Friday, July 8, 2011

The Great American Fourth Of July And Other Disasters

Here's a holiday special featuring Jean Shepherd as narrator, Ralphie Parker, the Old Man and Flick, but it's not A Christmas Story as you might have come to expect. Instead, it's:

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters
is a 1982 tv special that first aired on PBS as part of the "American Playhouse" series.

The special features a teenaged Ralphie Parker (as played by a young Matt Dillon) and tells of adventures had on a long ago 4th of July full of "gut-thumping explosions", marching bands, parades, picnics, maniacal drum majors, sack races, blind dates, wash rags, and of course, fireworks!

Our story begins with a framing device, Jean Shepherd is driving a Rolls Royce down present-day (for 1982) I-95 which leads him to South of the Border the venerably tacky roadside attraction in South Carolina which features a vast array of fireworks of varying lethality for purchase. As he fills a shopping cart full of recreational explosives ("just like the A&P"), he thinks about how much "the Old Man" would have loved a place like South of the Border and how "the Old Man's" 4th of July fireworks displays were reknowned which leads us down memory lane to teenaged Ralphie and friends in Holman, Indiana.

We learn that Ralphie plays sousaphone in the local marching band which is getting ready for the big 4th of July parade under the direction of Wilbur Duckworth, a drum major with "the soul of a true storm trooper". The band, frankly, isn't all that great and are further stymied by swirling midwestern dust and colliding sousaphone bell, but Wilbur insists on rehearsing them to the brink of exhaustion in preparation for the big parade.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Ralphie's family - his long suffering mother, his brother Randy "whose art form was the whine" and the Old Man himself (as played by James Broderick - Matthew Broderick's old man in real life) who is looking forward to 4th of July festivities while being puzzled as to an amusing subplot involving mom and wash rags. We also encounter Ralphie's friends Schwartz (Jeff Yonis) and Flick (William Lampley) - Flick seems to have turned into a not-very-nice teenager (maybe getting his tongue stuck to that flag pole embittered him?).

Schwartz's mom has set Ralphie up on a blind date, which Ralphie is not looking forward to at all. But as tends to happen in Jean Shepherd's stories, the date doesn't quite pan out the way Ralphie anticipates.

We are also introduced to Lud Kissel (Babe Sargent) , the town drunk - you can tell he will be important later because of the "Jaws Theme" that plays in the background whenever he appears on screen.

The 4th of July dawns bright and hot and the day's festivities get underway. The parade has interesting consequences when Wilbur Duckworth's double baton act goes terribly wrong, but folks recover from that shock and go on to enjoy the town picnic. Ralphie and Schwartz have trained for the sack race in anticipation of winning a pair of shiny transistor radios but that also winds up not going according to plan due to Flick's machinations.

Lud emerges from a darkened bar (due to parade consequences) to join in the fun. He produces a massive, black and menacing firecracker that wrecks havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Hammond and on Mrs. Kissel's front porch, thereby ensuring his place in town folklore.

The evening ends with the Old Man's much anticipated fireworks extravaganza and a good time is generally had by all. Ralphie and the Old Man share a nice moment together at the very end of the evening, talking about what a great day it has been.

We then return to present (1982) day Jean Shepherd, back in his Rolls on I-95 to wrap things up with some lovely philosophizing about how holidays are "like mileposts in the picket fence of the years that stretch on and on through our lives."

This is great, funny special in the best Jean Shepherd storytelling tradition. The effects are low-budget, but that makes it all the more charming. It is a pity that The Great American Fourth Of July And Other Disasters isn't commercially available at this time, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it is well worth your time.

Rigby Mel says - my rating:

4 waving flags


J.A.Morris says:

I agree with Rigbymel on this one,'The Great American 4th Of July' should be on tv every July. I watched this when it was brand new, I didn't realize until years later that it featured the same characters from 'A Christmas Story'. I'm guessing that licensing difficulties regarding some of the background music(like the aforementioned 'Jaws' theme) are preventing an official dvd release. Dillon and Broderick are especially great in their roles.
My rating:
4 flags!

Since it's never been released commercially, here's a link to Part 1 of the special on Youtube:


Roxy said...

Love, love, love Great American Fourth of July and better than Christmas Story cause I saw this wayyyyy before! It's a staple at our house. We videotaped it when our kids were little and they're adults with their own families now.

RigbyMel said...

Hi Roxy! We love it too -- it's a shame that it hasn't gotten more attention!
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on our blog!