Dec 25, 2011

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)

Director: Nicholas Webster
Producers: Paul L. Jacobson, Arnold Leeds, Joseph E. Levine
Screenplay: Glenville Mareth, from a story by Paul L. Jacobson
Art Director: Maurice Gordon
Cinematography: David L. Quaid
Music: Milton and Anne Delugg
Embassy Pictures / Jalor Productions; 81 min; color

Cast:
John Call (Santa Claus), Leonard Hicks (Kimar), Vincent Beck (Voldar), Bill McCutcheon (Dropo), Victor Stiles (Billy), Donna Conforti (Betty), Chris Month (Bomar), Pia Zadora (Girmar), Ned Wertimer (Newscaster Andy Henderson), Carl Don (Werner Von Green/Choacem)

I find it rather amusing that this classic schlock piece was released by Joseph Levine, who produced Godard's Contempt a year earlier. Despite how much people have poked fun at Santa Claus Conquers The Martians over the years as one of the all-time worst, truthfully this film has far too many subversive ideas for such a dubious honour. It is more of scabrous commentary on the western world than Contempt- it is also certainly less pretentious.

We usually expect kiddie fare -- especially Christmas movies- to preach wholesome family values and instruct our little ones on the spirit of giving. But despite all the goofy Martians, candy-colors, and funny robots certain to amuse five-year olds of all ages, this is a subversive morality play, indeed!

At the heart of this skidrow juvenilia is a subtle, but sour primer for capitalist greed. Take the opening song (also repeated at the end), "Hooray for Santy Claus". The kids' choir on the soundtrack is NOT cheering Santa Claus for conquering the Martians, but actually, jolly old Saint Nick is being lauded for all the presents he has brought the kids! To laud Santa for this is one thing, but also the song continues to make offensive remarks about Santa's weight problem! Talk about a bunch of spoiled ungrateful brats!

Still, this dour reference to Kris Kringle is pervasive of Santa's portrayal throughout the entire film. Unlike, say, the Mexican version of Santa Claus, that presents Father Christmas as a superhuman being, this may be the only holiday movie in memory that portrays Santa as a mere mortal. Despite the odd magic that he casts to get himself out of tight scrapes here and there (such as when a mutinous Martian tries to sabotage the ship that carries Santa back to the red planet), I cannot think of another film that accentuates Santa's (very) human frailties.

Right from the start, we see Santa as a stressed-out entrepreneur who is bending his elves over backwards to make the December 24th deadline (this is so indicative of the retail manufacturers' classic "Get 'em out by Friday" attitude), To top it all off, Santa hardly wears the red pants of the household. He is constantly henpecked by his nagging wife. In fact, when the Martians come to abduct Santa, he seems rather relieved-a welcome break from the "supply and demand" of his corporate zeitgeist. When the little green men zap everyone else with a freeze ray, Mr. Claus muses that this is the first time he sees his wife with her mouth shut! Is it any wonder that Santa doesn't use his powers to thwart the Martians then and there? He's happy to get away from it all!

Oh no! What will my wife think?


Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is also interesting for its anti-Communist propaganda. Lest we forget, this seemingly innocuous kiddie matinee fodder was released during the Cold War. During the Red Scare, what more of a sly reference could one make than having someone on a Red Planet being introduced to the ways of the west? (Note how the Martians all have similar-sounding names, thus suggesting little differentiation in character?)

Someday someone should write a book covering the alternative history of kiddie movies (that is, anything but the Disney stuff). And in terms of subversive matinee fodder, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians ought to get a whole chapter for itself! Don't be fooled by all the juvenilia- despite the cute Martian kids, the doltish comic relief, and the terrific gasp of the most pathetic looking polar bear in movie history, this film is actually an insidious little tool for social conditioning! In this seemingly inconsequential fluff, kids are systematically being groomed for the western mantras of capitalism, automation and greed!

The real conflict in this film is not in Santa's being told to set up shop on Mars, but the fact that they want him here permanently. In fact, the Martians are already beginning to see the ways of the western world at the outset- their kids are being brainwashed by "those ridiculous Earth programs"! Even the wise old Martian sage tells them that getting Santa for the kids is a good thing. This Entire Martian setting is a primer of all those Communist movie clich├ęs that one would find in old Russian "tractor" films of the 1930s. The old hermit, who nonetheless is versed in the old Martian ways, knows the system isn't working, and prods his comrades towards the avenue of change. The mutinous Martian on the ship delivering Mr. HoHo is the classically universal renegade who rises up against his brethren: "Don't you see? Don't you see? No good can come to our regime from this!"

Alas, Santa soon has all these fancy machines set up, making toys at a far greater rate than his grumpy elves. Just a punch of a button and presto! But Saint Nick isn't jolly for long- he still has to get back to earth and meet his deadline for December 24th! What to do? Well, throughout the film there has been a goofy Martian collapsing around (doing a spin on the old Donald O'Connor role), and before you know it, Santa gives him the proposition of becoming Mars' own version of Kris Kringle, so he can get back to head office on time for Christmas Eve. There you have it- the Martians learn the next word in capitalism... franchise!

(There! And not one mention of ten-year old Pia Zadora as one of the Martian kids. Oops!)


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

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