The holidays are here and network television takes full advantage of our want to replay our favorites, to stir memories, or to remind us of our childhood. Perhaps no film is more nostalgic than the 1983 film A Christmas Story based on a novel by Jean Shepard, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Director Bob Clark and writer Leigh Brown also collaborated on the screenplay for this time piece of the 1940s that highlights one family’s battles with Oldsmobiles, coal-burning furnaces, and spotty electrical wiring. The film is also a timeless story of a young boy’s obsession for toy, a Red Ryder B.B. gun, for Christmas from Santa Claus, the guarantor of all secret wishes.
The casting of actor Darren McGavin (The Old Man), actress Melinda Dillon (Mother), and the young Peter Billingsley, as the bespectacled Ralphie, was perfect, but it is the voice of Shepard himself narrating the story that makes the movie so memorable. The viewer sees the events through Shepard’s eyes and hears his emotional range as he reflects on this one momentous Christmas season. In recalling his youth, he is at turns indignant (“Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?”) terrified (“Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! So, help me, God! Yellow eyes!”), and determined (“No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”)
The visual laughs abound in the story: Flick’s tongue stuck frozen to the flagpole, Miss Shields’ morphing into a witch, and the camera closing in on Santa’s boot as he shoves Ralphie down the slide into a soft pile of cloth snowballs. But it is the language, Shephard’s script, that gives the film its enduring appeal. Long after December, I have heard people quote lines from the film such as:
- Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.
- It… It ’twas… soap poisoning!
- Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
- But those who did it know their blame, and I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive.
- You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.
Not only are the lines marvelous in construction, but the vocabulary in Shepard’s recounting is of the highest caliber, with many words worthy of an SAT rating, for example:
“We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”
“Over the years I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference was for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor – heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness.”
“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.”
“Mothers know nothing about creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen where only you and you alone stand between your tiny, huddled family and insensate evil.”
When a word is not suitable, Shephard turns Shakespeare-like and creates his own:
“Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.”
Shephard also preserves the language of a different, perhaps more polite, time when a more conscious effort was made to create substitutes for profanity. The actor McGavin peppers the “Old Man’s” frustration with all things mechanical: nincompoop, dadgummit, keister, and for cripes sake, as well as more colorful expletive sound-a-likes: You wart mundane noodle! You shotten shifter paskabah! You snort tonguer! Lame monger snaffa shell cocker!
The script is also filled with a myriad of examples of figurative language guaranteed to please any English teacher. Here is an opportunity to teach students the power of similes:
“My kid brother looked like a tick about to pop!”
“Randy lay there like a slug! It was his only defense!”
“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.”
Shephard’s metaphors are also exceptional. These are constructions of “dictional elegance”, the rare combination of the sacred and profane:
“In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
“Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolved.”
“First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”
“Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty.”
My personal favorite metaphor of all time centers on the infamous lamp, a prize won by Ralphie’s father who in one hilarious sequence, digs wild-eyed through packing material in a large wood carton. He uncovers a tribute to all things burlesque: a glass leg adorned with a fishnet stocking and a fringe shade covering the upper thigh. As Ralphie stands, slack-jawed in admiration staring at the lamp, his alarmed mother shoves him back into the kitchen. Ruefully Shephard intones:
Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
So, during the next 24 hour marathon showing of A Christmas Story, when you tune in for the memories, to watch the exceptional acting and the period piece visuals, pay attention to the language that makes the film so unforgettable. You may even develop an appreciation for Ralphie’s theme essay on “A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.”
Poetry. Sheer poetry, Ralph! An A+!