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JEAN SHEPHERD–A CHRISTMAS STORY for Christmas

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The film, annotated, in part.

Years ago I wrote and submitted to a movie magazine, my overall description and commentary on that great American Christmas movie. But it was rejected, the editor said, because the mag had published a general article about the movie a few years before. Here’s a slightly-edited part of the introductory matter I wrote, plus a paragraph from the 2016 holiday issue of the magazine Vanity Fair.

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“Was there no end to this conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?”

In case the reader doesn’t know, A Christmas Story (1983) is the movie about a kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas.  His mother, teacher, and even Santa Claus, tell him that he’ll shoot his eye out.  He (a cute kid with glasses), his kid brother (very whiny), his parents and friends, live in the steel mill town of Hohman (actually Hammond), Indiana.  Their world is just as we remember life used to be or feel it should have been.  Yet almost every incident in this sort of picturesque, just-like-it-should-be world, ends in disaster.  But then the kid gets the gun and the parents show mutual affection, so all imperfections convert to life as we dream of it. The End.

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NOSTALGIA (Jean Shepherd: “Get it out of your skull!”)

Although director Bob Clark once said that they worked hard to give A Christmas Story a recognizable sense of what many people would remember from their past, he did not suggest that the film was seriously meant to be an exercise in nostalgia.  Clark called it “an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.”  That is not nostalgia.

Jean Shepherd, for all the humor and joy he expressed in his decades of nightly radio programs, had a negative view of life’s ultimate meaning, and often expressed an intense dislike of nostalgia.  From his earliest radio days he insisted that, despite evoking the past, his stories showed that the past was no better than the present.  On one radio program he put it this way: “My work, I think, is anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact.  If you really read it, you realize it’s a putdown of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.”

A QUOTE FROM THE VANITY FAIR HOLIDAY ISSUE, 2016

Shepherd’s biographer [sic*] Eugene Bergmann points out that the line in the film that best describes Shepherd’s attitude toward life is when they’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and the Old Man is sitting in the living room reading the funny papers. “The viewer can see the Bumpuses’ hounds starting to trot past him, but he doesn’t see them, because the paper is blocking his view. And, of course, we know what’s going to happen—the hounds are going to get hold of that Christmas turkey.” So Shepherd says, in his voice-over narration, ‘Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.’”

*As I continually explain, my book is not and never was intended to be a “biography.” It’s a description and appreciation of his art.

With all of this, A Christmas Story is the funniest, most enjoyable, wittiest, clever and most satisfying film you’re ever likely to see yearly 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 Turner Cable television.  Some families, in their Christmas passion, have memorized the dialog and the narration, repeating them along with the film.  (Despite watching it yearly and remembering most details, my wife and I laugh unfailingly at the same places.) Most watch it yearly, filled with the teary-eyed nostalgia they bring to it, though most of them undoubtedly do not know what the film is meant to be about and that there is only the tiniest bit of authentic happy-days that I think was probably (through a producers’ arm-twisting of the script-writers) tagged onto the end.  The viewers’ ignorance is bliss.  Yet, they might increase their pleasure in this delightful creation by understanding more about the film, because knowledge and insight, as we know, is a very satisfying sort of adult bliss worth adding to one’s heretofore innocent enjoyment.  Viewers will come to understand why the kid nearly shoots his eye out.

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Let’s follow A Christmas Story

from its opening titles to its picture-postcard, sugarplum end.

Of course not enough people read opening titles, but in this case, it’s worth taking the trouble,

because who created the film and narrates the entire thing is of much relevance to what it’s all about.

OPENING TITLES

Probably a vast majority of viewers don’t know who Jean Shepherd is, despite the fact that,

prominent among the opening titles they would read the following four:

Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Presents

A film from the works of Jean Shepherd

a-film-from-the-works-3

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Ralphie as an adult

Jean Shepherd

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Based upon the Novel

In God We Trust

All Others Pay Cash

By Jean Shepherd

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Screenplay by

Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown

& Bob Clark

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The title “Ralphie as an adult,” refers to Jean Shepherd doing the entire narration we enjoy so much.  He had previously used this narrative style in his 1970s television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” and he described the style in his introduction to the published script of it, writing: “The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously in communication with the viewer.”  Fans of the 1988-1993 sitcom, The Wonder Years may well recognize that form of narrative.  Shepherd, who, because of his use of it for A Christmas Story in 1983, had been considered for the narrator role in the sitcom, but had then been turned down, apparently because his adamant beliefs regarding his creative endeavors were considered too difficult to deal with.  Bitter for many years, he claimed that The Wonder Years producers had stolen from him not only his technique, but some plot lines.

For those unfamiliar with Jean Shepherd, note that he improvised his nightly radio program in the 1950s through early 1977, and that most of the film’s content was told by him on his shows in the early 1960s without a script.  Then he wrote down the stories and they were published in Playboy, then in his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’ Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.  Shepherd, a major jazz personality in the late 1950s, is also known for his other films, several television series he created, as well as for hundreds of live performances around the country for decades, and for perpetrating one of the great literary hoaxes of all time: the I, Libertine affair. (You can look it up.)

Merry Christmas to all,

and may none of you ever

(even metaphorically)

shoot your eye out.

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1 Comment

  1. […] A CHRISTMAS STORY FOR CHRISTMAS What better way to contemplate getting a BB gun? The movie created by Jean Shepherd, narrated by him also (with a cameo role, too)! […]

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