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How ‘A Christmas Story’ Became a Holiday Staple

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Peter Billingsley sits on Santa's lap in a scene from the film 'A Christmas Story', 1983. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)
Peter Billingsley sits on Santa’s lap in a scene from the film ‘A Christmas Story’, 1983. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

 

The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once declared of the movie business: “Nobody knows anything.” Damned if that isn’t the case with 1983’s A Christmas Story. A minor success upon its premiere, it seemed likely to be forgotten. Yet as the years passed it gained fans. In 1997, TNT started airing it as a 24-hour marathon. (A practice that continues today on rotating networks.) Now it rivals A Christmas Carol for the most celebrated tale of the holiday season. Yet it somehow failed to launch any successful careers, even after it got a sequel in 1994 … and another sequel in 2012. (If you were unaware of either of these, you’re not alone.)

Sam Kashner tracks the film’s creation and its growing status as the decades passed for Vanity Fair. A Christmas Story was the result of director Bob Clark’s determination to bring the semi-autobiographical stories of radio personality Jean Shepherd to the big screen. (Shepherd also narrated the film.) Clark was fresh off an unexpected success: the randy teens sex comedy Porky’s. While Clark didn’t have much of a budget—he even gave up his directing fee and eventually put $150,000 of his own money into the production—he was relentless in fulfilling his vision. He auditioned an incredible 8,000 actors before he settled on 12-year-old Peter Billingsley for the role of Ralphie.

The film’s slow build to success ensured that it never particularly benefited anyone’s career. (Quick: Name an actor—aside from the one we just name-dropped—from this movie. Didn’t think you could.) The 1994 semi-sequel, known both as It Runs in the Family and My Summer Story, reunited Clark and Shepherd but has been entirely forgotten. The movie got another sequel with 2012’s A Christmas Story 2. It went straight to DVD with no involvement from either Shepherd (who died in 1999) or Clark (who died in 2007).  

So why does this little movie endure? The now grown Billingsley has a theory, believing the film manages to be sweet without somehow ever becoming sentimental:

“I don’t know if it was the first, but it certainly was one of the best embodiments of a real family. There’s tension, there’s some fear of the father, there’s anxiety in the household, there’s very much a sibling battle, there’s a mother trying to hold things together and hold her place, there’s probably financial trouble, the father’s do-it-yourself aspect of the household: nothing is sourced out—he’s going to handle it! Yet through all that, there’s a genuine sense of love and protection within the house, and yet the words ‘I love you’ are never uttered in the movie.”

To read the full story of an unlikely film and its even more unlikely rise to holiday staple, click here. Below, watch the original trailer and get that rush of memories of the first time you saw it.