It’s that time of year again to present something a tad different for the stocking. I am going to start off with four titles recommended by Todd M. Coe. Then, beginning at number five, a list of silent-era Christmas films. These may not have been weird in their day, but are rendered so now because of their archaic texture (and that is the beauty of cinema in it infancy stage—these films now seem something from another world altogether).
1. Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972): I am with Todd on this one: this is naive surrealism on suicide watch. And yes, it’s that much of a hoot! St. Nick (Jay Ripley) must have swallowed some of Winter Warlock’s reindeer corn himself. Only thing is, it has the opposite effect on immortal toymakers. His sleigh gets stuck in a mound of Florida sand. The toy-licking, blue clad “Kids” belt out a song that makes Leonard Nimoy’s golden throat sound like Jose Carreras. The Kids do what anyone would do in such a circumstance, and get the help of a gorilla! The oversized Curious George is of no help, so the Kids then try out a bunch of other animals. Santa gets peeved, tells then the story of Thumbelina (a previous film by the same producers) before the Ice Cream Bunny (!) comes to save the day. Well, sort of. Actually, there’s something lascivious going on between the Creepy Clause and our cool-toned hare. I half expected a Bugs Bunny drag scene, but alas, no.
2. Rich Little’s A Christmas Carol (1978): Nearly (not quite) the Christmas equivalent of Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special (alas, it doesn’t have Kiss, Mrs. Brady, or Pinky Tuscadero). Rich plays all the characters, doing his trademark impressions including Paul Lynde as Bob Cratchet, W.C. Fields as Scrooge, Johnny Carson as Nephew Fred, Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker as Mrs. Hatchet, Truman Capote as Tiny Tim (sheer genius), Richard Nixon as Jacob Marley and, in supporting roles, George Burns, Groucho Marx, John Wayne, Jack Benny, James Mason and Dean Martin. It’s highly inventive in Rich’s inimitable way, even for an oft-told tale.
3. A Cosmic Christmas (1977): A bizarre product of its time, this animated Canadian short came right on heels of the initial Star Wars (1977) hysteria. Imagine George Lucas’ iconic cantina scene mixed with the Peanuts’ Linus’ explanation of the holiday’s true meaning, thrown in with the ViewMaster version of St. Luke’s yuletide tale, all in outer space with a kid named Peter standing in for the Little Drummer Boy. Oh, and there is a goose named Lucy too. Yep, that sums it up.
4. Christmas Evil (1980):Todd, I am sure Ally and Zoom know (with this suggestion) that you have moved out of the 1970s, into 1980! Shocking! I promise that I will do my utmost to block this information from Santa’s crystal ball, so as not to send the old boy into a panic. Alas, 366 Weird Movies has again beat us to the punch in covering this title. So, we will just have to refer back to that link.
5. A Christmas Carol (1901): Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost was the original title for this first cinematic (British) version of Charles Dickens’ story featuring Ebenezer “Bah, humbug!” Scrooge. It was produced by Robert W. Paul and directed by William Booth. Naturally, it is very stagebound. It does have primitive, hand-painted sets, something akin to what we see in Méliès, but nowhere near as fancifully French (of course). It’s primary interest is as a historical curio, placing it above criticism.
6. A Christmas Carol (1908): This one was produced by Thomas Edison and Essanay studios. This version stars Charles Ogle (later in Edison’s Frankenstein) as Bob Cratchet and Tom Ricketts as Scrooge. It is somewhat more sophisticated than the 1901 film, which also possibly makes it less interesting.
7. Night Before Christmas (1905): Film pioneer Edwin S. Porter directed this short for Thomas Edison’s company. It follows the Clement Clark Moore poem quite literally. The panoramic finale makes use of an elaborately painted backdrop and miniatures (for sleigh and reindeer), dating it in the best possible way. It is, literally, a moving picture poem.
8. Edison’s Adventures of the Wrong Santa Claus (1914): “An Adventure of Octavius, Amateur Detective.” Directed by Charles M. Seay, written by Frederic Arnold Kummer. This is a subdued slapstick precursor to the Grinch. Octavius (Barry O’ Moore) is the amateur detective who tries to stop a thief (John Sturgeon), dressed as Santa, from stealing Christmas presents and ruining the holiday for all the girls and boys. How does Octavius do it? By dressing as Santa himself, of course. Fluffy fun, at least a good deal more fun than the recent Tim Allan Santa franchise or the execrable, pointless How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) movie starring Jim Carrey.
9. D.W. Griffith’s A Trap for Santa (1909) reveals Griffith very early in his evolution as a maverick filmmaker. Laden with pathos and irony, this heavy-handed melodrama has a narrative structure, the likes of which Griffith would perfect in his vehemently racist, anti-Christmas landmark Birth Of A Nation (1915). Poverty begets alcoholism and the potential breakdown of a family, which yearns for the Christmas spirit. Wait, is this really a 100-year-old film?
10. A Christmas Accident (1912): Another Edison short. Although, as expected, it’s far less ambitious than A Trap for Santa, A Christmas Accident deals with the contrast between an impoverished family, full of Christmas spirit, with an affluent, cruel family. Believe it or not, at one time, our current super-rich ideal was looked at as a product of avarice. Shocking, isn’t it? However, like Scrooge, Mr. Gilton (William Wadsworth) has a complete change of heart.
11. Santa Claus vs. Cupid (1915). this Edison production drama was directed by Willard Louis and written by Alan Crossland (Don Juan, Beloved Rogue, Jazz Singer). Though it’s not what the title would suggest, this is another example of cinema attempting to move beyond the simple plots inherent in one-reelers. Again, social commentary is afoot. Two upper class men are vying for a rich girl’s attention at a Christmas party. The two Romeos dress as St. Nick to further their amorous ambitions. Contrasting with this is the story of a poverty-stricken working man who is forced to steal medicine for his ill wife. All will meet and there is, of course, a lesson to be learned. The Kardashians, Trumps, Hiltons, and Jay Lenos of the world are not the good guys here. Although it’s a lot crammed into a meager 15 minutes, it is refreshing to see that, yes, once upon a time, even Hollywood did not glorify real-life Scrooges.
12. Santa Claus (1925) is an elaborate half-hour film directed by Frank E. Kleinschmidt. Shot in Alaska, Santa’s good-natured neighbors are Eskimos. Walruses and a polar bear guard the Kringle castle, which is inhabited by the Easter Bunny and Jack Frost. The elves are busy, busy, busy making toys in Santa’s workshop, and the film is decorated with a considerable cast of reindeer. It is a rarity in being an authentically cute film, awash in nostalgia.
All the early films here have been presented on the Kino DVD collection “A Christmas Past.”