Beloved by audiences and leaving critics divided, Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story wins every year when it plays for 24 hours, continuously (on TBS). The inspiration for “The Wonder Years,” numerous stage adaptations and a fan documentary (Road Trip for Ralphie), this cynical and charming tale is anchored by the children who give us such a comedically real portrayal of kid-world that almost anyone can relate to the tale. One of my favorite moments is a subtly funny one: After Ralphie beats up that nasty Farkus and Mom comes to break it up, she sees how upset her boy is and gently pulls him off—without even a thought to the bloody kid lying on the ground—and walks her son home.
Though there aren’t many revelations on the DVD Commentary with Clark and Peter Billingsley, it is clear the two were genuinely fond of each other and listening to them is an enjoyable way to revisit the film.
1. A Christmas Story is a series of vignettes based on stories by author and radio personality, Jean Shepherd. Director Bob Clark (Porky’s, Murder By Decree, Black Christmas) took some stories from Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and others from unpublished tales, told by Shepherd while on his college tour. The quest for the BB rifle was its own single story. All in all Clark used “about eight or ten stories along with the college bits.” Clark said he thought the tongue on the light pole was not a written story.
2. The director first heard Shepherd on a car radio in 1968; he was living in Miami at the time, driving around in Coconut Grove and riveted by Shepherd’s story about the kid sticking his tongue to a light pole. Instead of stopping when he got home, Clark kept driving around the block so he could listen; his very irate date “Didn’t give a crapola who Jean Shepherd was.” Shepherd was famous for—among other things—his radio hoaxes. One such stunt involved Shepherd creating a buzz with listeners over a made-up book; he (along with his fans) was able to create such a demand for the non-existent title that it made the The New York Times best seller list.
3. A Christmas Story was a very small budget film which used tracking shots instead of Steadicam and had no special effects. The director commented that the sparks on a stunt man’s butt were real and that x-ing out the bad guys’ eyes was “a real trial.”
4. Clark said he could only do this film because of the success of “The much-despised (but commercially successful) Porky’s.” After Porky’s, he was allowed to make what he wanted. The studio had no interest at all; the film you see is just exactly what he made. Both the director and Billingsley noted it was fun that the studio was not involved because they had so much freedom (“…unlike some other studio films where you couldn’t change a word of the script.”).
5. Peter Billingsley (Iron Man, The Break-Up, Elf) was the first young man Clark saw and considered to play Ralphie. At the time, Billingsley (age 12) was co-host of NBC’s “Real People.” The director thought Billingsley was “too obvious” and then saw “8,000” other kids before going back to Peter, saying he wasted a lot of time.
6. Clark’s first thought of an actor to play The Old Man was Jack Nicholson, but the film had a small budget, so Jack lost out. The director was happy Darren McGavin (“Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Outsiders, Murphy Brown,” The Natural) ended up in the role because Clark felt “he was The Old Man.” Clark saw Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and that was “all he needed” to cast her as the Mother.
7. Peter Billingsley mentioned that during the casting process, the director brought all the kids up to Canada so they could “get chemistry” with each other. Rehearsal was held at Clark’s home in New Bedford and Ian Petrella (Randy) wasn’t found until the last few months.
8. The film was shot in Cleveland (exteriors) and Toronto (interiors). Throughout the commentary, Clark loved pointing out scenes that featured both because each location was filmed months apart. Thus, in a scene like the one where the lamp was delivered to the house, the family in the house was shot during one timeframe, but when The Old Man opens the door and we see outside, that portion was shot at a completely different time. Cleveland filming took place right after the holidays, so some decorations were still up—they did decorate the (real) department store, Higbees, including building the giant slide (Billingsley said the kids played on it during lunch and breaks). The department store scenes were shot at night when the store was closed to the public.
The snow (and frost on trees) was all frozen water put down by the crew. Clark marveled that the neighbors were so cooperative; the loud snow blowers took 24 hours to cover the area. Billingsley remarked that the whole city (Cleveland) was thrilled to have them.
9. Bob Clark found the kid in goggles (not an actor) in the department store, “He was weird (confirmed by Billingsley) and we used him just as he was.” Local extras played the witch, Santa and the elves.
10. The school scenes were shot at a real school during Christmas break. To simulate Flick’s (Scott Schwartz) tongue sticking to the pole, they had a tiny suction cup stuck in a hole in the pole, and shot with the camera at a certain angle so the hole couldn’t be seen.
11. The narration was read to Billingsley offscreen so he could react to things onscreen. The actor said that every time Clark went to the bathroom, Jean Shepherd would run over and tell Peter, “No, you have to play it like this!” Clark said that despite rumors, he and Shepherd got along fine, but eventually Shepherd was asked not to be on set because he would tell all the actors how to play their scenes. In addition to his narration, Shepherd and his wife had a cameo as the couple in Higbees department store. Bob Clark made a cameo as the southern accented Swede.
Shepherd and wife:
McGavin and Clark:
12. Clark said that (twice) he has been in restaurants and overheard families acting out the entire film in quotes as part of their holiday traditions.
13. The film is meant to be set in late thirties/early forties Indiana. Billingsley said Clark clearly sold the period; he had a woman come up to him and tell him that he looks a lot like the boy in The Christmas Story and when he replied that he is that boy, the woman said he couldn’t be (he wasn’t old enough), because the film was made in the forties.
Even with their small budget (and no eBay) they were able to find many items from the period, including cars, phones, the decoder ring and the radio, but they could not get real Lifebuoy soap (Ralphie held a wax substitute in his mouth). Billingsley said his mother used the soap punishment on him a lot and Clark said Lifebuoy was known for being the worst tasting.
The director said the leg lamp was sexually interesting in that The Old Man was (in effect) trying to bring pornography into Mom’s family world; she found it inappropriate. Clark felt that in the midwest, this unspoken battle continued on.
14. The cut from the bathroom (toilet) “pot” to the pot of cabbage on the stove was completely unintentional, but Clark says when people remarked on it, he pretended it was planned.
15. Other fantasy sequences were filmed but cut, including one with Flash Gordon and another with Ralphie in a bikini, going after an alien.
16. The film opened the week before Thanksgiving and according to the director, doubled its business over Thanksgiving weekend. It then sat in theaters during what he called “the two slowest weeks of the year,” but to Clark’s upset, it was not booked in theaters during Christmas. He believed that if A Christmas Story had been in theaters during Christmastime, it would have tripled or quadrupled its earnings. Clark said the film took off around 1986, when VHS caught on.
17. Billingsley said nearly all his film tears were real. Little Ian (Randy) was also truly afraid of the elves and the giant slide. The dogs were “terrifying” and the scene near the end (when the dogs ran through the house and fought) was all real—they had no control over the dogs.
18. Billingsley still has the Red Ryder BB gun and the pink suit; the glasses he (as Ralphie) stepped on and broke were Peter’s own. The actor said the scene in sunglasses was the hardest for him, as he is nearly blind and had only pinholes to see through.
19. The scene at the Chinese restaurant was Bob Clark’s (not Shepherd’s). No one told the actors about the singing and Melinda Dillon couldn’t stop laughing—which you can see on film.
20. Sadly, in 2007 Bob Clark and his 22 year old son were killed by a drunk driver in a head-on vehicle collision.
Cindy Davis looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.