Santa Claus (1959) - 92 minutes long, thankfully'
In days of yore, movie theaters would have "kiddie matinees" on Saturdays. Parents would drop their children off at the theater with enough money for the discounted tickets and some snacks from the concession stand, and they'd pick them up after the matinee was over. I doubt if very many theaters do this nowadays, partly because we're not so trusting anymore, and partly because movie tickets and snacks have gotten expensive. It's just not "cost-effective" (and when did we start taking a phrase like that seriously?). I also suspect that television had a lot to do with the demise of the kiddie matinee, but that's neither here nor there.
Still, it seemed to be a good arrangement. Parents could get away from the kids for a couple of hours - especially handy during the Christmas shopping season - and the theater managers didn't seem to mind cleaning up the mess that the little brats left behind.
I don't think the theaters cared much about getting quality product for the matinees, on the theory that kids wouldn't care how bad a movie was - they'd still watch it. Given the number of lousy actors out there with successful film careers, there may be some validity to this, at least for adult audiences. At any rate, if the kids do think a movie is bad, how many of them will think to demand their money back?
So some film producers looked at the kiddie matinee and saw it as a potentially profitable market. Toss in any cheap film you got that might appeal to kids and you're set to rake in the dough. Which is just what K. Gordon Murray did in the 60's. Murray was famous for buying cheap Mexican horror films, such as the Wrestling Women and Aztec Mummy series, dubbing them badly into English and selling them to American TV. Besides aiming for the adult (I use the term loosely) market, he also blessed kiddie matinees with bad Mexican movies about fairy tales. And with Santa Claus, which he released here in 1960.
I remember as a kid seeing promo ads on TV for this movie. They tried to make it sound exciting (which is what TV ads are supposed to do), and I was interested. But we were a low-income rural family, and my brother and I rarely went to kiddie matinees. I don't remember making a fuss about this one, and it may not have even occurred to me to ask about going. Whatever the reason, I didn't see this movie as a kid; I wonder what I would have thought of it if I had. It took years, my own income, and the home video revolution before I did get to see it. I acquired my copy through a wonderful company called Sinister Cinema. And, given the festive season, I wanted to review Santa Claus for you.
Santa Claus takes place Christmas Eve, and shows jolly old Saint Nick (he does laugh a lot) getting ready to go out and deliver toys to all the good little boys and girls. In the movie, Santa, who looks like the traditional red-suited, bearded Santa that Coca-Cola has given us, doesn't live at the North Pole, but far away in a crystal castle on a cloud. (There are other clouds nearby with other castles, but we're not told who lives in them.) And his toys are built by children from all around the world. In a strange scene at the beginning, as Santa plays an organ, we see these children, dressed in traditional garb, doing a poor job of singing traditional songs and working on various toys. The countries and regions of the world represented are: Africa (the African kids have bones in their hair); Spain; China; England (they're not even shown; we just hear someone singing "London Bridge is Falling Down" ); Japan; the Orient (India, perhaps); Russia; France; Germany; Italy; the Caribbean; South America, specifically Brazil and Argentina; Central America; the USA (a cowboy and cowgirl singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" ); and, of course, Mexico. There is much about this arrangement that is unsettling. It's made clear later on that these kids know little or nothing about Earth. How did they end up with Santa? Surely he didn't kidnap them.
Santa has a special laboratory to keep tabs on the boys and girls on Earth. There's a special telescope, a special listening device with very large red lips (I remember these from the TV ads as a little child; I found them a bit unnerving back then.), and a device to see children's dreams. Yes, it sounds intrusive, but that's basically what Santa does, when you come right down to it.
There are two children that Santa pays particular attention to. One is the son of rich parents; he can get any toy he asks for, but what he really wants is for his parents to be with him on Christmas Eve. They do love him, but they tend to neglect him. The other child is a little girl named Lupita, the daughter of poor parents; what she wants is a dolly of her own. The scenes of Lupita's family get to you. Her Dad is unemployed, and her parents have a haunted look about them, especially when Lupita talks about Santa Claus visiting her. It's a shame that the girl playing Lupita can't show any emotion at all.
We see Santa getting ready for his trip. From an old wizard named Merlin (a terribly absent-minded old man in star-covered black robe and pointy hat), he gets a supply of magic sleeping powder and a magic flower that will help him to disappear. From the Master Keymaker (a hairy blacksmith), he gets a magic key that will open any lock. Santa also uses a machine to reduce his waistline, and he has several mockup chimneys to test his climbing abilities. We also see children writing letters to Santa, and he ends up showered with envelopes at one point; for some odd reason he finds this worth laughing about (he laughs entirely too much in this film).
There are dark forces that want to stop Santa. Hades is shown as a fiery, smoky cavern, and we first see several devils in an odd dance number. Lucifer, the king of Hades, stops the dance and sends one devil, Pitch, to Earth to coerce children into doing bad things and to stop Santa. Pitch is all red, with large horns and a pair of very bad pointy ears that flop whenever he moves around. The actor plays Pitch with broad, exaggerated movements. This devil is more of a clown than a dangerous figure. So he goes up to Earth, convinces three little boys to throw rocks at a store window and lay a trap for Santa. Pitch also gives Lupita a bad dream, with several human-size dolls moving around her in another odd dance number, mocking her for being a good girl and telling her that she won't get her doll unless she steals it.
When it comes time for Santa Claus to leave on his Christmas Eve run, we find out that his sleigh is a giant toy and the reindeer need to be wound up to work; I somehow suspect that the original filmmakers figured that real reindeer were more trouble than they would be worth, and there was the budget to worry about. More importantly, we find out that Santa has a time limit. He can only travel to Earth on Christmas Eve, and if he's still there when the sun rises, the mechanical reindeer will turn to dust and he'll be trapped. Santa can't eat Earth food - he can only eat confections made from clouds - so if he is trapped, he'll starve.
Santa goes to Earth to make his deliveries, and in general it goes well. The only place where we see him working is Mexico City, which is to be expected. The film was made in Mexico, after all. Santa crosses paths with Pitch a couple of times, but nothing much comes of it. Pitch is not very effective at what he does. Nothing comes of the three bad boys, either; all they end up with are lumps of coal for presents.
Things change drastically when Pitch stows away on Santa's sleigh. He manages to see that Santa loses his sleeping powder and disappearing flower. At the next house, Pitch sets a guard dog on Santa, who has to climb a tree to get away. After that, Pitch persuades the family that there's an assassin in the back yard, and he arranges for calls to the police and fire department. So Santa is trapped, he can't disappear or put people to sleep, and it's a few minutes to dawn. If somebody doesn't do something, he'll be exposed to the public eye and will eventually starve.
I won't spoil the details for you, but you can make a good guess. It's a children's movie, so you can figure out that there's a happy ending, not only for Santa, but for the rich kid and poor Lupita. And another heart-warming Christmas movie comes to an end.
The acting in this movie is of course very bad, ranging from no acting from many of the kids to overacting from the major players. The dubbing is. terrible, too. There are other things that I haven't mentioned, such as the narrator, who displays no real emotion when he tells Santa to "Watch out!" or Lupita not to steal because "stealing is wrong!" I figure the narrator was added to try and punch up some of the drama; naturally it doesn't work. Also of note is the music score, which relies heavily on the chorus of "Jingle Bells". Indeed they play a couple of variations of this over and over and over again. That is, when they're not playing "Silent Night" for the emotional moments. Oh, yes, and the color of the print ("Filmed in Eastmancolor!" ) is terribly washed out.
In short, I consider this to be a Christmas classic. I prize my copy, and every year I either watch this, or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. (I rarely watch both; I'm not sure that even I can stand a double dose like that in a single holiday season.) I don't know why this movie isn't shown every year on TV, like It's A Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.
I'd recommend seeing Santa Claus at least once. You can find copies on tape out there on the Internet. And when you watch it, remember that this cheap little film had to have made the rounds of the kiddie matinees for several years. Think of all those baby boomers who saw this and how it must have corrupted their impressionable little minds. Aren't Christmas movies great?
--Paul E. Jamison