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At 20, 'A Christmas Story' is a Christmas movie classic

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

By Judith S. Gillies, The Washington Post

Take a triple-dog dare and watch all 24 hours of TNT's airings of "A Christmas Story." The marathon of back-to-back showings begins today at 6 p.m. on the cable network.

For the 20th anniversary of what has become a holiday classic, TNT also will feature short interviews with the stars and director of the film.

Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie Parker, a boy determined to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas -- despite warnings from his mother, teacher and a department-store Santa that "you'll shoot your eye out!"

Billingsley was 12 and had been acting for about 10 years when he got the role of Ralphie. Now 32 and a producer, he said he finds the film's impact and reception amazing.

"It's a rare film that has staying power. 'A Christmas Story' is not just a funny movie but something that connects with people," he said. "People say, 'Hey, that was me,' or 'That was my family. I can really relate to that.' "

Bob Clark, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced "A Christmas Story," said his goal was to make a classic. He had been a fan of Jean Shepherd from the first time he heard the humorist on the radio in 1968, Clark said, and he had wanted to do a movie based on Shepherd's work. But he couldn't get the project off the ground, Clark said, until he had a box-office hit with "Porky's," a gross-out comedy, in 1982.

The holiday movie, released in 1983, is a combination of tales from Shepherd's book, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," and stories he told on the college circuit and his New York radio show. To mark the movie's 20th year, there is a two-disc special-edition anniversary DVD and a book of five of Shepherd's stories, each titled "A Christmas Story."

"Though it's a Christmas story, it's very edgy. There are the stories of Ralphie and the curse word, the younger brother who can't put his arms down when he's wearing a snow suit, the boy who gets his tongue stuck on the frozen pole. We built on Shepherd's work, added others, and wove it all together with Ralphie's quest for the BB gun," Clark said.

"As I watch it now, it feels like a lot of Christmases," Billingsley said. "There's getting up early and charging down to the tree with the anticipation of the one gift you hope you get. And the scene with the pink bunny suit is an extreme version of the ugly sweater you get from relatives that your mother tells you to wear."

Shepherd, who died in 1999, narrates the movie and has a cameo role in which he tells Ralphie to go to the end of the line to see Santa in the department store.

Others in the cast included Darren McGavin as Ralphie's father, "the Old Man"; Melinda Dillon as the mother; and Ian Petrella as Ralphie's younger brother, Randy.

"A Christmas Story" is set in the Midwest around 1940, and it was filmed in Cleveland and Toronto in late 1982 and early 1983 over 40 days, which is pretty fast for a period movie, Clark said.

There wasn't much snow in Cleveland during the filming, he said, so the crew used a snow maker from a ski resort.

"We warned the neighbors that there would be this incredible noise -- but they put up with it for 20 hours and were very gracious." The city also kept some of its holiday decorations up longer than usual and helped with the parade scene.

Daily details of modern Christmas characterize "A Christmas Story," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"Even though it's set in the '40s, it's contemporary enough that we recognize it. It's about a kid who wants a [certain] present and is the first great classic of a consumer-culture Christmas. 'Miracle on 34th Street' has some of those elements but it's not as specific."

Originally the filmmakers thought the movie would appeal to people who had been children in the 1940s, Clark said, but the audience age range is across the board and families often watch the movie together when it's aired on television.

While at a restaurant in New Hampshire, Clark said, he once heard people at a nearby table reciting lines from the movie. The family of four -- father, mother and two children 12 and 7 -- said their tradition was to go to the restaurant every Christmas Eve and do the whole film -- every word.

"It's meticulously put together, beautifully written and has one of the best endings one can imagine. It validates everybody," Thompson said. "These Christmas classics tend to take awhile to become classics. Generally, it's done on TV, not in the movies. Slowly a generation grows up and the show becomes as much a tradition as hanging a stocking."

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