Sometimes a movie-maker really gets it right and produces a film for all time. It requires a brilliant script, a dream cast, a gifted director and an outstanding photographer and technical staff. Put them all together and you can produce magic. Bob Clark and Gene Shepherd did just that in The Christmas Story. All the more surprising when you realize that Bob Clark had also produced the Porky's movies.
It's hard to say that A Christmas Story is better than It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra's masterpiece with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Wonderful Life has always been one of my favorite movies. Good ole George Bailey was an example for us all. How could anyone resist someone who had gone through so much undeserved hard luck to triumph in the end? Stewart himself considered it to be his favorite movie. Even so, I found it increasingly difficult to watch it as time went by. The movie was incomplete. I kept wanting to see George and Uncle Billy pay a visit on Old Mr. Potter to get their money back.
Apparently I wasn't the only one. Saturday Night Live once had a great skit that dealt with just that. In the black and white vignette, George and Billy storm Potter's house and dump him out of his wheelchair to make him produce the cash. I know that George never would actually do such a thing, but I still enjoyed seeing it happen. As great as the the cast and story were, though, what I always liked most about the movie was the setting. The old cars and storefronts and the inside of the Bailey House always brought back warm memories of the way things were when I was a kid.
Bob Clark created the same effect in A Christmas Story, which was set in 1940s Gary, Indiana. From the first shot, with the children standing in wonder in front of a department store toy window, I was transported back to my childhood. My folks would bring me downtown to see the toys in the Dayton's Department store window. I was dazzled. I remember I had to wear a clunky snow hat, but I never pressed my nose against the store window, I was too afraid of germs, but boy did I take my time taking it all in.
Ralphie's house was right out of my neighborhood, too. We had a breakfast nook and didn't eat at a table except on special occasions, but the rest of the kitchen was the almost exactly the same. It was great to see the old appliances again. My earliest childhood memory was of a Tide box and sure enough, there it was sitting on Mrs. Parker's counter. My Dad didn't swear, so he wasn't like Mr. Parker, but I sure knew men in the neighborhood who were like the character Darrin McGavin played. And my mother was as sweet as Melinda Dillon, Ralphie's mother. The school looked exactly the same as Cooper Elementary, where I attended. Ralphie's machinations to get a bb-gun were similar to the lengths I went to get a pair of Roy Rogers cowboy boots. The only difference was, I never got them. I had talked Grandma into buying them for me, but my Mom stepped in and messed up my plans. I really knew deep in my heart that Grandma couldn't have afforded to spend the $15 to buy them.
Ralphie and his friends talked exactly the same way I remember us talking. I never issued a triple-dog-dare, but I sure knew what it meant. I even remember someone sticking their tongue on an iron railing. We even had a neighborhood bully like Skut Farkas. His name, believe it or not, was Clem Klingelhut. Funny and sweet as the movie was, there was enough vinegar to keep it from cloying. The mean Santa Claus and his slide were one of the high points of the entire show.
My son and I watched the movie together, laughing all the way through. I immediately started talking it up to all my friends and even treated one of my customers to dinner and a viewing. None of them had heard of the movie, but all of them agreed it was one of the most enjoyable movies they had ever seen, and mostly for the same reasons that I liked it so much. Most of them wouldn't go so far as to say it was better than Wonderful Life, but I thought so. It was far less depressing. And I didn't leave the theater wishing mean old Mr. Potter hadn't gotten away with his evil deed.
John Anderson is a giant fan of nostalgia, a movie buff from his earliest ages. He is also the author of The Cellini Masterpiece, published under the pen name of Raymond John. He welcomes any qeustions or comments and has the first chapter of his novel at http://www.cmasterpiece.com.