A ‘Christmas Story’ Story: Did You Know the Movie Already Has Its Own Cinematic Universe?

A Christmas Story cast
MGM/Courtesy: Everett Collection
Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Peter Billingsley of ‘A Christmas Story’

Some Christmas stories are timeless classics. Ebenezer Scrooge learns the meaning of the holiday by way of ghastly visitors. The Grinch goes from Christmas thief to hero of Whoville. Buddy the Elf spreads Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. And Ralphie Parker yearns for an official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.

Yes, the 1983 movie A Christmas Story is an essential entry in the Christmastime cinematic canon. It’s also a holiday tradition, especially because TNT and TBS have shown the movie in 24-hour marathons regularly on Christmas Eve for years — with millions of TV viewers rooting for Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), and parents Mrs. Parker (Melinda Dillon) and “Old Man” Parker (Darren McGavin).

But you might be surprised to know that A Christmas Story wasn’t the first time that Ralphie was seen onscreen, and it certainly won’t be the last: HBO Max is continuing the family saga with the November 17 movie A Christmas Story Christmas, with the now-adult Billingsley returning to his childhood role.

As Christmas Story buffs might know by now, the 1983 movie is based on the semi-autobiographical stories of radio personality Jean Shepherd, which he shared through broadcasts from Manhattan’s WOR radio station between 1955 and 1977.

Shepherd’s friend Donald Fagen wrote for Slate in 2015 that the stories fell into four categories: Depression-era stories based on Shepherd’s childhood in Hammond, IN; tales from his service with the Signal Corps during World War II; anecdotes from his post-war career in radio and TV; and finally, reflections on modern life.

And it was the first category’s stories that would be most familiar to Christmas Story fans, Fagen wrote. “These stories featured his manic father (‘the old man’); his mother (always standing over the sink in ‘a yellow rump-sprung chenille bathrobe with bits of dried egg on the lapel’); his kid brother, Randy, and assorted pals, bullies, beauties, and other neighborhood types,” the Steely Dan singer added.

(The website Flick Lives, run by Shepherd historian Jim Clavin, catalogs the real-life inspirations for characters from A Christmas Story and other Shepherd stories. According to the website, Flick was inspired by Shepherd’s best friend Jack Flickinger; Schwartz was an analog for the humorist’s friend Paul L. R. Schwarz; Shepherd did indeed have a teacher named Miss Shields.)

As Vanity Fair reported, Shepherd eventually put his stories to paper after being urged to do so by Shel Silverstein, the children’s poet and Playboy cartoonist, and Lois Nettleton, an actress who was Shepherd’s second wife. As a result, nearly two dozen of Shepherd’s stories ran in Playboy, and in 1966, the radio host released his best-selling collection of stories In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.

Then came A Christmas Story. Filmmaker Bob Clark got the idea for the movie in 1968, when he heard one of Shepherd’s monologues on the radio, a story about a boy who puts his tongue on a frozen metal pole on a dare. (Sound familiar?)

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That monologue held Clark rapt, so much so that he was 45 minutes late for a date because he wanted to hear the end of the story. “I will do a movie of this man’s work,” Clark thought to himself, per Vanity Fair.

Trouble was, studios didn’t want to finance the film Clark had in mind. It was only after Clark directed the successful 1981 sex comedy Porky’s that MGM took a bet on the director’s idea for a nostalgic Christmas movie. Clark finally had a green light for A Christmas Story, more than a decade after hearing Shepherd’s monologue on the radio. He wrote the script with Shepherd and Leigh Brown, Shepherd’s third wife, and the rest is holiday history.

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A Christmas Story, however, is just one installment in what has become to be known as the Parker Family Saga. Shepherd wrote and narrated two TV movies that came before: 1976’s The Phantom of the Open Hearth and 1982’s The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, the latter of which had Matt Dillion playing Ralphie. Shepherd also wrote and narrated two TV movies that came after A Christmas Story: 1985’s The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski and 1988’s Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, with Jerry O’Connell playing Ralphie in the latter.

And in 1994 came a big-screen sequel to A Christmas Story, another film Clark directed and co-wrote with Shepherd and Brown: It Runs in the Family, later known as My Summer Story, featuring Kieran Culkin as Ralphie and Mary Steenburgen and Charles Grodin as his parents.

A Christmas Story’s legacy also expanded with a stage musical adaptation, which ran on Broadway in 2012 and 2013, and the ensuing 2017 Fox special, A Christmas Story Live!, which featured the talent of Maya Rudolph, Matthew Broderick, Jane Krakowski, and Andy Walken.

 

Now comes A Christmas Story Christmas — “and this time, Ralphie is all grown up and must deal with Christmas and all that comes with it… as a dad,” HBO Max teases. Billingsley once again portrays Ralphie, alongside other actors reprising their parts from the 1983 original: Scott Schwartz as Flick, R.D. Robb as Schwartz, Ian Petrella as Randy, and Zack Ward as Scut Farkus.

And with A Christmas Story’s enduring appeal, HBO Max will hardly have to “triple-dog dare” fans to watch.

A Christmas Story Christmas, Movie Premiere, Thursday, November 17, HBO Max