Dec 25, 2011

The Magic Christmas Tree (1964)

Director: Richard C. Parish
Producer: Fred C. Gerrior
Screenplay: Harold Vaughn Taylor
Music: Victor Kirk
Cinematography: Richard Kendall
Holiday Pictures / Orrin Films; 59 min; color-B&W

Chris Kroesen (Mark), Valerie Hobbs (Witch), Robert "Big Buck" Maffei (Santa Claus), Darlene Lohnes (Mother)

During Halloween season, little boy Mark helps a witch get her cat Lucifer down from a tree, and for his kindness, he is rewarded with a (talking) Magic Christmas Tree that grants him three wishes. Mark's first wish is to give himself power over everything for an hour, thereby turning night into day, and creating merry mayhem by allowing vehicles to run away on their owners. His second wish is the selfish notion to have Santa Claus all to himself. Will his third wish be of any virtue?

This jaw-dropping holiday film (although clocking in at less than an hour, feels twice as long), begins in black-and-white, likely inspired by The Wizard of Oz, and yet feels like a failed 60s suburban "Our Gang" reboot, replete with "ah gee golly whiz" dialog indicative of Spanky and the bunch, as Mark and his friends gripe over what each other has brought to school for lunch. Once the tree appears the film bursts into powdery full colour, it resembles a Sid Davis film run amuck, with a sterile look befitting the middle class suburban milieu. Indeed, the stifling, locked-off camera work, the rubbery post-sync sound and the wooden performances make this the classroom film from Hell.

To adult eyes, this deceptively short film may be interminable with its stock footage, unimaginative mise en scene, sloppy production values (squint and you'll see the crouching stunt bodies at the wheel of the so-called driver-less cars), and its uninspired slapstick (the father attempts to chop down the title tree for what seems like minutes). On the other hand, older viewers would notice the movie's sarcastic tone that would escape its target kiddie matinee audience. This bitter poem about greed has a novel character in a talking tree, yet whose voice (resembling an effeminate version of a world-weary Jack Benny) hardly sounds inviting. In the sequence detailing the "second wish", Mark is held captive by a giant in the forest who will allow the young lad to be as greedy as he wants provided that he remains the big man's slave. In a perverse spin on A Christmas Carol, he is forced to gaze into a pool of water to see the aftermath of his selfish request. Via representative footage and a droning narrative, Mark is witness to how the world is in turmoil due to the missing Santa Claus who is held captive in Mark's living room next to a caustic Christmas tree! (Explain this one to the missus.) The giant however agrees to let Mark go back to the real world on the condition that he undoes his greedy actions. And to hammer the point home once again, the giant points to the camera, warning the kiddie audience that the next greedy kid to be his prisoner "could be you!" Like the primitive scare films of Sid Davis, this movie delivers its message by sending its characters on a one-way ticket to Hell, and additionally refuses to let its viewers off the hook.

Although on both sides of the camera, The Magic Christmas Tree is pedestrian, it is however fascinating for all the wrong reasons. Despite that it was likely marketed as wholesome family fare (and apparently was re-issued several times for the matinee circuit over the years), it is however a subversive little item that seems to bite the little hands that reached up to the ticket booth to buy admission. On the whole, the movie feels like the efforts of cynical adults wishing to make a quick buck on the kiddie market while having a last laugh on their viewers. The results however are mystifying- one wonders why the filmmakers would expend such effort into delivering such cynical undertones that would likely go unnoticed.

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