A Christmas Story
Behind The Scenes of A Holiday Classic
By Caseen Gaines, Ian Petrella
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2013 Caseen Gaines
All rights reserved.
The Ten-Year Itch
Somewhere in Coral Gables, Florida, a young Miami-based filmmaker named Bob Clark was doing his sixth lap around an unfamiliar neighborhood.
An hour earlier, he was getting into his car, on his way to pick up a date. He was dressed nicely, as a young gentleman should be, and made every effort to be punctual. However, on the way to his date, he became sidetracked.
He fell in love.
As any young man will attest, it is easy to find oneself overcome with romantic feelings for a number of things. Send the sexiest woman in the world in to talk to a man during the Super Bowl and she may find herself waiting until the nearest commercial break to be noticed. Try to interfere with Mr. Fix-It's D.I.Y. project and you may be able to steal a few minutes of conversation, as long as you agree to hold the screws in the interim. If there's a Star Wars marathon on and you're not wearing a Princess Leia wig, you can forget about it, especially if you're dating a member of the ComicCon crowd. Young men are simpleminded creatures.
Clark's newfound infatuation was a man's voice on his car radio. That voice belonged to Jean Shepherd. And like your typical young man in love, Clark found it hard to end his first tryst. He prolonged the inevitable conclusion by taking the scenic route to his date's house, while Shep, as fans of his radio show affectionately called him, continued to tell his tale.
Jean Parker Shepherd was born on July 26, 1921, on Chicago's South Side. His family moved soon after to 2907 Cleveland Street in the Hessville section of Hammond, Indiana. Before graduating Hammond High School in 1939, Shepherd, like Bob Clark, also fell in love with radio. He received his Amateur Radio license at age sixteen — although some accounts state that he might have caught the radio bug even earlier than that — which ended up being the first step toward a long career as a great communicator.
His radio skills were first put to use between 1942 and 1944 when, during WWII, Shepherd served as a part of the United States Army Signal Corps. Four years later, he landed his first job as a radio personality on WSAI out of Cincinnati. Between 1951 and 1953 he worked at radio station KYW in Philadelphia, but soon found himself back in Cincinnati at a different station, WLW.
It has been reported, largely by Shepherd himself, that he was offered the hosting job on NBC's Tonight Show by then host Steve Allen, who was preparing to relinquish his duties as master of ceremonies. While in Cincinnati, Shepherd hosted the late-night show, Rear Bumper. The story goes that Allen saw Shepherd's show, was impressed, and wanted him to be his successor. The problem was, NBC executives were contractually bound to offer Jack Paar the gig first. If he declined, as the suits thought he would because they assumed he wanted a show during prime time and was uninterested in a late-night slot, Shepherd would be crowned the new heir to the Tonight Show throne. The execs were so certain, in fact, that they flew Shep out to New York to prepare for the job, only to find out soon after that Paar had accepted. The young radio guy's primary contribution to the Tonight Show from that point on would be as a member of the viewing audience.
According to those familiar with Shep's biography, there is little evidence to support that there's much truth to that story. Much like one of the tales told by Estelle Getty's Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls, Shepherd's story would have placed him just a half-step away from achieving a level of fame in his early thirties that most people can only dream about. However, even if the story is false, something brought Shepherd out to New York City in 1955, and that something could be given credit for the next exciting chapter in his life at WOR.
When one searches the internet for information about Shepherd, what comes up most frequently is that he is "an American raconteur." This phrase wouldn't necessarily be unusual, except that the term "raconteur," which is hardly ever used, is almost uniformly regarded as the official term for his job description.
Dictionary.com defines a raconteur as "a person who is skilled in relating stories and anecdotes interestingly." What, then, made Jean Shepherd so recognized as such an interesting storyteller?
"What comedians like to do is take something they want to make fun of, that they want the audience to have fun with, and what they will do is talk about what's wrong with it and why it's stupid," comedian Jerry Seinfeld said in a 2012 appearance honoring Shepherd's career. "[Shepherd] did the exact opposite in so many cases. It's a very difficult trajectory in comedy to say, 'Isn't this wonderful?' ... He saw this exciting, cataclysmic drama in the ordinary."
In fact, Shepherd saw his popularity surge while at WOR largely because of his "ordinary" sensibilities. His radio show broadcasted regularly on weeknights between 1 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., and he didn't use a script or notes. He spoke on the radio like an elder around a campfire telling stories to his kin. His stories explored the simple aspects of life, often with many diversions, extraneous adjectives and adverbs, and convoluted plot twists that added more flair to the story.
Shepherd occasionally told semi-autobiographical stories about his "Old Man," Jean Parker Shepherd Sr., his mother, Ann, and Randy, his kid brother. He often assumed the role of a character named Ralphie, whose life experiences closely mirrored his own. Stories about his childhood were communicated through the fictional Parker family, also of Hammond. In 1964, his stories started to appear in Playboy (for those who read the magazine for the articles). In 1966, Shep released an anthology of Ralphie's stories, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which became a runaway hit and, to this day, has never been out of print.
As Bob Clark listened to the radio broadcast that day, he couldn't help but be reminded of his own upbringing. He was born on August 3, 1939, in New Orleans, but his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, soon after. Shep's stories reflected Midwestern values and a certain simple charm that had long since been lost by the 1960s, but as Clark realized while he was listening, and as thousands of other listeners nationwide already had discovered, the values typically described as "Midwestern" are hardly specific to that region of the United States. Sure, Clark had probably never experienced a snow storm in Alabama, and certainly not at the University of Miami, where he attended school for Creative Dramatic Writing after reneging on his acceptance of a football scholarship at Hillsdale College in Michigan, but there isn't a child in the country who didn't wish against the odds for something they wanted for Christmas, even though their parents told them it was not likely to materialize under the tree on December 25.
Clark's career had yet to take off. He was a student working on making a name for himself directing regional theater in the Miami area. A local film producer suggested to him that he might want to take a crack at directing for the screen. He accepted, and in 1966, The Emperor's New Clothes, a short film starring none other than Hollywood icon John Carradine, became Clark's directorial debut.
A year later, Clark spearheaded a project called She-Man, a short film about a soldier who is blackmailed to take estrogen pills and wear lingerie by a sadistic transvestite. Listening to the radio the evening he was to pick up his date, the young director decided what his first feature film project would be. He stopped taxiing around the neighborhood and arrived at his destination, just short of an hour late.
"I picked up my very irate date," Clark recalled. "And I decided at that moment that I was going to make a movie of Jean's work."
What was it about Shep's storytelling that had made such an impression on Clark?
"I was so enamored with his offhand, flippant kind of deceptively wry and witty comments," Clark said.
However, the road to the Cineplex was harder than the young director had anticipated. He had hoped A Christmas Story would be his first feature film, and strongly believing it would be a success, he began work on a script even before gaining Shep's participation and approval.
But A Christmas Story wasn't Clark's first feature. Instead, he directed a series of horror films throughout the 1970s, including Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Dead of Night, and his first seasonal flick, Black Christmas. During this time, Clark reached out to Jean with the offer to help bring his stories to film. The storyteller, whose stories were now appearing weekly on television in a PBS series entitled Jean Shepherd's America, was ecstatic.
Fred Barzyk, America's producer, remembers Shep's initial excitement. "[Bob Clark] was another of these kinds of people who were drawn deeply to Shepherd," he says. "And he came to Shepherd and said, 'I want to do A Christmas Story,' and for Shepherd this was big because it was going to be a movie. Maybe at long last people would recognize Shepherd as an important American icon. So he cut off all things with television. Didn't invite me to the set, he didn't do anything. He had moved on."
But the move wouldn't be immediate. Before the movie could be shopped around to studio executives, it had to be written. It was agreed that Shepherd would write the script, which would be a composite of his published short stories, most of which appeared in his 1966 anthology In God We Trust, and unpublished tales from his appearances at colleges throughout the 1970s. Leigh Brown, Shep's wife and longtime producer, would cowrite, along with Bob Clark himself.
"It substantially comes from Shepherd's work except, oddly enough, the narration," the director said in 2003 about the screenplay. "We probably worked the narration more because we had to fit various pieces."
One of the aspects of the film that sets it apart from others of the time is Shep's narration, which is both intellectual and simplistic. At times, the voice-over, which Shepherd himself provided in the voice of Ralphie as an adult, serves to comment on what the young protagonist was thinking at the time of the film's events. In other cases, adult Ralphie uses the narration as an opportunity to comment on what occurred in his family after the film's events, as a way of showing the importance of this time period in the Parkers' lives.
Whether the filmmakers knew this at the time is uncertain, but the narration ended up being an essential component of the movie, as it serves as a bridge between the adult world and the kid world. The young, and young at heart, can appreciate the insight into little Ralphie's thoughts, which often cause the audience to recall their own childhood antics. Additionally, grown-ups watching the movie see the narration as a vehicle by which to appreciate the nostalgia in the film. A Christmas Story is as much about being a child in the 1940s as it is about how times have changed since then. Jean Shepherd, with his familiarly sardonic voice and his uniquely witty critique on situations, takes us through that journey with his disembodied performance in the film.
Of course, the movie isn't simply about how things have changed since the post-Depression era. As the French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in 1849, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." This is certainly one of the themes present in A Christmas Story. While kids in the 1980s weren't racing home to listen to Little Orphan Annie on the radio, they were bolting from school to catch episodes of their favorite shows on television. Little brothers were still annoying; parents still argued and didn't understand their kids. The timelessness of the film is more important than the fact that it is set in a particular era in American history.
This agelessness is one of the true accomplishments of Shepherd's work, in spite of its contemporary references. For example, Ralphie doesn't long for any old toy weapon but instead a Red Ryder BB gun "with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time." One needs only to have seen the film or an advertisement for a Red Ryder BB gun once to see this specific model in their imagination, which is astonishing, especially since this toy never actually existed. It was merely a creation of Shepherd's fantastic mind. In recent years the gun has been available for sale as a result of the film's enduring popularity. Despite this truth, the reference to that particular toy, as well as the evocation of Little Orphan Annie radio serials, The Wizard of Oz, and, in the original short story, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, still manages to induce a nostalgic feeling and yearning for "the good old days," even for those who weren't around during that period. Shep's work doesn't feel dated because of the references — it simultaneously feels classic and timeless.
As a testament to just how timeless Shep's stories are, exactly when A Christmas Story is set remains ambiguous. In 2003, Bob Clark stated that the film wasn't set in a specific year. Instead, it takes place sometime between the late 1930s and early 1940s. Props in the film corroborate this. The Look Magazine with Shirley Temple on the cover, where Ralphie slips in an advertisement for his mother to see, is from 1937; however, the Speed-O-Matic style decoder he receives wasn't released until 1940.
In the end, the inconsistencies as to which Christmas season the film chronicles almost make the movie more realistic. After all, the film is a flashback, and as every adult knows, childhood memories can sometimes become distorted. The adult Ralphie narrator in the movie may be unreliable regarding the specific details, but what's important is his overall impression of his quest to obtain what he describes as "the greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive."
For the main framework of the film, it was decided to use "Duel in the Snow, or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid," which first appeared in Playboy in 1964. The story was part of In God We Trust two years later. The central plot is all too familiar for any fan of the film: Ralphie Parker wants nothing more than to find an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle under his Christmas tree.
A great deal of "Duel in the Snow" materializes in the finished film. Besides the primary story arc, there are minor details that found their way into the script. Ralphie's teacher makes an appearance, even though her name, Miss Bodkin, was changed to Miss Shields. Our hero receives pink bunny slippers from Aunt Clara, but with the goal of going for the deeper belly laugh, the screenwriting trio changed the footwear into a full-fledged outfit that made Ralphie look like "a deranged Easter bunny." In a self-deprecating touch, Jean Shepherd had written the pajama joke in homage to his real-life frustrations with being given a girl's name. He would often tell of how he had to beat kids up who teased him about his name — Jean with a "J" — when he was a youngster. When Ralphie says in the film that he's convinced his aunt thought he was a girl all his life, it's a more autobiographical moment of Shepherd than some might realize.
Die-hard fans will notice other consistencies between the story and the film. In the short story, Ralphie describes the process of getting ready for school as being "like getting ready for extended Deep-Sea Diving," a line echoed in the film. The boys attend Warren G. Harding Elementary School, the real location of Shepherd's elementary education, in both the story and the film. The enterprising Ralphie also sneaks advertisements for the gun between the pages of his mother's magazines, in an attempt to remind her about his Christmas wish, and the Old Man has tantrums filled with four-letter words directed at the cantankerous furnace in the basement. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Christmas Story by Caseen Gaines, Ian Petrella. Copyright © 2013 Caseen Gaines. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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