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Home » A Christmas Story » JEAN SHEPHERD and A Christmas Story Part 1

JEAN SHEPHERD and A Christmas Story Part 1

Tis the season to be jolly

because “A Christmas Story” is coming to town

(In many formats).

This year Christmas began in early October as a large, chock-full-of-goodies book about the movie appeared titled A CHRISTMAS STORY: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A HOLIDAY CLASSIC, by Caseen Gaines. (Forewords by Will Wheaton and Eugene B. Bergmann).

ChristmasStoryCoverRGB-240x300

The large-format book is filled with hundreds of pieces of information–and memories contributed by people who made the movie, as well as innumerable snapshots of the production cast and crew. Even shots of the discarded Flash Gordon episode.flash gordon

Chapter One has an extensive description by Caseen giving details of the Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd background. Shepherd is covered more than one might have expected, and for this, I’m very pleased. It’s a pleasure to encounter, in a book about the movie, all that Caseen encompasses regarding the truths and myths regarding Shepherd. Shepahaulics will nod their heads in approval and previously innocent movie fans will learn much about a guy with a radio microphone and a boundless imagination and sense of humor who made Christmas eve and day a more enjoyable tradition through his vision and his voice.

classic shep image

Jean Shepherd

expressing his vision with his voice.

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Caseen Gaines asked me to write a foreword for the book, and I did,  concentrating on Shepherd. I present the opening part of that foreword here:

A Christmas Story is not only the funniest, but the most witty, most clever, and most satisfying film you’re ever likely to see every year for twenty-four hours straight starting Christmas Eve.

Over fifty million people watch at least parts of it every year as it’s shown on cable television, and some families, in their Christmas passion, have memorized the dialogue and the narration, repeating them along with the film. Yet most of the viewers undoubtedly don’t know much about the background of the film. If their ignorance is bliss, this book will improve their bliss by filling in a lot of background — and foreground.

Focus for a moment on the creator of this masterpiece. Let’s begin A Christmas Story with its opening titles. Of course not enough people read film titles, but in this case it’s worth taking the trouble, because who created it and narrates it is of much relevance to what it’s all about. The vast majority of the film’s annual viewers probably don’t know who Jean Shepherd is, despite the fact that prominent among the opening titles they could read Shepherd’s name four times: that this was a film “from the works of Jean Shepherd”; that Ralphie’s adult voice was none other than Shepherd; that the movie was based on Shepherd’s novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and that Shepherd co-wrote the film script with his wife, Leigh Brown, along with the film’s director and co-producer, Bob Clark.

Jean Shepherd, for all the humor and joy he expressed in his decades of nightly radio programs, also had a negative view of life — he called it “realistic” — and he definitely disliked nostalgia, even though it sometimes crept into his work, especially at the tale-end of a film such as A Christmas Story. Although Bob Clark once said that they worked hard to give a recognizable sense of what many people would remember from their past, he did not suggest that the film was meant to be an exercise in nostalgia. Clark called it “an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.” That is not nostalgia.

As to negativity and nostalgia, one has only to think about most of the film’s calamitous set pieces. Yet, because they are so funny, most people don’t realize that the funniness is inseparable from the bizarre outcome of so many incidents:

(Stay tuned for more)

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5 Comments

  1. mygingerpig says:

    One of the most enigmatic aspects of this film is the portrayal of the family. It is a very real family, with its conflicts, the irascible “old man” and the worrying mother, the whiny little brother, the Lifeboy punishment meted out for saying the forbidden F word, even though the old man taught it to the kids, the father acting like a big shot buying the tree when the bargain he strikes is no more than anyone would get, the so true to life fantasy world of Ralphie, and finally the so loving ending where the old man gets him the treasured BB gun, and the adults’ warnings almost come true.

    For all we know, this may have been the family Shep grew up with, but we also know that his father left them when Shep was just out of high school, presumably to escape with another woman. What kind of family could it have been if he had been harboring that dream for long? And we know that Shep did the same to his second wife, Joan Warner and his two children, Adrian and Randy, effectively eliminating them from his life.

    So where does this love and warmth of the movie come from? Is it his way of creating a family as he might have liked it? Certainly many of this other stories and movies (Haven of Bliss) portray a loving family who share experiences. Yet the real Shep would have none of that in his life.

    I think you nailed it in the title of your first book, Gene. He is an enigma. And the best thing for us to do is not try to solve the riddle, but enjoy what he has created for what it means to us. And for me, that is a great deal.

    Joel

  2. Stu Tarlowe says:

    “Shepahaulics will nod their heads in approval…” Hmmm…Is that like “alcohaulics”?

    “…Especially at the tale-end of a film such as A Christmas Story.” Hmmm…I suppose “tale-end” could be deliberate but, in consideration of the above, I doubt it.

    Why do such errors peeve me so? Well, Shep would’ve been peeved also. I’ll never forget hearing him read ad copy that contained the phrase “most unique”; he stopped reading and said, “By the way, Copywriter, there is no such thing as ‘most unique'”. Then he went on to explain that ‘unique’ is an absolute and therefore doesn’t take a modifier, and that there are no degrees of uniqueness. It was a memorable lesson in proper English usage.

    If I’m a stickler for accuracy in English — a language which, when used properly, is remarkable in its capacity to express precision of thought, then the influence of Jean Shepherd is as much to blame as the NYC public school system.

  3. mygingerpig says:

    I continue to be amazed by the ubiquity of ephemora connected to A Christmas Story. Leg Lamps, tongues on flagpoles, BB guns….Even the tony Orvis Men’s Gift Catalog offers an “official Red Ryder Carbine BB Rifle like the one immortalized in the movie A Christmas Story.” One wonders how Shep would have felt had he lived long enough to see the mass phenomenom that has continued to grow out of his creation.

    • ebbergmann says:

      He’d be amused, and he’d probably be getting a cut of the action. In a future post–just a few days away–I’m discussing some of those amazing ephemera–with illustrations.

  4. mygingerpig says:

    Amused that many of these products are what he called “slob art.”

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