r853-26bIs this film available for rent on Netflix Instant and/or through the iTunes Store? A Christmas Story is not available on Netflix Instant, but it is available on the iTunes Store. 2013 is the film’s 30th Anniversary so I expect there to be a special edition blu-ray/DVD to be released around the holidays. However, considering that TBS plays this movie every year, including playing it on a 24-hour marathon, it is probably unnecessary to own the film unless you want to see it at any time other than the holidays.

There is no argument. A Christmas Story is the greatest Christmas movie ever made. Better than Miracle on 34th Street. Better than It’s a Wonderful Life. Better than Home Alone, Elf, and even Bad Santa, which is another favorite holiday movie of mine. Why A Christmas Story? To even ask such a question is to invite scorn and ridicule. However, I recognize the fact that not everyone has been blessed with the gift of having seen this perennial classic or to possess the insight to recognize how wonderful this movie is. What makes A Christmas Story stand out from other Christmas films is that 1.) it doesn’t have a convoluted fantasy plot involving some high stakes scheme that Santa Claus must stop in order to save Christmas; 2.) its straight-forward premise of a kid wanting something particular for Christmas and be willing to just about do anything within his/her power is relatable by just about anyone (to clarify, ‘anyone’ only applies to people living in industrialized, first-world countries); and 3.) the film avoids being saccharine and beating your head over with the message of Christmas or some other moral parable. Simply put, A Christmas Story is a down-to-earth, realistic and lovingly rendered portrayal of childhood set apart from the complexities and hardships of life.

Christmas Story Pic 1Based on semi-autobiographical short stories contained in Jean Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, A Christmas Story is the story of nine-year old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), who desires nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock. Ralphie uses various schemes to get his wish, but he continually runs into obstacles that prevent him from realizing his wish.

A Christmas Story represents story pacing at its best. Operating on a low-budget, Bob Clark (Porky’s), the film’s director, efficiently uses his limited resources to immediately establish the film’s time period (1930’s), location (fictitious Indiana town that was actually shot in Cleveland and Toronto), and Ralphie’s Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB gun. From there we immediately witness Ralphie’s first of many schemes to make sure he will get the gun for Christmas. The film continues for its duration without missing a beat and without wasting a frame to give us unnecessary scenes. I dare anyone point to one single slow scene. The reason for this is that the film contains very little exposition. Bob Clark clearly had the skills to avoid exposition and instead tell his story entirely through action.

Christmas Story Pic 2There is such a wonderful sense of innocence conveyed in A Christmas Story and it achieves what so many family films struggle unsuccessfully to pull off: to portray the world from a child’s perspective. With very few and very brief exceptions, the entire film takes place in Ralphie’s world, with his daydreams being the most overt example of this. Although we see plenty of the adults in Ralphie’s world (e.g. the teacher and his parents), they mostly appear only when interacting with the children. Even the voiceover narration by an adult Ralphie (Jean Shepherd) recounts what Ralphie was thinking when he was a child.

Speaking of the narration, an integral part of A Christmas Story is Jean Shepherd’s comforting, down home eloquent voice that contributes to the Americana/Norman Rockwell texture of the film. Voiceover narration is not a commonly used device in screenwriting and is usually looked at with apprehension by screenwriters. A good screenplay shows the action rather than explain it to the audience so voiceover narration is viewed as an antithesis to action. However, the film finds the perfect blending of Shepherd’s narration with Peter Billingsley’s performance so that Shepherd really serves as the voice in Ralphie’s brain, with Ralphie acting in response to the voice. In fact, Billingsley does not have a whole lot to say in the film and Shepherd instead provides Ralphie’s dialogue. Billingsley gives such a wonderful understated performance without dialogue that its almost a shame he didn’t live during the silent film era.

Christmas Story Pic 3(pictured on the right is director Bob Clark) Despite the fact that A Christmas Story is told from a child’s point of view, the strongest and most interesting characters in this film are not Ralphie, his younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), or his friends. This distinction goes to the parents, who are played by the incomparable and late Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), arguably the best film mom ever. The crusty “Old Man” role was originally offered to Jack Nicholson, but due to the high fee the studio would have to pay him, the role instead went to McGavin. I cannot imagine anyone else playing his role as good or better than what McGavin brought to the screen. He is the quintessential old school dad who loves to swear, has a hard shell on the outside, and a soft heart on the inside. The most unforgettable moment in A Christmas Story is when Ralphie discovers the BB gun hiding all wrapped on Christmas morning and watching the dad watching his son opening and loading the gun. It is such a touching scene that just thinking about it makes my eyes well up.

Christmas Story Pic 4As for the mom, Dillon brings small touches of humor to her role in almost unnoticeable, but very effective ways. At the same time, she imbues her character with a motherly warmth that is best displayed in the scene that takes place shortly after Ralphie’s fight with the bully. Ralphie is afraid that his father will find out he had a fight after his mom tells him, but instead, Ralphie realizes for the first time that his mother is also his best friend and confidante when she decides to not tell his father. It is a beautiful scene as we sense Ralphie’s realization about his mother.

One of the funniest scenes in the film takes place at the end and its one that would NEVER get made today due to its un-political correctness. If you have seen the film, then I probably do not need to tell you it is the Chinese restaurant scene. In the scene, the family’s Christmas turkey has been destroyed by the neighbor’s bloodhound dogs. With every restaurant being closed on Christmas, the family decides to dine at the only open restaurant – a Chinese restaurant. The waiters do not speak English well and they pronounce the “La la la’s” in Jingle Bells as “Ra ra ra.” The family clearly finds all of this to be hilarious as they can barely contain themselves from bursting out laughing. The scene is still very funny despite its un-PCness.

Christmas Story Pic 5(the man on the left is narrator Jean Shepherd) A Christmas Story is a film of kids for kids (when a scene deals with Ralphie using the F word, then you know it’s a film about kids that every kid will relate to) that will also easily be enjoyed by adults. Its appeal lies in just how much we can all relate to the stories in the film. Although its called A Christmas Story and it is set during the Christmas season, Christmas merely serves as a background to an exploration of the post-war American nuclear family. This is perhaps why, more than anything, we can identify so much with A Christmas Story and why it has become a timeless classic.

On a final note, if you count yourself a fan of A Christmas Story and just happen to be in the Cleveland area, you can visit the house the film was set and shot in. The house has been restored and been turned into a museum. More information is provided by clicking on the following link:

http://www.achristmasstoryhouse.com

I have also provided a link to the aforementioned scene I described when Ralphie opens the gun. It is a remarkably acted scene by Darren McGavin:

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