Allow me to tell you a Christmas story about the differences between us and them.
For the last century or so, worried old people have complained that European and American culture were merging into an amorphous mass of low-brow gloop. We all listen to the same things. We all watch the same things.
This argument has some merit as regards film. We all went to see Gone With the Wind, Jaws, Star Wars, ET and Avatar. American Graffiti was nothing like the hit here it was at home, but we did eventually come round to that nostalgic romp. Occasionally patriotism gets in the way. Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, the tale of deadly marksman Chris Kyle, was the highest grossing film in the US released in 2014, but, dragging way behind less kill-happy pictures such as How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Maleficent, it managed only number 14 worldwide.
Sports films also fail to travel. An American correspondent recently suggested potential contenders for the ultimate “dad film”: Field of Dreams, Die Hard, Rudy? You what now? Apparently that last film is some 1993 drama about some sort of American football player who did something or other at some point. It is a sensation among certain US demographics. Preliminary research suggests that nobody born east of Nova Scotia has seen it.
Rudy does not, however, come close to being the US film that has travelled least successfully. That honour (thanks for waiting) falls to Bob Clark’s 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. As we noted in this space recently, Christmas films have a habit of setting in slowly. Anyone over the age of 50 can confirm that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life did not gain divine status until as late as the 1980s. Opening to mixed reviews and ho-hum box office, it only became a favourite when replayed on TV and re-released on VHS.
Here's the puzzling thing. A Christmas Story is not baloney
A Christmas Story went through a more accelerated journey. Focussing on a young boy's frustrated desire for a "Red Ryder BB Gun", Clark's movie was released before Thanksgiving and, following polite notices, was mostly forgotten by Valentine's Day. But, this time, the ancillary fightback began almost immediately. Within a few short years, it had gained the status of Christmas classic. The cable services TNT and TBS have, since 1997, run it on a continuous loop for the 24 hours leading up to the evening of Christmas Day. In 2012, a musical version of the film opened on Broadway to decent reviews. Just this month, Esquire magazine rated it at number three in its list of "best Christmas movies of all time". By way of contrast, Time Out Film, in a chart published a few weeks earlier, found no place for A Christmas Story anywhere in the seasonal top 50. Pressing home the snub, the UK publication accommodated another Bob Clark film at number 43. Yes, as well as directing notorious sex romp Porkies and top-notch Sherlock Holmes flick Murder by Decree, the versatile film-maker — surely deserving of a statue in his New Orleans birthplace — was also behind the excellent 1974 slasher movie Black Christmas. The less bloody seasonal film looks, however, to be forever stranded on the mid-Atlantic barrier that also houses root beer, candied yams and Saturday Night Live.
It is tempting to class A Christmas Story with other eccentric entertainments broadcast in various countries at the happy time. An article in this newspaper from nine years ago reminds me that, each New Year’s Eve, the Japanese gather to watch something that translates as NHK Red and White Song Battle. At three o’clock on Christmas Day, the British watch a posh lady deliver platitudes before a big tree in a bigger palace. Most notoriously, the Germans watch an 18-minute English farce called Dinner for One. Any old baloney will do if it helps buttress the ritual.
Here's the puzzling thing. A Christmas Story is not baloney. Set in a nostalgic nowhere the director identifies as "amorphously late-'30s, early-'40s," it bristles with great jokes and delightful performances. Peter Billingsley is endlessly energetic as the aggrieved youngster being denied his second amendment rights by responsible adults (my sarky political reading, not the movie's). It conjures up memories, but it is never saccharine. "This movie has the best visit to Santa I've ever seen," Roger Ebert, who spotted the film's worth on release, wrote in the Chicago Sun Times. "If the kid doesn't want to go, he gets Santa's boot in his face."
So why has it never taken off here? It's no more "American" than Elf or Miracle on 34th Street? Unlike Ebert, none of us here will remember those Norman Rockwell stoops, but that doesn't stop us embracing a similar lost America in It's a Wonderful Life. Its time will come. Help the film along by renting it from the usual online services this Christmas. You may thank me for the tip.