We triple-dog-dare you to think about A Christmas Story and not conjure up the image of a young boy with his tongue stuck to an icy flag pole. Difficult, right? Based on the stories of Jean Shepherd, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Leigh Brown, and director Bob Clark, A Christmas Story marked a turning point in the tradition of big-screen Yuletide fare upon its release in November 1983.
Gone were the days of cheerful classics like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and White Christmas (1954), replaced by this quirky but delightfully real tale of a Midwestern boy who fled bullies on the way to school, feared the wrath of his parents for cursing, and wanted nothing more than a Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle under the tree for Christmas.
A Christmas Story has since become a holiday staple on TV and one of the most quoted movies of any era, leaving fans hungry to learn more about the stories behind Ralphie, his family, and the surrounding heroes and villains of fictional Hohman, Indiana. Here are 10 little-known facts about the holiday movie.
Producers Had Their Ralphie at First Glance
Already known for his commercial appearances and co-hosting duties on NBC's Real People, 12-year-old Peter Billingsley was the first to audition for the leading role of Ralphie Parker. He made a strong impression, but Clark worried that Billingsley was "too obvious" for the part and continued searching for a suitable alternative. It wasn't until producers auditioned an additional 8,000 hopefuls, including Sean Astin of The Goonies (1985) and Wil Wheaton of Stand By Me (1986), that they realized they'd already found their Ralphie and gave the green light to Billingsley.
Jack Nicholson Expressed Interest in the Role of the Old Man
According to Caseen Gaines' A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic, MGM passed a copy of the script to Jack Nicholson to gauge his interest in playing Ralphie's father. The A-lister responded favorably, but as he was fresh off critically acclaimed performances in The Shining (1980) and Reds (1981), his asking price was simply too high for the studio. The role eventually went to respected veteran actor Darren McGavin, a decision that suited the director just fine. "Jack is fabulous," Clark later said. "I love him, but thank God he didn't [end up with the part] because Darren is the Old Man."
Movie Magic Helped Flick’s Tongue “Stick” to the Pole
To create arguably the film's most iconic scene, designers concocted a plastic pole with a small hole in the side. A tube ran between the hole and a power generator buried in the snow to produce a mild suction and the impression that Flick (Scott Schwartz) was unable to pry his tongue from the frozen flagpole after meeting the challenge of the triple-dog-dare. It was a mostly painless experience for Schwartz, although he had to shoot the scene twice after initial footage proved too dark for use.
Ralphie Was Given Real Tobacco for the “Black Bart” Scene
For the fantasy sequence in which Ralphie protects his family from Black Bart and his goons, a prop man handed the 12-year-old lead a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco and instructed him not to swallow. Billingsley recalled in a 2020 podcast that about 15 minutes later, "the world starts tilting, I start sweating, my stomach starts hurting, and I start throwing up." During the 40 minutes he needed to recover, someone came up with the decidedly more child-friendly idea to smush a bunch of raisins together to replace the genuine tobacco.
Much of the Film’s Snow Was Fake
While A Christmas Story was largely filmed in Ontario, Canada, the crew also had to contend with non-winter-like conditions for two weeks of outdoor shooting in Cleveland, Ohio. At times, the weather was cold enough to use snow generated from machines carted in from ski resorts, but producers also relied on more creative forms of "snow" that included potato flakes, shredded vinyl, and firefighter's foam.
Clark and Shepherd Butted Heads on Set
While Clark dedicated his early career to the goal of adapting Shepherd's works for the screen, the two didn't see eye to eye when it came time to shoot. The tension stemmed from dueling creative visions, as the director put his own spin on characters and scenes that had formed differently in the original writer's mind, while also making decisions based on time and budget restraints. Fed up with the incessant suggestions and undermining of his authority, Clark eventually had Shepherd barred from the set.
Shepherd Is Briefly Seen in the Movie
Shepherd's genial voice is heard throughout the movie as the narrator, but the writer also appears on screen in the department store scene as the adult who bluntly points out the back of the line to Ralphie and Randy.
Clark Also Makes an Appearance
That's the director as Swede, the neighbor who surfaces next to the Old Man to express wonder at the "major award," aka the leg lamp, illuminating the Parkers' downstairs window. A memorial bench honors the spot where Clark, who passed away in 2007, delivered his brief but amusing cameo.
The Parker House Is Now Part of a Museum
In 2004, A Christmas Story superfan Brian Jones purchased the house used for exterior shots in Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood for $150,000. He then spent another $240,000 transforming the interior into a match for the Parkers' living space, complete with a decorated Christmas tree and Randy's under-the-sink hiding spot, before opening the house to the public in November 2006. Jones has since acquired the neighboring Bumpus residence and other houses across the street for use as a museum and gift shop, turning much of the block into a tribute to the beloved movie.
The Movie’s Lasting Success Owes a Thanks to Turner Entertainment
A Christmas Story grossed just over $19.2 million in theaters, neither a hit nor a flop by the standards of its era. However, its shelf life was extended thanks to cable TV and home video viewing, and in 1986, the film received another boost with its inclusion in MGM's fire sale to Turner Entertainment (now part of WarnerMedia). Finding a receptive audience for Clark and Shepherd’s love letter to small-town America, TNT launched its annual 24 Hours of A Christmas Story marathon in 1997, ensuring that generations to come would tune in to the adventures of its memorable characters, and find out for themselves whether Ralphie gets that coveted Red Ryder BB gun after all.