Monday, December 24, 2007
The Gem and the Dud
In the early 80s came a pair of Christmas-themed films. One was a big-budget epic starring then-box-office-draw Dudley Moore and Oscar-nominated character actor John Lithgow, with a screenplay by the writers of the initially successful Superman franchise and Bonnie and Clyde. The other was a modestly-scaled comedy featuring a cast of unknowns (with the semi-exceptions of Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon), directed by the creator of Porky's, and shot largely in Cleveland.
In retrospect, there were glaring red flags for Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), not least of which director Jeannot Szwarc's previous credits had included Jaws II, Somewhere in Time, and Supergirl. Under Szwarc's helm, Santa Claus was Superman III with a flying sleigh, and a misshapen, unfocused mess, largely forgotten until its recent would-be renaissance on AMC. (Good luck with that, guys.)
In contrast, A Christmas Story (1983) had an ace in the hole with Jean Shepherd, the radio personality who wrote the script and provided the narration. The director, Bob Clark, wisely made Shepherd's voice the literal and thematic center of the movie, and if Clark's own directing style is, shall-we-say, perfunctory at best, it dovetails beautifully with the overall feel of a childhood memory. Whimsy and satire are trickly enough to pull off separately and almost impossible to do in unison, but A Christmas Story is a textbook example of how specificity of time, place and character can become universal. It's a gift wrapped in nostalgia, delivered to audiences of Christmas futures to come.