It’s the first day of February so it’s hard to get too wrapped up in any Christmas comedy (especially one that’s still in preproduction) but this is a special case. The now-ramping sequel to A Christmas Story (1983) isn’t just any yuletide comedy, it’s the heir apparent to most beloved holiday film this side of 34th Street.
And, besides, if there was one lesson we all learned from A Christmas Story, it’s the importance of getting a leg up on the holiday.
Filming starts later this month on A Christmas Story Christmas, an HBO Max project from Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Clay Kaytis (The Christmas Chronicles) is directing from the screenplay by Nick Schenk (writer of three Clint Eastwood films, most recently Cry Macho).
There will also be a familiar face at Christmas dinner: Peter Billingsley, the former cherub-cheeked child star, is back to reprise his Reagan Era role as Ralphie Parker. The 50-year-old Billingsley is also coproducing with longtime pal Vince Vaughn (who knows a bit about Christmas movies) under their Wild West Picture Show banner.
The project is aimed for the holiday season, no surprise, and that timing will let the project's publicity team hitch their sleigh to the looming 40th anniversary of the amazing original.
That anniversary wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the sequel didn’t have a cast connection to the 1983 movie. With Billingsley aboard, the project has at chance of capturing some real Christmas magic, too. Still, revisiting a singular achievement like A Christmas Story is risky business, to borrow the title of a vry different 1983 classic.
It might be a tall order to expect the grown-up Billingsley to somehow match the childhood performance he delivered in writer-director Bob Clark’s original movie. The legacy of that 1983 performance has only grown over the years but how will the sequel effect it? The public’s sentimental attachment to a movie can be – as they say in Italian – a little fragile.
This isn’t the first attempt at a sequel. The aptly named A Christmas Story 2 was released in just before Halloween in 2012 as a direct-to-video movie. The charmless sequel had an all-new cast (led by Daniel Stern of Home Alone as the Old Man) and a nothing-new script that tried to simply rewrap the beats of the original. The screenplay might have been written in the form of a checklist. Another tawdry fishnet leg lamp? Check. Another sneering department-store Santa? Check. Another embarrassing homemade costume? Check. Ralphie's little brother still overdressed for elements? Check. Long before the sputtering Stern heads to the basement for a wrench-swinging tantrum it’s painfully obvious that everyone involved with the sequel is just beating a dead furnace.
How rare are truly great Christmas movies? They certainly don’t grow on trees, decorated or otherwise. And while it’s never been easy to make a truly great and enduring Christmas film, it seems to be getting harder with every passing decade.
Still, about once every 10 years, Hollywood unwraps an unconventional holiday movie that has real heart, memorable eccentrics, and a subversive spirit. In 1983, that movie was A Christmas Story. In 1993, it was A Nightmare Before Christmas. In 2003, it was Elf and Bad Santa. We’re due for another sometime soon, hopefully.
The audience doesn’t always find the films right away, either. Some follow the path of It’s a Wonderful Life, which didn’t ring any bells at the box office when it was first released. A Christmas Story was at least a middling success for MGM at the box-office with $19 million during its initial theatrical release in 1983. Instead, the film became a beloved fixture of pop culture thanks to home video and cable television. The film’s biggest platform has been the annual full-day marathon airings that have become a tradition for both TNT (since 1997) and TBS (since 2004).
The small-screen success of A Christmas Story earned the movie some retroactive big-screen credibility in 2012 when the Library of Congress added the title to the National Film Registry. That same year, A Christmas Story: The Musical premiered on Broadway, another nod to the film’s post-theatrical traction.
Billingsley was a producer of that successful stage show (which dovetailed with the 30th anniversary of the original film) and hopefully his presence bodes well for A Christmas Story Christmas and its seasonal prospects. Maybe he's the guy that can beat the odds. After all, back in early 1980s, more than 8,000 boys auditioned for the Ralphie role. That casting choice was one for the ages, one comparable to the storied selection of the Harry Potter trio. The producers of A Christmas Story could have auditioned another 10,000 actors but I sincerely doubt that any of those kids could have topped the screen work that young Billingsley brought to the project .
The new sequel will be set in the 1970s with the adult Ralphie making a holiday visit to his Indiana hometown with his own kids in tow. There won’t be a full family reunion awaiting him at the old house on Cleveland Street. The absence of Ralphie’s deceased dad is a key theme of the sequel. (Darren McGavin, who portrayed the Old Man with high-craft crankiness in the first film, passed away in 2006.
Another major family change is one that won’t be acknowledged anywhere beyond the cast credits. Ralphie’s mom will be portrayed by Julie Haggarty of Airplane! fame, who replaces Melinda Dillon from the original.
It will be intriguing to revisit Ralphie’s hometown of Hohman, Indiana, which won’t be found on any map of the actual Midwest. The fictional town was portrayed on screen by Cleveland in the original film but the producers of the sequel will stage their Hoosier State holiday home in Hungary.
It’s like they say: You can’t go home again…but, hey, Budapest might work out in a pinch.
I had a chance to talk to Billingsley once. As I mentioned, after his career as a child actor (which included scores of television commercials) the blond star transitioned to a career as a producer. That career second act started with Jon Favreau and his 2005 gangster movie Made, which starred Billingsley’s pal Vaughn. Billingsley and Favreau were collaborating again in 2007 which is when I met both on the working set of Iron Man in Playa Vista, California.
I was writing a set-visit feature for the Los Angeles Times and Favreau was giving me a tour of Tony Stark’s workshop where he also introduced me to a passing executive producer. With a mischievous smirk Favreau put me on the spot. “Hey, you do know who this is, right?” I didn’t, not at first, but then Favreau gave me a five-word clue: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
In hindsight, that was a major amount of Christmas movie mojo gathered on the superhero set. Billingsley represents A Christmas Story and Favreau directed the ebullient Elf but don't forget that Robert Downey Jr. costarred in Home for the Holidays and later gave us Iron Man 3, which arguably qualifies as the MCU’s first holiday feature film.
One last thought on A Christmas Story and its enduring echoes. If I ever make it over to Higbee's to sit on the lap of Santa, I think I'd ask for the long-lost scenes from A Christmas Story that landed on the editing room floor and were never seen again. There's one segment in particular that I'd love to see.
I've been intrigued for years by one of the "lost" scenes from A Christmas Story that presented another one of those daft daydream escapades that make Ralphie a rifle-toting Walter Mitty of the grade-school set. The long-gone scene is set on the planet Mongo and shows Ralphie saving the life of legendary spaceman Flash Gordon and foiling the sinister plans of Ming the Merciless. I've never taken the plunge on cosplay but if I did I think my costume of choice would be this nifty Flash Gordon ensemble, which channels the heroic aesthetic of Alex Raymond's classic space fantasy artwork.
I'd love to talk to Billingsley some time about the elaborate sequence and the vivid locale of Mongo, which (according to the surviving pages of the shooting script) featured diabolical hazards like space crocodiles and the dreaded cobra trees covered snakeskin trunks.