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Bob Clark
Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Peter Billingsley, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb
Writing Credits:
Leigh Brown, Bob Clark, Jean Shepherd (also novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash")

Peace. Harmony. Comfort and Joy ... Maybe Next Year.

The Christmas spirit isn't served up with more observant hilarity than in this beloved adaptation of Jean Shepherd's holiday story. In 1940s Indiana, nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) dreams of his ideal Christmas gift: a genuine Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle. But when gruff dad (Darren McGavin) and doting mom (Melinda Dillion) regularly respond with "You'll shoot your eye out!" Ralphie mounts a full-scale Santa-begging campaign. He encounters a slew of calamities from snowsuit paralysis to the dreaded tongue-on-a-frozen-flagpole gambit. We triple-dog-dare youito unwrap a more welcome Yultide classic!

Box Office:
Budget $4 million.
Opening Weekend
$2.072 million on 886 screens.
Domestic Gross
$19.294 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural
French Monaural

Runtime: 93 min.
Price: $26.99
Release Date: 10/7/2003

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Bob Clark and Actor Peter Billingsley
• Theatrical Trailer
Disc Two
• “Another Christmas Story” Documentary
• “Triple Dog Dare” Game
• “Radio” Readings from Jean Shepherd
• “Decoder” Game
• “Daisy Red Ryder: A History” Featurette
• “Get a Leg Up” Featurette

Search Titles:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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A Christmas Story: Special Edition (1983)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 2, 2003)

Today’s sign that I’m getting old: the fact that 1983’s A Christmas Story has long been regarded as a holiday classic. It’s weird for something that hit screens during my 16th year to turn into something seen as an “old” flick anyway, but I guess that’s life!

Actually, Story didn’t do much at the box office when it first hit. Only on video did it prosper, and now it’s become a holiday institution, largely through the choice of a cable network to run it for 24 hours non-stop on Christmas. It seemed like an odd choice for director Bob Clark, the man behind the prior year’s trashy and smutty hit Porky’s. Clark leapt from that crude and tasteless world to the charming and sly humor of Story, and he made the latter a surprisingly likable affair.

One couldn’t call Story heavy on plot. The film focuses on the family of little Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a pudgy bespectacled nine-year-old. Set in northern Indiana circa 1940 or so, the film mainly consists of small episodes in his life during the weeks that lead up to Christmas. These include a scene in which a friend gets his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole, the controversial arrival of a “major award” won by his Old Man (Darrin McGavin), the continual torment leveled by a neighborhood bully named Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), and many other little slices of life. The only overriding theme comes from Ralphie’s attempts to pursue his ultimate dream Christmas present: a Red Ryder 200-shot range model air rifle.

Adapted from the stories of Jean Shepherd and narrated by the author, Story easily could have turned into a cheesy and tacky piece of nostalgia. However, Clark maintains Shepherd’s innate cynicism well through this flick. Story always views its world with a sense of reality and bite; it never turns gushy or gooey. However, Clark amazingly avoids glibness or any nasty turns. His view of the era lacks sentiment but still feels warm and engaging. No one ever expresses much in the way of loving emotions, but you know they’re there.

No one embodies that quite as well as McGavin in his wonderful turn as the Old Man. McGavin becomes something of a force of nature here, as he makes the Old Man charmingly free from charm. Like much of the movie, McGavin gives his role a mildly cartoony feel, but he never turns his character into a spoof or a parody. Instead, he invests all his energy into the Old Man’s worldview and makes him crusty but amusing and likable.

Much of Story’s charm really does come from the fact it never tries to win over the audience. It never turns cutesy or precious, though its natural warmth comes through even with all the cynicism. For example, the Old Man seems to display a veiled layer of contempt for his own family. Nonetheless, we can still tell he really cares for them, and when he demonstrates this, it feels natural and true to the part.

Another reason Story works so well comes from its other actors. When it first hit screens in 1983, I recall that I sneered at it due to the presence of Billingsley. He’d also appeared on the lame TV series Real People and he seemed to me to represent the typical precocious and cloyingly adorable Hollywood kid actor. Because of that, I thought his presence would undermine Story.

I was badly mistaken. Instead, Billingsley keeps Ralphie well ground in the real world and deftly underplays all of his scenes. Ralphie feels quite real and never turns into a stereotypical cute kid. The same goes for all the other young actors, as they bring a great level of believability to their roles. Contrast them with the tots of something like Daddy Day Care and you’ll see much of the reason the latter fails but Story succeeds.

Clark also deserves credit for the film’s period feeling. Story feels like they shot it back in the Forties due to Clark’s attention to detail. Of course, the warm and fuzzy cinematography helps, and all of this makes Story come across like an accurate capture of its time.

Really, A Christmas Story works because it gets all of the little things right. It’s not an epic flick that bowls over the viewer. Instead, it creates a tartly cynical but still warm and likable look at childhood that avoids the usual precious pitfalls. A Christmas Story earns its place as a holiday treat.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio C/ Bonus B-

A Christmas Story appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. The movie seemed watchable but not much better in this erratic transfer.

For the most part, sharpness appeared satisfactory. The film came across as somewhat fuzzy and ill defined on occasion, though. While most of the flick was reasonably accurate and concise, it seemed a little tentative at times. I saw no issues with jagged edges or edge enhancement, but a little shimmering showed up periodically, mostly due to the fishnet stockings on the lamp. Print flaws caused more noticeable problems. The image seemed moderately grainy at times, and a mix of specks, spots and small marks popped up moderately frequently throughout the movie. A wee hair or two also materialized. None of these defects became overwhelming, but they were there much of the time.

Colors varied. Exteriors mostly looked pretty accurate and well defined, but the tones often came across as somewhat flat and lackluster. Some of that seemed to result from the film’s intentional subdued palette, but since the intensity of the hues varied for no apparent thematic reasons, I couldn’t chalk up the occasionally drab colors for stylistic reasons. (Undoubtedly, the film stocks of the era contributed as well.) Black levels tended to be reasonably dense but slightly on the inky side, and shadows were a bit thick and dull. The image of A Christmas Story didn’t do much that seemed particularly wrong, but it also rarely presented a picture that stood out as very positive.

Similar sentiments greeted the monaural soundtrack of A Christmas Story. During the film’s first third or so, speech usually seemed rather edgy. However, dialogue cleaned up considerably as the movie progressed. As such, lines from the flick’s last hour sounded a bit flat but were significantly stronger than those from earlier scenes. Effects also demonstrated distortion at times, particularly during the fantasy sequence with Ralph’s BB gun. Otherwise those elements seemed lackluster but acceptably accurate and clean. Music didn’t present much range, though some decent dynamics occasionally appeared. Still, the score failed to present any real problems, and it sounded fairly clear and bright. Ultimately, the audio of A Christmas Story seemed very average for its era.

The barebones, fullscreen rendition of A Christmas Story first hit DVD during the format’s early years, and its many fans clamored for a special edition ever since that time. Finally, one arrives with this two-disc set. In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, DVD One houses an audio commentary from director/co-writer Bob Clark and actor Peter Billingsley. (The DVD’s case incorrectly lists actor Melinda Dillon as a participant, but she doesn’t appear.) Both men sit together for this running, screen-specific piece. While the pair offer some nice remembrances, this ultimately becomes a pretty average track.

Clark and Billingsley touch on a decent variety of topics. We learn about the different sources of the story and how Clark brought it to the screen. They discuss locations and production challenges as well as the prickliness of author Jean Shepherd. We also get a nice mix of interesting anecdotes from the set plus some discussion of the film’s initial reception and subsequent life. Clark seems really bitter about the many criticisms leveled at Porky’s over the years and appears happy to point out that Story might not exist without his earlier success with the sex comedy. We even find out which major actor almost got cast as the Old Man. Unfortunately, the guys often do little more than just talk about what they like, and more than a few empty spots appear. I learned some intriguing bits from this track – who knew Clark shot a sequel? – but it’s a spotty commentary as a whole.

On DVD Two, we open with Another Christmas Story, an 18-minute and 15-second retrospective. It mixes movie snippets and interviews with director Bob Clark plus actors Peter Billingsley, R.D. Robb, Scott Schwartz, and Zack Ward. They tell us continued reactions from the public toward the film, their own Christmas memories, and a number of anecdotes from the shoot. The program doesn’t remotely attempt to present a full examination of the film’s creation, but it includes some good notes and seems generally interesting.

A trivia contest pops up via Triple Dog Dare. Hosted by Peter Billingsley, we get a few questions about the movie. Based on your answers, you’ll also find short appearances from actors Zack Ward and Scott Schwartz and director Bob Clark. It’s generally pretty easy, though a couple of the toughest questions required educated guesses. Unfortunately, no reward comes with successful completion.

If you select Radio, we get a couple of stories told be Jean Shepherd. Part of his old radio show, we hear the tales that inspired the movie’s segments about Flick’s tongue and the pole plus his pursuit of the BB gun. It’s a lot of fun to check out these stories in their full versions as told by Shepherd.

Another contest shows up in Decoder. This requires you to match quotes with photos from those scenes. Get them correct and you’ll find some short remarks from a few of the actors. These are tongue in cheek, and the “Decoder” is only moderately entertaining.

The next featurette looks at the gun that remains the movie’s prized possession. Daisy Red Ryder: A History runs five minutes, 15 seconds. It launches with quick comments from Bob Clark and actors Schwartz, Robb, and Billingsley, but then we head to the Daisy factory to hear from co-curator of the Rogers Daisy Airgun Museum John Ford, customer service manager Orin Ribar, public relations manager Susan Gardner, and advertising manager Steven Ribar. We get notes about the history of the airgun, modifications made for the model used in the movie, and airgun safety issues. We also find out a little about the use of the gun on the set. No one ever does tell us if you can actually shoot out your eye with an airgun, but this is a reasonably efficient and interesting look at the subject.

Get a Leg Up finishes the DVD with an examination of the movie’s other most coveted item, the leg lamp. In this four minute and 35 second featurette, we see DVD producer JM Kenny chat with lamp creator Joe Egeberg and tour the latter’s plant. We also hear from leg lamp manufacturer Dave Smith. I could live without Kenny’s snarky attitude, but it’s still kind of cool to learn that you can actually buy these things.

While A Christmas Story made little box office impact in 1983, it found a huge audience via home video and cable broadcasts. The film deserves its positive reception, as it presents one of the better holiday flicks. It enjoys a wonderfully true to life feel and never indulges in the sappy sentimentality that mars most movies of this sort. The DVD offers average picture and sound plus a decent but unexceptional set of extras. The disc itself won’t impress anyone, but the movie itself is good enough to overcome any qualms I have about the package, so A Christmas Story merits my recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5779 Stars Number of Votes: 109
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