How 'A Christmas Story' became a cult film classic

A Christmas Story didn't land with a big splash in theatres in 1983, but the cinematic slice of 1940s Americana, shot partly in Canada, has found a loyal and devoted following as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Movie made partly in Ontario celebrates 30th anniversary this year

Santa Claus isn't always as ominous as the bearded gent Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) encounted in A Christmas Story. (Warner Home Video)

There were no epic, Oscar-winning performances in A Christmas Story. The 1983 slice of Americana filmed partly in Canada faded from theatres within a few weeks.

Yet the movie, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has become something of a festive cult classic.

Fans recite lines with great fervour — "You'll shoot your eye out" is a favourite — and cherish every adventure or misadventure young Ralphie has, whether it's taking on bullies, putting up with a partially drunk and perhaps lecherous department store Santa or dreaming of finding a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree.

Anything related to a leg lamp, one of the iconic images of A Christmas Story, sells well for Tyler Schwartz, a superfan of the movie who also owns the Oakville, Ont.-based RetroFestive, which bills itself as Canada's pop culture Christmas store. (Submitted by Tyler Schwartz)

It is a curious cinematic evolution, one that speaks to how a relatively low-budget movie consumed with the simplest things from a 1940s life can have lasting appeal.

"I think at the heart of it is that it's a great mixture of wackiness, and then it hits you at the end with just a touch of sentimentality," says Tyler Schwartz, an Oakville, Ont., man who has become something of a superfan of the film.

"Really the whole movie is universal. Whether you're young or old, or you grew up in '40s or the '80s or even today, I think so much of it you can relate to, especially at Christmas time."

Remember the frozen-tongue scene

Maybe your mom bundled you up so tightly in your snowsuit and scarf that you could hardly move or breathe. Maybe there was a bully with a mouthy sidekick who tried to terrorize you on the way home from school.

And maybe there was one present you really, really wanted Santa to bring, even if your parents didn't seem to think it was such a good idea.

All that happened in A Christmas Story, and it is those kinds of timeless details that have helped the movie resonate no matter a person's age, says Peter Lester, an assistant professor in the department of communication, popular culture and film in Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

"Younger audiences, I think, certainly can relate to the young character of Ralphie as he undergoes his overwhelming sense of excitement and anticipation," says Lester.

"But also the fear, anxiety, and disappointment and even humiliation that he undergoes over the course of the film."

Period piece

The movie, which was filmed partially in Toronto and St. Catharines, is also a period piece, so it holds a strong nostalgic appeal.

Even those people who grew up in later times "can relate similarly to fathers obsessed with furnaces and Oldsmobiles, or the ever-present threat of schoolyard bullies, or the horrifying experience of barely concealed drunk mall Santa Clauses," says Lester.

For all the nostalgia, however, he sees another factor that could contribute to the movie's lasting appeal and which sets it apart from the greeting card sentimentality of other holiday film fare like It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol.

'People love the leg lamp'

Tyler Schwartz, whose Oakville-based business RetroFestive sells A Christmas Story memorabilia, grew up in Ontario's Niagara Region, where he watched the movie every year on TV. His interest expanded considerably after he met his wife, who also happened to be a fan.

They filmed a documentary focusing on the making of the movie, right down to finding the location of the Chinese restaurant featured near the end of the film (it's on Gerrard Street East in Toronto, but now serves French fare).

Schwartz made his first memorabilia sales from his basement in 2008, when revenue was about $10,000. He says sales have grown tenfold for anything related to A Christmas Story "because more and more people are finding us."

And the most popular item? The $15 leg lamp night light, patterned after the leg lamp Ralphie's father displayed with such pride in their home's front window.

"Really, anything with a leg lamp on it you can take to the bank," says Schwartz. "People love the leg lamp."

"There is a kind of dark, sort of subversive element to it that I think distinguishes the film and can speak to a lot of its appeal," says Lester.

"No one really learns the true meaning of Christmas by the end. The stakes are different ... ghosts don't revisit anyone to look back at their life. No one's saved from suicide.

"The true meaning of Christmas effectively is not the final scene of the film, which I think a lot people forget is actually Ralphie sitting in bed hugging his BB gun."

Lester also sees another historical reason for the lasting appeal, one that is not tied to the movie, but more to the expanding television and cable universe of the 1980s and 1990s.

"A lot of movies particularly around Christmas time tended to benefit from networks repeatedly playing them over and over," says Lester.

A Christmas Story in particular became the focus of a 24-hour Christmas Day marathon on U.S. cable TV, which continues to this day.

Lester doesn't hesitate to call A Christmas Story a cult film, even if its subject matter is considerably milder than other fare that earns that moniker.

Everyone, Lester says, has a different understanding of what makes a cult film, but if the term is taken to mean a movie that gathers a devoted fan base with an intense dedication to it, then A Christmas Story fits that bill.

That dedication has not gone unnoticed for Zack Ward, the Toronto native who played bully Scut Farkus in the movie.

Now based in Los Angeles, Ward has gone on to roles in television shows and movies such as Almost Famous and Transformers. But those experiences were very different.

"No one's going to be watching these movies in 24-hour marathons. No one's going to be showing them to their kids in 10 years. No one's going to be collecting items from the film because it reminds them of their cherished childhood," Ward says.

"I think it's going to be here long after I die and if I have a tombstone and it says here lies Zack Ward, you know, that guy from A Christmas Story, I would be very, very happy."