Tuesday, December 1, 2009

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out

Most of us will never see our life stories on the big screen, but any kid who grew up during the forties and fifties can strongly identify with Ralphie Parker, the nine-year old boy from the holiday film, "A Christmas Story", based on the novel by radio personality and author Jean Sheppard. There is no better characterization anywhere of what it was like to be a boy that age growing up in that time. Sheppard's story is loosely based on his own childhood growing up in the mid-western steel town of Hammond, Indiana, but it is so much more; for those of us from that time, Jean Sheppard could have been telling our story. Ralphie's dreams and fears were our own, as told by Sheppard in a voice that was unerringly honest and heartfelt

Ralphie's parents, played beautifully by the talented Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon were our parents. Hard working, loving and a little eccentric, they were the traditional family unit in those days. The scenes when the family went downtown to visit the department store Santa brought smiles to my face. It was a little like stepping out of my body and peeking through a window at my own life, as I recalled visiting downtown Brooklyn where great stores like A&S, Martins and Mays always put up beautiful decorations for Christmas (when it was still OK to call it Christmas) and before the notion of Black Friday and trampled shoppers became a reality.

We can all identify with the scene where Ralphie snaps and overcomes his fear of a neighborhood bully before giving him the profanity-laced beating he deserves. Ralphie's mother breaks up the fight and drags poor Ralphie home. Ralphie is worried about the swearing and fighting, and is sure he will be in big trouble when his father gets home from work. Instead, Ralphie's mother tells his father about the fight casually at the dinner table. She then changes the subject of the conversation to an upcoming football game, distracting his father and getting Ralphie off the hook in the process. This reminded me so much of how my mother managed my father and saved my bacon more than once.

Then there was the scene where Ralphie, having waited anxiously at the mail box for his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder pin to arrive in the mail, finally receives it and is now able to decode the daily "secret message" broadcast on the radio show. Ralphie learns a sad lesson in being ripped off when he finds out that the secret message turned out to be a commercial for the show's sponsor, chocolate-flavored Ovaltine. Most of the stuff I ever sent away for turned out to be junk too, so I completely empathized with Ralphie.

"I triple-dog dare you" is the challenge one of Ralphie's friends issues to another over whether a person's tongue will stick to a frozen metal flagpole. Not being able to refuse the challenge in accord with the nine-year old boy's book of street protocol, the kid takes up the dare and of course his tongue gets stuck to the pole, much to his terror. I can't tell you how many dumb stunts on my block were proceeded directly by the words "I dare you". We didn't even wait for the triple-dog dare, a simple "I dare you" was enough to get kids doing everything from stealing milk out of milk boxes to scaling roof tops for lost Spaldeens costing all of 15 cents. The dare was a tool of great power.

The scenes in the movie that I identified with most concerned Ralphie's obsession with getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. His mother's response every time the subject came was right out of the mother's handbook: "You'll shoot your eye out". On Christmas morning, Ralphie looks frantically under the tree for a box that would hold the BB gun, but to no avail. He and his brother have quite a few presents, but he is disappointed because he did not get the gun. His disappointment turns to joy as his father points out one last half-hidden present, ostensibly from Santa. As Ralphie unwraps the BB gun, his father explains the purchase to his none-too-thrilled wife, stating that he had one himself when he was 8 years old.

We didn't have video cameras when I was growing up, so I want to thank Jean Sheppard for this little gem of a movie. I was Ralphie and this was my life captured on film. If you're a child of the forties or fifties and your Christmas spirit is lagging, do yourself a favor and watch this movie. It's like looking under the tree and finding that toy you obsessed over as a nine-year old.


Children's Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

Ah I love that movie. Even though I grew up in a different time, I remember quite a few things under that tree that I now realize were not easy to get. Plus, what was Christmas without that 4000watt bulb of the home movie projector in your face?

Jim Pantaleno said...

I love those home movies...I wish my parents had that camera.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

That movie was sent to us years ago on a tape. It has become a Christmas tradition like Scrooge and the Nativity and Santa. Will they ever make those kind of movies again?

Jim Pantaleno said...

Probably not. Jean Sheppard not only lived back in those days, but he had the eye and ear to tell Ralphie's story in a way that made it instantly recognizable to those of us who shared his experience. It is a true gem and I'm glad you share my appreciation for it.