Nineteen eighty-three's A Christmas Story, the sleeper hit directed by Bob Clark and co-adapted from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by humorist Jean Shepherd (who also narrates), has become a bona fide classic, a holiday tradition equal to such longtime heavyweights as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Conversely, that film's official if belated direct sequel, My Summer Story (originally if fleetingly released to theaters as It Runs in the Family, 1994) is almost totally unknown. The very few who saw it when it was new (it reportedly grossed just $70,000) mercilessly raked it over the coals.
Some of the criticism is deserved, but if you squint just right My Summer Story is actually reasonably good. Except for the gross miscasting of and dire performance by Charles Grodin, in the part played so memorably in A Christmas Story by the late Darren McGavin, Clark and Shepherd do a fine job retaining the original film's tone and nostalgic atmosphere. Its achievements are slight, but overall it's an adequate sequel and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
As with A Christmas Story, My Summer Story is a loosely-connected series of anecdotes built around a young boy's longings in pre-WWII Indiana. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker famously dreamed of getting that Red Ryder BB-gun from Santa, while here Ralphie (now played by Kieran Culkin) spends his summer vacation in search of a killer top (a toy popular in the 1940s, powered something like a yo-yo) and fishing with the Old Man (Charles Grodin). Meanwhile, Ralphie's Mother (Mary Steenburgen) is on a quest of her own, to collect a complete set of Hollywood-themed china at the local Orpheum's dish night, while Father's battles with the hillbilly neighbors next-door, the notorious Bumpuses ("an army of morons"), rages on.
More than ten years had passed between A Christmas Story and its sequel, which meant that original Ralphie Peter Billingsley, at 23 (!) was far too old to reprise his character. Undoubtedly cast on the heels of older brother Macaulay's monster success in Home Alone (1990), 11-year-old Kieran is okay but has none of the adorable, wide-eyed innocence Billingsley projected so well in the original film. Kieran is less distinctive and comes off a bit jaded and contemporary, though the character isn't written that way.
The more nagging question is why didn't Darren McGavin reprise his role? He may have turned the part down for one reason or another, or maybe he asked for too much money, but the actor's age and declining health may also have been a factor. McGavin was 60 when he made A Christmas Story and was in his seventies by the time My Summer Story rolled around. Though he continued acting until the late-1990s, he was also quite ill for most of his last ten years (and generally restricted to a wheelchair) and may simply have not been up to the physical demands of the part.
In any case, replacing him with Charles Grodin was a very bad idea. Best at playing reserved, reticent cynics and passive-aggressive types, Grodin is all wrong as the excitable, irascible, blustery but big-hearted, larger-than-life father. One gets the sense that Grodin had no idea how to approach the character, and either on his own or perhaps encouraged by Clark and/or Shepherd, he affects a shameless Darren McGavin imitation throughout: he moves his body just like his predecessor did, and at times speaks in a patently phony growl that's gratingly unbelievable.
Mary Steenburgen is much more acceptable in the role originally essayed by Melinda Dillon. Her showy scenes are limited to those weekly "Dish Nights" at the local movie theater, but her growing frustration at being given the same Ronald Colman gravy boat week-after-week is amusingly played in an environment wonderfully evocative of its era. An all-too-brief visit to the Great Lakes World Exposition (achieved via some neat-o if obvious matte shots) also evokes the period well.
Clark and Shepherd do an admirable job maintaining a stylistic continuity with the first film, though there are several glaring missteps, most notably the use several times of Ennio Morricone's themes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 30 years out of date. Ralphie wouldn't be imitating Clint Eastwood, he'd be imitating Red Ryder (of course!).
Beyond that, however, and easily the film's saving grace, is the wonderful narration spoken and written by Shepherd himself. A humorist par excellence on the same plane as Thurber, Kaufman, and Benchley, Shepherd's enthused, wry nostalgia precisely nails an era's little details with amused recognition. With great relish, for instance, he describes how much the neighborhood kids hated red jawbreakers, "But oh, those black ones. When the proper cheek tension was reached the soul-satisfying taste of those rich ebony masterpieces began to course through your veins. It was almost worth the years of impacted wisdom teeth that were to follow."
Video & Audio
My Summer Story is presented in a fine 16:9 widescreen (at 1.77:1) transfer under that title. The image and audio are up to mid-1990s standards and the film is largely free from damage and wear. Optional English subtitles are included but that's it. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options, and no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
And so, if My Summer Story aches for want of Darren McGavin and falls short in a few other respects, in the end it comes close enough to the spirit of its predecessor to reasonably satisfy those looking for modest escapist entertainment. It's hard to generate a lot of enthusiasm for the film, but if you liked A Christmas Story you'll likely find this worthwhile enough to Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.