Deep into its four-decade run, “A Christmas Story” – the nostalgia-laced movie featuring Ralphie Parker’s yuletide quest for a Red Ryder carbine action BB gun – has become a modern-day holiday classic.
TBS will keep with its long-running tradition this year, launching a 24-hour marathon of the film beginning on Christmas Eve at 8 P.M. Eastern.
Although the movie was released in 1983, and is set in pre-World War II Indiana, its origin dates back to the 1920s and the childhood of its writer and creator, Jean Shepherd.
“Shep,” as he was known to his friends and listeners, grew up to rule New York City’s evening radio airwaves between the late 1950s and mid-1970s. A colorful storyteller with a penchant for wild hyperbole, “A Christmas Story” was adapted from a chapter in a Shepherd novel, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”
The soothing, mellifluous narrator’s voice you hear throughout the film is Shepherd’s, but the arc of the movie is only semi-autobiographical. Yes, Jean grew up in Indiana with a brother named Randy. And yes, there was a Christmas when, much to the objection of his mother, a young Jean desperately wanted an air rifle, only to have its recoil break his glasses.
But if some of the best stories are full of lies that tell the truth, it’s not so much the accuracy of the particular incidents that matter and make us want to watch all or part of this popular film each year.
Instead, I think we’re drawn to the movie’s charm because it so accurately captures the anticipation and excitement of a child’s Christmas, along with all the imperfections and eccentricities of family life.
In fact, I don’t think the movie is really about the pursuit of a BB gun at all, but about something much deeper and far more significant.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Jean Shepherd, but we worked at the same radio station – legendary talker, 710 AM WOR in New York City. Jean’s 45-minute show each evening was something of an anomaly. On a station dominated and financially sustained by its long-run morning show featuring an ensemble cast, Shepherd’s show was a solo act – just a man and a microphone.
According to his engineer and producer, a married team of Herb and Laurie Squire, Jean arrived each evening with a pile of tattered articles and maybe a few notes – but no script.
“It was an amazing thing,” Laurie recalled. “He’d start telling a story and it would seem to go in all these different directions. But then at the end, he always brought it all together.”
Shepherd’s penchant for blending fact with the fantastical always kept his listeners on the edge of their seats, helping him build up a “faithful band of listeners,” according to Laurie.
I asked the Squires if Jean told the “BB gun” story every Christmas.
“No, that wasn’t the kind of guy he was,” Herb reflected. “He wasn’t predictable.”
It’s Not about a Gun
Viewers could be forgiven for thinking the whole plot and purpose of “A Christmas Story” is Ralphie’s creative lobbying and ultimate success in obtaining his much-desired rifle. From his inartful ask at the kitchen table, leaving an ad in his parent’s bedroom, a desperate plea to a department store Santa and, finally, an appeal in a school essay that falls flat to the mark of a “C+” – it does seem it’s all about the Red Ryder gun.
But it’s not. Look again.
The Parker family doesn’t revolve around Ralphie or Randy and their material desires. In reality, Randy does little more than whine, and Ralphie is something of a passive kid – conniving and calculating, but still more an observer than an offense playmaker.
No, “A Christmas Story” revolves around “Old Man Parker” – the family’s grumpy and grouchy patriarch.
It’s All About the Dad
As goes Mr. Parker, played perfectly by Darren McGavin, so goes the whole bunch.
Sure, it’s the somewhat frazzled mother (Melinda Dillon) who keeps the kids fed and clothed, and finally puts her foot down about the scandalous leg lamp in the window. But the family looks to the father to keep everything running smoothly and on the tracks.
No heat in the house? It’s not the mother who grapples with the furnace, but the dad, and in doing so, allows his temper to manifest in “a tapestry of obscenity that as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
As an aside, I’m certainly not suggesting a father’s profanity is acceptable or admirable. My mother used to call it the sign of a poor vocabulary. And while the dad’s profanity is cleverly concealed in unintelligible mutterings, unnecessary bad language is sprinkled all throughout the film.
Yet, when the father is excited about his “fra-gee-leh!” “major award,” so is everyone else. They revel in his accomplishment, even though they seem somewhat confused by the degree of elation over a leg lamp.
When the tire blows on the car, it’s the dad who changes it on the side of the cold and snowy highway.
When it’s time to shop and buy a tree, it’s the dad who negotiates like a shrewd “Arab trader.”
It’s not the kids or the mother who changes blown fuses – it’s the father.
We see him at the table, threatening to make his son eat or pontificating about the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. His kids clearly love him – but they also seem to have a healthy dose of fear surrounding him, too.
“The Old Man” seems like a guy’s guy, a hardscrabble sort who loves his family even when they exasperate him.
When the Bumpus’ dogs sneak into the house and destroy the family’s Christmas dinner, including the dad’s prized turkey, it’s Mr. Parker who makes an executive decision to take the family out to the Chop Suey Palace, the only restaurant open in town.
And when it comes to Ralphie’s strong desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, it’s the “Old Man” who quells his wife’s and his son’s mother’s fears that “he’ll shoot his eye out.” It’s the dad who buys the gun for his son.
The irreplaceable quality of a father
Good fathers are like that – they remember what it was like to be a boy. If mothers catastrophize, fathers can calm and sometimes defend boys to their mothers. Maybe that’s partly because it’s true and partly because a good dad enjoys reliving some of his childhood joys in the life of his own son.
Jean Shepherd lived to see his story become a holiday staple, touring the country and continuing to tell grand and glorious tales of his boyhood and beyond.
Herb and Laurie kept up with Jean in his later years, helping him start and run his own radio syndication operation, “International Jawbreakers” – a company they dreamed up over lunch at a Chinese restaurant. It was Herb who edited Jean’s shows down and helped distribute them nationally. Herb also rescued a closet of the radio raconteur’s old tapes at WOR.
Ironically, although Jean spoke freely and voluminously on air of his childhood and other adventures, he said very little of his current life and loves. His third and final wife, Leigh Brown, became a trusted partner in the last two decades of his life, helping him parlay his radio tales to the big screen and other television ventures.
But nothing lasts forever, and when Leigh fell ill and passed away in 1998, the once brazen and bullish storyteller seemed to lose his zest for life. The stories stopped, and the grieving took over.
When the Squires called on him one last time at his home on Sanibel Island, Florida, they found him, “a broken man, without bluster,” according to Laurie. Jean Shepherd passed away just a year later.
Jean’s voice and gift for storytelling lives on thanks to “A Christmas Story” – but I hope you’ll see it a little differently this year, and in the years to come.
It’s good to remember, especially at Christmas, that life doesn’t revolve around possessions or presents, but around people.
Fathers, even imperfect ones like “Old Man Parker,” set the tone and help keep families together through all the ups and downs of life. A good dad is far more powerful than any physical weapon. They’re devoted protectors and fierce defenders, heroes to emulate and examples to follow. They believe in us. They encourage us.
Hollywood rarely makes Christmas movies that delve into the true meaning of the holiday, instead focusing on all the secular trappings – even though many of those traditions, like gift-giving and even Santa Claus, have spiritual roots. “A Christmas Story” is no different, but intentional or not, the critical presence of the “father” theme nevertheless points observant and thoughtful viewers to a larger meaning well beyond one boy’s tireless pursuit of a Red Ryder BB gun.
The original “Christmas Story,” of course, is the ultimate “father” story – of a Heavenly Father who sent His only Son to earth in the form of a helpless baby. It’s a far more dramatic story than any radio host could ever spin, even one with as wild an imagination and inclination for exaggeration as Jean Shepherd.
Follow Paul Batura @PaulBatura or via email at [email protected]
Screenshot from YouTube