Based on stories by Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is the tale of nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), growing up in fictional Hohman, Indiana (Hohman is a street in Shepherd's hometown of Hammond, IN). The year is 1940. Christmas is approaching, and Ralphie wants a special Christmas present -- an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle ("with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time"). He daydreams of shooting bad guys in the butt. The air rifle is the Grail and Excalibur rolled into one. The direct approach -- asking his parents -- fails. Ralphie's mother counters with the response of mothers everywhere: "You'll shoot your eye out." Ralphie's attempts to enlist support from his teacher, and even from Santa Claus ("the head honcho"), elicit the same answer.
Other vignettes are interwoven with the main storyline. Chief of these is The Major Award, won by Ralphie's father, aka The Old Man (Darren McGavin), in a crossword puzzle contest. The award turns out to be a lamp shaped like a woman's leg. The Old Man proudly displays this tacky prize in the front window, much to his wife's embarrassment, and the lamp becomes a focal point of conflict.
Peter Billingsley is charming as Ralphie. Even bundled in heavy winter clothes, his expressive face brings the character to life. Melinda Dillon is usually understated as the harried mother. McGavin, as The Old Man, is funny in a bumbling sort of way, but his acting is a bit over-the-top. Author Jean Shepherd's narration, with it's barely suppressed chuckle, is the heart of the story; I could say that the narration is the story. Without it, you have a film that's cute, but bland. On the other hand, one could listen with eyes closed, and follow the story. The narration isn't far removed from the radio shows that young Ralphie listens to. Shepherd also plays an uncredited cameo, as a grumpy parent in the line to see Santa Claus.
There are a couple of segments of interesting camera work. One is the swirling surrealism of Ralphie's encounter with a department store Santa Claus. The other is the revolting segue from a toilet seat being raised to a lid being lifted off a pot of boiling red cabbage.
The film is filled with icons of Americana. Ralphie utters "the queen mother of all dirty words", and gets his mouth washed out with soap. The mother can heal any injury with a wet washcloth. The Old Man prides himself on his bargaining skill, and his speed at changing tires. He is also a master of jerry-rigged home repairs. And in my favorite scene, Ralphie's buddy Flick is triple-dog-dared into touching his tongue to a frozen flagpole, where he is stuck fast.
This is a feel-good movie, but something's missing. No mention is made about World War Two, although it's 1940, and The Old Man is frequently shown reading a newspaper. Is this done to point out the innocence, both Ralphie's and the nation's, that will soon be lost?
Does the film have a lesson? Perhaps it does. The lesson would be that obstacles, whether the obstacle is a bully like Scut Farkas, or having your Christmas turkey eaten by the neighbor's dogs, can be overcome.
Now go out and play. Dress warmly.
And don't shoot your eye out.
For more information on Jean Shepherd, including much Christmas Story trivia, go here.