Coate: Where do you think A Christmas Story ranks among Jean Shepherd’s body of work?
Bergmann: Because the film encapsulates many of Shepherd’s ideas and humor in a form that millions enjoy, it’s valuable. A Christmas Story is the most visible and popular work of Jean Shepherd. His most ardent enthusiasts consider it a very good piece, but not his best claim to fame and the appellation “genius.” That belongs to his decades of improvised monologues and story-telling on radio that influenced aspiring young intellectuals of New York and surrounding territory. Slyly funny on his broadcasts, he taught us to observe, think, and appreciate American culture and the immensely quirky and delightful humanity around us. We listeners are indebted to him for helping to make us more perceptive observers of our world. For example, Jerry Seinfeld, in his “Season 6” DVD sets of his television show, commented, “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”
Coate: Where do you think A Christmas Story ranks among Christmas-themed movies?
Bergmann: I’m not a good judge of how it ranks among Christmas-themed films because I’ve only seen tiny bits of a couple of the many recent ones – I suspect they’re no better than the average, mindless sitcom. I love A Christmas Story and I avoid the rest.
Christie: Certainly within the canon of Christmas movies throughout the 1980s, A Christmas Story can hold its head high. After a long wilderness period throughout the 1960s and 70s, where there was comparatively little in the way of Christmas-themed cinema (with most of the prominent festive features appearing on TV at the time), suddenly the genre burst back into life in the eighties, and by appearing early in the decade A Christmas Story is now closely associated with this renewal in public and critical interest. It may not have enjoyed the huge publicity of Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), displayed the gleeful subversiveness of Gremlins (1984) or the dark humor of Scrooged (1988), but its good-natured take on what it means to be a child during the tortuously long build-up to the festive season – having to impatiently endure school when all you can think of is the allure of opening Christmas presents – has cemented itself into the public consciousness for good reason. Certainly the movie’s regular marathon screenings over Christmas are understandable, given the way in which it has so successfully established itself across generations as a firm favorite with audiences.
Gaines: Christmas movies are so personal to so many people, so everyone will have a different answer to that question, but I clearly think A Christmas Story is one of the most significant Christmas-themed movies of all time. No other film that I know of has an annual 24-hour marathon, and let’s be honest, when you can make a sexy leg lamp and a Pepto-Bismol-colored pink bunny suit symbols of Christmas, you’ve done something right! It’s easy to turn a movie like Elf into a holiday classic; all the elements are there. But A Christmas Story is so beautifully honest and simple, and subversive at times, it’s great to see the legs the movie has had – pun fully intended!
Coate: What is the legacy of A Christmas Story?
Bergmann: The film’s popularity has resulted in a yearly-produced stage play in scores of towns, a musical Broadway production, many theme products, and the “A Christmas Story House” where parts of the film were made and where visitors can tour a recreation of the film house’s interior. There’s a popular book of reprinted A Christmas Story-related tales and a major behind-the-scenes, illustrated coffee-table book. Those are part of the legacy, but there’s also the importance of Shepherd as its creator.
For me the film’s legacy is that it may forever be by far the most prominently known vessel of Jean Shepherd’s world. As fine as it is, Shepherd deserves more recognition in America’s pantheon of creative forces. For those who care to hear his radio voice, one can find hundreds of complete broadcasts on the Internet – free or cheaply for sale on eBay and elsewhere. Acquire them so that at night, when the cares of the world are shoved aside, relax, open your sensibilities, and absorb the unique and always unexpected commentary by ol’ Shep. (One never knows what quirky mix will ensue.) Maybe he’ll tell a story, maybe he’ll comment on the passing scene, maybe he’ll describe his trip to headhunter country of Peru’s Amazon when he helped deliver 500 pounds of Luden’s cough drops to the natives, or maybe he’ll expertly render a little ditty on nose flute, Jew’s harp, or kazoo. Or maybe he’ll knock out a tune by thumping his knuckles on his head.
Long live Jean Shepherd and his A Christmas Story.
Christie: Fittingly enough, for a movie that is so closely associated with nostalgia, A Christmas Story has benefited from audience fondness of its backwards-looking recollections of the golden age of Christmas cinema in the 1940s and 50s as well as now being affectionately remembered by any children of the eighties who grew up with the film at the time. Thus its evocation of what it means to be a child in the approach to Christmas has never lost its relevance, just as its refusal to present too rose-tinted a view of family life (we see many of the disappointments as well as the joys of youth) feels commendably fresh given the occasionally saccharine tendency that the genre has to idealize hearth and home. As the narrator Ralphie himself wistfully admits, there would never be another Christmas quite like the one we see in A Christmas Story, and I’m sure that statement is true for many of the movie’s fans as well.
Gaines: A Christmas Story is proof that low-budget, small-scale movies can stand the test of time. It is such a testament to Jean Shepherd’s ability to recapture his youth into words, and Bob Clark’s ability to communicate that on screen, all through great performances. No one who worked on that film thought we would be talking about it 35 years later, but now everyone involved knows that 35 years from now, it will still be entertaining new generations of fans. That’s a legacy to be proud of.
Coate: Thank you – Eugene, Thomas, and Caseen – for sharing your thoughts about A Christmas Story on the occasion of its 35th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Los Angeles Times, MGM/UA Entertainment Co., MGM/UA Home Video, Warner Home Video. Thomas A. Christie author photo by Eddy A. Bryan.
- Michael Coate