cloud of uncertainty keeps him from the childlike excitement that would come with getting such a great gift. His “Old Man” (Darren McGavin) is an old-school Oldsmobile man and Chicago Bears fan while his mom (Melinda Dillon) is the worried overly cautious mom that we all grew up adoring. Then there is Randy (Ian Petrella) who embodies everything that a little brother is. His buddies Schwartz (R.D. Robb) and Flick (Scott Schwartz) are typical school yard friends – lots of fun but not always dependable. All of these people and more are parts of Ralphie’s life that we get to enjoy but that may not help in his quest for the 200 shot carbine.
Back to the performances – everyone is simply great. Billingsley made several films as a child and was a recognized face during the 1980’s. This was easily his best role and best performance (Fun fact – he is a great little cameo as an elf in the Will Ferrell film “Elf”). But for me Darren McGavin steals every single scene he’s in and he offers the movie’s funnier moments. He completely sells the father character that fits perfectly in the period in which the film takes place. Plus he has several hilarious eccentricities that are side-splitting fun. And right alongside him is the calming force played by Melinda Dillon. The two perfectly compliment each other. There isn’t a bad performance in the entire film and director Clark utilizes every ounce of his characters.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy to sometimes dismiss Christmas movies as sentimental, seasonal mush. But this is a wonderful film that goes beyond the holiday label. It’s truly funny and intimately heartfelt especially in the third act and the script never falls into the traps of other Christmas movies. It’s a strikingly unique story that reminds us of the joys of growing up, experiencing family, and of those special Christmas’ that we will never forget. That’s a great formula for a holiday movie and one that I really appreciate.