By John H. Foote
Maybe it is the strange familiarity of A Christmas Story that hits home. Each year I watch the film a few times before Christmas Day. I do not know why the film has such a profound impact on me. It takes place in the late 50s, when I was born, so my early Christmas memories are not far from the narrative of the film itself. My siblings are close in age, four kids born about a year apart (my parents were insane), so Christmas morning was wild. Add to the mix my father’s parents, to whom we were very close being their only grandchildren, and there was a lot of love in that house.
Events in the film feel like they are ripped from my memories of the days leading up to Christmas morning. Convincing one of the kids at school to touch their tongue to a steel pole, and the ensuing hell that came with it, the school yard bully, four years older, a giant to me, who I eventually clobbered with my father’s metal lunch box after hitting my breaking point, sending him bloodied and screaming to the front of the bus and home to his father. I recall the long endless line to see Santa, and inevitably dealing with some strange kid in line who did not understand the concept of blowing their nose or was just some other kind of freak we chose to ignore. By the time we got to him, Santa was bored and cranky and not really into asking what we wanted for Christmas.
And Christmas morning was sheer magic.
My parents were blue collar, so there must have been some tight years for them given they had a mortgage and four kids We never knew because the pile of gifts under the tree was extraordinary. We wanted for nothing. My father wasn’t a film scholar, but he loved movies, his imagination soared where other parents did not. And when his kids were attracted to the arts, he never once complained, never said “get a real job”. He supported our dreams as though they were his own. I remember him coming to see a production of The Cherry Orchard for which I was assistant director and the look on his face after the play told me he had slept through most of it. But he was there with my mom and my siblings and their significant others. When I directed on my own, my parents were always there, perhaps not understanding the significance of my role, but they were there. My dad is not unlike the father in this film, a great deal warmer affectionate (his greatest strength) but not so far removed from Darren McGavin’s “old man”.
My mother and grandmother spent most of the day in the kitchen preparing a feast, calling the men to cut the turkey when it was ready. We ate early, and by the time we had dinner, we had been up for hours. After dinner came the family nap, everyone finding a spot to recharge.
Fuses might blow and need to be changed, guests might pop in for Christmas cheer, chances are school friends would call to ask what our treasures might be, the house was busy.
These memories seem crammed into A Christmas Story, plunging me instantly back to a more innocent time. I am lucky to still have my parents, but my grandparents died nearly 40 years ago. I have been married, fathered two children whom I adore, but lost my wife to brain cancer nine years ago. How I long for the Christmas mornings of my daughters’ younger years.
A Christmas Story is such a warm and beautiful film. It sometimes feels like it is a dream, not quite real.
Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), the chubby cheeked, bespectacled oldest son of the family wants a BB gun for Christmas but is told over and over: “You’ll shoot your eye out kid!” He drops hints, he leaves full page ads in his mother’s magazines and even tells his teacher and Santa what he wants only to be met with the same response. Undergoing a change of sorts, Ralphie is figuring himself out, deciding what kind of person he wants to be. He takes no more from the local bully, beating him about the head and face as obscenities pour out of his mouth, witnessed by his mom. Yet a bond grows between him and his gentle mom when she does not tell “the old man”, a gruff but loving father who announces he has arrived him from work with the same words, “Boy I’m starving to death.”
The little brother Randy does not eat. He must be tricked into eating, which his mother solves by allowing him to eat his dinner like a pig, without utensils, giggling like a wild banshee while he ingests.
Christmas morning is pure madness, as Randy dives under the tree announcing, “that’s mine….no that’s mine” and Ralphie holds up hope for his beloved gun. Unbeknownst even to his mother, his father has bought him the gun and it is the last thing the boy opens with a near reverence. Watch his father’s eyes during this sequence, it is pure magic.
And of course, he very nearly shoots his eye out.
The film ends with the Christmas dinner being eaten by the dogs from next door, and Ralphie and his family go to the local Chinese restaurant where they are serenaded (horribly) by the staff and watch as a duck’s head is hacked off in front of them right at their table. It is a Christmas neither they, nor we, can forget.
A Christmas Story is beautifully directed by Bob Clark, and acted with meticulous beauty by Darren McGavin as the foul mouthed father, Melinda Dillon as the luminous mother, and Billingsley, picture perfect as the little boy mooning over a rifle.
A breathtaking, magical film about a young boy at Christmas.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.