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A Christmas Story

December 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Production Credits:

Director: Bob Clark | Producer: Bob Clark, René Dupont and Gary Goth | Screenplay: Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark | Cinematographer: Reginald H. Morris| Country of Origin: USA | Year: 1983 | Running Time: 93 min

Principal Cast:  Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Jean Shepherd

While considered a Christmas classic today, at the time of its release 1983’s A Christmas Story received mostly negative reviews. Over the years, due in part to television airings and home video release, the film has become widely popular and is shown numerous times on television during the Christmas season. Today the film is celebrated for its nostalgic look at the 1940s and is considered a modern-day classic.

The film is based on a comic novel named In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, by radio humorist Jean Shepherd. Shepherd’s book is a collection of short stories that he wrote for Playboy magazine during the 1960s, including tales about fights with the bullies at school, and getting into impenetrable discussions with younger kids who do not quite know what all the words mean. He also includes stories about the tongue sticking to the flagpole, and eating Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

Due in part to the success of his teen raunch-fest Porky, director Bob Clark was given assignment of bringing Shepherd’s stories to the big screen. A Christmas Story was not Clark’s first time working in the holiday genre, as nine years earlier he had helmed the Yuletide slasher flick Black Christmas. According to Clark, he worked with writer Shepherd for nearly ten years on the concept of A Christmas Story before the film was made. The film was written by Shepherd, Clark and Leigh Brown. Shepherd also provides the movie’s narration from the perspective of an adult Ralphie.

For the film Clark assembled a wonderful cast of children, chief among them Peter Billingsley as protagonist Ralphie. Billingsley had first drawn notice as Messy Marvin in a series of commercials for Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, and was considered a minor star after co-hosting the TV series Real People. While Clark had initially wanted him for the part of Ralphie, he had decided the he was “too obvious” a choice and auditioned many other young actors for the role. He would eventually realize that Billingsley was the right one after all and his performance in A Christmas Story is the one for which he will always be remembered. For the role of little brother Randy, Ian Petrella was cast immediately before filming began.

When it came to casting Ralphie’s father, Mr. Parker or “The Old Man”, the first actor director Clark had in mind was Jack Nicholson. Jack was very impressed with the script and was interested in doing the movie, but the studio didn’t want to pay Nicholson’s fee, which would have doubled the budget and went instead with Darren McGavin. Clark would later say that McGavin was the better choice as he was born to play the role. For the role of Mrs. Parker, Clark cast Melinda Dillon, (who was better known for her dramatic work) an Oscar nominated supporting actress for 1981’s Absence of Malice and 1977‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The film is set in Hammond Indiana (writer Shepherd’s hometown) and the search to find a current American city that resembled an Indiana town of the 1940s, had director Clark’s location scouts visiting over twenty cities. Cleveland Ohio was eventually chosen as the prinicipal site for filming, although parts of the movie, such as the Christmas tree shopping scene and Ralphie’s school exteriors, were filmed in Toronto and St. Catharines Ontario. (During the shot of the outside of the tree lot one of Toronto’s trademark red trolleys can be seen driving by.) Downtown Cleveland’s Higbee’s department store in was used for three scenes in the film including Ralphie and Randy’s visit to see Santa. The Santa slide used in the scene was made for the film but the store ended up using it for several years after the film’s release.

The people of Cleveland were incredibly cooperative during filming, donating antique vehicles from every corner of the city which helped to enhance the authenticity of the production design. During filming in downtown Cleveland, the antique automobile club members were given a route to follow on Public Square and were instructed to continue circling the square until otherwise instructed. Since road salt was a major concern for the car owners, the cars were pressure-washed after each day’s filming and parked underground beneath the Terminal Tower.

The Red Ryder BB Gun that Ralphie wants so desperately did exist at the time but it did not have a compass and sundial as mentioned in the movie. Apparently writer Shepard confused the Red Ryder gun with the Daisy “Buck Jones” model which did have those features. In order to support both the story and the screenplay, the compass and sundial were placed on Red Ryder BB guns specially made for the film. Interestingly the custom made guns placed the compass and sundial on the opposite side of the stock due to Peter Billingsley being left-handed.

A Christmas Story was released a week before Thanksgiving in 1983, and was considered a moderate success, earning about $2 million in its first weekend. Critics at the time were severely divided on the film, with the majority of reviews on the negative side. In fact by Christmas 1983, the film was no longer playing at most venues. During the mid-eighties HBO aired on television and it quickly attracted a growing following. In 1997 TNT began airing a 24-hour marathon dubbed “24 Hours of A Christmas Story,” consisting of the film shown twelve consecutive times beginning at 7 or 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve and ending Christmas Day.

Over the years, the film’s critical reputation has grown considerably and is considered by many to be one of the best films of 1983. A Christmas Story was on the ballot for the American Film Institute’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list and both AOL and IGN ranked the film their #1 Christmas movie of all time.

Some Interesting Trivia:

For the scene in which Flick’s tongue sticks to the flagpole, a hidden suction tube was used to safely create the illusion that his tongue had frozen to the metal.

Director Bob Clark won the Genie Awards (the Canadian version of the Oscars) for Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Both Shepherd and Clark have cameo appearances in the film; Shepherd plays the man who directed Ralphie and Randy to the back of the Santa line and Clark plays Swede, the neighbor the Old Man was talking to outside during the Leg Lamp scene.

Ralphie says that he wanted the “Red Ryder BB Gun” 28 times.

According to Peter Billingsley, the nonsensical ramblings that Ralphie exclaims while beating up Scott Farkus were scripted, word for word.

An elaborate fantasy sequence – in which Ralphie joins Flash Gordon to fight Ming the Merciless – was filmed but dropped from the final cut.

The film inspired the creation of the television show The Wonder Years.

Today the St. Catharines Museum owns some props used in the film, including two pairs of Ralphie’s glasses (including the pair that were smashed) and two scripts.

For Further Reading:

Shepherd, Jean (1966). “My Old Man And The Lascivious Special Award That Heralded The Birth Of Pop Art” (Mass Market Paperback). In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash. Bantam Books.

Bob Clark and Peter Billingsley (2003). Audio Commentary: A Christmas Story (DVD special feature). MGM.

Shepherd, Jean (2003). A Christmas Story. New York: Broadway Books. indicia.

The Polar Express

December 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Production Credits:

Director: Robert Zemeckis | Producer: Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis | Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr. | Book: Chris Van Allsburg | Cinematographer: Don Burgess and Robert Pressley | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 2004 | Running Time: 100 min

Principal Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Steven Tyler

The Polar Express is a heartwarming story about the power of belief that resonates across generations and cultures. A young boy wanting to find out if Santa is real by hearing his sleigh bells finds instead a train on his lawn and embarks on an amazing adventure. The book is now widely considered to be a classic Christmas story for young children and has been praised for its detailed illustrations and calm, relaxing storyline. In 1986, its author, Chris Van Allsburg was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children’s literature. With its immense popularity, it was only a matter of time before the story made the move to film and in a way it is an appropriate fit as the author himself has said that when illustrating a book, he sees “the story unfold as if it were on film.”

The journey to turn the book into a film began with Tom Hanks, who approached Van Allsburg first about bringing The Polar Express to the big screen and then asked his friend Robert Zemeckis to adapt and direct the film version. Both Hanks and Zemeckis were determined that the film remain faithful to both the story and the feel of Van Allsburg’s book and realized that it couldn’t be a live-action movie in the traditional sense. For a solution, Zemeckis turned to visual effects master Ken Ralston who had worked at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. It was decided that the film version would take a cue from the lush illustrations in the book and use a new technology to – as Zemeckis explains – “give the visuals an elegance as if it were a moving oil painting.”

The result was the first feature length motion picture to be shot in “Performance Capture,” which is a motion capture process whereby the entire film is shot digitally with live actors and who are then replaced with computer generated doppelgangers. The actors, including Hanks (who voices five parts in the film, and was the live action model for “Hero Boy”), would wear Lycra suits covered with blue sensors that tracked their movements, which were then mapped to 3-D models in a computer so that the models would perform the same actions as the actors. In effect the film is live-action without any true “live” action. The process can be a challenge for the actors due to the lack of props and elaborate sets on which to base their performances, as they had to work in front of a green screen.

Other challenges that the filmmakers faced included expanding a 32-page picture book into a 100-minute feature-length film. This was done in two ways. Several scenes in the book were expanded, such as the “Hot Chocolate” production number, which was inspired by a single sentence and a single illustration in the original book. The introduction of new characters like the “Hobo,” the “Lonely Boy,” and the “Know-it-All” kid, and scenes such as those on rooftops and on the locomotive, and the runaway observation car sequence are also added to the film.

Filmmakers used actual places and machines in creating the world of The Polar Express including the steam locomotive that pulls the Polar Express which was modeled after the Pere Marquette No. 1225, a restored steam locomotive located in Owosso, MI. Artistic liberty was taken with the train’s appearance making it to seem even more massive than the 794,500 pound (361,136 kilogram) Pere Marquette but many of the train’s sound effects, such as the whistle blowing and steam exhausting, were created from live sampling of the actual train. Continuing the train theme, many of the buildings at the North Pole reference buildings related to American railroading history, such as the buildings in the square at the center of the city which were loosely based on the Pullman Factory located in Chicago, and the Control Center which was based on the old Penn Station in New York City.

The Polar Express was released in both standard theatrical 35mm format and in a 3-D version for IMAX, which was generated from the same 3-D digital models used for the standard version. It was the first animated feature not made specifically for IMAX to be presented in this format, and also the first to open in IMAX 3D at the same time as the general 35mm release. The response to the IMAX presentation was enthusiastic. The 3-D version out-performed the 2-D version by about 14 to 1. The film would go on to be nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Song. Today, for many, experiencing The Polar Express is an annual Christmas tradition, and a chance to remind us all that no matter your age, for those that truly believe, the bell will always ring.

Some Interesting Trivia:

The scene in the North Pole City communications room where an elf describes a bad little boy in New Jersey named Steven who is terrorizing his two little sisters is actually a nod to Zemeckis’ friend and mentor, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg grew up in New Jersey and has admitted many times that he frequently terrorized his two younger sisters.

The film would be actor Michael Jeter’s last movie before his death.

The real name of the Hero Boy is never mentioned.

The address spoken by the conductor early in the film “11344 Edbrooke” is the real address of Zemeckis’ childhood home.

For Further Reading:

Murray, Rebecca. Aug 25 2004. “Robert Zemeckis Directs Tom Hanks in ‘The Polar Express.’” About.com. http://movies.about.com/od/thepolarexpress/a/polar082504. htm

Roetenberg, D. 2006. “The Fascination For Motion – Introduction About The Beginning of Motion Capture Technology”. Inertial and Magnetic Sensing of Human Motion. PhD Thesis. http://www.xsens.com/en/company/research/human_mocap.php

Van Allsburg, Chris. 1986. The Polar Express 1986 Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech. http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/thepolarexpress/polarcaldecott.shtml

“The Polar Express.” TCM.com. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=452714

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