Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Man Who Created a Christmas Tradition: Bob Clark, 1941-2007

Not all of Bob Clark's films were great, but one is all you need, and "A Christmas Story" will be a holiday favorite as long as people remember what it's like to be a kid, dreaming of a perfect present as if it's the most important thing on earth. Clark and his son died in a car accident yesterday, leaving behind an immortal film that required more than a decade of commitment.

The film, written by Jean Shepherd and culled from his short stories, was a passion project for Clark, and he was trying to finance it long before its 1983 release. He was only able to make it thanks to rousing success of his previous effort, the raunchy high school sex comedy "Porky's" (1982). If the MGM executives wanted a sequel, they had to let him make "A Christmas Story." But the studio didn't want to make it, and they sure as hell didn't want to release it. After a sparsely advertised opening that garnered greater ticket sales than expected, "A Christmas Story" abruptly disappeared from screens. The film seemed destined for oblivion. But it continued to air during Christmastime and became a tradition for more and more families each year.

My dad was a fan from the beginning, and I remember watching it each year after decorating the tree. As the years passed, my perspective changed, and Ralphie's desires and his fantasies worked on new levels. Age has only improved my appreciation of the character study of family dynamics and its humorous portrayal of how young minds that get worked up over the magic of the holiday. The 1930s/40s setting lends itself to the bygone memories of the past, when we felt innocent and safe in our own world. The betrayal of Little Orphan Annie's secret message is as funny now as it was anti-climactic for the excited child who had, against all logic, hoped for something truly adventurous. Clark perfectly cast Darren McGaven as The Old Man, who embodies fatherhood like few characters in cinema history.

Clark would never reach such grand heights for the remainder of his career, the nadir of which is surely the two "Baby Geniuses" movies. And even as they earn more recognition, his early horror-comedy B-movies, like the recently remade "Black Christmas" (1974)—which went on to inspire John Carpenter's "Halloween" will probably only be remembered by a small cult audience. (One of Clark's upcoming projects was a remake of his 1972 horror comedy, "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.") But for one great moment, Clark was able to make the film of his dreams, and it's become an important memory and tradition in many people's lives.

UPDATE: Dennis Cozzalio and Kim Morgan have more on Clark's "Black Christmas" (originally titled "Silent Night, Deadly Night," making me eager to re-watch it after many years. Cozzalio also has some great insights on Clark's warm personality.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Hear, Hear.

A Christmas Story is a masterpiece