Dec 31, 2011

25 Films Selected for Preservation - 2011 Edition

It is that time again, the end-of-year list that matters to me the most: the annual selection of titles in the Library of Congress that are chosen to be preserved by the National Film Registry. What I like about these lists, is that they do not limit themselves to commercial features: every year offers a fascinating representation of popular audience favourites, or works historically significant either for their subject, or how they've advanced the art. As such, experimental shorts and ephemeral works are also included into the mix, thus giving credence to the phrase that all film matters. This selection, however, is a bit more mainstream than recent years, but there are still some interesting choices.


1. Allures (1961)

A short film by experimental animator Jordan Belson, who passed away in September of 2011.



2. Bambi (1942)

An animated feature about a deer- sounds interesting.

3. The Big Heat (1953)

Fritz Lang's classic late-period noir about a tough cop (Glenn Ford) who takes on the syndicate. This is the one where thug Lee Marvin throws hot coffee into the face of his moll (Gloria Grahame).



4. A Computer Animated Hand (1972)

Edwin Catmull, a computer scientist, and current president of Pixar, used his own hand as the model for this sequence, which eventually was used in the 1976 film Futureworld.



5. Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963)

Robert Drew's documentary about governor George Wallace's attempts to block two black students from enrolling in the University of Alabama, thwarted by JFK's administration federalizing the Alabama National Guard. This verité project was assembled by footage from four different cameras separately following around JFK, RFK, George Wallace, and even the students. Such pioneering documentarians as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock were among the camera crew. This piece about equality and tolerance was subsequently aired on television-- never seen it; sounds like another "must watch".



6. The Cry of the Children (1912)

George Nichols' short, based on the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an indictment of child labour, and featured authentic footage of kids working in a mill.



7. A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)

This comedy short features a woman who tries to cure her husband of his poker playing. This is historically significant as a vehicle for comedian John Bunny, one of the first silent comedians, although largely forgotten today, who paved the way for such acts as Fatty Arbuckle.


8. El Mariachi (1992)

Robert Rodriguez's $7000 wonder, a darling of the indie film boom in its day, with a traveling musician who is mistaken for a criminal.



9. Faces (1968)

The film that firmly established John Cassavetes as America's premier maker of American independent narrative features. This gritty, gruelling drama details the breakdown of a then-modern middle aged couple.



10. Fake Fruit Factory (1986)

Now here is one reason why I love these annual lists, as they give props to some independent filmmakers who aren't household names, yet are as equally deserving of recognition. This documentary by Chick Strand is another unconventional study of women, this time featuring the relations among migrant female workers in the title workplace.


11. Forrest Gump (1994)

Hmm... I don't know this one.  I'll do some research and get back to you...

12. Growing Up Female (1971)

This documentary by Jim Klein and Julia Riechert is the first film to emerge from the modern woman's movement in the early 1970's.


13. Hester Street (1975)

Joan Micklin Silver's excellent directorial debut of Jewish immigrants in New York's Lower East Side in the late 19th century, also features a star-making performance by Carol Kane. This one doesn't get seen nearly enough.



14. I, an Actress (1977)

The legendary underground filmmaker George Kuchar (his twin brother Mike is also of the same pedigree) made many, many films that are equal parts diaristic, homages to trash culture, and playfully Brechtian deconstructionist pieces. If they are choosing this work due to his passing this September, there are perhaps other works to be recognized, but this is a good start.



15. The Iron Horse (1924)

John Ford was already a veteran filmmaker by 1924, but this western, about the arrival of the train in the frontier, remains his best-known work from the silent era.



16. The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin had already made his "Little Tramp" character an icon in dozens of shorts during the 1910's before embarking on this, his first feature.  This time, The Little Tramp meets his match when he befriends an orphaned street kid (featuring Jackie Coogan in a star-making role).  True to Chaplin's form, it is hilarious and touching, with an added fantasy sequence.



17. The Lost Weekend (1945)

Countless films have been made about addiction, but Billy Wilder's scorching, Oscar-winning study of alcoholism is still strong stuff.



18. The Negro Soldier (1944)

One of the many influential war-time documentaries produced by Frank Capra, this propagandist piece was made to inspire African Americans to enlist in World War 2. Although there is a sad irony in black men being recruited to fight for a country that was effectively screwing them, this film however was notable during the age of segregation for portraying black people in anything other than the comic relief or subservient roles that were usually seen in Hollywood pictures.



19. Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)

Archival footage of dancing brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas. Google around to see some of their soundies-- they are truly exciting.



20. Norma Rae (1979)

Sally Field in re-defined her career in this Oscar-winning role as a factory worker who attempts to unionize the workplace. It is also another significant picture in one of Martin Ritt's oeuvre depicting life in the American south.



21. Porgy and Bess (1959)

Now THIS is interesting.... the Samuel Goldwyn adaptation of the Gershwin-Heywood opera, directed for the screen by the irascible Otto Preminger, has been kept out of the public eye for decades. After Goldwyn's rights had lapsed, the property then deferred back to the Gershwin and Heywood estates, which have repeated refused requests to have it shown again after its original theatrical run and its solitary television airing in 1967. However, the UCLA has a print which is not generally available for public viewing, although it did receive permission to show it twice non-theatrically.  The film was finally shown theatrically again for two nights at New York's Ziegfeld theater in 2007. I can only hope that the attention paid to this title now might prompt some of the powers that be to give this a proper restoration.



22. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jonathan Demme's modern classic, with Anthony Hopkins whose cannibalistic fava-bean loving killer Hannibal Lecter has entered pop culture iconography.



23. Stand and Deliver (1988)

Ramon Menendes' film about a math teacher who attempts to push a class full of unamibitious Latin American students to a level of higher learning.



24. Twentieth Century (1934)

Although not as well remembered as his own His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks' classic screwball comedy featuring John Barrymore and the screwball queen Carole Lombard needs to be seen by more than the discerning movie buff.



25. War of the Worlds (1953)

George Pal's classic sci-fi adaptation of the H.G. Wellls novel of Martians attacking Earth.


For previous inductees into the National Film Registry, see my post from last year, detailing the 2010 titles and a list of all previous entries.

Dec 28, 2011

Down The Road Again (2011)

Director / Writer: Donald Shebib
Producer: Robin Cass
Cinematographer: Francois Dagenais
Union Pictures; 85 min; color

Cast:
Doug McGrath (Pete), Kathleen Robertson (Betty-Jo), Anthony Lemke (Matt), Jayne Eastwood (Betty), Cayle Chernin (Selina), Tedde Moore (Annie)

Like many viewers enamoured with the 1970 film Goin Down The Road, I had always hoped that director Don Shebib would create a sequel to his Canadian classic. What had happened to Pete and Joey after the film fades out? After having experienced their hopeful emigration to greener pastures from the Maritimes to Toronto, our heroes find despair and economic hardship, and then after a poorly planned plot to steal some groceries which ends in violence, flee to an uncertain future in the west coast (Joey leaving behind a pregnant newlywed wife). For years, Shebib had resisted requests to do a followup film, until finally Cayle Chernin (who played Pete's unrequited love interest in the original) persuaded him to revisit the path charted by this groundbreaking film.

Dec 26, 2011

Tormented (1960)

Director: Bert I. Gordon
Producers: Bert I. Gordon, Joe Steinberg
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates, based on a story by Bert I. Gordon
Cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo
Music: Albert Glasser
Visual Effects: Bert I. Gordon, Flora Gordon
Allied Artists; 76 min; B&W

Cast:
Richard Carlson (Tom Stewart), Susan Gordon (Sandy Hubbard), Lugene Sanders (Meg Hubbard), Juli Reding (Vi Mason), Joe Turkel (Nick, The Blackmailer), Lillian Adams (Mrs. Ellis), Gene Roth (Mr. Nelson)

Tom Stewart, a jazz pianist who lives and works in an island lighthouse, is about to be married to the wholesome Meg, but receives a visit from his old flame and former singer Vi, who isn't about to leave their relationship buried in the past. During an argument, a piece of lighthouse railing breaks free, and Vi hangs for dear life onto the twisted piece of steel. Tom purposely hesitates to save her before the metal gives way, and she falls to her death in the rocky shore below, thus ensuring that Vi is out of his new life for good. However, Tom finds out that the old phrase "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" also applies even in death.

This engaging little ghost story is a change of pace from Bert I. Gordon, best known for his movies featuring giant monsters (such as Cyclops or The Amazing Colossal Man) or giant bugs (Beginning of the End; Earth Vs. The Spider). Those films are also notorious for the primitive special effects (which either featured normal sized animals running around glaringly obvious miniature sets, or showed obvious matte lines) usually designed by Gordon himself.  Likewise, Tormented has moments with crude super-impositions as Vi's ghost comes back to taunt Tom. But this movie perhaps works better than those that give Mr. B.I.G. his namesake, because there is still a good movie without the effects.

I first saw Tormented on The Cat's Pajamas (pause- sigh) on their Sunday "Science Fiction Horror Night" program just before Christmas of 1985, shown with Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman (and found it to be far more inventive and creepy than the latter).  In 2006, I programmed this film as part of the Creepy Kooky Double Bill screening in October of that year; surprisingly, it became the hit of the evening over the headliner- another Roger Corman film (Creature from the Haunted Sea).  Even more surprisingly, despite that this little horror gem has been circulating in the public domain for years, no-one in that night's audience had yet seen it! It was a delight to see that this movie still worked with an audience.

Because it doesn't rely so much upon dated technical effects to deliver the goods, this movie succeeds as a mood piece about guilt. Tom is essentially a good man who yearns for a wholesome lifestyle, yet is now paying the price for a single stupid act. Whether it is due to ghostly encounters that only Tom sees, or that her watch shows up on the beach, his new life is constantly dismantled due to his momentary lapse of judgment. Further, he is being blackmailed by a jive-talking ship captain who initially chartered Vi onto the island, and knows that she never returned, especially in light of Tom's upcoming marriage. Despite all of this, we care enough about Tom to wonder how he'll get out of his plight. However, the heart of the movie actually belongs to Sandy, Meg's younger sister, who has a great friendship with Tom- it is largely through her eyes that we see his character change from a passionate human being to a paranoiac who will stop at nothing to erase the memory of Vi on this island. And once she knows too much, will her life be endangered as well?

Admittedly, I re-watched this movie the other night in memory of Susan Gordon, daughter of the director, who passed away this month.  Yet, I was surprised to discover that I had remembered absolutely nothing of her substantial role as Sandy.  (In truth, it is Joe Turkel's beatnik blackmailer who steals the picture performance-wise.)  Instead, one more recalls this film for the visceral experience it produces- its atmosphere is conveyed through such subtleties as shadows, wind, cold, shredded garments. I must also confess that I have an affinity for suspense films which are set on shorelines (The Fog; Play Misty For Me)- something about the waves and the wind, plus the elements of forbidden desire that the milieu recalls, and perhaps I value this picture more than others do for these ingredients. As such, this movie benefits greatly from its atmosphere: its setting upon an island detached from the rest of the physical world adds to the feelings of despair and helplessness. However, there is a great visual touch that I've always remembered from my first viewing 26 years ago: in one sequence on the beach, we see a pair of footprints gradually appearing in the sand next to Tom.

Low-key touches such as this make Tormented much than what it is: a programmer designed for a quick sell to the drive-in circuit. The movie is so fun that you forget the odd casting troika of 48 year-old Richard Carlson, 26 year-old Lugene Sanders (as his fiancée) and 11 year-old Susan Gordon. (She's young enough to play his granddaughter.) Although I watch Gordon's Empire of the Ants every Christmas Eve while I wrap gifts, perhaps his superior films are those peculiar fables which do not rely upon giant monsters or colossal men. It may be time to revisit such works as Picture Mommy Dead and The Magic Sword to re-evaluate where Gordon's talent truly lies.

Dec 25, 2011

Hot Tomorrows (1977)

Director/Producer/Writer: Martin Brest
Cinematographer: Jacques Haitkin
Choreographer: Lloyd Gordon
American Film Institute; 71 min; B&W

Cast:
Ken Lerner (Michael), Ray Sharkey (Louis), Hervé Villechaize (Albrecht), Victor Argo (Tony), George Memmoli (Man in mortuary), Donne Daniels (Night Embalmer), Rose Marshall (Tante Ethel),  Sondra Lowell (Polly), Orson Welles (voice on radio)

"We're watching the movie with two dead people. That's what's so great about old movies- you're entering the land of the dead."

This is a typically moribund statement uttered by the death-obsessed author Michael, much to the consternation of his fellow Bronx-native friend Louis, who has journeyed to Los Angeles to visit his old pal for some good times. The line above, by the way, is uttered while the two men watch Laurel and Hardy in a funny scene from The Bohemian Girl. This scene is indicative of the entire film: where moments of supposed joy are subtly coloured with dread. And when we consider that the good-time-seeking Louis and the bleak Michael are going out for some action on Christmas Eve, we realize that this isn't going to a typical holiday movie fare.

In his bilious book Movie Wars, author Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the snarky assertion that the only good thing the American Film Institute ever did was finance David Lynch's first feature, Eraserhead.  Well, no.  Hot Tomorrows, the first feature by Martin Brest (later of such hits as Beverly Hills Cop and Scent of a Woman), was also produced via the AFI, yet it's unfortunate that this $38,000 wonder has never received its deserved audience. Today, this black comedy is sought by collectors, especially for the appearance of Danny Elfman and the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, who are the musicians in the sparsely populated Paradise Ballroom, one of the stops of our protagonists' fateful journey on December 24.

Shot in glistening black and white by Jacques Haitkin, these flickering images recall the spirit of the old movies that the men refer to, especially in the bizarre 42nd street revue that closes the film. The deeply expressionist photography indeed captures the moribund atmosphere that surrounds Michael (in fact the hard key lighting on the band suggests a cabaret act from beyond the grave), but it also enhances the sorrow and loneliness that permeates the lives of our principal cast.

Even without the death-obsessed symbolism, Hot Tomorrows is a valuable film for offering an alternative look at Christmas-time. It beautifully captures the holiday season for those who find this time of year difficult, as they are shiftless, alone, and looking for something-anything to do. These displaced people somehow find their ways to the Paradise Ballroom (tellingly, the only clientele on Christmas Eve), and find momentarily companionship with one another. Michael and Louis befriend another Bronx native, Tony, who accompanies his rich, socially awkward friend and employer Albrecht, while the latter's wife carries out an "arrangement" with her boyfriend. In addition, Louis chats up a girl, Polly, whom one senses yearns for greater things, but doesn't know what or where.  This sequence is a moving portrait of people who are trapped in their own limited lives.

And if this scene isn't a desperate enough way to spend Christmas Eve, it gets better. Upon leaving the club, the two men hear a radio ad (voice by Orson Welles!) about a funeral home offering free coffee to sober people up and prevent car accidents ("it's better to drive here than to be carried here"). This is all the provocation that Michael needs. What follows is another scene of displaced people who have momentarily converged in their pursuits of something to do while alone on December 24.  However, Michael manages to cajole the funeral director into seeing the embalming equipment, and in a moment that climaxes his death fantasies, he views the dead body of an old woman. Michael has been working on a story about his aunt Ethel, who appears as the "face of death", seen in photos, posing at the supermarket, and even in the funeral home.

Although Hot Tomorrows sometimes plods in its short running time, it is a jewel of a movie- at once a black comedy about death and a moving portrait of urban loneliness, which results in tragedy, yet concludes with a bizarre sequence that is equally moribund and (somehow) life-affirming.  

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

Cast:
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.

The Junky's Christmas (1993)


Directors: Nick Donkin, Melodie McDaniel
Writer: James Grauerholz, based on a story by William S. Burroughs
Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Francine McDougall
Music: Hal Willner
Cinematography: Simon Higgins, Wyatt Troll
Production Design: Andrew Horne
Island Pictures; 21 min; B&W

Cast:
William S. Burroughs (narrator)


The film opens with author William S. Burroughs rifling through his bookshelf, finding his own copy of Interzone (in which the original story for the movie is collected) and sitting down by the Christmas tree to read.  This image alone is jarring enough- Burroughs the legendary underground anti-hero at the age of 75 (didn’t he always look 75?) turning into Jimmy Stewart?!?  There is a low-angle shot of his condor-shaped profile looking whimsical standing beside the tree, and right away we are wondering what kind of perverse whole-someness is being provided us?  Has the collusion of mainstream and underground finally gone too far?  Who would imagine that a tale from the Bard of Benzydrine would be presented to the screen by Francis Ford Coppola?

Once the grandfatherly Burroughs settles down into his easy chair, and his crystalline talons turn the hard pages, we dissolve from this natural world into a twenty-minute claymation short, as he narrates for us the pathetic efforts of a dope fiend trying to score on Christmas Day. What surprises here is not the junkie’s change of heart in the end.  Rather, this celluloid trip is more valuable for documenting a part of the world on December 25th that has seldom been realized for cinema.  In other words, there is no Capra-esque fantasy of George Bailey running down the street, and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas as potato flakes of snow fall to the ground.  Instead this is about the lonely people sleeping on the street that your sedan passes by as you go visit your folks.

Usually the work of Burroughs is a Dadaist science fiction nightmare in which the author can run wild with his ideas and satiric metaphor.  It is rare to see a Burroughs piece (and admittedly a short one) in which the characters are real people, presented matter-of-factly, for us not to judge, nor for him to celebrate, but merely for us to understand.  Although we may not think that the people scoring crack outside my office are human beings underneath, but that matter is easily forgotten when we have to clean all the pipes and prophylactics off of the back step.  In other words, The Junky's Christmas is presenting an ugly world that, surprisingly, has its own moral code.

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

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 clichés 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)

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

Cast:
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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