At the time of its release 30 years ago this week (November 18, 1983), the movie was a cult favorite at best. Since then, however, it's become the indispensable Christmas movie for a couple of generations of viewers, as essential a holiday staple as "It's a Wonderful Life." Tens of millions are expected to watch at least some part of the film when it airs 12 times in a row during the annual TBS "24 Hours of 'A Christmas Story'" marathon on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
How did the movie go from relative obscurity in theaters to beloved classic status? There are several explanations.
One is that "A Christmas Story" is unique among Christmas movies in both content and form. Its portrayal of the holiday is unusually irreverent; no doubt, it's the only Christmas movie that originated in the pages of Playboy magazine. That's where humorist Jean Shepherd first published the autobiographical short stories of his Indiana childhood that he later collected in his books and read aloud on his syndicated radio show. Of course, he also turned those tales into the "Christmas Story" screenplay and served as the film's wry voiceover narrator.
"A Christmas Story" is one of the only films about Christmas that shows the way a child actually experiences the holiday, as an occasion marked by both awe and greed. (Even though the adult Shepherd is narrating, the entire movie is clearly presented from a kid's perspective, including the cartoonish fantasy sequences. He serves up his nostalgia with a maximum of childlike glee or disappointment, and a minimum of adult sentimentality.) There's no religious message or moral lesson here: it's all simply about the desire for presents. Of course, it's also about family life, so there's something in the film that nearly everyone can identify with, whether you're old or young, male or female, kid or parent. Its 1940s setting, with period-specific details about long-since-vanished toys and radio shows, renders the film surprisingly universal and timeless; that is, it's no more dated now than it was in 1983.
The movie's unusual structure has also led to its long shelf life. It has no plot to speak of, no real through-line except for the question, as Christmas morning draws nearer, of whether young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) will find the Red Ryder BB gun he craves beneath the tree. The movie is mostly a series of short vignettes, many of them hilarious, involving the Parker family's misadventures as the holiday approaches. That modular structure lends itself well to TBS's marathons. You can turn on the marathon at any point, watch a scene or two that you like, then go back to stuffing your own turkey or unwrapping your own presents without feeling like you missed anything significant.
Sure, on a more elementary level, the TV marathons help explain the movie's rise in popularity. In this, "A Christmas Story" parallels "It's a Wonderful Life." The 1946 film was widely regarded as a flop when it opened, so much so that its makers allowed their rights to lapse and let the film enter public domain in the early 1970s. Whereupon TV stations, eager for cheap Christmas content, played it endlessly every December until it became the holiday viewing staple it remains today.
So it was with "A Christmas Story," though the 1983 film's reputation as a box-office failure is overstated. Made for about $4 million, it played on more than 900 screens (a decent wide-release pattern in those days) and earned $19.2 million. Not a huge number but not an embarrassing one, either; it was the 39th biggest hit of 1983, outgrossing such landmark comedies that year as "Valley Girl" and "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life." But its critical reception was mixed. Some critics recognized and applauded the film for what it was, while others couldn't seem to get over the fact that this Christmas film for kids was directed by the same Bob Clark who had made the raunchy "Porky's" movies and dismissed it unceremoniously.
In 1986, Ted Turner bought the MGM library, including "A Christmas Story," and began airing the film on his cable stations, including WGN, TBS, TNT, and Turner Classic Movies. For a few years, the movie aired on Thanksgiving or the night after, symbolically kicking off the Christmas movie season. Eventually, the film migrated to Christmas Day. In 1996, the film aired eight times on various Turner stations between December 24 and 26.
The following year, TNT aired the first "24 Hours of 'A Christmas Story'" marathon, launching the tradition of playing the film 12 times in a row on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When TNT became branded as a drama network in 2004, the marathon moved to sister channel TBS, now branded as a comedy network. By 2008, the network was boasting that 54.4 million people had watched at least some of the marathon. This year, as the marathon's 17th run approaches, it's become such an institution at TBS that "A Christmas Story" has a year-round web page there, full of clips, games, trivia, and shopping ideas.
Speaking of shopping ideas, it's only been in the last decade or so that there's been a proliferation of licensed "Christmas Story" merchandise, but that, too, probably helped the film's popularity. Like your favorite alt-rock band, "A Christmas Story" seemed, for a long time, like a secret that only you and your friends knew about, one that would be ruined if it were over-commercialized and could belong to anybody for the price of a leg-lamp ornament. And yet, the tie-ins and spinoffs -- the board games, the candies, the bobbleheads -- have only increased people's fascination with the movie, just as the TBS marathon hasn't stopped Warner Home Video from shipping 500,000 "Christmas Story" DVDs every year.
In 2004, a fan named Brian Jones earned enough money selling leg lamps, like the one Ralphie's dad wins in a contest, to buy the house in Cleveland where the exteriors for the movie were shot. After renovating the interior to look like the inside of the Parkers' house (the actual interiors were shot on a set in Toronto), he opened the Christmas Story House as a tourist attraction. (He also bought a piece of property across the street, which became the Christmas Story Museum and Gift Shop.) Some 35,000 fans a year visit the house, then cross the street to shop for licensed knickknacks, including up to 5,000 leg lamps a year.
Last year, a musical based on "A Christmas Story" (and produced by Peter Billingsley, who grew up to be a successful film producer) played on Broadway, earning three Tony nominations. Smartly, it played only during the last two months of the year and didn't wear out its welcome. But if you visit Cleveland this year for the 30th anniversary, you can see the musical staged there, attend a fan convention, visit the House, eat a Christmas dinner of Peking duck at a Chinese restaurant (like the Parkers do after the neighbor's dogs steal their turkey) and stay at hotels where the movie plays non-stop in your room.
Of course, your actual Christmas this year will probably be both more boring and more frantic than that. Still, It's a comfort to know that, between 8 p.m. on December 24 and 8 p.m. on the 25th, you can check in anytime with the Parkers and see a Christmas that's both more mundane and more catastrophic (from the bunny pajamas to the broken eyeglasses to the turkey disaster) than yours.
Asked three years ago to explain the enduring fan appeal of "A Christmas Story," leg-lamp purveyor Jones told Variety, "It's just a little bit more real than most films about Christmas." Indeed, few of us have experienced Christmas miracles, but we've all wondered whether our tongues would stick to a frozen flagpole.