"A Christmas Story" is an actual holiday miracle. Released in 1983 to minuscule box office, "Story" was guaranteed a swift trip to the remote island of cinema obscurity. However, against all odds, the picture hung in there thanks to VHS and cable, growing year after year into the current form it enjoys today: a bona fide seasonal classic. A classic, mind you, that has mutated into a pushy marketing juggernaut, replete with plastic collectibles, numerous home video releases, nauseating basic cable marathons, historical tours in Cleveland, and encouraging enough Christmastime references to make Santa dizzy. Somehow remaining at the center of all the noise is director Bob Clark's gem of a picture: a buoyant feature film that beautifully projects the angst, heart, and criminally momentary magic of Christmas.
Adapted primarily from Jean Shepherd's "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," "Story" observes the hectic world of 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a precocious kid growing up in 1940's Indiana, heading towards the Christmas season with unbridled expectations. All Ralphie wants is a beloved Red Ryder BB gun to satisfy his heroic daydreams, only his family, including Mom (Melinda Dillon), younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), and fearsome family patriarch The Old Man (Darren McGavin), are too wrapped up in their own lives to care. Struggling with his own impatience, the wrath of bully Farkus (Zack Ward), and the trials of the holiday season, Ralphie awaits Christmas morning with hand-wringing anticipation, hoping to receive the present he's been aching for.
Clark, heading 180 degrees away from his blockbuster sex comedy "Porky's," imagines "Story" as though viewing the finer details of a Norman Rockwell painting, with a gauzy mischief that plays hard on nostalgic sensitivity and classic film tomfoolery. Shepherd's world requires a light touch willing to allow streams of slapstick and sentiment to intermingle in a strange pool of tart comedic recollection. The material plays to Clark's strengths as an actor's director, instructing his cast to play the romanticism and the foolishness of the era to the hilt to manufacture a swirling, enchanting sense of the holiday and all the feverish moments that lead up to the Christmas morning payoff.
What's so successful about "Story" isn't Ralphie's single-minded pursuit of his cherished BB gun, but his observations on life, provided by Billingsley's crack comic timing and the honeyed squeaks of Shepherd's narration - a sublime offering of vocal jazz the film would be naked without. "Story" reaches out beyond Ralphie to grab a more intimate sense of madness: finding terror in the presence of the local allegedly-yellow-eyed bully Scut Farkus; the hazardous playground throwdown of the "triple-dog-dare" among Ralphie's friends (leading to the infamous hot-tongue-on-ice-pole scene); Mother's domestic exasperation, alleviated by dinner time humiliations with Randy; and The Old Man's period-specific fight to retain his neighborhood nobility, in constant battle with the careless neighbors ("Bumpasses!"), the busted furnace, and his lust for a fishnet-attired leg lamp marked "fra-geee-lay" (played with stupendous bluster and sniper-like nuance by movie MVP McGavin). The idiosyncrasies of the characters are where "Story" holds its diamond personality, dodging tightly-plotted hijinks to simply live in the moment, expertly assuming the perspective of a young boy who savors every moment in front of him.
Working with a tight budget, it's pretty amazing to witness what Clark accomplishes to capture the 1940 feel of "Story." He goes beyond set design and period tunes on the soundtrack to achieve a demonstrative authenticity that has played a crucial part in the film's enduring success. Indulging in radio decoder ring hysteria, taboo profanity, movie-serial daydreams, bitterly cold Midwest locations (necessitating suffocating, immobile layers of clothes), rushed visits to Santa, and a whole glowing mess of assorted Christmastime splendor, Clark and Shepherd teleport the viewer to this special time and place with extraordinary ease. It's a movie many, including me, want to push through the screen and live inside of, drinking up the hot-cocoa-and-verbal-abuse pre-war pleasures on a permanent basis. Preferably without the taste of Lifebuoy on the lips.
A VC-1, 1080p encoded Blu-ray release for "Story" (1.85:1 aspect ratio) is a delicate issue to address. The film, made for little money and shot with a heavy haze to recreate ideal period conditions, is not the stuff of dynamic visual surplus. It's a reserved movie with a modest image, leaving the HD viewing experience preferable to the muddy SD DVD, but not an overpowering upgrade. Image quality is loaded with solid colors for holiday vistas and outdoor sequences, while night scenes reveal sufficient grain and polite black detail. Unfortunately, a few print nicks and scratches pop up from time to time. Of course, visual softness is consistent throughout the presentation due to cinematographic intent, not disc limitation.
Bestowed only with a Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix, "Story" is most comfortable with a tinny mono presentation. The charm of the movie is amplified by the thinness of the audio, which envelops the listeners into the retro tones of the piece without the distraction of surround activity and assorted big-gun audio bluster. Dialogue is presented with ideal clarity, never swallowed by the music and scoring selections. A French 1.0 mix is also included.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
Bitterness arrives when the reality sets in that this Blu-ray release only reheats supplements created for the 2003 anniversary edition. These are fine extras, but the lack to effort to spruce up the package is a little bewildering, especially with the 2007 death of Bob Clark. The absence of a fresh tribute here is disappointing.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with actor Peter Billingsley and director Bob Clark. What's so refreshing to hear on this track is Billingsley's enthusiasm for "Story" and appreciation for the role it played in his childhood acting career. Being one of the few adult actors to celebrate his younger successes, Billingsley leads the conversation here, discussing with Clark artistic choices, location resources, casting near-misses (Jack Nicholson as The Old Man?), the limitations of Shepherd's offstage personality, and revealing the creative architecture behind certain iconic sequences. A few dead spots show up, along with some play-by-play nonsense, but the track is an interesting collection of stories and genial recollection between two pros.
"Another Christmas Story" (18:18) brings back a few of the cast members (Billingsley, Ward, Scott Schwartz, and R.D. Robb) and Clark to talk about "Story" and the fun encountered during production. The featurette is produced with tongue firmly in cheek (cartoon sounds are scattered throughout), which takes no time to irritate. Ward is a particularly animated interviewee, which also tries patience, but the offering is kind, and it's nice to hear from a few of the faces after all these years.
"Daisy Red Ryder: A History" (5:19) takes the viewer to the Rogers Daisy Airgun Museum to chronicle the rise of the Red Ryder BB gun that bewitches Ralphie's every last thought. Turns out the gun used in the movie isn't even era-correct.
"Get a Leg Up" (4:40) is a silly featurette on the manufacturing of the infamous leg lamp under the guidance of Joe Egeberg, who produces the sexy living room staple from his plant in Central Florida.
"Script Pages" uncovers the famously deleted "Flash Gordon" fantasy sequence in written form.
And finally, a Theatrical Trailer for "Story" is provided, along with a profoundly unfunny mock commercial for the leg lamp.
As acidic as it can be, "Christmas Story" has climbed the film-appreciation ladder to become one of the preeminent Yuletide features, a credit it wholeheartedly deserves. It's a delightful movie that holds steady on the impact of the holiday season, weaving through the triumphs and setbacks to appreciate the special time of year when toy lust and household madness collide into a perfect storm of comedy. From top to bottom, the film is a cinematic marvel.