How a Low-budget Film Made Millions 30 Years Later

It’s that time of year again. We decorate our house with sparkly decorations, put up the Christmas tree, and whip up some good ol’ eggnog. All that is missing is getting the whole family together in pajamas, drinking some hot cocoa, and watching our favorite classic holiday movies.

Scott Schwartz, Perter Billingsley, and R.D. Robb / Perter Billingsley and Santa / Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, and Peter Billingsley / The Parker Family
Source: Getty Images

Among those top-ranking classics is A Christmas Story. It’s crazy to know that the movie has been around for over thirty years, but it never seems to get old. Nothing more connects us to the Christmas spirit than the kid who wants that one present more than anything.

Connection to the Movie

What made A Christmas Story unique for its time was that it was all about a family’s reality during the holidays. It wasn’t over-glamorized and commercialized like the movies we see today. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing Santa at the North Pole, but the holidays are about our experiences with our families in our homes when it comes down to it.

Melinda Dillon, as Mrs. Parker, Darren McGavin, as Mr. Parker, Ian Petrella, as Randy Parker, and Peter Billingsley, as Ralphie Parker pose on set.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

Narrated by a nine-year-old boy, the movie shows us what’s it’s like to celebrate the holiday as a middle-class family with hilarious scenes, comedic banter, and family dynamics.

Initial Setback

When the movie first came out, it wasn’t considered a classic like today. It did poorly at the box office and disappeared from the screens as little as a month after. However, over a decade later, the movie picked up again and became a classic to the point where TV stations such as TNT were playing it nonstop.

Bob Clark talks with Ian Petrella and Peter Billingsley on set.
Source: MGM

The movie’s director, Bob Clark, who died in 2007, didn’t believe that the low-budget accident of a film would genuinely be successful until he overheard a family at a restaurant in New Hampshire talking like the family from the movie.

The Perfect Kid

Much effort was put in to find the perfect kid to play Ralphie for a movie that didn’t initially succeed. Eight thousand kids were auditioned for the role before Peter Billingsley was cast, who at the time was already one of the most successful actors in the 70’s.

Peter Billingsley, as Ralphie Parker in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

For Clark, it seemed that the kid who was already a huge success was too much of an obvious choice at first. Kids auditioned all over California and even outside the U.S, and the team returned to their first choice, which was inevitable. Sometimes, first choices are the best ones.

Child Actor

Peter has some well-known ancestors. He is related to Sherman Billingsley, a speakeasy Stork Club owner in New York who married Barbara Billingsley, who was an actress. Gail, Peter’s mom, instigated his acting career as she took all her kids to auditions, the first one being a commercial commemorating U.S troops.

Peter Billingsley arrives at an event.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Peter’s older sister had some success in the acting world, playing Maxx Davis on Me and Maxx. Neil, Peter’s brother, played various roles on TV series, including Danny Walton on the Search for Tomorrow (1975). Peter first began acting as early as when he was two years old in a commercial for Geritol.

“The Old Man”

Frank Parker, Ralphie’s father, gave us the perfect vision of a hard-working dad who didn’t grow up with much and knew the importance of providing for his family. The 1940s spewed the explosion of commercialism in America, meaning all kids wanted was that new toy they say saw in the store.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

McGavin, who played Frank Parker, Ralphie’s father, knew a thing or two about growing up without much, which contributed to him playing the role just right. Darren McGavin also played in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the television Horror Series, and other movies and shows.

Finding the Perfect Mom

Melinda Dillon took on the part of Ralphie’s mom. She was a cautious character who still knew how to have fun and be a kid. This was evident when she tried to convince Randy, Ralphie’s brother, to eat his food and pretend he was as big as a trough. As Randy pummels his food, he and his mom break out into laughter.

A portrait of Melinda Dillon
Source: Getty Images

Dillon was booked for the role as she was recognized in movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind by director Steven Spielberg.

Telling a Story

Jean Shepherd did the voice-over of Ralphie as an adult. Known for his comedic career, many of the monologues in the movie were based on his splashy stories that he performed without a script.

Jean Shepherd is in the recording studio.
Source: Wikimedia

Clark recalls once that he was heading off to a date while listening to Shepherd’s wild story of a boy who was dared to stick his tongue on a pole in the freezing winter. He was so shocked by the story that he was late while deciding to do a movie about Shepherd’s work.

Inspiration for Other Christmas Classics

People recalled a Christmas Story as bringing them back to their childhood, giving them a sense of nostalgia. Jon Favreau shared that the movie inspired him to make the Elf, where Billingsley played a minor role.

Peter Billingsley in a still from Elf.
Peter Billingsley. Source: Pinterest

He spoke about how he used to listen to Shepherd’s monologues on the radio, noting A Christmas Story had the perfect combination of setting, narration, and look to make it classic, “Billingsley’s wonderful open face and his performance drew you into the movie and made you feel connected emotionally.”

The Movie’s Setting

The Parkers lived in Hohman, Indiana, based on Shepherd’s real hometown in Hammond, close to Chicago. Several real-life references were included in the movie, such as Warren G. Harding Elementary School and Cleveland Street, where Shepperd grew up.

A statue depicting the scene with Flick and the flagpole.
Source: Facebook

To honor the movies’ achievement, the city of Hammond holds an annual exhibition in November and December to commemorate the film. The exhibition also displays a statue referencing the scene where Ralphie’s friend Flick sticks his tongue on a flagpole and gets stuck after freezing.

Shepherd was the Right Guy

Numerous comedians, writers, and performers admired Shepherd for his satires and comedic performances. Seinfeld took massive inspiration from him and credited Shepherd for what he knows about comedy. Other well-known names who were fans of his work include Penn Jilette, Donald Fagen, Tom Wolfe, and Jules Feiffer.

Jean Shepherd poses for a photo.
Photo by Michael Tighe/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Even Hugh Hefner enjoyed his work. He would stay up late watching a Christmas Story and published many short stories in the Playboy. It turns out Clark was right to choose Shepherd.

Screenplay

The main two collections of short stories that the movie was based on were Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust and All Others Pay Cash. In one of the DVD extras, Shepherd refers to some of the short stories he complied to formulate the movie’s overall feel. These include Red Ryder Nails, the Cleveland Street Kid, Duel in the Snow, and Flick’s Tongue.

Shepherd hosts the Jean Shepherd Show.
Source: Pinterest

Collecting and drafting the screenplay seemed like an easy task as it took Clark ten years to get the movie rolling into production.

Not of the Opinion

Shepherd wouldn’t have defined his work as nostalgic, as many people found the movie to be. Quite the contrary, he found it to be more anti-nostalgic. He recalls scenes from the film that he saw as hardly touching.

The Old Man walks into the kitchen and stares at the delicious turkey.
Source: YouTube

During one scene in the movie, “The Old Man” is reading the funnies in the newspaper, supposedly enjoying a moment as the Bumpuses’ hounds walk past him, heading for the turkey without him noticing. The moments of delight followed by ultimate catastrophes are more resembling of Shepherds’ work.

Low-Budget Movie

Convincing MGM to fund the movie was no easy task for Bob Clark. Before working on the movie, he had released profitable films in the 80’s all themed as teenage sex-comedies, such as Porky.

Behind the scenes on the set of A Christmas Story.
Source: Twitter

Eventually, MGM granted the film a budget of 4.4 million dollars, but Clark was keen on making the film regardless of the budget. He added $150,000 out of his own pocket instead of taking it as the directors free. Years later, he was rewarded with the love for the film.

Seasonal Challenges

The movie was filmed in Cleveland and Toronto, where winter shouldn’t have been a problem. In that year specifically, there was no snow, which was a must for the setting. To give the movie the wintery Christmas feel it needed, they physically brought snow from ski resorts.

Bob Clark holds up Scott Schwartz (Flick) before filming the frozen flagpole scene.
Source: Reddit

The weather got even warmer, and they had no choice but to make falling snow out of potato flakes, shredded vinyl, and firefighter foam. No one seemed to notice the difference, even for a film made in the ’80s.

Harmony on Set

Working on the movie was primarily smooth sailing, but that’s not to say there weren’t some creative differences. Clark and Shepherd didn’t always see eye to eye. Shepherd wanted to make sure his material was used on his terms and constantly made suggestions.

The Parker Family are driving in the car in a scene from A Christmas Story
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

He would go behind Clark’s back after takes and share pointers with the actors, which infuriated Clark. For example, after calling “cut,” Shepherd went to Billingsley and made some suggestions. Clark noticed and shouted, “Jean, get away from the actors!”

Can’t Work Together

Eventually, Clark and Shepherd couldn’t settle their differences, and Shepherd was removed from the set. In other words, there couldn’t be two directors as the movie was on a tight budget and things needed to get rolling.

Jean Shepherd’s cameo in A Christmas Story.
Source: Twitter

Clark had a plan to direct the movie on pace, and Shepherd was disrupting his progress. Regardless, Shepherd has a small appearance in the film as a bitter old man who yells at Ralphie to cut the line to see Santa at a department store called Higbees.

First on the List

Ralphie’s wish for Christmas was to receive the Red Ryder BB Gun. For the film, the gun wasn’t made exactly the way it was described in the movie. One of the models known as the Daisy “Buck Jones” displayed features such as the sundial in the stock and a compass, but this wasn’t found in the original Red Ryder.

Billingsley poses with his BB Gun.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

Peter Billingsley was left-handed, so they had to add the compass and sundial on the opposite side of the stock. The famous gun was famously seen in many Western movies.

When Did the Movie Take Place?

The setting for the movie was geared toward the early 1940s, late 1930s, but the exact year is never mentioned in the film. The New York Times, CBS News, and others have noted that the film takes place in 1940 or the early 1940s.

Billingsley in a scene from the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

A hint is referenced when Ralphie uses a 1937 Look Magazine to hide the Red Rider ad. The cover shows Shirley Temple and Santa, another clue to the era. Additionally, Ralphie has the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Pin labeled, 1940.

The House

The “A Christmas Story” house has become a tourist attraction and a museum. The house’s design visualizes the 19th-century Victorian Era. Some of the interior and the exterior of the home were used in the film.

The house has been converted to A Christmas Story museum.
Source: Reddit

In 2004, a private developer purchased the house, which has been restored to mimic the house exactly as it was in the movie. Brian Jones, who was a fan of the film, bought and restored the house for a whopping $150,000. Not bad for a classic film house.

Quite the Experience

The movie took just about three months to shoot. The other young actors who took part in the project, including Yano Anaya, Zack Ward, R.D Robb, and Scoot Schwartz, stayed in a nearby (Stouffer’s hotel) in downtown Cleveland.

Billingsley, Petrella, Robb, and Shwartz in a scene from the film.
Source: YouTube

The Christmas decorations around the city gave them the Christmas spirit they needed to film the movie. They were not shy to cause chaos during their time off from filing, with balloons hanging off the 14th-floor window and ordering too much food.

Perfected Vignettes

The movie became popular over time through TV reruns, especially nowadays on December 24th and 25th. At a certain point, it was honored with the rest of the classics, such as Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life in the National Film Registry.

The Parker family sits in their living room around the Christmas tree.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

The classic scenes and never-forgotten moments are what made the movie unique. The creativity and hilarious imagination behind each cameo made it unusual yet stuck in our hearts for years to come. Let’s review some of those memorable moments, shall we?

The Iconic Leg Lamp

Remember when Ralphie’s dad won the “major award” in a contest? The prize was a lamp shaped like a women’s leg in a fishnet stocking. Mrs. Parker isn’t too happy about the award, but “the old man” is ecstatic.

Dillon places the lamp by the window at home.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

Fun Fact: the lamp was based on an ad during the period for Nehi soft drink (Nehi = Knee High), get it? “The Battle of the Lamp” then begins, where ultimately, Mrs. Parker “accidentally” breaks it. Mr. Parker is devasted and buries the leftover pieces in the backyard.

Flick’s Tongue Gets Stuck to the Pole

Flick had to accept Schwartz’s challenge as it was a “triple dog dare.” His tongue froze onto the pole, and it got stuck. What was so memorable about this scene was that it reminded us of the silly childhood shenanigans we used to get caught up in. Things that make us say, I was such a stupid kid back then.

Flick sticks his tongue to the poll while all the other children watch.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

None of the boys ratted each other out or spoke of the incident ever again. Setting the embarrassment aside, no one wants to be blamed as the tattletale, right?

The Snow Suit

It was a cold winter, and Ralphie had to dress for school. He said, “I Can’t Put My Arms Down” because he had too many layers on. I get him; what’s the point of getting all bundled up if he can’t even walk?

Randy Parker stands in his snowsuit with only his eyes visible.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

If you have ever been or lived in cold weather, layering is a must. Wearing an actual snowsuit, though, is a whole other level, and the exaggeration in the scene reminded us of the silly things our parents made us do when we were kids.

Furnace Battle

Remember when “the old man” went to war with the furnace in the Parker home? The excessive yelling in the background shocked the family, and Mrs. Parker was hesitant to do anything about it. After the thirty-second-long battle, we hear adult Ralphie’s narration saying the furnace “is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

The Old Man comes into the living room covered in soot from the furnace.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

Some dads are experts at fixing things around the house, and some, it seems, are not. That won’t stop them from trying until they figure it out, even if it turns into one big mess.

Ralphie Stands Up to the Bully

A childhood fantasy is played out in this scene. Standing up to the bully takes courage, and sometimes our instincts kick in because we can’t take it anymore. Ralphie not only stood up to Farkus but beat the living heck out of him.

Farkus hangs upside-down on the monkey bars as the other kids make fun of him.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

Kids in the neighborhood came to watch this act of bravery as Mrs. Parker rushed over to pull him away. Rather than his parents getting upset, they seem to have left the topic and decided to talk about a football game instead.

The Bad Word

We heard that adult Ralphie in the background is finally getting the chance to help his dad with anything. Little did he know that he would soon regret it. Once the bowl flew out of Ralphie’s hands, it was all over. He uttered “the worst cuss word,” and the movie covered it up with “fudge.”

Ralphie sits in the bathroom with a bar of soap in his mouth.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

At that moment, we knew things were going to be wrong. The punishment of putting soap in his mouth reminded us of all the creative punishments our parents would encounter for cursing.

Advertising in the ’40s

When we were kids, we all were curious about the secret club everybody wanted to be a part of. Ralphie, a fan of Little Orphan Annie, couldn’t wait to get his decoder pin. Having the honor of being in Anne’s Secret Circle, he patiently waited to hear the message so that he could decode the message.

Ralphie uses his decoder ring to figure out the secret message.
Source: Pinterest

It was a classic advertising scheme in the making, as it turned out to be a commercial for Ovaltine. Even back then, companies could trick kids into wanting the coolest things money could buy.

Cringy Line

Who could forget the kid with the goggles who creepily said, “I like the Wizard of Oz. I like the Tin Man,” standing in line with Ralphie to see Santa. Ralphie sure was confused as he wasn’t interested in seeing the characters.

Ralphie stands next to the weird boy with the goggles.
Source: Pinterest

Everyone recalls that misunderstood kid who was always just a little bit off. Once again, the movie sequences experience we had as kids and the confused reaction by Ralphie is classic. The writers remembered not to leave out this hilarious yet confusing remark.

Meeting Santa

Meeting Santa seemed more like a traumatic experience than the opportunity kids have been waiting for all year. Times certainly have changed as I don’t recall any mean elves hanging around Santa in department stores dragging them up and then pushing them down slides.

Peter Billingsley sits on Santa's lap in a scene from the film 'A Christmas Story.'
Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Ralphie noted that he blew his chance to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas because his shock paralyzed him. He didn’t blow it in the last second; he shared what he wanted even though Santa rejected him altogether.

Easter Bunny Fiasco

Sometimes, we didn’t get the presents we wanted as kids, so we just smiled it off and said, thank you. Sometimes, however, we asked ourselves how on earth did they think we wanted this for Christmas?

Ralphie holds up the pink bunny suit with an unhappy look on his face.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

It usually wasn’t from Mom or Dad, but from that relative, we only saw on the holidays. Aunt Clara’s present takes the cake with the exaggerated pink bunny suit. It was so bad that even Mr. Parker couldn’t bear the ridiculousness of saying, “He looks like a pink nightmare.”

Dream Gift Shoots His Eye Out

After begging to receive the BB gun, Ralphie is exposed to the reality of the gift he wanted so badly. While shooting the BB gun, it backfired, and he shot his eye out. Even his mom warned him to be careful. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like his eye was damaged.

Ralphie put his broken glasses back on after the BB Gun backfires.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

This reminded us that sometimes that present we dreamt and begged our parents to get us didn’t live up to our expectations. He probably should have asked for a football, as Santa suggested.

The Chinese Restaurant

Setting aside the not so PC sequence initially, let’s not forget this was filmed in the 1980s. The genuinely hilarious scene was when the duck was brought out, and then Mr. Parker remarked that it was smiling at him right before the waiter chopped it up.

The Parkers look shocked as the waiter chops up their duck with a cleaver.
Source: Twitter

People find cultural gaps funny, even if it’s not necessarily polite or okay. A Christmas made the awkward encounter hilarious with Mr. Parker taking the lead as Mrs. Parker is frightened and the kids are curious.

Behind the Scenes

Nowadays, the kid who played Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, is an actor, director, and producer himself. Nothing less could be expected from someone who has been a star since he was a kid. Billingsley shares some of the secrets behind making the film in a podcast, and we are dying to know what he has to say.

Peter Billingsley arrives at the premiere of
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

He recalls the scene where he is daydreaming of owning the Red Ryder BB Gun, where the prop guy screwed up and made him sick on the set.

So, What Happened?

“And the script says he’s chewing tobacco. Sure enough, the prop man, who’s responsible for the chewing tobacco, comes up to me with a pouch that says Red Man on it,” said Billingsley. At the time, he was just 12 years old and just assumed he was working with professional adults.

Peter Billingsley on the set of A Christmas Story.
Source: Reddit

Fifteen minutes later, he becomes sick and starts throwing up. They had to cut eventually, and Billingsley recalled, “You can imagine, it was a different time then. He gave me a straight-up, whole cut-leaf Red Man”.

What Did he think of the Movie’s Turnout?

The popularity of the film to this day is something that Billingsley is still shocked by. He also shared that it wasn’t his decision to air reruns on TNT and TBS for 24 hours during the holiday. Years later, he reveals he got to keep the BB gun and pink bunny costume from the movie.

Dillon, Petrella, and Billingsley pose for a photo of the set of the film.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

Having the chance to take part in such a classic Christmas movie, Billingsley said, “To have something that stuck then, and then every decade continues to, there’s a deeper core than it’s hitting.”

Young Star

Billingsley recalls having already been in the business for a while when he was cast for the role. He mentions that no one had any expectation for the movie to be a huge success, but he said, “I think the difference with this movie, that I sensed right away, was everyone’s approach to the work.”

Ralphie, Flick, Randy, and Schwartz stare at the store window.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

The devoted Jean Shepard and Bob Clark battled to get the production going, and it was no simple task. He recalls that their commitment to the work was “refreshing.”

Shooting After Christmas

Billingsley shared with PlayBill that the movie was shot after Christmas, and he enjoyed the fact that the producers convinced the city to keep the Christmas decorations up. “So it was like Christmas every day when you went to work,” he recalled.

Aerial view of Hohman, Indiana town square.
Source: Moviestillsdb.com/Copyright: MGM

He mentioned everyone having a good time while working on the movie, even though the turnout at the box office wasn’t great. The efforts did become a success once cable TV and DVD began picking up. From then, the movie kept coming back.

Involvement in the Musical

Billingsley mentioned that he was hesitant to involve himself in the musical. “The idea of a musical was very, very inspiring to me because it’s really an extension of the story. He recalls the Broadway musical portraying the dream-like character that Ralphie had through the massive song-and-dance pieces.

Peter Billingsley attends the Meet & Greet for 'A Christmas Story, The Musical.'
Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images

The music took all the classic moments in the film and expanded them to highlight the memories of the iconic sequences. He focuses on positive feedback from fans and a great reconnection to the original movie, from the set pieces to the fun music.

Working with Jean Shepherd

“I had an on-set relationship with him. Jean was very passionate about it,” said Billingsley. He recalled Jean giving him pointers while Clark wasn’t looking, displaying his love and passion for his work.

Randy and Ralphie sit on the couch at home.
Source: Pinterest

“I have very fond memories of Jean as being someone who had a very strong point of view on life, and things worked” said Billingsley. Keeping his spirit and inspiration for the musical was important for Billingsley as he embarked on this project. He remembered how Clark would read the narrations off-camera to get the right feel.

Movie’s Popularity and Downfall of MGM

When A Christmas Story was finally starting to take off, MGM was falling deep into debt. They had no choice but to sell many of their films from their library to Ted Turner in 1986, including this movie. The move to run it nonstop only occurred once Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner Inc. merged into one company.

The Parker family stands around the leg lamp.
Source: MGM

During the 20th anniversary screening of the movie, Billy recalls a memory of Zack Ward, who played Scut Farkus, “We go down, there’s a lineup four people wide, two and a half blocks long.”

A Good Moment

Ward mentions another moment where he is signing autographs and parents are trying to show their kids that he is the one who played the bully, even then after he was all grown up. He cherished that moment even though the kids didn’t fully recognize him.

Zack Ward, as Farkus, in a still from the film.
Source: MGM

Following the success of the movie, Zack Ward built an incredible acting career in acting and Hollywood. Looking back and remembering that he was a part of something that people cherish today is probably something he remembers for the rest of his life.

Nostalgic Holiday Movie

Even though A Christmas Story doesn’t give us the depiction of a perfect family, it has gone down as one of the best Christmas movies of all time. For one thing, the comedy and the dysfunctionality of the family is something people connect with because families are far from perfect.

Randy and Ralphie open presents under the Christmas tree.
Source: Twitter

While talking about the movie, Billingsley asserted that the one person who gave him the gift he wanted in the film was his father. He never directly asked him, reiterating the role of the hard-working and caring father.

Why We Like the Classics?

No one can argue that there are hundreds of Christmas movies to watch every year. Some have the best graphics, actors, scenes, and animation to date. However, something about classic movies such as Home Alone and A Christmas Story touches our hearts.

The older man places the star on top of the Parker family Christmas tree.
Source: Pinterest

It allows us to understand that all we need for the holidays isn’t the big fancy presents or the sparkly decorations. What is truly important is quality time with our family and friends, even if it’s not “perfect.”

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