Friday, December 28, 2007

When TV Cartoons Become Live-Action Movies...

This holiday season saw the release of Alvin and the Chipmunks, a movie based on an animated TV series, which in turn was based on a series of novelty songs. This spring will see the release of the Wachowski Brothers' big budget adaptation of Speed Racer.Live-action versions of Dragonball, Voltron, and Jonny Quest are also in the works. The fact that there are several movies based on TV cartoons should come as no surprise. From the mid-Nineties to the early Naughts there was an entire cycle of live-action films based on animated TV series. Sadly, the vast majority of these films were wretched at best. For fans of both animated TV shows and movies, movies based on TV cartoons are most often the stuff nightmares are made of.

I am not absolutely certain what the first movie based on a TV cartoon was, but it could well have been Boris and Natasha: the Movie, released in 1992. As one could guess from the title, Boris and Natasha: the Movie is based on Jay Ward's famous cartoon titled at different times Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show, but popularly called Rocky and Bullwinkle. That having been said, Boris and Natasha: the Movie is curious in that neither "Moose" nor "Squirrel (as Boris and Natasha always referred to them)" put in an appearance in the movie. Boris and Natasha: the Movie centres entirely on the two superspies from the country of Pottsylvania as they undertake their latest plot. Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas do well as Natasha and Boris respectively. And director Charles Martin Smith did succeed in capturing the look of the old animated series. Unfortunately, Boris and Natasha: the Movie was simply not a good movie. Indeed, it entirely failed to capture the wit and satire of the original Jay Ward cartoon. This was perhaps the reason that, while it was made in 1990, it did not debut until 1992. And while it had been meant for theatrical release, Boris and Natasha: the Movie would make its debut on the cable channel Showtime. It was not an auspicious debut either for a live-action movie based on the works of Jay Ward or a live-action movie based on a cartoon.

Sadly, the unfortunate fate of Boris and Natasha: the Movie would not prevent other filmmakers from adapting other TV cartoons. In 1994 Universal Studios released a big budget, live action adaptation of the old Hanna-Barbera sitcom The Flintstones. Arguably, the movie did have one thing going for it. John Goodman would seem to have been born to play Fred Flintstone. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seemed to be miscast. Elizabeth Perkins did somewhat look like Fred's wife Wilma, but her performance seemed a bit lacking. Of course, Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma was far better than the other members of the cast. Rick Moranis was far too skinny to play Barney Rubble, looking more like Gilligan dressed as Barney for a Halloween party. At least he did somewhat get Barney's character right. This was certainly not the case for Rosey O'Donnell as Betty Rubble. It was not enough that O'Donnell looked nothing like Betty (who was about the same size and shape as Wilma on the TV show), but she did not even get the voice or mannerisms quite right. The miscasting in the film would not have been quite so bad if the movie did not boast one of the worst scripts for a live-action adaptation of a TV cartoon ever made (which is really saying something). The movie's plot was episodic in the extreme, lacking any sort of cohesion whatsoever. I rather suspect fans of the show were seriously disappointed.

Despite the relative lack of quality of The Flintstones, the movie did do well at the box office. This meant that there would be yet more live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, although it would take five years for this to happen. George of the Jungle was released in 1997, another film based on another classic Jay Ward cartoon. As in the case of The Flintstones, the movie was a bit miscast, with Brendon Fraser in the lead role (one would have expected someone a bit more square jawed and muscular). Even with Fraser in the role of George, however, the movie could have still worked had it not been for the script. It was not simply that the script was bad, it was also the case that it departed from the cartoon in some important respects. The cartoon had been a slapstick parody of Tarzan, littered with the wit and satire familiar in Jay Ward's work. Not only does the movie lack Ward's patented wit and satire, but it tried to be a romantic comedy and failed miserably. Amazingly, it did respectively well at the box office.

Unfortunately, George of the Jungle would not be the last of the live-action adaptations of TV cartoons by a long shot. Nineteen ninety nine would see no less than two such movies. The first was a live action version of the classic Eighties cartoon Inspector Gadget. Sadly, it would be no better than The Flintstones or George of the Jungle. While I have always liked Matthew Broderick as an actor, his performance as Inspector Gadget is one of his few misfires. For those of you who don't remember the original cartoon, Don Adams used his William Powell imitation (which he had previously used for hotel detective Byron Glick on the Bill Dana Show, TTV cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo, and Maxwell Smart) for the voice of Gadget. Broderick did not even attempt to imitate Adams' voice (or William Powell's for that matter). That could have been overlooked had it not been for the fact that the movie itself simply was not very good. The film lacked much of the fun and humour of the original cartoon.

The second live-action version of a TV cartoon in 1999 was Dudley Do-Right, an adaptation of the classic Jay Ward Cartoon of the same name. Sadly, it was not much better than the first two adaptations of Jay Ward cartoons. Brendon Fraser was probably a good choice for the none too bright, yet earnest Canadian Mountie. And Alfred Molina did a good job as the villainous Snidely Whiplash. To the filmmakers' credit, they did try to capture the wit and zaniness of the original cartoon. And there are a few moments where they succeed. Unfortunately, the movie falls short of that goal. There are more comedic misfires than laughs to be found in the film. While the live-action version of Dudley Do-Right may be acceptable as a family film, it is not a very good adaptation of the cartoon.

Hollywood already having made three movies based on the works of Jay Ward, it was only a matter of time before they made a film featuring his most famous characters. Released in 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was based on the TV series called either Rocky and His Friends or The Bullwinkle Show. The film used CGI to create its two main characters, with the roles of Boris and Natasha being played by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo respectively. I have to say I have no objections to the film's cast. And like Dudley Do-Right, the movie tried to capture the sort of intelligent humour for which Jay Ward's cartoons were known. And the movie does have its share of funny moments. Sadly, however, as in the case of the film version of Dudley Do-Right, it also falls short of the original. In fact, there are many times the filmmakers seem as if they are trying to be witty, zany, and funny, only to come off as a bit silly. Fortunately, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was the last of the Jay Ward cartoon movie adaptations--I would hate to see what Hollywood would do to Super Chicken...

Two thousand also saw another adaptation of The Flinstones, in this case The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. The movie is sort of a prequel to both the first film and the animated series, portraying Fred and Wilma before they were married. The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas has a much better cast than the first film, with Mark Addy as Fred, Stephen Baldwin as Barney, Kristen Johnston as Wilma, and Jane Krakowski as Betty. Unfortunately, despite a good cast who actually looked like the characters they were playing, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas is not a very good movie (although it is at least better than the first film). In fact, the movie commits the worst possible sin for any film--it is exceedingly dull and unfunny. The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas seems less like the adaptation of a TV cartoon than a mediocre sitcom stretched to the length of a feature film.

I must confess that so far this overview of live-action films based on TV cartoons had been a bit depressing. Out of the seven films I have discussed so far, not a one of them can I actually say is good (although some are worse than others). While I cannot say that Scooby-Doo, released in 2002, is necessarily a good film, it is certainly an entertaining one. And that is saying a lot for someone who has always thought that Scooby Doo, Where Are You was one of the worst things to happen to Saturday morning cartoons. I must admit that I do have some caveats with the movie. Like many adaptations of animated TV shows, some of the roles are miscast. While I have always loved Sarah Michelle Gellar, she looks nothing like Daphne (I personally think Katie Holmes would have been better in the role). The same holds true for Freddie Prinze Jr. (any number of pretty boys from the WB's teen series of the time would have been better) as Fred. That having been said, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini (who would have made a better Daphne than Gellar) are perfect as Shaggy and Velma respectively. What is more. for me at least, Scooby Doo succeeds where other cartoon adaptations have failed in that it is actually funny. The reason Scooby Doo works is that rather than doing a straight adaptation of what, in my humble opinion, was not a very good cartoon, it satirises the whole thing. To me this movie is not so much an adaptation of Scooby Doo, Where Are You, much less an homage to it, as it is a send up of the cartoon. In fact, I've often thought that many fans of the old TV show must hate the movie.

Two thousand four saw the release of a live-action adaptation of another Saturday morning cartoon for which I have little love, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Fat Albert has Albert and his gang leaving their cartoon universe for the real world, to help a troubled teen. They may have been better off remaining in the cartoon world. Fat Albert moves at a snail's pace, with a plot that simply cannot remain focused. Of course, the movie's biggest flaw is one shared by the original cartoon. Like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Fat Albert is overly preachy and tends to bang the viewer over the head with its message.

Two thousand four would also see a sequel to Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Made by the same filmmakers, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is not nearly as good as the first movie. Part of the problem is changes made to the premise of the both the original cartoon and the first movie. Scooby and the gang no longer ride around in the Mystery Machine (their van, for anyone not familiar with the show), but work out of a posh office suite. Furthermore, the gang have become celebrities in their hometown. In doing this the filmmakers removed much of the off kilter charm that was in the first movie and what very little charm there was in the original cartoon. And while the first movie was in its own respect a satire of the original cartoon, the second film plays it straight as a rather unfunny comedy. Of course, I have to admit, it may not have been the fault of the filmmakers. After all, I was surprised that Scooby Doo, Where Are You had material enough in it for even one movie...

Until 2005 nearly every TV cartoon adapted into a live-action film was a comedy. It was in 2005 that an action/adventure cartoon was finally adapted as a live-action movie. Æon Flux was based on the cartoon of the same name that aired on MTV in the Nineties. The series focused on a tall, blonde superspy in a dystopian future and is notable for having almost no dialogue. The movie, featuring Charlize Theron in the title role, was a loose adaptation of the series (unlike the animated series, it does have dialogue). The film received decidedly mixed reviews on its release. Among the complaints were that while the film looked good, it was also a bit on the dull side.

As atrocious as many of these live-action adaptations of TV cartoons are, I rather suspect none have been as reviled as Disney's live-action adaptation of Underdog. The original cartoon was essentially a funny animal parody of Superman, set in a world where humans existed along animals who could walk upright and talk (like Underdog and his girlfriend Sweet Polly Purebred). Unfortunately, the movie would not be a straight adaptation of the TV series. In fact, Disney made such changes that it seems as if they only took the names of the characters for Disney's Underdog (as I call it to differentiate it from the original show). To say this outraged the show's fans is an understatement (indeed, this is probably the fourth time I've complained about it...). Of course, while we fans may have objected to the changes in Underdog's mythos, there was still the possibility that it could have been a good family film. Sadly, that was not the case. Disney's Underdog was raked over the coals by critics. Indeed, it was described as lacklustre and even lame. Audiences seemed to agree, as it died a quiet death at the box office.

Live action movies based on animated TV series have had a rather ignominious history thus far. Sadly, this is not simply because so many of them depart from the original cartoons in some way, although many of them do (Disney's Underdog is simply a more extreme example). It is because they are more often than not poorly conceived. I have to wonder that the studios are not simply depending on the name recognition of a particular cartoon to draw audiences into theatres. It seems to be the only way to explain how little work they put into these films, from poor scripts to some of the worst casting ever seen in Hollywood. That having been said, I think there could be reason for hope. Fat Albert, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed,and Disney's Underdog bombed at the box office. It seems clear to me that audiences have caught onto the fact that so many live-action adaptations of TV cartoons are just plain bad. As a result I rather suspect that from here on out filmmakers will not be able to depend upon name recognition to draw audiences into theatres. They will have to put some real work and some real quality into any future projects based on cartoons. Of course, the sad fact is that I could well be wrong. Hollywood has a history of not learning from its past mistakes. Worse yet, the desire to make a quick buck in Hollywood often outweighs the desire to make good films. While I hope that the next round of live-action adaptations of animated TV series are better than the past one, I can't say that I have any real faith that it will be.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

What is Going on with TV Land?

I have written here before about how I feel cable television has gone down hill. A&E was once the home of arts and entertainment and quality programming from the best of American and British television. These days it is the home of reality shows and reruns of CSI. TLC (once better known as The Learning Channel) was once sort of a cross between the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, then it was overwhelmed by home makeover shows. Through all of this, one cable channel remained untouched, one cable channel remained true to its original vision. That channel was TV Land. Sadly, it seems that could be changing.

TV Land was founded in 1996 as a spinoff of Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite programming block--the night time hours when Nickelodeon shows classic TV series. Quite naturally, then, TV Land has primarily showed classic television shows, from I Love Lucy to Bonanza. Unfortunately, it appears that this has changed. Recently, TV Land has decided to shed the label of "Classic TV" and to target Baby Boomers instead. Now on the surface I would see nothing wrong with that. Indeed, given the series TV Land has shown over the past eleven years, it can be argued that they have been targeting Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers all along. After all, I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Superman, and Burns and Allen all aired while Baby Boomers were still young. Star Trek, Bonanza, The Addams Family, and M*A*S*H were all shows that older Gen Xers grew up with. Unfortunately, TV Land apparently thinks classic TV shows are not enough to draw in Baby Boomers or older Gen Xers.

Indeed, the first sign of this change I noticed was when TV Land started showing Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Now Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is not the sort of television series I would watch. That having been said, I have nothing against the show and, in fact, I think it is altogether an admirable idea (improving the homes of those who can't afford to improve their homes). But I do not think it should air on TV Land. To me TV Land should remain the home of Classic TV, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has not been around long enough to be considered Classic TV.

I have the same objections to TV Land's acquisitions of Just Shoot Me and Scrubs, both scheduled to air on the channel in 2008. Now I love Scrubs. It is one of the funnier shows on the air right now. That having been said, it has not been around long enough to be considered a classic. In fact, it is only in its sixth season. Although it may achieve classic status one day, it will be several years before that is the case. As to Just Shoot Me, that show is a slightly different case from Scrubs. The show is ten years old. I could see how some people could argue that is sufficient time to determine if a show is a classic or not. Personally, I would say that ten or fifteen years would be a better test of whether a show is a classic or not. This is besides the point, however, as I think fifty years could pass and Just Shoot Me would not ever be considered a classic. When Just Shoot Me debuted, it received a critical lambasting. And while it did well in its ratings for the majority of its run, it was never a water cooler show. I never heard anyone talking about "last night's episode of Just Shoot Me." In fact, the media and viewers alike barely acknowledged that the show was on. I suspect the only reason Just Shoot Me survived was NBC's insistence on scheduling it Tuesday and Thursday nights, alongside such popular shows as Friends and Fraiser. Quite simply, it survived only by riding on the coattails of more popular TV series. Proof that the show was not particularly popular can be seen in the fact that Just Shoot Me had a very bad syndication run. In fact, it seems to me that it pretty much disappeared after NBC cancelled it. This is hardly the sort of show TVLand should be showing.

Ultimately, of course, I suppose that "Classic TV" is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps there are those out there who do believe that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Scrubs, and Just Shoot Me (although I'd find that hard to believe...) are "Classic TV." That argument cannot possibly be made for a reality show that will soon air on TV Land entitled High School Reunion. The show follows a high school class that graduated in 1987. That's right. It is the sort of reality show one would expect to see on A&E, TLC, or the broadcast networks. It is not the sort of thing one would expect to see on TV Land. In fact, speaking for myself, I don't want to see it on TV Land. Beyond the fact that it cannot be considered "Classic TV," I have trouble seeing the rationale for High School Reunion in light of TV Land's shift from "Classic TV" to programming for Baby Boomers. Quite simply, it centres on a high school class that graduated in 1987. Even given the broadest definition of "Baby Boomer," anyone who graduated in 1987 would still belong to Generation X. I can't see Baby Boomers being interested in being interested in what a bunch of "kids" have done since their high school graduation. Heck, I am a Gen Xer and I wouldn't be interested in what other Gen Xers have done since they graduated...

In TV Land's defence, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of their programming is still "Classic TV." They are still airing shows such as Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show, The Addams Family, and Star Trek. And for 2008 they have acquired the rights to show The Beverly Hillbillies, Hogan's Heroes, and Murphy Brown. Reality shows and TV series of more recent vintage have not overwhelmed TV Land by any stretch of the imagination. That having been said, I do think TV Land's fans have reason to worry. Let's face it, A&E was transformed from an Arts and Entertainment channel into the home of reality shows. MTV was once truly Music Television--now a better name for it would be Reality TV Show Television. It is not wholly inconceivable that TV Land could go down the path that other cable channels have.

Of course, I guess many might ask why it is important for TV Land to remain the home of Classic TV. The reason to me is quite simple. The vast majority of cable channels out there ceased showing older TV shows long ago. With the exception of the ubiquitous Law and Order, most cable channels show no TV shows older than ten or fifteen years old. In fact, the only cable channel that shows any amount of classic television shows besides TV Land is AmericanLife TV, which is not available on many cable systems. There is still a large audience out there for classic television shows. There are still fans out there eager to watch shows such as Gilligan's Island, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Dragnet. And not all of them are old farts like me. My number two best friend is a huge fan of M*A*S*H, among other old shows, even though it went off the air the year she was born. If TV Land were to go the way of A&E and MTV, then it would leave fans of classic television with virtually no outlet for classic shows beyond DVDs (which can get expensive after a while). It is for that reason I believe that TV Land should remain dedicated to classic TV shows. And they should not air any more reality shows, not unless in twenty years Survivor is deemed "Classic TV...."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Choreographer Michael Kidd Passes On

Dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd passed on Sunday from cancer. He was 92 years old.

Michael Kidd was born Milton Greenwald in Brooklyn, New York. He attended New Utrecht High School and later majored in Chemical Enginering at City College of New York. After attending a dance performance, however, he developed an interest in dance. He studied under dancer and choreographer Blanche Evan. He also received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet.

Kidd made his debut on Broadway playing The Gangster in Filling Station in 1939. He later toured with Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, including a stint on Broadway in 1939. In 1941 he was assistant director and a soloist for Eugene Loring’s Dance Players. From 1942 to 1947 he was a soloist in the Ballet Theatre. Kidd continued to appear on Broadway, as the lead in Billy the Kid in 1942, in Interplay in 1946, and in the Ballet Theatre's Fancy Free in 1947. He choreographed his first musical in 1947, Finian's Rainbow. For the rest of his career, Kidd worked as a choreographer. Over the next 33 years Kidd would choreograph such musicals as Guys and Dolls, Li'l Abner, Destry Rides Again, Ben Franklin in Paris, and a revival of The Music Man. Starting with Li'l Abner in 1956, Kidd also took up directing. Among the plays Kidd directed were Destry Rides Again, Ben Franklin in Paris, Cyrano, and the musical version of The Goodbye Girl.

Kidd also had a career in film. He was the uncredited choreographer on the film Another Dawn in 1937. He was credited as part of the Music Department (dances and musical number staging, or some variation thereof) on such films as The Band Wagon (his first big break in Hollywood), Knock on Wood, Guys and Dolls, Li'l Abner, Star, and Movie Moive. He was credited as choreographer on the movies Where's Charley, Merry Andrew, and Hello Dolly. Perhaps his most notable work in film was on the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The movie is notable for featuring ballet that does not appear balletic at all, largely because Kidd insisted the dancers use natural movements. Although he did infrequently, Kidd also acted in film, perhaps his most notable role being in the movie It's Always Fair Weather. Playing Angie Valentine, Kidd was one of the few dancers who could actually keep up with Gene Kelly. He was also in the casts of the films Smile and Movie Movie.

Arguably, Michael Kidd was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. In fact, I daresay that his work on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers remains unmatched to this day. He won the Tony Award for Best Choreography no less than five times. The Academy Awards lacking an award for choreography, he was awarded an Honourary Academy Award " recognition of his services to the art of the dance in the art of the screen." The awards were well deserved. Short of Gene Kelly when it came to the movies, there was perhaps no better choreographer to ever work on Broadway or on film. Even with movie musicals having made a comeback of late, I doubt we will see anything quite so impressive as what Kidd achieved on the big screen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Yuletide to All and to All a Good Night

Today being the day it is, I thought that rather than make a blog post as usual, I would do my part in spreading a bit of holiday cheer. Here then are some videos of some of my favourite songs of the season.

First up is The Killers' latest (and biggest) single, "Don't Shoot Me Santa." I must admit that this is one of my favourite Christmas songs of late. I don't know about anyone else, but I personally find it hilarious.

Another one of my favourite Yuletide songs is "Santa Baby." "Santa Baby" was originally performed by Eartha Kitt in 1952 and made its first appearance in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. It also appeared in the movie adaptation of the revue, New Faces, released in 1954. I couldn't find any footage from New Faces of Eartha Kitt performing the song, so here is a video of Kylie Minogue's version of the song from Top of the Pops. Okay, I'll admit it isn't the original, but I like Minogue's version of the song better than most. Too, I have always had a big thing for Kylie Minogue...

Finally, there is the song David Letterman has described as the greatest rock 'n' roll Christmas song ever made. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love first appeared on the album A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. It was not immediately hailed as a classic, although over the years its repuation grew until it has achieved classic status. Starting on Late Night with David Letterman on NBC and continuing on The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, every year Darlene Love visits Letterman's show to perform the song. This is her performance from December, 2005.

I hope everyone has a joyous Yuletide and a happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Santa Claus

In the American celebration of Christmas, perhaps no figure is as ubiquitous during the season as Santa Claus. He can be seen everywhere--in department stores taking wish lists from children, on the street corner ringing bells for the Salvation Army, on television commercials, in television specials, and so on. Santa Claus has been central to the American observation of the holidays in the 20th and 21st centuries. And like many aspects of the modern Christmas celebration, the history of Santa Claus goes back a bit further than the 20th century.

Indeed, the origins of the American figure of Santa Claus are complex. They can be found in two historical figures, a god, and a personification of the holiday. The primary inspiration for Santa Claus is one of the two historical figures. St. Nicholas of Myra was the bishop of Myra in Lycia in the eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century. After his death he would be considered the patron saint of archers, the armed forces, sailors, the wrongly accused, and many other groups. As might be expected, he is also considered the patron saint of children. While being the patron saint of more people and groups than other saint, Nicholas is perhaps best known for the generosity he practised during his lifetime. In fact, perhaps the most famous legend concerning St. Nicholas centred around his generosity. There was a poor man with three daughters who could not afford a dowry for them. As a result of this there was the strong possibility that they would never marry and perhaps even fall into prostitution. Nicholas heard about the poor man and his daughters, and decided to help him. To spare the man the humiliation of having to accept charity, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the man's window (some versions of the tale has it that he three one bag through the window on three consecutive nights).

Across Europe, St. Nicholas' day would be set as December 6. In many parts of Europe, then, St. Nicholas' Day would become a day of gift giving. Particularly important to the evolution of the American figure of Santa Claus would be the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas' Day. St. Nicholas, called "Sinterklaas" in the Netherlands, delivers gifts to children on St. Nicholas' Eve (the evening of December 5). He is portrayed as having a long white beard and wearing red bishop's raiments. He rides a white horse, called called Amerigo, who can fly over rooftops. He is assisted in his work by Zwarte Piet, "Black Peter." Like Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet would bring treats to the good children, although he would also punish the bad ones. The influence of Sinterklaas on the American figure of Santa Claus is fairly obvious. Both are portrayed with beards. Both dress almost entirely in red. Both have assistants (Zwarte Piet in the case of Sinterklaas, the elves in the case of Santa Claus).

In those countries speaking Germanic languages, at least, the figure of St. Nicholas may have been influenced by the god called Wodan in Old Saxon (the language from which modern Dutch sprung) and called Óðinn by the Vikings. Like St. Nicholas, Óðinn was seen as a gift giver. Various legends portray Óðinn as bestowing gifts to his champions. Like St. Nicholas he is portrayed as having a long, grey beard. And like St. Nicholas Óðinn was said to ride a marvellous horse. Óðinn's horse, Sleipnir was said to be grey or white in colour and said to have eight legs, making him faster than any other horse in the worlds. Sleipnir was said to be able to carry Óðinn over the sea and through the air, and was said to even be able to journey to Hel, the world of dead. It seems possible that while certain elements of the legendary St. Nicholas stem from the historical figure, it is possible that other elements (such as his marvellous horse) could have been drawn from the Dutch's memories of Wodan.

Besides St. Nicholas, another historical figure (or perhaps a legendary figure based on a historical figure would be a better way to describe it) would also play a role in the evolution of Santa Claus. In the 15th century Martin Luther, wishing to distance himself from Catholicism, actively discouraged the customs of St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas' Day. For that reason he developed the idea of another gift giver. Luther meant the Christkind to be the incarnation of Jesus as an infant, although the figure evolved away from that considerably. The Christkind was most often depicted as a blonde child with the wings of the usual portrayal of angels in Christianity. Unlike St. Nicholas, the Christkind delivered his gifts on Christmas Eve, not unlike the modern day Santa Claus. The idea of the Christkind was brought to the United States, where his name would evolve into the mispronunciation Kris Kringle, now regarded as another name for Santa Claus.

The final figure to play a role in shaping Santa Claus was the English figure of Father Christmas. Like Santa Claus, the origins of Father Christmas are complex. Like the legendary figure of Saint Nicholas, he may have largely been inspired by the god called by the pagan Angles and Saxons "Woden ("Wodan" to the Dutch, "Óðinn" to the Vikings). Regardless, throughout the Middle Ages, this English personification of Christmas evolved until he was the Father Christmas known during the Victorian Era. Dressed in a furred, hooded robe of green and often wearing holly and having a long, grey beard, Father Christmas was not seen as a gift giver, but he was instead seen as presiding over Christmas revelries. Over the years he would play a large role in masques and mummer's plays.

All of this brings us to the area of North America that would later become the United States of America. Even in the earliest times, what would become the United States was settled by a variety of ethnicities: the English, the Dutch, the Germans, and the French. And each of these ethnicities would bring their own holiday customs. The Dutch brought with them the figure of Sinterklaas and the celebration of St. Nicholas' Day. The Germans brought with them the figure of the Christkind and his gift giving activities on Christmas Eve. The English brought with them the figure of Father Christmas, his furred robe, and his love of the Christmas festival. It was in the United States that these various figures would merge to create a new one, the American figure of Santa Claus. The Dutch name Sinterklaas would become Americanised as Santa Claus. Under the influence of the figure of the Christkind, his gift giving activities shifted from St. Nicholas' Day to Yule Eve--it is perhaps for this reason that Santa Claus is also called "Kris Kringle." Because of Father Christmas, Santa Claus would lose the bishop's mitre and robes and wear fur lined clothing instead, not to mention he would become a bit more jolly.

Of course, even after these figures had combined to lay the groundwork for the modern American Santa Claus, it would take some time before he would evolve into the figure we all know today. It was in 1804 that the New York Historical Society revived the Dutch custom of St Nicholas as a giver of gifts. Washington Irving would eventually join the organisation, observing its St. Nicholas' celebration, complete with rhymes about Sinterclaas. When Washington Irving revised his History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (first published in 1809) in 1812, he included "Santa Claus (the Americanised version of "Sinterclaas")," portraying him not as a bishop, but as a Dutch sailor wearing a green coat and with a pipe. Irving also described Santa's flight over the treetops in a wagon. A New York printer named William Gilley would further add to the mythos of Santa Claus in a poem published in 1821. Writing about Santeclaus, Gilley portrayed him as dressed entirely in fur and driving a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.

A pivotal moment in the evolution of Santa Claus would arrive in the form of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," first published in 1822. Often attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem established many of the particulars of the Santa Claus legend. It established that Santa Claus' sleigh is driven by eight reindeer and gives those reindeer their names. It also established Santa Claus as going down chimneys to delivery his toys. And while elves were not yet established as Santa's helpers, it is in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" that he is first described as "a jolly old elf." The poem also established Santa as being somewhat overweight.

Of course, even after the publication of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," the appearance of Santa was not set in stone. Washington Irving, William Gilley, and the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" all portray him as being rather small. "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" even describes him as the "little old driver" of a "miniature sleigh." And while Gilley and the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" both describe Santa as dressed all in fur, at this point in history he was often still portrayed in bishop's mitre and robes. It would be political cartoonist Thomas Nast who would shape the modern image of Santa. Nast first illustrated Santa for the 1862 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly. While Nast's Santa would vary in size, more often than not, he was roughly the size of a man. He was also jolly, rotund, and dressed in fur lined clothing.

Thomas Nast's impact on the mythos of Santa Claus would go further than shaping his appearance. It was in the illustration "Santa Claus and His Works," first published in Harper's Weekly, December 29, 1866, that Thomas Nast established Santa Claus as a maker of toys. It was in a book titled Santa Claus and His Works, featuring Thomas Nast's illustrations and a poem by George Webster, that it was established that Santa Claus uses the North Pole as his base. By 1881, Nast's illustrations of Santa had developed to where they were very close to the modern image of the jolly old elf.

It was roughly during the same period that elves would be established as Santa's helpers. It was Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, who first made reference to elves as Santa's helpers, in the unpublished story "Christmas Elves" from 1856. Another reference to elves as Santa's helpers occurs in an anonymous poem titled "The Wonders of Santa Claus," first published in 1857 in Harper's Weekly. By the late 19th century, elves were firmly established as Santa's work force.

It would be by 1885 that the modern day concept of Santa would nearly be in place. Given the black and white illustrations common up to that time, it was anyone's guess as to the colour of Santa's suit. Louis Prang introduced the idea of the Christmas card, invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 in Britain, to the United States. Among the cards he published in 1885 was one that featured a chubby Santa in a red suit. The image caught on and became the dominant image of Santa Claus.

While the mythos of Santa Claus was developing in the 19th century and his image evolving away from the bishop's raiments of St. Nicholas, he was also becoming more of a force in the American celebration of Christmas. As early as the 1840s, retail stores were advertising themselves as "Santa's headquarters." In fact, in 1841 Philadelphia merchant J. W Parkinson hired a man dressed as Santa Claus to climb the chimney of his shop. By 1874 Macy's became the first store to have their own in store Santa Claus. By the turn of the 19th century, Santa Claus was firmly rooted in the American Christmas celebration, seen in everything from Christmas cards to the advertising of the time.

Indeed, Santa Claus was popular enough that in 1802 L. Frank Baum, best known for the Oz books, published The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. In the book Santa is established as an abandoned infant raised by fairies who eventually becomes the gift giver we all know. The mythos Baum created for Santa Claus would not catch on, but The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would further add to Santa's popularity.

By now it should be clear that the claim so often made that Coca-Cola created the modern image of Santa Claus is patently false. The idea of Santa Claus dressed in a red and white was well established before the 1930s, when Coca-Cola hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create memorable drawings of the jolly old elf for use in their advertising. That having been said, while Coca-Cola had little to do with standardising the image of Santa Claus (which had largely been completed by the beginning of the 20th century), they were among the earliest corporations to make a good deal of use of Kris Kringle in their advertising. Alongside department stores such as Macy's, Coca-Cola was then largely responsible for turning Santa Claus into an advertising icon.

Of course, even if Coca-Cola had never used Santa Claus in their ads, he probably would have become an advertising icon nonetheless. By the 20th century, Santa Claus had become an established part of the American Christmas celebration. In fact, Santa Claus appears so frequently in American pop culture that it would be impossible to list every single reference to him. Perhaps the most famous appearance of Santa Claus in a pop culture artefact is the movie Miracle on 34th Street, in which an old man calling himself "Kris Kringle" claims to really be Santa Claus. Naturally Santa Claus played a big role in the many Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to their adaptation of Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Santa has also figured in many, many songs, including "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Santa Baby," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and many others.

Given his long history and the role he plays in the American Christmas celebration, one would think that Santa Claus would be universally loved. As the case may be, this is not true. Many Fundamentalist Christians regard the figure of Santa Claus as detracting from the religious observance of the holiday. Others view Santa Claus as being a symbol of the the commercialisation of the holiday season. They see Santa Claus not as a symbol of generosity and holiday joy, but of crass commercialism and conspicuous consumption. The controversy Santa Claus generates is perhaps nothing new. In 17th century England the Puritans banned Christmas as a pagan celebration and frowned upon the figure of Father Christmas.

While there are naysayers, I think it safe to say that a majority of Americans have no objections to Santa Claus. And why should they? He is a fond memory from most of their childhoods, well established in American folklore by the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless of what Fundamentalist Christians and those objecting to the commercialism of the holiday might desire, I don't think Santa Claus is going to go away any time soon. Quite simply, I rather think he will be making his annual trips around the world from the North Pole for a very long time.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Father Christmas

For many Englishmen, the Yuletide would not be complete without Father Christmas. Although many Americans may simply regard Father Christmas as a British variant of Santa Claus, Father Christmas actually predates the American character of Santa Claus by a good deal. In fact, Father Christmas was around before there was even a United States of America.

In fact, Father Christmas has been around for so long that no one can be certain when the character came about. It is possible that he owes something to the god called Wóden by the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain and thus created England, the god called by the Vikings Óðinn. In Old Norse sources, Óðinn has an appearance quite similar to that of the later Father Christmas. He has a long, grey beard and wears a wide brimmed hat and a cloak. In some legends, Óðinn even appears as a gift giver. In the Volsunga Saga, it is Óðinn who gives Sigurðr the marvellous horse Grani. According to Saxo Grammaticus, in his Gesta Danorum, Óðinn granted Harald Wartooth immunity to all wounds. The similarity between Óðinn and Father Christmas may go farther than gift giving. Among Óðinn's many names was Jólnir, a name derived from Old Norse Jól. Jól in Old English was Géol, our modern word Yule. It would then appear that the Vikings associated Óðinn with the holiday of Jól, and it seems safe to say that the pagan Angles and Saxons believed the same of Wóden. While Father Christmas is associated with Christmas, then, Wóden may have been associated with Géol or Yule, the holiday whose customs would survive in Christmas in much of northern Europe.

Of course, it is difficult to say whether Father Christmas owes anything to Wóden or not, despite their similarities. He could have simply evolved out of the medieval tendency towards personification and allegory. After all, it was during the Middle Ages that such personifications as the Grim Reaper (perhaps the most popular personification of Death) and Dame Fortune evolved. And it is during the Middle Ages that the first printed reference to a personification of Christmas is made. In a 15th century Christmas carol, often credited to Richard Smart (the Rector of Plymtree in Devon from 1435 to 1477). The carol is essentially a dialogue between a figure called "Sir Christmas" and a group who is welcoming him.

By the time of the Tudors, Yuletide festivities were often presided over by a figure variously called "Captain Christmas," "Sir Christmas," or "Lord Christmas." By the time of James I, the personification of Christmas was popular enough that playwright Ben Johnson made him the centre of his Christmas his Masque (from 1616). Thomas Nabbes would not only feature Father Christmas in a masque, The Springs Glorie (from 1638), but he would give us our first illustration of Father Christmas. He was portrayed as an old man wearing a furred cap and coat.

The Puritans tended to regard Christmas as a pagan holiday and actively discouraged its celebration, even going so far as to ban the celebration of Christmas in 1644. This simply resulted in those in favour of the celebration of the holiday going even further in personifying Christmas. An example of this was a pamphlet, published in 1645 in reaction to the Puritan ban on Yule, called An Hue and Cry after Christmas. An Hue and Cry after Christmas portrayed Christmas as " old, old, very old greybearded gentleman..." who "...used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver, in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in White Hall..." Even after the holiday was reinstated, many Englishmen felt the need to protect both the holiday and its personification. The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King was published not long after the celebration of Christmas returned to Great Britain. As the title would indicate, in King's satire Father Christmas is placed on trial for inciting the folk " drunkennesse, Gluttony, and unlawful Gaming, Wantonnesse, Uncleanness, Lasciviousness, Cursing, Swearing..." King not only defended celebrating Christmas with joy and fun, but in the process he popularised the name of the personification of Christmas as "Father Christmas."

While the name of the personification of Christmas more or less became set in time as "Father Christmas," his appearance would vary right up to the Victorian Era. Ever since Thomas Nabbes had first done so, Father Christmas was almost always portrayed as old and bearded. Beyond that, however, his appearance could vary wildly. He might appear as an old man in a long, hooded coat or as a gigantic figure crowned by holly. It was during the Victorian Era that Father Christmas's appearance would become more consistent. He would appear as an old man in a long, furred, hooded coat of green and, more often than not, accompanied by holly.

Further changes to Father Christmas would come from across the Pond. As most people are aware, in the United States there had evolved a gift giving figure called Santa Claus. The poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," would set the appearance of Santa Claus in years to come. The poem paints a picture of an old, bearded, pipe smoking, round man dressed all in fur. American political cartoonist Thomas Nast would have an even greater impact on the appearance of Santa Claus. He first illustrated jolly, old St. Nick for the 1962 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly. Nast popularised the image of Santa Claus as a rotund, jolly old man dressed in furred clothing. It would not be long before the American figure of Santa Claus would influence the English figure of Father Christmas.

Indeed, by the 1880s Father Christmas was more often portrayed as being dressed in red than in green. Holly appeared less frequently in illustrations of Father Christmas as well. Previously, Father Christmas was seen as presiding over adults' celebration of Christmas. After the 1880s, however, he became a gift giver the same way that Santa Claus was, bringing presents to little children. It would not be long before Father Christmas would be thought of as living at the North Pole and driving a sleigh.

As a figure who has played a large role in the British celebration of Christmas for centuries, Father Christmas quite naturally appears in pop culture.In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present would seem to be based on the imagery of Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Present is described as a huge man with a red beard wearing a fur lined, green robe. Father Christmas himself figured in a story "Old Father Christmas" by Victorian writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote letters to his children as "Father Christmas," later published as The Father Christmas Letters. In the letters Tolkien created his own mythos for the old man (the elvan Tengwar script, featured in Lord of the Rings, first appeared there). Tolkien's friend, C. S. Lewis, also included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1973 Raymond Briggs published the graphic novel Father Christmas, which presented a radically different view of the character. Briggs would publish a sequel, Father Christmas Goes on Vacation, in 1975. Both graphic novels would provide the basis for the 1987 animated film Father Christmas. Father Christmas has also played a role in numerous television show episodes, from Keeping Up Appearances to Red Dwarf. Naturally, Father Christmas has played a role in songs as well. The most famous may well be The Kinks' "Father Christmas," in which a bloke playing Father Christmas finds himself mugged by street toughs. Another song centred around Father Christmas is "I Believe in Father Christmas," Greg Lake's protest against the commercialisation of the holiday.

The character of Father Christmas has existed in some form for centuries. And while today he is often considered synonymous with Santa Claus, I am not sure that is a good thing. Father Christmas has a history all his own quite separate from that of the American Santa Claus. As a result, he has a charm all his own as well. Indeed, while it would be hard to picture Santa Claus presiding over adult revelry, complete with eggnog and mistletoe, it is easy seeing Father Christmas doing so. While I quite naturally love Santa Claus (after all, living in the States I grew up with him), I also love the original Father Christmas before elements of old St. Nick were incorporated into his character. For that reason I think it would be best if we simply allowed Father Christmas to be his own man, quite distinct from Santa.