Ralphie’s near miss
Director Bob Clark will never be confused with Frank Capra.
But for many, Clark’s film A Christmas Story is as beloved a holiday perennial as Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
Film lovers might sneer at Clark’s body of work ó Baby Geniuses, Turk 182! and Rhinestone are among the more high-profile films ó but he will be remembered for two genre milestones.
It was the vulgar sex comedy Porky’s in 1982, a Canadian box office champ, that made the beloved A Christmas Story possible in 1983. They are as different as night and day, but represent two sides of the feisty but little-known filmmaker. And both come straight from the director’s heart.
Clark, 62, was born in Birmingham, Ala., but was raised in Florida, where he attended college.
Like many young directors, he broke into the business through the horror genre. When his first film, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, was picked up by a Canadian company in 1972, he inadvertently became a pioneer in the coming exodus of film production from Hollywood to Canada. In 1974, his film Black Christmas was picked up by Warner Bros. and he was off.
Two studio films ó 1979’s Murder By Decree, with Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes, and 1982’s Tribute, with Jack Lemmon ó followed. After each of his films, Clark said during a telephone interview, he would try to get studios to let him make something called A Christmas Story.
“And they would laugh at me. After Porky’s, they didn’t laugh any more,” he said.
Porky’s is the story of a group of high school boys obsessed with sex.
“It was the most vulgar, outrageous movie,” said Clark, “but it was honest. That’s how we grew up. Every single one of those stories is true. Everything in Porky’s was collected from high schools around the nation, because I realized that high schools are the repository of our ritual of our sexual coming of age, which is an important part of what life is about.”
The film became a surprise hit, spawning sequels and modern-day gross-out imitators such as American Pie and the Farrelly brothers’ films.
But Porky’s was also much loathed. Clark said that one critic wrote, “`I hate it more for the hundreds of copies of it I had to review since then.'”
However, the director added, the film “always had its supporters.” David Mamet and Norman Mailer were fans, “and Pauline Kael gave me a good review,” he said.
The film’s success at the box office gave Clark the clout to make his dream project. He had been writing the screenplay for A Christmas Story for 15 years, with Jean Shepherd, upon whose autobiographical essays the film is based.
Shepherd was a radio announcer turned writer and performer whose works were featured on public TV in the 1970s. Clark tracked him down back in 1968 and told him that “I loved his material but I didn’t have any money. He didn’t care. He just wanted see A Christmas Story get made.”
It took 15 years to do it. Shepherd, who narrated the film and who died in 1999, was a notorious curmudgeon, but he and Clark “hit it off from the beginning,” the director said. “I revered his work, and he knew that.”
A Christmas Story, set in the 1940s, is specifically drawn from Shepherd’s life growing up in a steel town in Indiana, but it tells a more universal story of a working-class family’s life in the days leading up to the holiday. It stars Darren McGavin as the crusty father, Melinda Dillon as the frazzled mom and Peter Billingsley as the bespectacled boy who dreams of getting a BB gun for Christmas. It is a beautifully detailed and emotionally evocative piece that captures the feelings of family life, childhood and the holiday in one fell swoop.
“It touches so many truths. So many people say, `God, that was my old man,'” Clark said.
McGavin and Billingsley’s character, named Ralphie, “are both unquenchable in their spirit,” Clark added.
“The old man is going to go on and on and on. He may seem a dullard and stupid, but he’s not,” the director said. “He wants what he wants, and Ralphie is very much his son, with a bit more finesse.
“We worked very hard to capture the feeling of the house and the Christmas tree. We went to great lengths to create the sense of time and place. And I think that’s what touches people.”
In the audio commentary on the recently released 20th anniversary DVD from Warner Bros., Clark almost dismissively describes a scene in which the family tries to get Ralphie’s younger brother to eat his dinner as “a lot of palaver around the kitchen table.” Yet the scene’s very simplicity reveals the heart of the film and reflects the purity of Clark’s aesthetic.
“It’s just the gut instinct of, forgive me, an artist who grew up in that world,” he said. “That’s the world of a lot of Americans. That’s their home. Two kids, a father and a mother who does all the work. The truths were in Shepherd’s work.
“Someone said, `There’s not a scene where there aren’t 10 observations about life.’ And it’s true. We worked hard for those little moments.”
The film’s ending “tells you what’s really going on” in the family. After their adventure at the Chinese restaurant where they eat Christmas duck, “Mom puts her arm around Dad ó they haven’t touched in the whole movie ó and there’s a connection there. You think they live in separate worlds, but these people have parts of each other that fill the other’s life.”
Clark said Porky’s and A Christmas Story are “about the dynamics of acquisition, the intense desire to acquire a girl’s body” in Porky’s and Ralphie’s BB gun in A Christmas Story. One critic even noted that the boys in A Christmas Story could have grown up to become the leering youths in Porky’s.
“And I think that’s true without question,” said Clark.
Clark made a sequel to A Christmas Story, about summer vacation, using different actors, but it did not fare well. The original, however, lives on in the hearts and minds of the audience. There are numerous Web sites and fan clubs dedicated to it, and Clark often encounters people who recite lines of dialogue to him.
Clark hopes the film will be theatrically re-released during the 2004 holiday season. Five of his films are being remade, including Porky’s, which is being remade by Howard Stern. But A Christmas Story is not among them.
“You couldn’t do it again,” said Clark. “A certain magic happened.”
Ralphie’s near miss