TBS is obliging with its annual 24-hour marathon of the pic, starting Monday, Christmas Eve, at 8 p.m. ET. My family's "Christmas Story" DVD is well-worn -- no matter how many times we've seen it, we crack up at the scene where Darren McGavin unpacks his "fra-gi-le" major award. We can pretty much recite this movie from start to "you'll shoot your eye out" finish.
But this year the fun of the pic that perfectly balances the sweet 'n' sour 'n' silly of the season comes with a tinge of sadness for the memory of "Christmas Story" helmer Bob Clark, who died tragically in April along with his 22-year-old son Ariel following a head-on collision with a drunk driver along Pacific Coast Highway. The driver pleaded no contest to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter in August. "Senseless" doesn't even begin to describe this crime.
Clark, who was 67, delivered his share of other movies during his lengthy career -- most notably the raunchy "Porkys" comedies of the early 1980s -- but nothing that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as "Christmas Story."
"Christmas Story" tells the tale of a 9-year-old boy's quest for the only Christmas present that matters in his world, "a Red Ryder carbine action, two hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time."
Movie is set in Midwestern Anytown, U.S.A., in the 1940-41 period just before the world changed, forever. From set design to the lighting to casting to the narration by humorist Jean Shepherd (who penned the original source material "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash"), "Christmas Story" is a beautifully rendered gift to anyone who remembers the ants-in-the-pants feeling of waking before dawn on Dec. 25 and wondering whether that central Object of Desire is under the tree, or not. McGavin and Melinda Dillon hit every single right note as the parents of Ralphie and his younger brother Randy, and Billingsley puts over his tough lead role with a real-boyish earnestness that never smacks of "kid actor." Not once.
My husband and I had the pleasure of meeting Clark and a number of "Christmas Story" stars, including Billingsley and Scott "Flick" Schwartz, a few years ago at a Warner Home Video-hosted screening and party at the ArcLight Theater for the DVD release of "Christmas Story." Clark couldn't have been nicer or warmer. He was in his element in the company of "Christmas Story" fanatics. We marveled at the few extra scenes and different edits in the version that was screened versus the one we knew from cable airings. Clark had the crowd roaring at his suggestion that Warners do an annual theatrical re-release of the pic (old-schoolers like to see their work on the big screens; studio distribs like DVD sales).
I'm so grateful we had the chance to tell Clark how much we loved his pic, how it had transcended from being a great entertainment to ingrained part of our lives at a certain time of year (and sometimes in August, just because). I'm sure he heard it a million times from a million gushing fans, and I'll bet he never tired of it. He seemed to understand that his little holiday pic, which original distrib MGM didn't even want to release at the time it was made, had become as important to some of us as an old Christmas stocking from childhood, or the first ornament you made in kindergarten, or the sound of Darlene Love belting "Christmas -- baby please come home."
In the spirit of the season it gently skewers, "Christmas Story" is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year there are new converts, from the TBS runs, from the word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog) and from moms and dads who sit their Ralphies and Randys down every year at this time for a real treat -- no sap but plenty of sweet.
So thank you, Bob Clark, from the bottom of my stocking for seeding such a fabulous tradition. We'll be thinking of you as the Old Man battles the furnace; as Ralphie makes his fateful slip of the tongue; as Flick's tongue goes into the deep freeze; as Scut Farkas lands his first blows; as the neighbor's dogs run riot; as the waiters mangle their "Fa-la-las"; and as the snow falls and the credits roll.
(Also worth checking out is the voluminous material on the web devoted to Jean Shepherd, who was a kind of a mid-20th century Mark Twain, a writer, radio personality and humorist whose best works never feel dated. A good place to start is the FlickLives.com website, and there's also the JeanShepherdProject.com.)