Christmas means many things and around here, it always involves movies —and we crown our days of viewing old favorites with “A Christmas Story,” reserved for post-Christmas dinner.
I shared my back story with Ralphie several years ago, relating how my father had turned me on to Jean Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash),” the collection of stories that provide the basis for Ralphie’s family’s story, many previously published in Playboy.
I just read an article by someone who knew these stories even before Shepherd published them in print. Shepherd had been sharing these stories on a late night radio show for years, it turns out. And just as “A Christmas Story” is derived from the book, the book was derived from the radio shows.
As craftily as Shepherd and the film’s director, Bob Clark, massaged the mishmash into a relatively cohesive whole, the sentimental tone of “A Christmas Story” belies the subtler textures of the original stories and the deep awareness of human frailty that permeated even Shepherd’s funniest yarns.
Though the movie originally did okay at the box office, it would take many years and repeated TV airings to blossom into today’s classic, endearing itself to generations of viewers. No surprise, then, that Ralphie has had additional screen adventures through the years.
In fact, a grown Ralphie just returned this season in a new sequel, “A Christmas Story Christmas.” But since we don’t have HBO Max, that one’s out of reach for us for now. But that’s the not only sequel — or prequel.
I watched one prior sequel, “My Summer Story,” (released in 1994 as “It Runs in the Family”) many years ago — and found it highly disappointing. Sure, it’s the same characters and Ralphie’s stories. It even reunited storyteller Jean Shepherd and director Bob Clark — but it lacks the same spark as their classic. Another sequel — “A Christmas Story 2” (2012) — launched direct-to-DVD I believe, but absent either Shepherd OR Clark, the results fell so flat most fans never even heard of this one. I sure didn’t. Even the trailer got panned!
The simple fact remains that it took the combined efforts of Jean Shepherd and Bob Clark working together for over 10 years to pull off “A Christmas Story.” That sort of movie magic doesn’t come easy!
However, I did discover a few other video retellings of some of Ralphie’s adventures not fully covered in the movie we all know & love. PBS took 2 bites at the apple first, airing a couple of compilations of Jean Shepherd stories before the Big Screen version in 1983 — and both of these are freely available via YouTube (embedded below). Though neither of these efforts come close to the wonder of “A Christmas Story,” I enjoyed spending some more time with Ralphie & the Parkers.
Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976)
Teenaged Ralphie faces the junior prom and the daunting pursuit of Daphne Bigelow, the girl of his dreams. The Old Man comments, “Too many guys settle for the first skirt that shows up. And regret it the rest of their lives.” This collection of Jean Shepherd’s tales does include the Major Award story, but no “Fra-jill-ee” or fishnet stockings.
“The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters” (1982)
“The Old Man was a fireworks freak,” and Ralphie’s playing sousaphone in the high school marching band for the big parade. Again, it’s great to hear Jean Shepherd’s voice — he introduces the episode from the driver’s seat of his car before we flashback to his “childhood.” Of course, his descriptions are key to the story and its comic effect. And the Old Man dancing demonically amidst his fireworks finale is delightful.
“Ollie Hopnoddle’s Haven of Bliss” (1988)
Also available on YouTube, this first true sequel, made 5 years after “A Christmas Story,” this made-for-TV movie (Disney Channel) finds the Old Man anticipating his annual 2-week vacation. The struggles & difficulties in getting to the titular lakeside paradise include Ralphie getting his First Job and Fuzzhead, the family dog disappearing. Add in packing for 2 weeks and the l-o-n-g car ride north to Michigan (“I gotta go!” “Randy!”) and you start to wonder if they will ever make it there.
Unfortunately, in all 3 of these further adventures with Ralphie, the cast & production pale compare to the now-oh-so-familiar Parker family we know from “A Christmas Story.” That one really captured lightning-in-a-bottle and remains unmatched since then. I love how it’s grown into a modern Christmas classics, complete with round-clock holiday showings. By 2012, there was even a Broadway musical based on the movie — which was broadcast live in 2017!
Of course, with access to old recordings, there are many of the original Jean Shepherd radio shows themselves available on YouTube. In fact, that’s a whole new rabbit hole right there.
Me, I don’t care. I love diving down rabbit holes — and Ralphie’s just the pink-suited bunny to lead me.