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Remember This Scene: Festivus and 'A Christmas Story'

Jeremy Fuster |
December 23, 2014 | 12:28 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The phony ending of It's A Wonderful Life pales in comparison to the decapitation of a Peking Duck at the end of 'A Christmas Story.' (MGM)
The phony ending of It's A Wonderful Life pales in comparison to the decapitation of a Peking Duck at the end of 'A Christmas Story.' (MGM)
Every Tuesday, Jeremy Fuster analyzes a critical scene from a popular film. Join him every week as he delves into what exactly makes these critical scenes so memorable and successful.

Tis the season, and on this week's special "Remember This Scene," I'm going to be talking about my favorite scene from my all-time favorite Christmas film.

But first…today, December 23rd, is Festivus, a.k.a. the winter holiday for "Seinfeld" fans, smartass atheists who worship the ground Richard Dawkins walks on, and Rand Paul. One of the proud traditions of this anti-consumerist holiday is the "Airing of Grievances," during which each person rants about how the world has disappointed them this year. In light of this, I would like to start off this column with a film-themed Festivus Rant of my own:

I despise "It's A Wonderful Life."

Good LORD, what a load of schmaltzy junk that film is. It may have been ridiculous that the film got labeled communist propaganda during the McCarthy Era, but it sure made me think for the first time in my life that Ayn Rand might have had a point when she said altruism was a tad overrated. Long story short, this film is about an unfortunate sap named George who has sacrificed all his dreams and aspirations to help out a town full of people who seem to be too dumb to live. A guardian angel then comes down and shows how the town would have been in ruins without him. It's a nice sentiment that saves George from committing suicide, but it doesn't change the fact that George will still be going to jail because his drunk uncle is a colossal idiot.

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The supposed message of this film is "no man is a failure who has friends," but the real message is "No good deed goes unpunished." After sacrificing all his aspirations to run his family's Building and Loan and holding off control of the company (and therefore control of the town's housing) from evil slumlord Henry Potter, George gets royally screwed when his Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 of the B&L's money when he goes to deposit it at the bank. How does he do that? Well, I'll let The Onion's Peter Rosenthal show you.

Let me add on to that rant this little note: $8,000 in the 1940s is just over $100,000 in 2014. What kind of brainless dumbass would screw around while holding that much money?! Like I said before, George is screwed over by people who are too dumb to live, and even if the town bands together at the end of the film to recuperate the $8,000 that Uncle Billy lost, it doesn't clear George of bank fraud because he still lost the money in the first place. Don't let that stupid shot of the arrest warrant being torn up fool you; that warrant is still valid, George is still getting locked up, Potter is still taking over the B&L, and in spite of all of George's efforts, his town is still on the way to becoming a slum. George Bailey sacrificed his hopes and dreams for absolutely nothing.

But he didn't commit suicide, so at least that angel got his wings, right? RIGHT?!

"It's A Wonderful Life" completely fumbles its message the same way that worthless old uncle fumbled away a small fortune. It's another chapter in Frank Capra's anthology of hilariously naive morality flicks, right alongside the even more laughable "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." I loathe this film with a passion, and anyone who wants to shake their walking stick at me and tell me that the real reason why I can't appreciate this "gem" from the era of The Greatest Generation is because I'm a dirty, rotten, selfish millenial can freely take said walking stick and shove it where the light of a newly-winged guardian angel don't shine.

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Now, with that Festivus Rant over, let my transition with this anecdote: the first time I watched that garbage film on TCM, I spent five minutes furiously panning through the channels, muttering to myself how nothing about that film's ending stood up upon close examination. I spent several minutes searching for some show that could help me purge the bile that Capra's schlock had built within me, until I finally settled on TBS and was rewarded with the sight of a pudgy kid with glasses beating the absolute shit out of his bully.

And thus my life changed forever.

My hatred for "It's A Wonderful Life," can only be exceeded by my love for "A Christmas Story." This movie is just so perfect, hitting one comedic high note after another, showing memories of a childhood Christmas from the perspective of an adult narrator. The slapstick of what's happening onscreen is accentuated by the hilariously dry humor provided by the voice of the film's screenwriter, Jean Shepherd, whose childhood inspired the events in the film.

What's so amazing about it is that even though it shows a detailed depiction of life as a kid in the 50s, the thoughts and actions of the kids are so commonly felt by kids throughout the years that anyone can empathize with them. Fear of punishment, peer pressure, daydreams of success or revenge, wanting that one amazing gift for Christmas, and the shock of being cheated by a "crummy commercial" are all experiences we had no matter what decade we grew up in, and that gives 'A Christmas Story' the timeless feel that has made it a TV marathon tradition.

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But what I love the most about this film is that while it focuses around the experiences of being a kid during Christmas, it also centers around an unfortunate truth that we come to accept as we become adults: even during Christmas, shit happens. Over the course of the film, Ralphie comes to realize that no, there is no such thing as a perfect Christmas. Murphy's Law does not take a holiday like the rest of us. He still get bad grades on his reading assignments, Santa isn't the answer to everything, and even when he gets that BB gun he always wanted, he does indeed fulfill his mother's prophecy and shoots his eye out. And yet, in spite of all the disaster and misfortune, everything ends up all right, and even if Christmas isn't what we hoped it would be, it still ends up being memorable and meaningful.

This message is laid out bare in the final minutes of the film, when the family's beloved Christmas turkey is ripped apart by those smelly bloodhounds. The family is at a loss. Ralphie just shot his eye and broke his glasses, his old man is denied the turkey feast he has craved, and his mom is in tears at seeing all her hard work being destroyed, something that my mom sympathizes with so much to the point that she can't bear to watch when the dogs devour the cooked bird. But in spite of that, Dad simply gathers up the wounded family and takes them to the only place in town open on Christmas Day: a Chinese restaurant.

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OK, I'd like to think that the waiters are intentionally getting it wrong to annoy the maitre'd, because otherwise this is pretty racist. But after that gag, we get my favorite part of the movie, as the Peking duck ("Chinese Turkey," Shepherd calls it) is brought out and the head is chopped off with a cleaver. This scene is just so sweet. Despite everything that's happened, the family is laughing and cheering and still making the best of Christmas.

The film then closes with a beautiful scene of Mom and Dad sitting in the living room watching the snow fall, while Ralphie goes to bed with the BB gun that wrecked his glasses, but is still "the greatest Christmas present he had ever received, or would ever receive." Like everything else in this film, the ending is relatable to so many of us. It's not some cheesy happy ending like the one in "It's A Wonderful Life." It's an ending based in reality, one where Christmas doesn't have a Hollywood ending, but its imperfections and flaws end up being an important part of the experience by making the joyful moments all the sweeter.

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