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The Christmas past, present, future of 'A Christmas Story'

Posted: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

LOS ANGELES The phrase ''You'll shoot your eye out!'' has become as synonymous with the Christmas season as Scrooge's ''Bah, humbug!'' and Santa's ''Ho, ho, ho!''

For 20 years, this warning has defined the holidays for doe-eyed 9-year-old Ralphie Parker in the movie ''A Christmas Story,'' as his mother, his teacher and even Kris Kringle reject his plea for one particular Christmas present.

That would be, in his words, an official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range-model air rifle with a compass in the stock ''and this thing that tells time.''

''It catches the truth,'' said director Bob Clark, who spent 14 years trying to make the film. ''It's about the American sense that there is something great in our destiny, and Ralphie's is to get that BB gun with a compass in the stock.''

Over the years, the modest little movie has grown into a Yuletide perennial and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a new DVD, featuring reminiscences from the now grown-up star Peter Billingsley.

Meanwhile, this year marks the sixth annual marathon broadcast of the movie on the TNT cable channel. TNT started its 12 around-the-clock showings as a stunt in 1988, but popular demand turned it into a tradition. An estimated 38.4 million tuned in at some point to watch it last year.

''Probably about 10 years ago, when it started getting mentioned in the same breath as 'It's a Wonderful Life' and people weren't disagreeing with that that's when I realized, 'Wow, this thing might be around for a really long while,''' Billingsley, now 32, told The Associated Press.

But how did ''A Christmas Story'' begin? What made it a seasonal phenomenon? And where does it go from here?

The truth is: ''A Christmas Story'' didn't start out as a Christmas story.

The series of vignettes in the 94-minute film war with the yellow-eyed school bully, The Old Man's gloating over a garish ''leg lamp'' in a fishnet stocking; the triple-dog dare of sticking your tongue to a frozen flagpole were short stories from radio storyteller Jean Shepherd's 1966 collection ''In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.''

Among them was the tale about Ralphie wanting a BB gun for Christmas, which became the centerpiece of the movie.

While driving to a girlfriend's house in 1968, director Clark said he became enthralled with one of Shepherd's fireplace-cozy radio narrations. Clark repeatedly drove around the block keeping his unknowing date waiting while Shepherd finished the story.

For the next 14 years, Clark tried to persuade a studio to finance a film based on the stories of Shepherd, who died in 1999 at 78.

But nobody in Hollywood was interested.

Clark made a series of horror B-films in the 1970s (''Deathdream'' and ''Black Christmas'') and wrote for ''The Dukes of Hazzard'' TV show before landing on a hit.

His rowdy 1981 sex comedy ''Porky's,'' which cost only $4 million to make, collected a whopping $105 million. Suddenly the writer-director had some industry clout.

''They didn't want to do the movie. Nobody did,'' he said. ''But they said, 'Let the idiot do the movie. Give him some money so he'll get up and do another ''Porky's.''' That's the only reason 'A Christmas Story' got made.''

Apart from Ralphie, the movie's other major role was the father known not as ''Dad'' but as ''The Old Man.''

The suddenly popular Clark shopped the part around to a few curious Hollywood big-shots including Jack Nicholson. (Imagine that alternate-universe version for a moment.)

Ultimately, the part went to Darren McGavin, a cult-favorite for his TV role as a reporter who investigates the supernatural in ''Kolchak: The Night Stalker.''

Although he was not the first choice, McGavin proved he was the best choice bringing a boyish musicality to the character, crossed with the grumpy scowling of a well-practiced curmudgeon.

McGavin, now 81, suffered a debilitating stroke several years ago and was unavailable for an interview.

At 60 when the film was made, he may have seemed a little old to have such young sons but don't all adults look much older from a child's perspective?

''I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say, 'You know, he's just like my dad,''' said his daughter, Graemm Bridget McGavin. For her, it's the same thing.

''This is the closest to him of any of his roles,'' she said, adding with a laugh: ''He was TOUGH.''

Billingsley, who also was the Messy Marvin kid from 1980s Hershey's chocolate syrup commercials, was a veteran child star but ''A Christmas Story'' presented him with new challenges.

The then 12-year-old Billingsley had to carry the whole movie, but had very little dialogue. Most scenes required him to look cute and thoughtful while Shepherd provided narration.

''A lot of it's instinctual. You just try to figure out how you can stay as real as possible without overdoing it,'' he said.

He still remembers the bitter winter of Cleveland, where they filmed many of the snowy exterior scenes. ''I remember going outside and shooting the gun the part where I nearly shoot out my eye and I start to tremble and cry a little bit, which was very real because it was so cold and I was in my PJs,'' he said.

The film opened in 1983 the week before Thanksgiving, and collected about $2 million from 600 theaters solid business for the time. That take doubled on Thanksgiv-ing weekend and the movie was getting strong word-of-mouth support.

But MGM hadn't counted on much success and didn't schedule any more screens for the lead-up to Dec. 25.

''I thought, 'Well, in the weeks before Christmas we're going to clean up,''' Clark said. ''But I got a call from the head of distribution, who said: 'I've got a surprise for you.'''

And the movie disappeared from theaters.

Ultimately, it collected about $19 million at the box office. Good, but not great.

The advent of home video and ubiquitous showings on television earned ''A Christmas Story'' a place as a holiday tradition alongside ''Miracle on 34th Street'' and ''White Christmas.''

In fact, a recent unscientific survey of 7,200 people by the Internet Movie Database placed ''A Christmas Story'' as the most beloved holiday film of all time. It had 19.3 percent, while ''It's a Wonderful Life'' was second with 15 percent.

Warner Bros. now owns the film, and Clark is on a crusade. He wants the studio to reissue the movie on the big screen next Christmas season and is trying to rally fans to contact the studio.

In the meantime, with repeated showings on television, does the grown-up Ralphie ever sit down to watch the little-kid Ralphie?

''Over Christmas, when the family gets together, it invariably gets turned on,'' Billingsley said. ''And yeah ... I'll sit down and watch.''



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