By John H. Foote
Bob Clark’s warm, wonderfully nostalgic film A Christmas Story, has long been a classic, a staple of holiday film watching. The Canadian production, yes, it is a Canadian film, is among the finest films made in this country, an event when all the pieces fell perfectly together to give us absolute kismet.
I turned sixty this past May, and am officially (I suppose) a senior citizen.
This film takes place about five to ten years before I was born, but rings of my youth, very early Christmas holidays. Family was everything then, your siblings were your best friends and though you fought with them, no one else was permitted to lay a finger on them or say a word against them. Your father was your hero, his managing of foul language something to be awed by, while your mother was love, nurturing, though quick to whip out a bar of soap when you got busted for swearing. It was overall, a much simpler time. My memories of those early Christmas mornings are among the happiest of my life. When I married and had children of my own, my wife and I used to sit drinking coffee Christmas morning, busting for the girls to wake up. Never did they wake before seven am, as though a built-in clock kept me sleeping. My brothers and sister were up at dawn, four am one morning, before being sent back to bed. How I so my loved my children wandering out to see their gifts piled high, their stockings overflowing, the bounty of wrapped gifts even greater than before they went to bed the night before. Pure joy. And at the end of the morning, those little bodies in flannel Panama’s hugging me tight, thanking me.
The love and warmth within the home of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is like that, filled to the brim. We see the world through Ralphie’s eyes, we see and understand the countdown to Christmas morning where he hopes to receive a cherished Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun, though everyone tells him upon receiving such a gift, he will “shoot his eye out.” Ralphie schemes, he tries every trick in the book to put this feared weapon into the minds of his parents and Santa as the day draws closer.
School is a distraction helping the days pass where he hangs out with his friends. They double dare each other, even Double Dog Dare one poor soul to stick his tongue on a frozen steel pole (he does) but no one sees a thing. And there is Scott Farcus, the red-headed bully who beats up on his toady when there is no one else to push around. It is Ralphie who breaks the reign of terror Scott has held the schoolyard in, besting the hell out of the bully, who like all bullies is a coward at heart. When his mother pulls Ralphie off Scott, hearing the litany of swearing being yelled out by her son, Ralphie expects the worst, but not a word is ever spoken.
Christmas morning arrives, the dreaded pink bunny suit is opened tried on and taken off and with slight disappointment, it is all over with no BB gun, until Ralphie’s father draws his attention to a gift no one else saw, and we realize his dad who never appears to be listening, heard every word.
To fully explain the beauty and charm of the film is impossible, it must be seen to be experienced.
Billingsley is wonderful as Ralphie, a pitch-perfect performance from beginning to end, displaying a droll sense of humour in the dream sequences. Watch him close because it is a finely tuned performance, even breaking down the wall between the screen and audiences.
Darren McGavin was wonderful as the father, a blustery, bigger than life character who burst into the house after work every day with “hey, what’s for dinner? I’m starvin’ to death.” His youngest child exasperates him, and we wonder if he takes a role in their lives, but when that rifle magically appears, we realize he misses nothing and his love for his boys runs deep. His roaring at the furnace, the gibberish being a metaphor for salty language remains a highlight.
Melinda Dillon is a delight as the mom who never seems to get to eat a hot meal as she bustles around her kitchen, serving, trying to get Randy, the little brother to eat. The scene in which convinces him to eat like a pig is hysterical, proving like the father she is more aware than we realize. Her sly smile when the tacky leg lamp is “accidentally” broken is a comic delight.
And the ending, their dinner ruined, the father in a rage, they dine out. Perfect. Warm, so much love in that home. We should all be so lucky.
The greatest holiday movie ever made.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”