A Christmas Story (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Christmas movies are typically viewed much more frequently than other movies. I can't think of a movie I've seen more than a couple of times in the last ten years, but most of the classic Christmas movies like Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life. or A Charlie Brown Christmas are viewed annually during December. They really need to hold up to repeated viewings, which many do, but only one, 1983's A Christmas Story, is both the best Christmas movie of all time and one of the best movies ever.
Radio humorist and author Jean Shepherd based his screenplay for A Christmas Story on his book, "In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash)" as well as numerous radio broadcasts and college tour monologues. Those were, in turn, based on his life growing up in the Midwest during the 1940's. The movie is more a series of unrelated vignettes held together by nine-year old Ralphie (the perfectly cast Peter Billingsley) and his quest for an authentic Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. After all, it has a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time. Ralphie can't get his mom (Melinda Dillon) to agree that it would make a great present, she's worried he'll shoot his eye out. Ralphie's dad, The Old Man (Darren McGavin), is completely uninterested in both Ralphie's gun and, seemingly, his entire family.
The movie has a strong Christmas connection with Ralphie's desire for the BB gun, a trip to see a horrible Santa Claus at the local department store, and a Christmas Day that doesn't go entirely according to plan, but most of this movies best moments are not Christmas related and have very little to do with Ralphie's hopes for something he can use to shoot his fellow man. Uttering the F - - - word while changing a tire on the side of the road, a schoolyard challenge to stick a tongue to a frozen pole, dealing with the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), and the battle between Ralphie's parents over the infamous Leg Lamp are all comedic classics.
The movie was directed by Bob Clark, best known at the time for Porkys and a movie about a cannibalistic serial killer. Despite that history, Clark turns out to be the perfect director for these Shepherd stories. He is a genius at making the relationship between Ralphie and his family and friends completely realistic. Ralphie lies to his parents and teachers, abandons his friends to avoid getting himself in trouble, curses, and covets. You know, just like what you and I did when we were his age. None of this is mean spirited, it's just a real nostalgia, rather than being the overly cloying sentimental pap you'll see on the Hallmark Channel this year. Remember, this movie ends with a duck getting its head chopped off, I don't think Rob Lowe's latest holiday offering will try that.
Although the name may lead the uninitiated to think that A Christmas Story is only worthy of viewing around this time of year, it really transcends the genre. There are many laugh out loud moments and even if you didn't grow up in Indiana in the 1940's, you'll identify with the kids and their family. It doesn't run off completely with inane comic shenanigans and doesn't get hung up on weepy wishful thinking for a "simpler" time. Instead, it is a perfect blending of comedy and nostalgia.
This special edition two-disc set was issued in conjunction with the 20th anniversary release of the movie. Frankly, it's a bit of a disappointment. I can only guess that the studio felt that it had to provide a two-disc edition to make people feel they were getting something special. There isn't enough material on the second disc to justify its existence, and a one disc would have been plenty.
The key item on disc one is the commentary track recorded in 2003 with Bob Clark and Peter Billingsley. This is a very enjoyable commentary and a nice bonus for any fan of the film. Clark and Billingsley both add interesting facts and anecdotes and neither one hogs to conversation. They reveal several things I'd never heard before like Jack Nicholson being interested in the role of The Old Man. Also, Clark points out areas where being a low-budget, unknown film helped production, since the studio didn't really care about the picture and didn't interfere with filming at all. Both men talk about Jean Shepherd and without saying it, Clark makes it clear that while he was an invaluable member of the creative team, he was also a supreme pain in the ass.
Once the commentary is done, however, and you move onto the offerings on disc two, things go downhill fast. There is a "Another Christmas Story," an 18 minute featurette produced in 2003 with the actors who played Ralphie, Schwarz, Flick, and Scut Farkus interviewed along with Bob Clark. About half the brief time is not spent on the actual movie but stupid questions about favorite and least favorite Christmas gifts, personal ownership of a BB gun and the like. It's a fairly weak extra.
Unfortunately, the weak featurette is really the cream of the crop of the non-commentary extras. There is the "Triple Dog Dare" trivia game, where Peter Billingsley asks some movie related trivia questions and if you get it right, one of the other cast members says "yes, that's right" or "no, you're wrong." There are less than ten questions, so it wears thin quickly. However, it's better than "Decoder" which has the viewer match about five scenes with the classic line from that scene. It's not even very challenging for a non-fan.
An extra titled "Radio" contains Jean Shepherd telling two of the vignettes that are used in the movie on the radio. He's an entertaining storyteller and you can see what caused Bob Clark to hear these programs and want to make a movie using Shepherd's stories. A five minute overview of the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun is also included. It gives an overview of the Daisy BB gun factory and its place in the movie. Finally, there is the truly weird extra called "Get a Leg Up" which covers a small company that makes a leg lamp similar to the one that plays a key role in the movie. The movie isn't referenced at all but it's very clear that whoever put the featurette together had been watching an awful lot of episodes of "The Daily Show" since the interview is presented in the exact "The Daily Show" style. It's actually somewhat funny but not really related to the film in any way.
Although the DVD is marketed with an "all-new transfer" it really doesn't look spectacular. It looks better than you will see it on VHS obviously, but isn't particularly dazzling. The strength of the picture and the addition of the entertaining commentary make up for the pretty mediocre quality of the additional items on these discs and make it a worthy purchase.
Reviewed By: Edward Perkis