A Christmas Story's initial theatrical run came in 1983, when bookings were rarely open-ended, which meant the film disappeared from theaters just as word of mouth was building. When it hit VHS, home video was still a rental business, so fans spread the Christmas Story gospel via the few worn-down copies in their local video store. It wasn't until the rapid expansion of cable channels in the early '90s, and the attendant need for seasonal programming, that A Christmas Story really saturated the culture, to the extent that it now airs for 24 straight hours on Christmas. On the new 20th-anniversary double-disc DVD set, one cast member speculates that the movie's popularity grows each year because people watch the movie at Christmastime when they're already feeling warm and good, so the film gets woven into their fondest memories. That's a good theory, but curious, considering the movie's tone. Though it's fundamentally a light comedy, A Christmas Story contains plenty of hurt and anger, all drawn directly from the stories and monologues of radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, who narrates his reminiscences of growing up in Middle America in the '40s, applying elevated language to the politics of profanity and schoolyard "triple-dog" dares. Peter Billingsley plays Shepherd's grade-school self, dealing with bullies, weird relatives, and his worry that he won't get a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. Writer-director Bob Clark had long dreamed of making a movie based on Shepherd's work, and after working his way up through the horror/exploitation ghetto in the '70s and scoring a fluke hit with Porky's, Clark took his moment of Hollywood clout and ran with it, developing a piece true to Shepherd's finely detailed recollections and good-natured cynicism. A Christmas Story grasps the full scope of childhood injustice and obsession. Amid the comically cranky Santa Clauses and tree-lighting mishaps, the movie's key moment is a Billingsley crying jag, prompted by a fight with the neighborhood bully and the fear that his dad will clobber him. The affection audiences feel for A Christmas Story is related to the holiday spirit, yes, but specifically to Clark and Shepherd's awareness of how the true meaning of Christmas manifests in the real world, where a warm meal on a cold, dark day–and a surprising moment of parental grace–can ease a troubled mind.
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