Family traditions run long and deep – especially around the holidays. Trees, stockings, turkey dinner, and the question of “whose turn is it to play Santa Claus” are perennial family heartwarmers in the month of December.
In November 1983, a whole new Christmas tradition was born in America. As Boris Karloff quoted in the 1966 animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! “It started in low, then started to grow.” Only it didn’t start in low – it arrived with a bang. I’m talking, of course, about the yuletide hit A Christmas Story, which opened in theaters the weekend before Thanksgiving, and quickly gained steam en route to becoming one of the most beloved holiday films of all time.
The story of Ralphie Parker – a “boy of nine” growing up in the American midwest – spoke to multiple generations of Americans, and hit hard on the notes of nostalgia, traditions, and family values, with a healthy dose of time-stamped (and yet timeless) humor.
A Christmas Story is not a Disney film, and on the surface it has very little relation to Disney. But there are a surprising number of connections between this Christmas classic and the Mouse. Let’s take a trip to Christmas Past and explore them here.
A Christmas Classic
Set around 1940 (give or take a year) A Christmas Story tells the tale of Ralphie, a typical American boy trying to make his way in the midwest during the holidays. Ralphie’s family unit includes his mom, his “Old Man”, and his little brother Randy. Outside the family, Ralphie spends much of his time with his best friends Flick and Schwartz, while trying to evade the treachery of the villainous bully Scut Farkus and his “toadie” Grover Dill. Like every other kid in his neighborhood, Ralphie tiptoes through the holiday season, balancing the demands of school and family obligations, while charting a course to achieve the greatest Christmas ever.
In Jean We Trust
This heartwarming tale is somewhat based on the work of American storyteller (and humorist, radio personality, TV personality, writer, and actor) Jean Shepherd. In particular, much of the film’s material comes from Shepherd’s semi-fictional stories in his 1966 book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Shepherd grew up outside Chicago in the American midwest, and his ties to middle-American sensibilities informed the film’s nostalgic feel.
In addition to providing source material, Shepherd also helped screenwrite the film. But Shepherd didn’t just stay behind the scenes. He narrates A Christmas Story as the adult voice of Ralphie Parker, reminiscing on his childhood throughout the film, and providing an older, wiser view of the tales from his “kid-dom.” Shepherd even made a cameo appearance in the film, as an irritated customer waiting at the back of the (very long) line for Santa.
Some Disney fans may recognize Jean Shepherd’s voice in a classic Disney Parks attraction. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress – located in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland – features Shepherd as the voice of John, the family’s father (as well as the show’s narrator) since November 1993.
“You’ll Shoot your Eye Out!”
From the film’s very first scene set outside Higbee’s department store, Ralphie’s desires are crystal clear. His yuletide attention is focused squarely on obtaining his most coveted prize – a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle. Try saying that five times fast! Believe it or not, this phrase was used some thirty times throughout the film. Ralphie’s gun has become symbolic of that childhood laser-focus on the ultimate Christmas score.
Disney harkened back to Ralphie’s prized possession in 1999’s Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas. In one of the compilation film’s shorts – A Very Goofy Christmas – Goofy’s son Max has a similar sounding Christmas desire. Max wants “my very own one of a kind carbon-fiber, torque rod, snappy flex, tip to tail, rail to rail, wooden core, twin directional snowboard!” That name makes the BB gun sound simple by design!
Higbee’s Department Store
Let’s talk about Higbee’s for a minute. The department store located in the center of town was in fact a real store – located in downtown Cleveland, where several of the outdoor city-based scenes were filmed. The store was rebranded as Dillard’s in 1992, and has since sadly become reinvented as a casino.
If you look closely through the Higbee’s store display window in the film’s first scene, you’ll see Snow White toys on display. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Disney’s first feature-length animated film – was released in 1937, just a few years before the film’s 1940 setting, and merchandise from the film was still hugely popular. Curiously, there are no Pinocchio toys to be seen. Disney’s second animated feature film was released in 1940, right at the time of the film’s setting.
“He had yellow eyes! So help me God! Yellow eyes!”
Scut Farkus is the childhood bully we always feared growing up (I had one in my neighborhood, and his name was, coincidentally, “Scott”). With his beady yellow eyes, his evil smile full of metal braces, his coonskin cap, and his minion pal Grover – Scut had all the makings of a terrifying childhood torturer.
Every time Farkus appears on the scene, we hear that unmistakable ominous music. Those french horns we hear are fittingly playing the wolf’s theme from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” symphony (in fact, the name “Farkus” is derived from the Hungarian word for “wolf”). Prokofiev wrote this composition in 1936, so it was still quite fresh during the time of the film’s setting. Walt Disney took a liking to the story and the music, and Prokofiev even performed some of the music for Walt in person at the Walt Disney Studios in 1938. Disney eventually produced an animated short based on Peter and the Wolf (narrated by Disney Legend Sterling Holloway), released in 1946 as part of the package film Make Mine Music.
We can’t have a conversation about Scut Farkus without discussing his signature coonskin cap. This cap – originally made from actual racoon hydes – is emblematic of the American frontiersmen of the 18th and 19th centuries, like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. The coonskin cap exploded with popularity in the 1950s thanks to Disney’s Davy Crockett television miniseries (which were later stitched into two feature films). Farkus’ fashion statement in the film came a little out of time, with the film’s setting some 15 years before the coonskin cap explosion, but it still evokes that strong sense of nostalgia that gives the film so much of its heart.
Mickey on Parade
Everyone loves a good Christmas parade. Mickey Mouse managed to march in the city parade outside Higbee’s department store, much to Randy’s delight (and Ralphie’s irritation). But this is actually quite an odd scene. Mickey seems to be a bit over-exuberant in the parade, and in response, a group of characters from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz – who are also marching in the parade – seem to gang up on Mickey and push him away.
There are a couple things going on here. First: the film was produced by MGM, and there is no official Disney tie to the film. So the notion of Mickey appearing in the film seems a bit unexpected, to say the least – especially since he’s shown in this negative situation. Second: Mickey’s costume design seen in the parade only came about in the 1950s, well beyond the setting of the film. While this may be seen as a flaw in the film, the cinematic result is a much better demonstration than the alternative – one of those horrifying early versions of Mickey costumes which look like something out of a horror film.
As for the reason why there seems to be a scuffle between Mickey and the folks from Oz? I’ve searched for a clear answer to this question, and have only come up with theories that MGM was taking a potshot at the mouse as a competing film studio. If anyone reading this article has any additional background on Mickey’s march in the Christmas parade, please reach out and share with me!
Happy Birthday Mickey!
As mentioned above, A Christmas Story was released in November 1983. But not “just” November. The film was released on November 18th, which coincidentally marked Mickey Mouse’s 55th birthday. How’s that for unintended synergy?
From Marvin to Marvel
Ok, let’s admit it – Ralphie can be a bit of a square, between the haircut and the glasses and the argyle sweaters. The nine-year-old Indiana boy was played to perfection by twelve-year-old Peter Billingsley. But this wasn’t Billingsley’s first gig. By 1983, he had already established himself as a child force to be reckoned with. His recurring role as Messy Marvin in TV commercials for Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup made Billingsley a known commodity. Ironically enough, Ovaltine – one of Hershey’s major competitors at the time – was featured prominently in the film’s Little Orphan Annie decoder pin scene.
Every little boy eventually grows up (hey, we can’t all be Peter Pan). Billingsley went on to land a role in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe as one of Stark Industries’ top engineers in 2008’s Iron Man. Billingsley’s character – William Ginter Riva – was secretly working for Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane trying to craft an Iron Man suit that could rival that of Tony Stark. Riva failed in that venture, as, by his own admission “I’m not Tony Stark.”
Riva left Stark enterprises in disgrace, and he managed to fly under the radar for over ten years until resurfacing to assist another former Stark employee Quentin Beck (Mysterio) in Spider-Man: Far From Home. There, he helped create an army of drones capable of altering the perception of reality.
Both of these roles were small, and Billingsley looks very different from the little boy who almost shot his eye out, but he’s there. Billingsley also served as co-executive producer for Iron Man.
Trivia Tidbit – While not Disney-related, Billingsley also had a small part in the 2003 holiday hit film Elf, as Ming Ming, one of the north pole elves who accidentally spills the beans that Buddy is a human.
“Don’t Bother Me. I’m Thinking.”
As we know, Ralphie takes his Christmas wishes very seriously. While waiting in line in Higbee’s to see Santa, Ralphie has the misfortune of standing next to a kooky kid wearing aviator goggles. While the kid is itching to bond over a mutual love for Santa Claus and The Wizard of Oz, Ralphie is having none of it.
This amusing moment is quietly honored in the 2011 Disney holiday special Prep and Landing: Naughty vs. Nice. In a touching scene from the special – little girl Grace Goodwin explains to our hero elves how her baby brother has ruined her life. In one frame from the scene’s montage, when Grace is about to meet Santa, she gets pulled away at the last minute by her parents because her baby brother was crying so hard. When she is pulled out of line, Ralphie is shown to be waiting in line behind her (along with the kid in goggles).
“Fraa-jee-laay! It must be Italian!”
Old Man Parker – played by Darren McGavin – just may be the all-around funniest character in the film. The foul-mouthed, hot-tempered, crossword puzzle-addicted patriarch of the family combines a rough edge with surprising sensitivity to make one of the ultimate movie dads of all time. McGavin appeared in a handful of films under the Disney umbrella, including The High Flying Spy (1972), No Deposit, No Return (1976), Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978), and several others.
While we’re still trying to pronounce “fraa-jee-laay” – fans of Disney-Pixar’s 2003 film Finding Nemo may notice an ode to the Old Man from the mouth of Dory. While trying to escape the jaws of Bruce the shark, Dory sees a sign labeled “escape” and mistakenly pronounces it “es-ca-pay!”
For almost forty years, A Christmas Story has been woven into the fabric of the American holiday season. A few sequels and spinoffs have been unsuccessfully conceived, but a final celebration of the film was just released in the form of A Christmas Story Christmas. This film has brought back together most of the headlining cast of the original film (minus both parents), and offered a sweet homage to the 1983 masterpiece.
To many, A Christmas Story has been as big a part of Christmas as decorated trees, flying reindeer, and even Santa Claus himself. Not sure you agree? Just take a look in the novelty gift aisle at your local big box store. You’re sure to find a t-shirt, set of glasses, or leg lamp which will surely be the perfect gift for someone on your list.
Can you quote at least ten or more lines from this holiday Christmas classic? Let us know with a comment, either here or on social at:
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!