Dec 25, 2011

Santa Claus (1959)

Director:  Rene Cardona (original version) / Ken Smith (English Version)
Producers: Guillermo Calderon Stell (original version), K. Gordon Murray (English version)
Story & Screenplay: Adolfo Torres Portillo
Musical Director: Antonio Diaz Conde
Special Effects: Gordillo Y Martinez
Choreography: Ricardo Luna
Cinematography: Raul Martinez Solares
K. Gordon Murray Productions (English Version), 94 min, color

Jose Elias Moreno (Santa Claus), Cesarero Quezadas (Pulgarcito/Tom Thumb), Jose Luis Aguirre, aka "Trosky" (The Devil), Armando Arriola, aka "Arriolita" (Merlin), Antonio Diaz Conde Hijo, (Ricky), Angel D'Estefani (The Blacksmith), Lupita Quezadas (Lupita); Ken Smith (narrator- English version)

I met a minister once who collected Santa Claus memorabilia.  One of his prized pieces was a plate featuring Santa standing in a manger next to the three wise men witnessing the birth of Christ.  As an opposition to many devout Christians who feel that thinking about Santa is sacrilege, his contention was that all along Santa was preaching the spirit of giving, and spreading goodness and joy. What's wrong with that?  I couldn't agree more with that sentiment- and now I wonder what he may have thought of this film, especially when one of the first images of Santa Claus shows him admiring his model of the manger!

Santa Claus, Rene Cardona's hypnotic and surprisingly dark perennial holiday fable, is unique in one of many ways in that it compares Kris Kringle to God. And to further this point- Mr. Claus even fights The Devil! Also, Santa's work-shop is not in The North Pole, but in the clouds above, where he watches who is naughty and who is nice through a telescope! Is this heaven? Most of the film plays in a surreal setting- not least being Hades, where The Devil conspires to turn children into devious little monsters. (There is even a mad bit of Fellini-esque choreography during this setpiece too, adding to dumbfoundedness not encountered since Hellzapoppin’.)

Consider too, the over-long opening set in Santa's representative world. We see kids of all races each contributing their own heritage of music to a lumbering chorus that will delight mostly people under the age of five. Who these kids are in Santa’s workshop I cannot say (if this is heaven, are they dead?), but it is easy to see why they would like to work there. The kids sing and dance in their native tongues, and the whole place is decked out as a playground. Doorways are shaped as keyholes, the telescope has an actual eye in the lens, the sonar equipment is decked with an ear, the loudspeaker has a giant mouth, and the reindeer are wind-ups (a good way to disguise the cheapness of the latter)!

One writer has commented on how Santa Claus is almost Neo-Realistic. In terms of its Earthly settings, this is true in tone, if not exactly mise en scene. One of the main characters is adorable little Lupita, whose parents are loving, yet dirt poor. At one point the Devil is whispering in her ear to say that it's okay to steal the department store doll that she covets. The poverty in which Lupita and her family lives is a universal anyone can recognize, yet what sets it apart from, say, a similar environment in a DeSica film is that the settings are plain, representative, almost supra-real. Even this reality is upset by otherwordly forces. Of course The Devil and Santa Claus are performing their struggle over the kids, but even dreams figure into this natural world. For instance, the lonely little rich boy whose social-climbing parents are never home, dreams of getting his folks for Christmas (and they come giftwrapped!). Lupita has a subconscious dilemma too, as the doll she covets manifests into a bizarre dream where adult-sized playthings prance around her! (I wouldn’t want to have paid the bill for the dry ice.)

Don't do it, Lupita!

Another fable akin to Santa Claus is “Alice In Wonderland”.  There are more drugs taken in this kiddie film than any other I can remember. Those educational films about drugs and alcohol seem conservative by comparison. With the help of Merlin the Magician (!), Santa has the ability to disappear with the sniff of an orchid, and some white powder (!!) makes him re-appear. These little party favours are certainly beneficial for his December 24th excursion- he even blows some magic dust to make sure some kids are asleep before he comes calling. The poor little rich boy gets his wish fulfilled as Santa , disguised as a waiter, (although whatever disguise he is in remains off-camera) brings a bubbling drink on the house to his parents at the swanky cocktail lounge, and once they imbibe it, they have the sudden urge to go home to their child! Finally, in a comic battle reminiscent of the final battle in The Raven (1963), Santa and The Devil match wits against each others’ magic.  All in a night’s work and to all a good night.

Back in the days of the kiddie matinee, this film was a seasonal favourite, thanks to the shrewd marketing ploys of producer K. Gordon Murray, the Florida-based distributor who imported Mexican films and dubbed them for the English market.  His cheap kiddie imports at one point even rivalled Disney for attention in the Saturday afternoon matinee circuits.  Every three years for almost two decades, Murray would resurrect Santa Claus at Christmas-time to rake in ticket sales.

Although this film was obviously made for pre-adolescents, there are so many marvelous visual and thematic ideas running through, that adults would no doubt enjoy it too, regardless if those less young at heart would notice the occasional lethargy in plot, the dubbing which somehow turns Santa's "ho ho" into something like a smoker's hack and that he only has four reindeer instead of eight (windup reindeer at that!) could be either interpreted as cheapness or revisionism. Admittedly, Santa Claus shuffles in fits and starts sometimes, but still I walk away amazed by the proceedings.

Truthfully though, I can’t think of a more wonderful holiday film to put a toddler in front of. This film is full of inventive visual ideas, it is benevolent without being cloying, and it is terrific fun for young and the young at heart. And Santa is a supremely wonderful soul: full of music, energy and laughter. That he is slyly equated to Godhood is not a sacrilege, but sensible.  Like that other being up above, Santa is always watching, ensuring that those who are eternally good receive their great reward.  

Plus, isn’t the fact that Santa gives the world toys out of one bag reminiscent of the never-emptying bread basket in The Last Supper?

(Photos courtesy of Rob Craig.)

(adapted from a review originally published in ESR #4)

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