'A Christmas Story,' an American tale

Holiday favorite turns 20

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

— 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. An estimated 38.4 million tuned in to watch it last year during the 24-hour showing.

"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.

Better than a date

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.

From "Porky's" to Santa

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."

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.