An un-Christmas Christmas story

Required holiday viewing with a ghostly past

LEG O’LAMP<br> Darren McGavin, left, as the Old Man, proudly displays <span style="">his</span> pride and joy, a lamp made from a mannequin leg.

LEG O’LAMP
Darren McGavin, left, as the Old Man, proudly displays his pride and joy, a lamp made from a mannequin leg.

Way back when, in the days before DVDs and even VHS (some even whisper of the dark hours before cable), a rich holiday tradition involved the seemingly never-ending broadcasting of the perennial Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. It was a favorite of viewers because it had been seen so many times that one could go about the yuletide preparations as it flickered in the living room on the Quasar, pausing occasionally to partake of a favorite moment.

The story of suicidal everyman George Bailey and the intervention of Clarence the Angel, who reveals to him the wonders of one man’s mark on those who surround him, rang a multigenerational chord that invited the film into the Christmas celebration like a well-loved (but at times slightly over-familiar) relative.

The broadcasters loved the film because it was in the public domain, which meant that they could show it all they liked and not have to mail off a royalty check to anyone. Ho, ho, ho. Ka-ching.

REACH FOR THE SKY<br /> Young Ralphie proudly displays </i>his<i> pride and joy, a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.

But it wasn’t … public domain, that is. In 1993, Republic Pictures pulled a Scrooge-ish Daffy Duck ("Mine! Mine! Mine … all mine!"), and reasserted their rights in court, and then turned around and promptly sold The Property to NBC. And thus, another fine tradition was squashed beneath the wheels of commerce. In turn, a large amount of the younger generation has yet to encounter the world of Bedford Falls and meet its most inspirational citizen, George Bailey.

Madly, the networks of the fledgling cable behemoths struck about trying to find a replacement. Ted Turner struggled free from Hanoi Jane Fonda and snuck out of the familial bounds one snowy night (actually, it was a intemperate Wednesday afternoon in Atlanta, but that doesn’t work within the demands of our cultural storybook). With a sweep of the Turner Network Television company checkbook, Turner bought up the pre-1985 MGM film catalog … and buried among the celluloid trinkets was A Christmas Story. And thus, a new tradition was born.

What makes A Christmas Story so user-friendly in terms of drive-by viewing is that it doesn’t exactly have an overt narrative, save for young Ralphie’s efforts as he sets about hounding his beleaguered parents with the exasperating desire for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. Instead, the movie is essentially a collection of subplots and stand-alone vignettes, each touching on timeless shared experiences of the pains of pre-adolescence in small town America (who hasn’t had his tongue stuck to a frozen flag pole?). One can wander from the kitchen and take a time-out with Ralphie and his encounters with bullies, or the Old Man’s perverse appreciation for his newly-acquired object d’ kitsch, and wander off to accomplish a second chore with memory comfortably filling in the blanks.

TBS, of course, shows it for 24 hours every Christmas Day. If you haven’t seen or claim you haven’t seen A Christmas Story, you are probably on the No Fly List and there is most likely a nondescript van parked just down the street from where you live. Occasionally, you might see a man in a dark suit enter the back of the vehicle carrying a rack of coffees. In the distance, a dog barks.

Why do you hate America?

The cast of Bob Clark’s <span style="font-style:normal">Black Christmas</span> are a bit skeptical regarding the joys of the season.

Be that what it may, the movie was based on “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” the reminiscences of one Jean Shepherd who, despite the name, was a dude. And the film is now firmly entrenched in American pop-cultural awareness. It’s no Frank Capra, the elders still mutter in their brandy-laced eggnog, but it will do.

Not bad for a pretty much neglected holiday movie that hit the theaters in late 1983 and was gone before the Christmas season even arrived. And not bad work for a certain Canadian director whose name, when mentioned, generally draws blank stares.

While the oeuvre of the movie’s director, Bob Clark, could by no means be called Capra-esque, he has still been responsible for more than a few touchstones and subgenres within the cinematic realm. Ironically enough, this Christmas Eve the pundits are decrying the crass opportunism of Hollywood’s diabolical Weinstein Brothers and their goremeister distribution organ, Dimension Films. Why? Because they are besmirching the festive nature of the Christmas spirit by releasing on that day a nasty little slasher flick called Black Christmas (a bunch of sorority sisters get sliced-n-diced by a some nutjob who got called Scrooge or Grinch one to many times for not joining in the Christmas spirit).

It is a remake of Clark’s seminal 1974 horror film, which is generally cited among horror historians (yes, there is such a thing) as the catalyst for the whole stalk-n-slash subgenre, which spawned such holiday-themed entries as Christmas Evil, To All a Good Night, and the infamous Silent Night Deadly Night. In fact, what many folks consider to be the proto-slasher film, John Carpenter’s Halloween, was originally funded to serve as a sequel to Black Christmas. All good counter-programming to the festive A Christmas Story … although Grandma might frown at the sight of some luckless sorority girl’s even more luckless boyfriend getting his chestnuts roasted on an open fire.

Not content to tarnish the sacredness of the holiest of holies (of days, that is), Clark went on to deliver Porky’s unto the drive-in consciousness. And thus, the randy teen comedy was born, and busy filmmaker Clark was the midwife. A child at risk of getting his eye popped out by a stray BB was child’s play to Clark by the time he embarked on filming A Christmas Story. But by holding on to 20 percent of the rights to the film, the man has the comfortable means to finally get around to remaking his first film, the zomedy Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things.

But I digress. We are gathered to toast A Christmas Story and to bid a melancholy farewell this first Christmas season without the Old Man, Darren McGavin. McGavin, who passed on last Feb. 25, was known to many as one of the actors to play Mike Hammer, and is remembered fondly as Carl Kolchak, hunter of the undead and other noisome things that went bump in the night in the short-lived television series The Night Stalker. But it was the role of Ralphie’s creatively foulmouthed Old Man that serves as a fitting cultural epitaph for McGavin’s fine body of work. You, Old Man, were the Major Award.