Plot & Details
Most filmgoers will associate humorist Jean Shepherd exclusively with his autobiographical big-screen nostalgia piece A Christmas Story (1983), which has drawn millions of loyal viewers over the years with its charm. Its devotees may be surprised to discover that several PBS-produced Shepherd teleplays preceded it, nearly identical in tone and brand of humor. Made for PBS in 1982, the hour-long The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters sends up middle-American Independence Day festivities with manic glee -- thus doing for the Fourth exactly what A Christmas Story does for the Yuletide season. The Great American Fourth carries us to small-town Americana, where several subplots unfold concurrently. In one, Ralph -- here a teenager, played by Matt Dillon -- prepares to go on a date with his buddy's resplendent cousin, and makes a fool of himself by spilling licorice candy all over the aisles; in a second, Mom (Barbara Bolton) makes good to an absurd degree on a "chain letter" by suddenly inheriting more washrags (that's right, washrags) than she ever knew existed; in a third, a local baton twirler tosses his bar a little too high and blacks out the entire town. In yet another substory, the town drunk, Ludlow Kissel (Babe Sargent) sets off a rather destructive firework with a mind of its own, which manically chases a pack of children down the street and refuses to be outwitted. And, in the gut-busting showstopper that concludes the film, the Old Man (James Broderick, of Family) hosts a public fireworks display by shooting off Roman candles from his pants. This marked Broderick's final screen appearance; he died several months after it was produced. To date, neither The Great American Fourth of July nor any of Jean Shepherd's other early PBS specials have received home-video distribution. A witty prologue was added for Disney Channel screenings in the mid-'80s, wherein the late Shepherd himself is seen driving to a fireworks store in the Carolinas.