Weekend Film Recommendation: A Christmas Story

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.

And remember: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Christmas Story”

  1. Since you bring it up: Porky’s II, and the original Porky’s for that matter, were directed by the same person who directed A Christmas Story: Bob Clark.

  2. I love this movie. I especially love Darren McGavin in it. And Melinda Dillon. Everyone’s great. The little brother is a hoot too. Love the the whole sequence where Peter Billingsly is forced to stand in line for Santa with his younger brother.

  3. All of these movies are at least partially Canadian per IMDB. A Christmas Story is still fabulous, though.

  4. For all of us old enough to remember him over the radio back in the 50s and 60s, it is really great to hear Shepherd’s voice again on the soundtrack.

      1. He points out the end of the line to Ralphie. Director Bob Clark plays Swede admiring the “Major Award.”

      1. It’s not the critical assessment that’s so captivating, it’s the rigour of the analysis that caught my eye.

        1. The analysis is simple, the movie is about nothing and is trite for the sake of a cheap laugh. That it incidentally causes reptile brain excitation in people looking nostalgically at the past doesn’t make it good. It is as captivating as Home Alone 2, to which many of the above comments have been applied.

          1. Even if the entire motivation is a cheap laugh and the movie is about nothing, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t Seinfeld famous for being about nothing, and what were they seeking in Seinfeld more than a cheap laugh?

            Laughing is fun. A Christmas Story consistently makes many people laugh. That’s a pretty significant accomplishment when it comes to movie making.

            By your argument, Ralphie actually SHOULD have been blinded by soap poisoning, and the movie should have been a moralistic tragedy about child abuse.

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