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'Christmas Story' is no gift
Airdate: Wednesday - November 23, 1983


Last Update: 11-18-2014

Show Description
The ads for "A Christmas Story" didn't seem to promise much: a Norman Rockwell-type drawing whose compositional elements (Melinda Dillon, Darrin McGavin, Peter Billingsley and a fireplace) formed the shape of a star, with the cast members all sporting puzzled looks on their contorted faces. Big deal. Another silly comedy. Then I perused the credits. Hmmm ... Written by- ... JEAN SHEPHERD! Fan-TAS-tic! Got to catch this flick! Obviously, if you're not familiar with Jean Shepherd or his work, you might be a little confused at my delirious excitement. Shepherd, best known for his prosaic, poetic observations on growing up in 1940's Indiana ("that great inverted bowl of darkness"), generated, these childhood memories into a few bestsellers ('In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash") and infrequent television movies (l976's "Phantom of the Open Hearth," about going to the prom; and last year's "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters"). In addition to all this, his stories are quite hilarious and touching. Unfortunately, seeing "A Christmas Story" might not enhance your appreciation of his work all that much. The film, a syrupy reworking of "In God We Trust," doesn't do Shepherd justice. "A Christmas Story" is set in those bygone days of 1930's Hohman, Indiana. Little 9-year-old Ralphie (Billingsley) would desperately love to have a Red Ryder Beebee gun under the tree come that magical day, and the film is mainly preoccupied with Ralphie's efforts to coax his parents into getting him the object of his elusive dreams. Uh-huh. Ralphie's Mom (Dillon) is a frizzy-haired workhorse of a homemaker who fights the never-ending battle against dirt and can be very compassionate when he least expects her to. Dad (McGavin) is the manically driven breadwinner (What he does for a living is never mentioned.), fighting a fierce battle with the house's clogged furnace, overloaded electrical sockets and the next-door neighbor's growling dogs. Laced.around this central action of getting the Beebee gun are other conflicts in Ralph's hectic childhood. Among them are eluding the neighborhood bully who teases Ralph every day, accidentally swearing in front of his father and waiting for the official Little Orphan Annie Secret Agent Decoder in the mail. All this might have worked well, given Shepherd's gift for poetic realism, so outrageously visualized in "Open Hearth" and "Fourth of July." Sadly, this movie is too manic and undisciplined to equal those fine films, despite Shepherd's heavy involvement in the picture. (He cowrote the screenplay and narrated.) Pin most of the blame on director Bob Clark. Although he made a promising debut with the 1979 Sherlock Holmes thriller, "Murder By Decree," he is better known for those two awful comedies, "Porky's" and its unworthy sequel, "Porky's II - the Next Day." His style hasn't improved much. Most of the scenes are overplayed, even for Shepherd's material, which usually benefits from hyped-up performances. The cast fares somewhat better. Dillon is a little too screechy at times as Ralphie's mom, but occasionally she surprises the viewer as well as little Ralphie and lowers her voice. As "the old man," Darrin McGavin has a field day sneering, growling and cursing. But he also shows nice restraint when it's appropriate. Peter Billingsley is just plain perfect as Ralphie. You just wanna hug the little squirt. While it's somewhat enjoyable, though, "A Christmas Story" lacks the discipline and poetic realism that makes, Shepherd's work such a treat. Hey, maybe I am being a Scrooge. I just expected something better.
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