Some mediocre films earn a reputation as “American Classics” entirely because the producers and marketers (or the critics and other members of the chattering class) have so declared them, and the rest of us are cowed into submission. But sometimes a movie attains this status honestly by slowly and steadily building a following because it really deserves one. A Christmas Story very much belongs in the latter, authentic set of American classics. When it was released in 1983, it was shown in less than a thousand theaters and was outgrossed by such unmemorable cinematic products as Porky’s II: The Next Day, Two of a Kind, and High Road to China. But it became more and more popular each year on television (Thank you, Ted Turner) such that you can hardly find anyone today who doesn’t smile at the memory of this warm and funny film.
The great talent behind this movie about a boy’s overwhelming craving for a particular Christmas present is Jean Shepherd, who wrote the script based on his novel “In God we trust. All others pay cash”. He is the film’s never-seen storyteller, narrating recollected events as an adult while 12-year old Peter Billingsley, as his younger self (“Ralphie”), gives one of the best comic performances by a child actor in cinema history. Billingsley’s gestures and expressions coupled with Shepherd’s wry narration make a great comic one-two punch. Daren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are perfect as Ralphie’s very human parents because they are solid actors who also happen to look like real parents (in Hollywood today, the parts would likely have gone to a rap star and a supermodel).
The film charms both because it pokes fun at the silliness of which children are capable (e.g., Ralphie’s rich fantasy life) while also respecting the earnestness of which they are capable (e.g., It *is* a breach of etiquette to go straight to a triple dog dare without an intervening triple dare). It is sweetly nostalgic about childhood without overly romanticizing it. And it holds up very well under repeat viewings, as the countless people who will watch it again this holiday season will attest.
Robert Montgomery (father of Elizabeth of Bewitched fame) earned his place in film noir heaven with Ride the Pink Horse. The disillusioned, rootless ex-GI, is the ultimate film noir protagonist (though the cynical, hard drinking private eye vies for the distinction) and Lucky Gagin is the apotheosis of the type.
I caught Coppola’s classic at a hotel last night, and the way it was edited for television audiences reveals something fascinating about American sensibilities.
The scene in which Sonny Corleone is executed was presented uncut. Played by James Caan, Sonny is trapped in his car at a toll booth by another vehicle full of gunmen, who riddle him with machine gun bullets, as do other assassins who had been hiding in the booth. Gasping and covered in blood, he staggers out of his car to be hit with a sustained volley of machine gun fire that makes his body convulse repeatedly. He then falls dead in a bloody heap, at which point one of the killers walks up to his body and unloads the rest of his ammo into him point blank. The killer then kicks Sonny’s corpse in the head for good measure. Wholesome all-American fun; wish my kids could’ve seen it.
In contrast, another scene was edited for television. Michael and Apollonia Corleone’s wedding night in Sicily is extraordinarily sweet as played sensitively and without dialogue by Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli. Michael and his young bride are alone in the bedroom. She is clearly a virgin, both excited and at the same time frightened. Michael doesn’t rush her. He waits for her to step toward him, and then cradles her face and kisses her gently on the forehead and thenâ€¦the censors get out their scissors. In the original movie, but not on television, Apollonia’s breasts are briefly visible before the couple embrace and passionately kiss. Sure they just got married in a Catholic Church, sure they love each other, sure the woman is portrayed as a human being and not an object but hey, the sight of breasts might scar the innocent so out it goes.
I have seen the Godfather on television in Spain and in Sweden and in both countries the wedding night scene was uncut, whereas the scene of Sonny’s execution was edited to be shorter and less graphically violent. Apparently people in those countries have a different sense than Americans about what is shocking and obscene and what is not.
The other comparison point that comes to mind is what I have learned from working with combat veterans. Sadly enough, many psychiatric hospitals have former soldiers in them who saw something like what happened to Sonny Corleone and never got over it. In contrast, I have never had a patient tell me “Doc, I’ve got PTSD. Ya gotta hospitalize me — I saw a pair of breasts and I just can’t get them out of my mind”.
The tributes to Hollywood legend Sindey Lumet are focusing mainly on “Twelve Angry Men”, “the Verdict” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” all worthy pieces of cinema (“Serpico” is less so, in my opinion). He deserves credit for at least two other things.
First, he largely rescued Sean Connery from Bondage by casting him in meaty dramatic parts as Connery’s interest in Bond was waning. The Hill, The Offence, and The Anderson Tapes remain highly watchable today, and they showed the film world that Connery had a lot more talent than his role as 007 let him exercise.
Second, Lumet made one of the best Holocaust films ever, The Pawnbroker. From slump-shouldered Rod Steiger, Lumet coaxed a performance that is the actor’s best — better even than his more heralded role as Sheriff Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night.” And the classic Lumet claustrophobic New York sets work perfectly to help us feel Sol Nazerman’s agony and his inability to escape the horrors of the war and memory. Sadly, the film isn’t watched as often as Lumet’s other great movies, probably because it’s simply emotionally harder to experience (The Verdict is also a portrait of overwhelming loneliness but it ultimately treads more gently on the viewer’s spirit because it has an uplifting ending). But it remains one of the high points of Lumet’s distinguished career.