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A Christmas Story: The Film That Became An Unexpected Tradition

Entertainment | December 23, 2021

Source: (IMDb).

The week before Thanksgiving in 1983, MGM released the latest film by Bob Clark, director of Porky’s. It earned $2 million during its first weekend and didn’t remain in theaters for long, as they pulled it before Christmas. That film, A Christmas Story, would go on to be seen by millions, essentially fulfilling Roger Ebert’s statement that, “My guess is either nobody will go to see it, or millions of people will go to see it because it will catch on.” The second part of his prophetic statement came true after it was released on VHS and on HBO, and its popularity started to grow. Then, as MGM started to collapse because of its heavy debt, it sold its film library to Ted Turner, who had the idea of running it every year at Christmas, and with the “24 Hours of A Christmas Story,” it racked up an impressive number of views. In 2008 alone, the film had 54.4 million viewers. 

Source: (IMDb).

It Was Loosely Based On Jean Shepherd's Childhood

The film was based on In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd; along with Bob Clark and Leigh Brown he wrote the film adaptation. Shepherd got his start in radio and during his four-decade career, he told semi-autobiographical stories. Convinced to write his stories down, he published them in 1966. These stories would form the basis of the film. In 1968, Clark was introduced to Shepherd’s work when he heard “Flick’s Tongue” on the radio. This combination of stories captures the essence of Christmas and growing up perfectly, and it also captures a time period as well. Both Clark and Shepherd wanted the exact year to be unclear as the film was more about an era than a specific year. 

Source: (IMDb).

MGM Was Hesitant To Produce It

MGM was initially hesitant to produce A Christmas Story, but since Bob Clark directed Porky’s (1982), and the success of that film helped to convince MGM to give him $4.4 million. Clark also kicked in $150,000 of his own and didn’t collect his director’s fee.

Shepherd was directly involved in the filming in other ways as well, as he was the narrator. He was reportedly a little too involved in the filming, as he would try to give directions to the actors when Clark was not present. He also had a cameo in the film; he played the man who scolded Ralphie for cutting the line to see Santa. Incidentally, this wasn’t Shepherd’s first film, as he narrated The Phantom of the Open Hearth in 1976. 

A young Peter Billingsley in a Messy Marvin commercial. Source: (Pinterest).

Finding The Perfect Ralphie

Once Clark started casting for the film, he had to find the perfect actor to play Ralphie. Approximately 8,000 children auditioned for the role, and Peter Billingsley, the first to audition got the role. Clark reportedly knew he was perfect for the role, but he hesitated to cast him at first. After so many auditions, he chose Billingsley, the child actor who had already been in a number of commercials. 

Source: (Screen Rant).

Getting The Film Just Right

It was not just the casting that was perfect for the film, but some of the other choices that helped to make this a film that has become a holiday favorite. When Melinda Dillon saw the duck with its head still on in the restaurant, her reaction was real. She was given a fake script so that they could capture her real reaction. Ralphie’s reaction to seeing the leg lamp was real, as Clark did not let him see the leg until they were filming the scene. The leg lamp, incidentally, did not come with a power cord, and three lamps were made for the film, but sadly, none survived. In the case of the flagpole scene, they did use some “special effects,” getting creative with the props: they cut a hole in the pole and sucked air through the hole so that when Flick placed his tongue on the pole, it was “stuck.” They also had Ralphie chew real chewing tobacco, and, as you can imagine, that didn’t go over well. They did not, however, use real soap when Ralphie faced punishment for cursing. Instead, the bar was made of soap.

Source: (Pinterest).

Recognition From The Library Of Congress

While Ralphie was punished with soap in his mouth for profanity, they were careful to not use any in the film because they wanted to keep their PG rating. This had a consequence; in the furnace fight scene, Darren McGavin struggled with angry sentences as he battled the furnace, so he adlibbed gibberish.

Just as no one could have predicted Darrin McGavin’s words in that scene as he struggled to muster language that would convey his anger, no one could have predicted the lasting power of the film. A Christmas Story has not only become a holiday tradition, but it was also selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 

Tags: A Christmas Story | Christmas tradition | Ralphie

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.