What do the Marx Bros’``Duck Soup’’ (1933`) `The Wizard of Oz’’ (1939), ``Citizen Kane’’ (1941), and ``It’s a Wonderful Life’’ (1946) have in common with ``A Christmas Story,’’ the 1983 American Christmas comedy film based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of author Jean Shepherd?
Believe it or not, all these films were considered box office flops when they premiered, but years, sometimes decades later, they bounced back to life after finding a new audience with a fresh set of eyes-and today are considered motion picture classics.
``A Christmas Story’’ opened 30 years ago, November 18, 1983, drawing $7,291,703 in its first 10 days at 938 theaters in the United States and Canada; and after it closed five weeks later in most theaters, its final receipts totaled a disappointing $19 million. Studio execs considered it a flop. It was out of most theaters before Christmas.
Today, more than 100,000 DVD and Blu-ray copies of "A Christmas Story" are sold weekly during the holiday season; and thousands of passionate fans ( which have included in years past a flood of foreign tourists from Germany, England, China, Switzerland, Australia, Sweden, Netherlands, Ireland, Mexico and Thailand), have journeyed to the Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, [See their website http://is.gd/g0JQd0 ] to view scenes shot near the house and examine original props, costumes and memorabilia from the film, as well as hundreds of rare behind-the-scenes photos. A ``Christmas Story" convention is additionally held there annually in November.
In December 2012, ``A Christmas Story’’ was one of 25 films selected to be included into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, for its enduring importance to American culture and as a reflection of who ``we are as a people and a nation," according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. Congress established the National Film Registry in 1989 to highlight the need for preserving U.S. film heritage.
So how did ``A Christmas Story’’ find its new audience?
Beginning in the 1990’s, the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) started scheduling marathon 24-hour slots for ``A Christmas Story’’; and with families constantly in hot pursuit for a decent movie to pop into their DVD players around the holidays-films which the whole family can enjoy-``A Christmas Story’’ fits the bill like a pair of winter gloves.
The movie is, after all, more than a Christmas comedy with a scary Santa Claus who spits out a scornful Ho!, Ho!, Ho! Rather, it’s a valentine to growing up in small town America during the 1940s with all its familiar trappings: a family picking out a Christmas tree together, a furnace that never works, fretting over a stern dad (with a heart of gold) coming home; and memories of the school-yard pranks and the terror that came during face-to-face combat with neighborhood bullies; memories, in other words, that no matter how old we get, still seems to cling to our receding, distant past.
Since this is the 30-year anniversary of the holiday classic, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the original movie reviews from a number of U.S. dailies in 1983.
I found it fascinating that only one movie critic (at least from the list of reviews I found), Jay Carr of the Boston Globe, possessed the sharp eye and keen insight 30 years ago to describe ``A Christmas Story’’ as an ``instant classic, a film that will give pleasure to people not only this Christmas, but many Christmases to come.’’
And kudos too goes to Gene Siskel (bless his soul) of the Chicago Tribune, who wondered why on earth this delightful motion picture was released in the middle of November, practically guaranteeing doom at the box office.
What follows, then, are brief snippets from film reviews written 30 years ago, shortly after the premiere of ``A Christmas Story.’
A Christmas Story: Film Review:
A CHRISTMAS STORY - DIRECTED BY BOB CLARK, SCREENPLAY BY CLARK, LEIGH; BROWN AND JEAN SHEPHERD, BASED ON SHEPHERD'S "IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL; OTHERS PAY CASH," STARRING MELINDA DILLON,; DARREN MCGAVIN, PETER BILLINGSLEY, AT THE BEACON HILL AND SUBURBS,; RATED PG.
By Jay Carr, Globe Staff
Nov 19, 1983
``This is the kind of movie that risks tripping over its own whimsy, but it stays on track disarmingly. We can believe that Ralphie, often given to daydreaming, is exactly the sort of fellow who'd show up on a voiceover 30 years later speaking of a bacchanalia of peace on earth or, referring to his mother's way of stuffing his little brother into a snowsuit, that "going to school was like preparing for extended deep sea diving." Clark and Billingsley have gambled on presenting the adult world as exaggerated creatures seen through Ralphie's eyes, and won.’’
``In short, "A Christmas Story" isn't just about Christmas; it's about childhood and it recaptures a time and place with love and wonder. It seems an instant classic, a film that will give pleasure to people not only this Christmas, but for many Christmases to come.’’
MOVIE REPORT CARD
The Boston Herald, December 8, 1983
Movie Grade: C minus.
``A silly piece of tinseled fluffabout a nine-year-old boy's efforts to get a Red Ryder rifle for Christmas. Fine performances by Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillion, and child actor Peter Billingsley are wasted by lame direction and a corny script. At the Beacon Hill and suburban cinemas.''
The New York Times
November 18, 1983, Friday, Late City Final Edition
FILM: 'CHRISTMAS STORY,' INDIANA TALE
By Vincent Canby
``There are a number of small, unexpectedly funny moments in ''A Christmas Story,'' but you have to possess the stamina of a pearl diver to find them.’’
``The movie's big comic pieces tend only to be exceedingly busy. Though Mr. Billingsley, Mr. Gavin, Miss Dillon and the actress who plays Ralphie's school teacher (Tedde Moore) are all very able, they are less funny than actors in a television situation comedy that one has chosen to watch with the sound turned off.’’
San Francisco Chronicle
November 23, 1983
A '40s Christmas and Dreams of BB Gun Glory
By Peter Stack
``The movie softly lit and laid out with the wistful charm of an old easy chair, is certain too to remind us of an age of innocence: radio was king. Oldsmobiles were solid steel, dads were in the habit of reading the evening paper at the dinner table, and mothers stayed home the day long with their feather dusters and recipes that were endless variations on the theme of hash.’’
``This is a movie tailored for people who grew up in the `40's, who remember an America emerging from the dark cloud of a long, terrible war. Still, its funny moments transcend the period tone, and now and then ``A Christmas Story'' sheds affectionate light on the dreams and little disasters that still cling to the yuletide. Santa Claus, it seems to say, really can be a scary guy sometimes, and dad, who never seems to notice when you cry, can be rather heroic in his clumsy way.''
The Los Angeles Times
A Trip Back to Christmas in `30s
November 18, 1983
By Kevin Thomas
``Don't expect much Christmas spirit to be oozing out of ``A Christmas Story (citywide). Reportedly, Bob Clark, director of ``Porky's'' has for a decade wanted to make a film of humorist Jean Shepherd's short story. ``The Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.''
``The result is a kind of grade-school ``Porky's'' minus the raunchiness. And even though Shepherd and his wife collaborated with the script with Clark, the film has little of the subversive humor that made Shepherd such a legend on records and on the radio in the `50s and `60s. Actually, it has little humor, period.''....``That the film isn't remotely as hilarious as it hopes to be only makes it an even greater problem for those of us who possess no-more-war toys sentiments going in.’’
The Washington Post
'Christmas Story': Family Fare to Savor
November 18, 1983
BY RITA KEMPLEY
``If you're a Christmas holdout, a true believer who still hears reindeer on the roof, and even on an unseasonably warm Christmas Eve holds out hope of waking to a yard full of snow and branches coated like velvet antlers, then "A Christmas Story" is for you.’’
``It's a heart-warming pastiche of snowflakes, Christmas lights strung across city streets, children's noses pressed against toy- store windows and one little boy's quest for the present of his dreams, a Genuine Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, with a Shock-Proof High-Adventure Combination Trail Compass and Sundial Set Right in the Stock.’’
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio)
`Christmas Story' is full of charm for whole family.
November 19, 1983
By Roxanne T. Mueller
``Growing up is tough enough for a kid without having parents interfering. So fantasy is an appropriate retreat. The real world is an enigma too and that's the double charm of ``A Christmas Story,'' a movie with a kid's-eye view set in the relatively innocent era of America just before World War II’’.....``It's chock-full of understated wit but avoids the kind of Disneyesque sentimentality that grown-ups and sophisticated kids gag on.''
'Christmas' arrives early, with nostalgic gifts for one and all
By Gene Siskel
November 21, 1983
Movie Grade: 3 1/2 stars
``A Christmas Story is a delightful motion picture that is doomed to box office failure. It would appear to be a children's film, but it really is a whimsical piece for adults about childhood. And whimsy is what also closes on Saturday night. Also, the subject of Christmas in the middle of November-well, we can wait, right? Whoever booked this film this early should be shot.''
``A Christmas Story is full of delightful characters and performances. Child model Peter Bilingsley is cute without being cloying as little Ralphie. He looks like a kid in a Norman Rockwell painting. Ralphie's father, a gruff but kindly man, is nicely played by Darren McGavin.''
``The Christmas Story is a movie with a golden glow. Here's hoping someone goes to the see it. As to the prediction made at the top of this review, I'd love to be proved wrong.''
A Christmas Story-
December 15, 1983
Movie Grade: 3 stars
By Roger Ebert.
``Of course. That's what I kept saying during "A Christmas Story," every time the movie came up with another one of its memories about growing up in the 1940s.
The movie's high point comes at Christmastime, when Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) goes to visit Santa Claus. Visits to Santa Claus are more or less standard in works of this genre, but this movie has the best visit to Santa I've ever seen. Santa is a workaholic, processing kids relentlessly. He has one helper to spin the kid and deposit him on Santa's lap, and another one to grab the kid when the visit is over, and hurl him down a chute to his parents below. If the kid doesn't want to go, he gets Santa's boot in his face. Of course.''
The Denver Post
'TIS THE SEASON
HOLIDAY RELEASES CAST AS THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
December 16, 1983
By Michael Healy
Denver Post Movie Critic
``Not so delightful, but innocuous enough, is "A Christmas Story" which features a lot of merry mugging and Xmas excess all in the cause of getting a laugh. It's the story of a little boy's pursuit of his Christmas wish: a gun. ...’’
The Evening Independent
A Christmas Story' a minor holiday trifle
By Jim Moorhead
November 25, 1983
``I went into this film hoping to like it. I even took my uncritical children along for support. But A Christmas Story is what it is-a shakily spun swatch of nostalgia that is neither lively enough for youngsters nor convincing enough for older viewers’’........``Clark [director Bob Clark] has failed to elicit proper execution, so that it ends up as a minor holiday trifle, and that's too bad. The world can always use another good Christmas story.''
NOTE: The Evening Independent was St. Petersburg, Florida's first daily newspaper, the sister evening newspaper of the St. Petersburg Times. It was purchased by St. Petersburg Times owner Nelson Poynter in 1962 and subsequently folded in 1986. It then merged into the Times in November 1986, initially as part of the Times's "City Times and Independent" section; the "Independent" name was later dropped altogether.
A Christmas Story: Footnotes
• Jack Nicholson was considered for the role of playing Ralphie's dad, before the directors settled on Darren McGavin.
• Peter Billingsley, who plays the nine year-old Ralphie in the film is now 42, and has become a producer and director (the films include: "Iron Man," "The Break-Up," "Couples Retreat" and the TV series "Sullivan & Son") with occasional minor acting roles.
• As many as 8,000 youngsters auditioned for the character of Ralphie.
• A Christmas Story" was made for less than $5 million.
• A Christmas Story grossed: $19,294,144.
• An estimated 40 million people watch at least parts of ``A Christmas Story’’ every year on TBS during its Christmas marathon.
• Billingsley reportedly is still in possession of the Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle, which served as his holy grail during the movie.
• Jean Shepherd’s book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash”, in which the film is based on, is a smattering of semi-autobiographical short stories that he wrote for “Playboy” magazine during the 1960s. He died in 1999 reportedly of natural causes.
• Shepherd is not only the narrator of "A Christmas Story," he also has a cameo as the bearded gentlemen in the fur coat in Higbee's Department Store who tells Ralphie to get to the end of the line.
• Though the movie is set in Indiana, parts of the film were shot in Cleveland, Ohio (most prominently, the city’s downtown Public Square and the old Higbee’s department store), with a vast majority of the filming taking place in Ontario, Canada.
• The exterior of the house depicted in ``A Christmas Story’’ was a 19th-century Victorian home built in 1895, located at 3159 W 11th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Tremont neighborhood, The house was scooped up by San Diego entrepreneur Brian Jones at an Ebay auction in 2004 for $150,000. He plunked down another $250,000 to spruce it up and opened it as a tourist attraction in 2006. Jones later bought two additional houses across the street, one that became a museum, and another, a gift shop, which swung open its doors just this year. Items inside the gift shop, include: Red Ryder guns, ornaments from the movie, a Pink Nightmare Bunny Suit, and, of course, a 50" Deluxe Full Size Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story,
• ``A Christmas Story" was directed by Bob Clark who shot to fame in 1980, when he directed a box office smash hit, "Porky's," an American sex comedy based on his escapades as a Florida teenager in the 1950s.
• A Christmas Story, The Musical, opened on Broadway (for a limited run) in November 2012, earning three 2013 Tony Award nominations: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Joseph Robinette), and Best Original Score (Banj Pasek and Jusin Paul). The show stars John Bolton (gruff dad), Erin Dilly (doting mom), Jake Lucas (Ralphie) and Dan Lauria as the show's narrator, Jean Shepherd.
• Although ``A Christmas Story’’ didn't receive any Academy Awards, the Canadians recognized the film with two Genies (the equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, which Shepherd and Clark shared.
• In 1994 there was a sequel to “A Christmas Story" an obscure, rarely seen film, originally called "My Summer Story" and now appears on video under the title "It Runs in the Family." Also written by Shepherd, the movie stars Macaulay Culkin's little brother Kieran as Ralphie and Charles Grodin as Old Man Parker.
• "A Christmas Story 2," was eventually made and released in 2012 direct to DVD, which met with a surge of unfavorable reviews. Even though all the original characters are in the movie, none of the original cast returned. The film takes place five years later and depicts Ralphie's efforts in trying to get his first car.
December 23, 2013