Monday, November 28, 2005


Santa on Screen

My children and I just returned from the snowy North Pole (in northern NY) where we stopped in on Santa Claus, during this busy time of the year, to meet with him briefly and get a peak into his production of toys, hats, candy and blown glass. So, of course, it got me to thinking about Santa's appearances on the big screen over the years. The "Santa Claus movie" is a subset of the more encompassing "Christmas Movie," but it has been around almost as long as motion picture itself. This year, I watched a collection of Christmas-themed films made 80-to-100 years ago, among them The Night Before Christmas, a 10-minute adaptation of the often filmed Clement Moore 1822 poem of the arrival of St. Nicholas -- made in 1905 by Thomas Edison's film company -- and Santa Claus, an ambitious 29-minute film presented, in 1925, by Mr. and Mrs. F.E. Kleinschmidt. The 1905 film shows Santa feeding his reindeer and making a few last-minute toys, in his tiny workshop, before taking off for his Christmas Eve delivery. The 1925 version has a brother and sister waiting up for Santa, only to ask him what he does the rest of the year. He recounts for them his activities and in doing so, expands on the Santa legend. This film proudly announces that it was filmed in northern Alaska (for authenticity). The greatest of all Santa movies (and also my pick for the best general Christmas movie ever made) is Miracle on 34th St. In this 1947 film, we find Santa (or is he just a kindly old man with white whiskers and a grand delusion?) filling in last-minute for a drunken Macy's Santa. The film is brilliantly written so that whether this man is in fact Santa Claus, doesn't really matter. There has never been (nor, do I dare say, there will ever be) a more intelligent Santa movie made. In 1984, the Emmy-nominated The Night They Saved Christmas, is a very clever updating of the Santa Claus legend, starring Art Carney as Santa. Television fans may remember that Carney also starred in "Night of the Meek," the Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone, where he played an alcoholic department store Santa who is granted his wish of becoming the real Santa. This film serves as an unofficial sequel to that episode. In this very modern take on Santa, attempts to "explain" much of Santa's magic to a more savvy young audience is sprinkled throughout the environmental allegory of North Pole City being rocked by an oil company's drillings. In 1985, Ilya Salkind, who revived the Superman legend for Warner Bros, attempted to do the same for Santa Claus, with the much hyped Santa Claus - The Movie. While the film begins with a wonderful attempt at bridging the stories of St Nicholas and Santa Claus, the latter part of the film is unfortunately indicative of indulgent spectacles and crude (often flat) comedies of the 1980s. That same year, the Walt Disney Company countered with its own Santa film called One Magical Christmas, which, it boasted, not only had Santa but a Christmas angel as well! Still, nothing really advanced the story of Santa on screen until Tim Allen starred in The Santa Clause in 1994 and its sequel The Santa Clause 2, eight years later. Both of these films (considered, by many, to be modern Christmas classics) explain Santa's seeming immortality by the notion that, every few years, someone new is picked to wear the suit and "be" Santa. An interesting notion. Here's what I liked about it: Allen plays a well-meaning divorced dad, who, in essence, becomes the archetypical "Dad" as Santa! (Allen is reportedly at work on a third installment of the series.) In 2003, Jon Favreau's self-reflexive Elf, expanded on the themes of fatherhood begun in The Santa Clause, as Santa (here Ed Asner) adopts an orphaned human baby that sneaks into his toy sack on Christmas Eve, and then encourages this "elf" as an adult (played brilliantly by Will Ferrell), to seek out his birth father, and try to bond with him. I have no doubt, when Santa needs to be re-invented, yet again, for a new generation of viewers, filmmakers will do just that. The quaint images of Santa in the films from 1905 and 1925, would not enchant today's audience of children. But, I'm sure -- just as The Santa Clause and Elf did -- a new film will come along, aided by today's advanced special effects and writers reared on a steady diet of Christmas movies growing up, to revive the magic of Santa yet again.

It occurs to me that many of the films you mentioned (as well as many other Christmas stories) are based on the concept that innocence and goodness are suspect. Certainly, in most "Santa" movies one of the main themes is somehow finding evidence to prove or disprove the goodness of Santa. In "Miracle" is he really Santa or or a crazy old man? In "Elf" can a Will Ferrel's character of innocence be for real or is he trying to somehow pull one over on his father. Even in the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" the Grinch himself is in disbelief that the Whos in whoville would be so pure in heart as to have Christmas without all the trimmings.

I think this reflects our human nature. We can hardly believe someone's grace and kindness. We always wonder what he/she might want from us in return. Or that it is just too good to be true. I believe part of the reason we have difficulty accepting another's gift of goodness is that we are ultimately worried that if we submit to our hope of good intention that we will ultimately look foolish. Much like the Lucy/Charlie Brown football gag when she tells him every time "Chuck, I'll hold the football and you kick it." He doesn't believe in her good intention initially declining her offer.When he finally submits she yanks the ball away and he tumbles to the ground.

The resolve of a good Christmas story (and maybe a good love story) is the final surrender to hope of good intention.
Speaking of Peanuts, I read an inadvertantly hilarious quote from Schulz's widow:
"Sparky used to say, 'there will always be a market for innocence.'"
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