Monday, 22 December 2014

Santa Claus on Film

A classic illustration of Santa
Claus by Haddon Sundblom

For well over a century Santa Claus has been an integral part of Christmas imagery in the United States. His image appears on Christmas cards, on Christmas decorations, and numerous other holiday related merchandise. Not surprisingly, Santa Claus has also appeared as a character in several motion pictures over the years. Even those films in which Santa Claus plays a central role as a character are so numerous that it would take a book to list them all.

Not only has Santa Claus appeared frequently on film, but he appeared so early in film history that it difficult to say what the first movie in which he appeared was. What must have surely been one of the earliest films featuring Santa Claus was film pioneer George Albert Smith's short "Santa Claus" from 1898. "Santa Claus" was very basic in its premise, portraying Santa Claus's visit to a house to deliver presents. That having been said, it was also very innovative. It included a sequence created using a double exposure process invented by George Albert Smith himself. Other shorts from the late 1890s were also very simple in their premise. American Mutoscope's 1897 short "Santa Claus Filling Stockings" is pretty much exactly that. Both R. W. Paul's 1898 short "Santa Claus and the Children" and Edison's 1900 short "Santa Claus's Visit" also portrayed Santa delivering presents.

Edison's 1905 short "The Night Before Christmas" was much more sophisticated than the films of the 1890s. The short shows Santa preparing for Christmas by feeding his reindeer, working on toys in his workshop, checking his list, making his midnight ride, and ultimately delivering presents (complete with Santa going down the chimney). Interspersed were scenes of a family preparing for bed on Christmas Eve. To achieve all of this the short utilised a combination of live action and animation. Edward S. Porter's " A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus" from 1907 was also much more sophisticated than the films of the 1890s. The short involved a boy proving to a poor little girl that Santa Claus exists by capturing the jolly old elf and taking him to her house!

One of the more interesting films from the Silent Era was made by explorer Frank E. Kleinschmidt, who actually filmed it on location in the wilds of Northern Alaska. In "Santa Claus" (1925) two children sneak out of their house to see what Santa does on the other days of the year besides Christmas. The short features Santa's workshop, Santa's reindeer (real reindeer, not ordinary deer standing in for such), Santa visiting Eskimos, and so on. Although shot on a low budget, its production values were very high and the cinematography extraordinary.

Disney's "Santa's Workshop"
Surprisingly Santa Claus himself was not the subject of too many movies in the 1930's, although he did put in a few appearances in various animated shorts. Among the best known of these is perhaps Disney's  Silly Symphony "Santa Workshop" from 1932. The cartoon essentially features Santa and his elves preparing for Christmas Eve (Santa checking his list, the elves making toys, et. al.), all set to a merry song. Disney also loosely adapted the classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" as an animated short in 1933. Warner Bros. also made animated shorts featuring Santa Claus. In "The Shanty Where Santy Lives", Santa Claus takes an impoverished boy to the North Pole. The 1934  Universal Pictures animated short "Toyland Premiere" featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit holding a reception for Santa Claus, complete with appearances from Frankenstein's Creature, Tarzan, Lupe Velez, Shirley Temple, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and Laurel and Hardy.

Santa Claus did appear in one significant live action film in the Thirties. Jolly Old St. Nick puts in a brief appearance in Hal Roach's 1934 adaptation of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland (now known as Parade of the Wooden Soldiers)
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Even given the boom in Christmas that occurred in the latter part of the decade, the Forties were much like the Thirties in that Santa Claus did not appear that often in film. And like the Thirties, most of his appearances were in animated cartoons. Perhaps the most significant of these was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", directed by Max Fleisher for Jam Handy. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was not only historic as the first film adaptation of Robert L. May's creation, but it was also the final film ever directed by Max Fleischer. Released in 1948, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" pre-dated the song of the same name by a year, although the song would be added to the animated short's opening credits upon its re-release in 1951. Because of this "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is much more faithful to Robert L. May's original story than Johnny Marks's song or the later Rankin/Bass special. As anyone who knows the original story of Rudolph, Santa plays a significant role in the cartoon.

Santa Claus would also appear in Famous Studios' very first "Little Audrey" cartoon. In "Santa's Surprise" (1947), Audrey and four other children stow away on Santa's sleigh and go with him to the North Pole.  Santa Claus puts in a small appearance in the Warner Bros. short "Bedtime for Snifles", in which Sniffles attempts to stay awake to see Santa.

Of course, the period from about 1941 to 1951 could be considered the Golden Age of Christmas Movies given the number of classics released during that time. It was during this period that many, perhaps most, of the biggest Christmas movies of all time were released:  Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947),  Holiday Affair (1949), A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge, 1951), and The Lemon Drop (1951) were among the many holiday films released during the period. Surprisingly given the boom in Christmas movies that occurred in the Forties, particularly the late Forties, Santa Claus was not a major character in the vast majority of the films. A notable exception was one of the biggest holiday movies of all time, perhaps surpassed only by It's a Wonderful Life in popularity: Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

Miracle on 34th Street centres on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn), an elderly man hired by Macy's as that department store's Santa. To Kris Kringle, however, he isn't simply playing Santa Claus; Kris is convinced that he is Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street leaves the question of whether Kris is simply a delusional old man or the one and only, genuine Santa Claus open, but given the strength of Edmund Gwenn's performance I rather suspect that even the most sceptical viewers will be convinced he is the real thing. Miracle on 34th Street received great notices from critics at the time. It also picked up three Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn); Best Writing, Original Story; and  Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, which it inexplicably lost to Gentlemen's Agreement.

Miracle on 34th Street has been remade four times. The first time was as an episode of The Twentieth Century Fox Hour in 1955, with Thomas Mitchell playing the role of Kris Kringle. The second time was in a 60 minute television special that aired on NBC in 1959 with Ed Wynn playing the role of Kris Kringle. The third time was as a television movie in 1973 with Sebastian Cabot in the role of Kris. Another theatrical version was released in 1994 with Lord Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle. Sadly, while Lord Attenborough was wonderful in the role of Santa, as was Mara Wilson as the role of the sceptical little girl, any magic from the original was lost in the 1994 remake, largely due to a poor script and charmless leads (Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott). Even after all the remakes, the original Miracle on 34th Street remains the preferred version of many, perhaps most, people.

Like the Forties, Santa Claus as a character in films would be largely absent in the Fifties. Santa Claus does put in an appearance in  the Warner Bros. 1952 animated short "Gift Wrapped" in which he brings Tweety to Granny as a Christmas present. Quite naturally Sylvester J. Pussycat has other plans for Granny's new gift. A more significant appearance of Santa Claus on film, and one that is much more bizarre, is in René Cardona's 1959 low budget feature Santa Claus. In the film the Devil plots to turn the world's children against Santa Claus (played by José Elías Moreno). Today Santa Claus (1959) is not highly regarded, except perhaps as a camp classic (it even aired on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000).  Amazingly enough, it won the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959! Santa Claus also appeared in the obscure,  hour long fantasy film The Miracle of the White Reindeer (1960), about which there seems to be little information. Santa was played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the Drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.

Of course, the Sixties would see the advent of Rankin/Bass's television specials, many of which would feature Santa Claus (most notably the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Unfortunately, the decade would not be so kind to the Jolly Old Elf with regards to theatrical feature films. In fact, Santa Claus's best known appearance in a feature film from the Sixties is in a movie often counted among the worst ever made. In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) Martians decide to capture Santa Claus so that their children can have fun just as children on Earth do. The film was made on a shoestring budget (the Martians' guns appear to be modified Whammo Air Blasters) and mostly shot in an old aircraft hangar in Long Island. While Santa Claus Conquers the Martians rightfully deserves its bad reputation, it does have one big claim to history (and it's not simply Pia Zadora's film debut).  Reportedly Santa Claus Conquers the Martians marks the first time that Mrs. Claus ever appeared in a feature film.

Santa Claus played a major role in the 1966 feature film The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, which was based on Paul Tripp's book of the same name. The Christmas That Almost Wasn't has the bizarre premise of Santa Claus being behind on his rent and about to be kicked out of his own home. Santa (played by Alberto Rabagliati) goes to attorney Sam Whipple (played by Paul Tripp) for help. For many years The Christmas That Almost Wasn't was a bit of a holiday tradition on HBO.

The Seventies would not be much kinder to Santa Claus with regards to feature films. In Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) Santa (played by Jay Clark) tries to free his sleigh from the sand of a Florida beach. Interspersed, for no other apparent reason than to fill out the running time, is an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "Thumbelina". As might be expected Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is counted among the worst films ever made.

Fortunately Santa Claus would fare a little better in the Eighties, although the feature films in which he appeared were still far from classics. Santa Claus (1985), better known as Santa Claus: The Movie, cost an estimated $50 million to make. As might be expected with such a budget, Santa Claus: The Movie featured some incredible special effects, as well as very elaborate sets. David Huddleston also made for an appealing Santa Claus. Unfortunately that was the only things in which the film appeared to excel. Reviews of the film were largely negative (in his book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas Alonso Duralde counts it as one of the worst Christmas movies ever) and audiences were largely indifferent to the film. In fact, it lost money at the box office. Made for $50 million, it only made $23,717,291 in the United States.

Santa Claus's other significant feature film appearance in the Eighties would not be much better, and some might consider it worse. In Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Ernest P. Worrell (played by Jim Varney) must find a replacement for Santa Claus, who has grown too old to continue in the role. Like most of the "Ernest" films, Ernest Saves Christmas was not a hit with critics.

Since the Eighties Santa Claus has fared somewhat better in feature films. While the Nineties would give us the rather dismal remake of Miracle on 34th Street, it would also give us the critically acclaimed stop motion film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), perhaps the only film that can be enjoyed as both as a Halloween movie and a Yuletide movie. The Nineties would also see the release of The Santa Clause (1994), which was generally well received by critics and did well at the box office. It would be followed by two sequels,  The Santa Clause 2 (2002) and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006).

The Naughts saw the release of yet more films in which Santa Claus played a significant role: the comedy Elf (2003), the computer animated Polar Express (2004), and the comedy Fred Claus (2007). It also saw a horror/comedy movie in which Santa Claus was actually the villain. In the 2005 film Santa' Slay Santa Claus (played by professional wrestler Bill Goldberg) is demon/human hybrid who was sentenced to deliver presents to children for 1000 years. When the 1000 years were up, Santa simply went back to his old ways of slaughtering people.... Except for The Polar Express, it would seem the Naughts were not particularly kind to Santa in feature films...

So far the Teens have seen little in the way of movies featuring Santa Claus as a major character. Given the central role Santa Claus plays in the American celebration of Christmas, it would seem likely that at some point yet more films featuring Old St. Nick will be made eventually. Over the years Santa Claus has appeared in films with shoestring budgets, as well as big budget blockbusters. He has appeared in movies counted among the worst ever made and movies considered among the greatest of all time. Whether Santa's next appearance on film is the modern equivalent of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or Miracle on 34th Street, one thing is certain. Santa Claus won't be off the big screen for long.

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