"A Christmas gift gone awry"

One of the mainstays of holiday movie viewing each December is the unpretentiously named, A Christmas Story, the adventures of Ralphie Parker and his quest for the “Holy Grail of Christmas gifts,” the Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle. A BB-gun, in other words. The film doesn’t please everyone. It’s about a gun, after all, a politically incorrect gift in many quarters these days and understandably so. There is also bullying (courtesy of Scut Farkus and Grover Dill) and, of course, the infamous fishnet-stockinged leg lamp, which the narrator describes as “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.” And it was, after all, directed by Bob Clark, whose previous claim to fame was a tasteless (but wildly popular) teen sex romp titled, Porky’s.

No matter. After a slow start finding an audience in 1983, it caught on in a big way. Now it is revered. The house on “Cleveland Street” where it was filmed became a shrine for the movie’s devoted pilgrims, and the setting for this year’s sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas, on HBO Max, starring Peter Billingsley, the actor who portrayed Ralphie 40 years ago.

I’m a fan of the original, despite my aforementioned qualms, but I’ve always felt that most of the film’s fans do not fully appreciate the true reason for its success: Jean Shepherd. 

If you’re not familiar with Shepherd, look him up on Wikipedia. It’s quite a story because Jean Shepherd was quite a character. His fans consider him one of America’s great humorists. Shepherd co-wrote the script and served as the film’s narrator (as the adult Ralphie looking back). He also had a cameo as the stranger at Higbee’s department store who informs Ralphie and his brother Randy where the line to see Santa begins (“all the way back to Terre Haute”). 

The script is based on Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, about his childhood growing up in Hammond, Indiana (he was born in Chicago). The writing is terrific — one critic described it as “oh-so-drolly exaggerated.” It has an edge and doesn’t over-romanticize middle-class American life, as Christmas movies tend to do. Without that narration, the film would have long-ago been forgotten.

Because Jean Shepherd never fully received his due — and as my present to all of you — here are some of my favorite lines from A Christmas Story. Enjoy.

Kids clustered around a storefront window in the opening scene: “Christmas was on its way, lovely glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolved. Higbee’s corner window was traditionally the high-water mark of the pre-Christmas season. First-nighters, packed earmuff to earmuff, jostled in wonder before a golden, twinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy.”

Mom’s BB-gun block: “I struggled for exactly the right BB-gun hint. It had to be firm but subtle. ‘Flick said he saw some grizzly bears near the candy store.’ They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. I could tell I was in imminent danger of overplaying my hand. … Maybe what happened next was inevitable. ‘Ralphie, [Mom said], what would you like for Christmas?’ Horrified, I heard myself blurt it out. … ‘No, you’ll shoot your eye out.’ Oooh, it was the classic mother BB-gun block, ‘You’ll shoot your eye out.’ That deadly phrase, uttered many times before by hundreds of mothers, was not surmountable by any means known to kiddom. … Mothers know nothing about creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen, where only you and you alone stand between your tiny huddled family and insensate evil.”

One colorful father figure: “Some men are Baptists, others are Catholics. My father was an Oldsmobile man. … My old man was one of the most feared furnace fighters in northern Indiana. … In the heat of battle, [he] wove a tapestry of obscenity that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

Warren G. Harding School playground etiquette: “‘Oh yeah? Well I double-dare you!’ 

“The exact exchange and nuance of phrase in this ritual is very important. 

“‘Are you kidding? Stick my tongue to that stupid pole? That’s dumb.’ 

“‘That’s cause you know it’ll stick. … Well I double-dog dare you.’

“Now it was serious, a double-dog dare. What was left but a triple-dare-you and the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog dare.

“‘I triple-dog dare ya!’

“Hmmm. Schwartz created a slight breach of etiquette, skipping the triple-dare and going right for the throat.”

The old man, upon opening his ‘major award’ (the notorious leg lamp): “The old man’s eyes boggled, overcome by art. The snap of a few sparks, a quick whiff of ozone, and the lamp blazed forth in unparalleled glory.”

Suffering a flat tire on the way home from buying a Christmas tree: “Actually, my old man loved it. He always saw himself in the pits at the Indy Speedway in the 500. [His] spare tires were only tires in the academic sense. They were round; they had once been made of rubber.”

Ralphie getting his mouth washed out with soap: “Over the years, I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference was for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice piquant after-dinner flavor, heady but just a touch of mellow smoothness. (Pause) Lifebuoy, on the other hand … Yuck!”

Telling his mother where he learned the word “fudge” (he didn’t say “fudge”): “Now I had heard that word at least 10 times a day from my old man. My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium, a master.”

In line to see the jolly old elf at Higbee’s: “The line waiting to see Santa stretched all the way back to Terre Haute, and I was at the end of it. … Let’s face it, most of us were scoffers, but moments before zero hour it did not pay to take chances.”

Finally getting to Santa’s lap: “My mind had gone blank! Frantically, I tried to remember what it was I wanted. I was blowing it! 

“‘How about a nice, uh, football?’ 

“Football? What’s a football?”

Putting up the tree as all the lights go out: “The old man could replace fuses quicker than a jackrabbit on a date. He bought ’em by the gross.”

After the Bumpuses’ dogs from next door invade the kitchen and devour the Christmas turkey: “The heavenly aroma still hung heavy in the house, but it was gone, all gone! No turkey, no turkey sandwiches, no turkey salad, no turkey gravy, turkey hash, turkey ala king, gallons of turkey soup, gone, all gone!”

I won’t spoil the ending for you.

Jean Shepherd died in 1999. He did write, and narrate, a sequel in 1994 (also directed by Bob Clark) titled, It Runs in the Family, with Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen as the parents and Kieran Culkin as the older Ralphie (by 11 years). And now we have this year’s A Christmas Story Christmas, with the original Ralphie but without Jean Shepherd’s wonderful words, which, as Shepherd says in the original film — when Ralphie is assigned to write a school theme about what he wants for Christmas — “Oh, rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity!”

Have a merry, alliterative, and most Charitable Cherishable Christmas.

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