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CHRISTMAS: A CHRISTMAS STORY

From the Nov. 22, 1983, Deseret News

A CHRISTMAS STORY — Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin; rated PG (profanity).

Frankly I prefer Jean Shepherd's original title for this work, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." Despite that bit of carping, however, "A Christmas Story" is a wonderfully nostalgic, light-hearted movie that manages to capture an amazing amount of truth in its episodic telling.

This film is like a compilation of Deseret News "Christmas I Remember Best" stories, spun with the gently humorous yet biting talent of Shepherd as he narrates them himself for the screen.

The main storyline has to do with young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a 9-year-old boy living in Indiana during the early 1940s. Ralphie wants nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder air gun and his efforts to convince his parents it won't put his eye out provide the film's binding thread.

There are dozens of wonderful moments in this film, and having Shepherd narrate is a brilliant touch, as he manages to verbally evoke his writing style, a grand juxtaposition of words that makes the stories even brighter.

There is Ralphie being picked on by the local bully, until he finally fights back, and the way in which his mother (Melinda Dillon) handles it.

There's Ralphie's little brother being bundled up so snugly for the harsh weather that he can hardly move, eventually falling on his back and being stuck like a turtle.

There's Ralphie's father (Darren McGavin), whose frustrations in dealing with the ever-troubled basement furnace result in some most unique profanities, leading to Ralphies' accidentally uttering "the queen-mother" of such phrasing. The subsequent, predictable punishment is hilariously dealt with.

Probably the funniest, truest moment, however, comes when Ralphie confronts a department store Santa with his request for an air rifle.

To elaborate any further about these vignettes would be to give away the warm and funny surprises that await you with this film. Suffice it to say, "A Christmas Story," rated PG for a few profanities, is well worth seeing and will doubtless become a holiday regular.

My one real complaint about this film is the direction by Bob Clark ("Porky's"), which is occasionally too heavy-handed. There are plenty of funny, charming moments but there are also scenes that would have benefited from a lighter touch. Had a director with a better feel for comedy been behind "A Christmas Story," this could have been a genuine classic, instead of merely a good, entertaining film.

But Shepherd's material shines through, and the actors are uniformly marvelous. In many ways this film hangs on the performances of several children and if the casting had been wrong it probably would have faltered along the way. But Billingsley is the ultimate in charming children and the other kids are equally good. They all seem very real, as do the parents.

McGavin is obviously relishing his role, and he and Dillon work very well together, perfectly realizing our image of 1940s parents. I personally think Dillon is one of our finest actresses, and to examine her range consider the mother she plays here as compared to the one she played in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." They couldn't be more different yet both ring absolutely true.

If you are familiar with the three PBS programs that adapted Shepherd's work some years ago you may recognize some of the episodes here (especially the lamp McGavin wins in a contest), but no matter. This kind of humor is really better for being familiar.

"A Christmas Story" is a biting satire of Americana but it is also gentle, funny and warm. And I suspect it will also be a very popular film.