‘A Christmas Story’ was released 40 years ago. Here’s why the holiday film is still a classic
A brief history of the making of ‘A Christmas Story’ — and exploration of the film’s iconic status
“A Christmas Story” is a staple in my home each year during the holiday season. My parents love exclaiming, “Notafinger!” periodically, and we even have a leg lamp ornament that we hang on our Christmas tree.
Fans likely have their own favorite moments from the film, just like my family does. There’s the scene in which Randy, overstuffed in his winter gear, despairingly exclaims, “I can’t move my arms!” The moment when, as he helps his dad change a tire, Ralphie utters his first curse word, which the film replaces with a slow motion, “Oh fudge!”
“A Christmas Story” offers a glimpse into the life of an average family a few weeks before Christmas. But it’s packed with so many memorable gags, characters and lines that it reads more as a comedic character study of a family during the holiday season than a traditional Christmas movie.
The film, which came out on Nov. 18, 1983, has been cemented as a Christmas classic.
Here’s how “A Christmas Story” was made — and why it’s still loved 40 years later.
A brief history of the making of ‘A Christmas Story’
“A Christmas Story” isn’t a fictional account of one family’s life in the lead-up to Christmas. It’s actually semi-autobiographical.
According to Vanity Fair, “The movie was based on a handful of monologues by the comedic radio personality and writer Jean Shepherd.” Shepherd went on to write the movie script with his third wife, Leigh Brown, and director Bob Clark.
Vanity Fair reported that the idea for “A Christmas Story” sparked when Clark was on his way to pick up a date. Listening to the radio, he heard Shepherd tell a story about a a boy named Flick “who is triple-dog-dared into putting his tongue on a metal pole in the dead of winter, instantly freezing it to the pole.”
“He resolved right then, ‘I will do a movie of this man’s work.’ It took 12 years,” Vanity Fair reported.
Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie, told Vanity Fair in 2016, “I think it took so long to get made because the movie, by modern-day standards, is about nothing. It’s a family a couple of weeks before Christmas, and the kid wants a BB gun. That’s not exactly a pitch in which you’d say, ‘Let me get the president of the studio on the phone!’”
Eventually, Clark cast Billingsley, “who was already one of the most successful child actors in commercials in New York in the 1970s.” Darren McGavin was cast as Ralphie’s dad, who is called the Old Man. Melinda Dillon was cast as Ralphie’s mom, and so on.
After over a decade, “A Christmas Story” went into production. But it hit a few snags: it took a while to find a filming location and Shepherd and Clark often butted heads. The movie was finally released on Nov. 18, 1983.
It was not an instant success. At the time, film critic Roger Ebert said, per Vanity Fair, “My guess is either nobody will go to see it, or millions of people will go to see it.”
Despite a lackluster reception, “A Christmas Story” has garnered a cult following over the years.
“It brought a bracing blast of satire and realism, wrapped up in a hilarious, pitch-perfect tale of a middle-class family negotiating the perils of Christmas, recalled through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy,” Sam Kashner wrote for Vanity Fair.
Where was ‘A Christmas Story’ filmed?
After struggling to find a filming location, Clark settled on Cleveland, Ohio, and Toronto, Canada, per Entertainment Weekly.
According to Vanity Fair, Clark decided “on Toronto for the interiors and Cleveland for the exteriors.” While it was winter and plenty cold in Cleveland, there wasn’t any snow that year. So they had to bring in snow “from ski resorts hundreds of miles away.”
What town did ‘A Christmas Story’ take place in?
Despite being filmed in Ohio and Canada, “A Christmas Story” takes place in Holman, Indiana. According to the official website of the house in “A Christmas Story,” Holman is based on Hammond, Indiana, Shepherd’s hometown.
Why is ‘A Christmas Story’ still a classic today?
As Vanity Fair pointed out in 2016, Christmas films before “A Christmas Story” were in the same genre, but they were a completely different beast.
Holiday films were either dramatic, touching stories of struggle and giving (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street”), fun musicals with catchy songs (“White Christmas,” “Meet Me in St. Louis”) or cute films for children (“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” etc.).
When “A Christmas Story” premiered, it was the first of its kind. Instead of waxing poetic about the themes of Christmas — generosity, kindness, hope, Santa Claus — it was focused on a middle-class family in the 1940s and the story was told through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy.
What could be more relatable? The movie highlighted “the commercialism, the disappointments, the hurt feelings, and all-around bad luck that, in reality, often define the merry season. In other words, what real Christmas was like in real families,” per Vanity Fair.
Before “A Christmas Story,” such themes were mostly unacknowledged in Christmas movies. Instead of presenting a romanticized, pretty picture, it satirized the Christmas season.
The holiday season is beautiful, yes, and can (or, at least, should) bring out the best in us. But it’s also a time of unrealistic expectations, of disappointments, of overspending and of stress.
The enduring power of “A Christmas Story” is its absurd realism. It paved the way for similarly fun and ridiculous family-centered Christmas movies, like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Christmas with the Cranks.”
Is ‘A Christmas Story Christmas’ worth watching?
Last year, “A Christmas Story Christmas,” a sequel to “A Christmas Story,” was released on Max. It follows adult Ralphie — now a struggling writer — as he returns with his own family to Indiana for Christmas with his mother after his father died.
The film received mixed, but mostly favorable reviews. It has a 79% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
As Frank Scheck wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, “‘A Christmas Story Christmas will hardly supplant its predecessor as a holiday perennial. Nonetheless, it’s good to know that the Parker family still knows how to have a Yuletide good time after all these years.”
Where can I watch ‘A Christmas Story’ today?
“A Christmas Story” is available to either stream or rent on Max, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and YouTube. And, of course, TNT and TBS will be playing it — while there’s no news yet that the networks will repeat their annual 24-hour “A Christmas Story” marathons (as they did last year), you can likely find the film playing at least a few times on TNT and TBS over the next two months.