Movie of the Week: Santa Claus (1959)
"Away up in the heavens, far out in space, in a beautiful golden crystal palace right above the North Pole, lives a kind and jolly old gentleman — Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas — the best friend of boys and girls everywhere."
The fact that he has a hi-tech palace in space is something I never knew about Santa Claus; however, it's one of several fun embellishments made in the movie, Santa Claus (1959). I thought maybe this version of his headquarters was part of a Mexican variation of the legend, but the only unique element related to geography (that I learned in my cursory research of the subject) is that sometimes children in Mexico and Latin America send their letters to Santa by wrapping them in helium balloons and releasing them into the air. That's not depicted in this film.
Therefore, we must have Adolfo Torres Portillo and Rene Cardona to credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) for the liberties taken in their story. Cardona, who also directed, is familiar to me from Night of the Bloody Apes (1972), a remake of his earlier movie, Doctor of Doom (1962). There are no luchadores in Santa Claus; however, the villain of the piece, a devil named "Pitch," demonstrates the moves of one, dancing and hopping all over the place when he goes to Earth to foil Santa on his annual holiday visit.
Santa Claus is another movie with a reputation that precedes it. Although it is certainly unusual, sometimes bizarre, I don't know that I thought it was as notoriously bad as I was led to believe. Like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, I like the story, as foreign as it may be to me to pit Santa against the devil in an almost religious interpretation of good vs. evil. The production values here, though, while still bottom of the barrel, produce more bang for the buck than they do in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. But, it doesn't quite share the same bargain basement charm.
At 94 minutes, Santa Claus is too long. A full 10 minutes is spent at the beginning introducing Santa's "little helpers" at his "international toy factory." There are no elves in sight, but there are groups of three or four children (who do more singing than toy-making) from Africa, Spain, China, England, Japan, the Orient, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, the Caribbean, South America (Brazil & Argentina), Central America, the United States, and Mexico. Santa has accompanying music for each that he plays on his organ in the sky.
I wouldn't exactly say these groups depict stereotypes, but I find it funny that the Mexican filmmakers envision children of the United States as wearing cowboy hats and strumming little guitars. (Also, oddly, all nations are visually represented except England. During that "number," we see only a large overhead shot of the entire toy factory.) The musical selections here are a welcome change from the rest of the soundtrack, which features multiple variations of "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night."
Back to the idea that the movie portrays Santa Claus almost as a religious figure, I first felt this way as it opened with him placing pieces into a nativity scene. Then, it was solidified with the idea that his arch-nemesis is not of this earth, but is the devil himself. Next, he seems to be an all-powerful decision maker; as he sorts mail, he forwards ones requesting little brothers or sisters directly to "the stork." He also travels on Trans Heavenly Airways. Finally, the movie ends with these words on screen: "Blessed Are Those Who Believe for They Shall See God…"
This is no epic struggle between good and evil, though. Pitch's antics are more annoying than deadly. First, he tries to prevent Santa from entering a house in Mexico City by moving the chimney. Luckily, Santa carries a magic parasol! He thwarts the pesky devil at every turn. When Pitch lights a fire in a fireplace to prevent Santa from entering another house, then heats the doorknob to burn his hand, he simply climbs in through a window. It's Santa's turn to get even, though; he fires a toy cannon from his bottomless bag of toys right into Pitch's rear end.
These are grade school shenanigans, for sure, and a reminder about the intended audience for the movie. Yes, it's definitely excruciating for adults, but probably hilarious for kids. Although it delivers a heavy-handed message, the subplot woven throughout the story probably has good intentions. Rich kid Billy has everything he needs, except the one thing he wants, the love of his parents. And poor kid Lupita has nothing she wants, except the one thing she heartbreakingly doesn't realize she needs, the love of her parents.
Part of Pitch's plans includes recruiting three troublemakers to enact their own misdeeds. They have loftier goals than Pitch; they'd like to kidnap Santa and take all the toys for themselves. This part of the story never really goes anywhere, except that their greed backfires on Pitch as the three turn against each other. All this menace and ill will converges with circumstances that place Santa in danger: stuck in a tree as a grumpy dog barks at him below. Pitch cut a hole in the bag that holds powder to make Santa invisible!
I'm tempted to list all the ways in which the Santa in Santa Claus (and the movie itself) is… unique. However, for me, discovering them myself was part of the fun of the movie. I'm also tempted to list all the movie's flaws. However, I'm full of Christmas spirit and can overlook that fact that when Santa and his sleigh (led by wind-up reindeer that will turn to powder if they're not home before sunrise) almost collide with the moon, they appear three times larger than it. Watching Santa Claus is a strange experience, but not altogether unentertaining.
"And so once again Santa returns to his palace from his yearly Christmas rounds. He is happy and gay — for once again he has brought joy to the children of the world."
Written by Adolfo Torres Portillo and Rene Cardona Directed by Rene Cardona Starring Jose Elias Moreno, Jose Luis Aguirre 'Trotsky' Released November 26, 1959 (Mexico) RT 94 min. Home Video VCI Entertainment (DVD)