Marathon Man: The Cinematic Evolution of Santa Claus

Marathon Man: The Cinematic Evolution of Santa Claus

Dec 19, 2011

In the pantheon of "Characters Anyone In The World Will Recognize Under Any Circumstance," Santa Claus is probably in the top ten. Heck, he's probably in the top five, but it's not my place to delve into the specifics of lists I just made up in my head. The point is this: I know who Santa Claus is, you know who Santa Claus is, your mother knows who Santa Claus is and your Jewish roommate from college knows who Santa Claus is. Thanks to the power of the Christmas Spirit™ and billions of Coca Cola advertising dollars, Santa isn't just a vaguely pagan figure adopted by the Christian religion to celebrate the birth of their Lord -- he's a superstar symbol of the holiday season; a chubby, jolly, seemingly immortal senior citizen with the magical prowess of a warlock and the disposition of your favorite grandparent.

And he's been in a ton of movies. Like, a lot. And that's why I'm here today: are you ready for a whirlwind tour of Santa in cinema? Do you want to observe how the Santa myth has evolved through celluloid? Are you curious how his image has changed over the decades? Well, you've come to the right place.

The criteria for this marathon included the following: the Santa on film had to be the real Santa (no guys dressed up like him, i.e., Silent Night, Deadly Night or Bad Santa) and Santa had to be the protagonist of the film (although I make one exception to this rule, but we'll get to that momentarily). For each film, I chose to track the following categories: Our Santa (how Santa himself is depicted in the film as a character), Santa's Operation (how Santa's workshop and Christmas plans function), Santa vs The World (how the world reacts and treats Santa) and Thoughts (where I'll just talk about the movie itself, thank you very much).

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Our Santa: Edmund Gwenn's Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street is a thing of beauty. While the crux of the film is all about whether or not this department store Santa is the real deal or a kindly but deluded basket case, Gwenn's work makes the actual answer irrelevant. Whether he's actually Santa or not, he embodies everything that Santa should stand for. While so many Christmas films emphasize Santa's magical abilities and play him as big broad advertisement for overbearing Christmas joy, Gwenn plays it subtle: he's wryly intelligent, genuinely funny and oh-so-very kind, winning people over with small acts of kindness and a smile. Surprisingly, this Santa has slight rough edge to him. Gwenn's Santa Claus understands that being a good person doesn't just mean being nice to your fellow man: it means sticking up to them in the face of people who mean them physical or emotional harm. You don't need magic when you're heart is in the right place and you have the willpower to tan up for yourself and others. What a performance.

Santa's Operation: Unlike most of the films in this marathon, Miracle on 34th Street never gives us a glimpse at the North Pole or flying reindeer. This is a Santa who, if he's real (and he is, damn it!), has enough time to walk among us mere mortals and seek out the souls who need guidance and faith. The film's open ended nature means we don't get a glimpse into how this Santa operates, but it means we get a film about the magic of being human instead of the magic of flying reindeer.

Santa vs The World: Miracle on 34th Street takes place very much in the "real world," so the characters treat Santa very much like how you and I treat him: the kids believe in him, some adults play along and some adults flat-out deny his existence openly and in front of children. Since the world is our own, the courtroom climax, where an intrepid lawyer must prove Santa's existence to keep Gwenn out of the nuthouse, has stakes we get behind. How can a court of law let this man declare himself Santa Claus?

Thoughts: I hate to sound like some kind of old fogey shaking my cane at the sky and yelling at teenagers, but they really don't make 'em like this anymore. Funny without being crass and touching without being melodramatic, Miracle on 34th Street is charming, breezy and effortlessly entertaining; its near-perfect screenplay creating a cast of understated, relatable characters before sitting back and watching them react to a series of impossible situations. Without a single special effect, this movie has more magic in a single frame than something like Fred Claus has in its entire running time. It seems like such an obvious solution to any Hollywood problem: all a movie needs is a good story well told.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Our Santa: After the quiet kindness of Edmund Gwenn, John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is like experiencing yuletide whiplash. Call's Santa, like a seasonal honey badger, just doesn't give a sh*t. He's laid back and seemingly non-plussed by everything around him -- when he's abducted by Martians who want him to deliver presents to the boys and girls of the red planet, his reservations vanish quickly and soon, he's laughing it up with his captors, sharing all kinds of Christmas-related puns and brushing off frequent attempts on his life with a few Ho Ho Ho's. I don't think the film intended for this easily-distracted, emotionally nonsensical Santa to feel like a bumbling stoner, but he certainly does. There's also a scene where Santa defeats an evil robot by talking it into an existential crisis, which is certainly not something you get to see in every holiday movie.

Santa's Operation: You know those bulk Christmas cards you buy for two bucks that showcase Santa and a handful of elves working out of a one room cottage and somehow managing to produce millions of toys with a few blocks of wood and mallet? Santa Claus Conquers the Martians embraces this incredibly traditional image, probably because the budget could only afford three cardboard walls and two little elves. Most modern versions of Santa give his North Pole HQ some level of scale, so there's something inherently charming about this old school image. That doesn't excuse the production design that wold make Ed Wood blush, but hey, if you can't say something nice...

Santa vs The World: Also unlike Miracle on 34th Street, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians takes place in a world that openly acknowledges the existence of Santa Claus. A reporter is given an exclusive tour of Santa's workshop. The United Nations mobilizes troops when Santa is forcibly spirited away to Mars. In this version of the world, there is no one that doesn't believe in Santa Claus. This was probably done to cater to the intended audience of young children (who haven't developed the sense to know when they're watching an awful movie) and the result is oddly endearingly. Plenty of B-movies abuse stock footage of military maneuvers, but only this one uses it to show the world preparing to fight aliens over the right to own Santa Claus.

Thoughts: It goes without saying that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a terrible movie (if you've seen it, chances are strong you've seen the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version), but fits the only film that I watch every Christmas without fail. From the embarrassing opening credits with its ear-shattering theme song ("Hooray for Santy Claus!") to the borderline psychotic conclusion where Santa laughs maniacally while his team of brainwashed children fight a martian assassin (serious shades of David Lynch here), there is never a dull moment to be found in this film. If you're the kind of person who likes to sabotage Christmas cheer by subjecting your friends and family to hilariously awful movies, this is an anti-classic that deserves to be in your rotation.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970)

Our Santa: I don't think the world was necessarily crying for a Santa Claus origin story (Gawky teenager bitten by a radioactive sugar plum!), but leave it to Rankin and Bass, the maestros behind those stop motion Christmas specials that are still making the rounds decades after their creation, to fill us in on the tale of how Santa rose to power. It turns out that Santa used to be Kris Kringle, an orphan raised by kindly elves who trained him in the fine art of toymaking. I suppose that's expected. What's not expected is how Kris essentially becomes a kid-friendly Che Guevara, traveling the countryside, defying the anti-toy laws of a fascist dictatorship and spreading all kinds of Pinko Commie Joy to the children of the land through acts of subterfuge and political defiance. The film doesn't dwell on the details of Santa's rebellion against The Man -- this is a movie primarily made for children, after all -- but it's a surprisingly edgy take on a character who is usually portrayed safely and dully. Like the similarly-defanged Superman, Santa is pretty interesting when you leave those sharp edges in.

Santa's Operation: Santa Claus is Coming to Town gives us a look at how Santa's entire North Pole home came together in the first place. After government troops burn down his home (!), Santa and his family head north and establish a new base of operations. From the top of the world, Santa continues his guerilla war against the corrupt and selfish dictators who live only to outlaw fun and happiness. Although Santa's immortality is never adequately explained, we see him construct his castle (no pithy one-room workshops for Santa Che!) and use his Warlock ally's magic to enchant reindeer. Santa's regular routine is also examined: he slips down chimneys and puts gifts in stockings to stay hidden and keep his gifts hidden from Toy Gestapo.

Santa vs The World: With the exception of the bookends featuring a narrator (voiced by Fred Astaire!), we don't get to see much of how this world interacts with Santa Claus. The fact that the Astaire's postman knows the whole Santa origin and that he's answering questions proposed by children in letters to the North Pole suggests that this is a world similar to that of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, where Santa's existence is an accepted fact, shared by both children and adults alike (although Santa's rise to power mirrors that of many contemporary folk heroes and the events as we see them may be greatly fictionalized and exaggerated).

Thoughts: Even if I ignore all of the strange political subtext that makes Santa Claus is Coming to Town so fascinating, it's still a fun, harmless little movie that gets in and gets out in 48 minutes. Rankin and Bass productions have a timeless quality to them: they look inexpensive but not shoddy, the humor is corny but never groan-worthy and the songs…okay, the songs just kick ass. I dare anyone to watch Santa Claus is Coming to Town and not have at least one of the numbers stuck in their head for a few days. Although not a definitive cinematic classic like Miracle on 34th Street, the lack of pop culture references and the cheery inoffensiveness of the whole thing will make sure that it keeps playing at Christmastime for the foreseeable future.

Santa Claus: The Movie (1970)

Our Santa: After the kindly grandfather of Miracle on 34th Street, the confused madman of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and the revolutionary of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, we finally get our first Santa Claus without a defined or interesting personality. Santa Claus: The Movie is another origin story, albeit one that feels a little more tooled to sell Coca Cola and Happy Meals than Rankin and Bass' efforts. After freezing to death in the opening scene of the film (yep), Santa and his wife are transported to the North Pole, where he is inexplicably proclaimed leader of the elves and tasked with spreading joy to children the world over. Santa takes this responsibility without question, because to see him consider his situation would make him a mildly interesting character. Later in the film, Santa befriends an orphan and feel so bad about his homelessness that he carves him a toy statue. You know, instead of bringing him food or giving him a home or something. I'm not sure if I prefer the non-entity Santa or the cruelly dismissive Santa (there's also the hopeless defeatist Santa, but that version doesn't pop up until the third act).

Santa's Operation: Things are kept pretty traditional in Santa Claus: The Movie. Santa and his team of elves (there are seemingly thousands of them) work out of an old-timey but spacious workshop, handcrafting toys for all of the good little girls and boys. Interestingly, North Pole toy creations appear to have a specific "house style," with all toys sharing similar color and design schemes. Also, the elves tend to break into dance at a moment's notice and without any hesitation because, you know, that's what elves do. I suppose.

Santa vs The World: Every human on the planet knows of Santa' existence, so much so that the second half of the film revolves around an evil toy manufacturer going head to head with our hero in the toy distribution biz (because children love tales of corporate rivalry). When Santa's chief elf, Patches (Dudley Moore in a casting choice that feels painfully inevitable) screws up an entire shipment of toys, kids and parents alike are so disgusted that they send the toys back. Now that's a first.

Thoughts: Santa Claus: The Movie is the kind of '80s kids' movie filled with shots that linger on people drinking sweet cans of ice cold Coca Cola and eating delicious hamburgers at their local McDonald's restaurant (I have been told that McDonald's pimped this movie in a huge way, only for the film to land with a thud at the box office). It's a crass commercial Christmas film that weakly espouses about the dangers of Christmas becoming crass and commercial. Tacky corporate BS aside, the film itself is just a nightmare: a poorly paced eyesore populated by inconsistent characters. The film's screenplay if broken in a fundamental way, feeling like one film and its sequel got crushed and chopped into one epic misfire. The first half of the film, which follows Santa becoming Santa, is the weaker half, mainly because the second half features a villainous John Lithgow, whose mere presence elevates the whole movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Our Santa: This is the only film in the marathon where Santa isn't the chief protagonist. So yes, it does break the rules I established above, but I decided to include it here because it's the rare Christmas movie where our hero and his allies view Santa in a completely fresh light. The Santa here is a supporting role, only glimpsed in the first half of the film before he becomes an active participant in the plot later on. It's an incredibly traditional, incredibly safe portrait of the character, which is essentially the point. How would the Santa we know and love, the one glimpsed on Christmas cards and in shopping malls and on cans of Coke, be treated by horror movie creatures? It's not a particularly unique take on the character, but it certainly serves the otherwise revisionist story.

Santa's Operation: Once again, The Nightmare Before Christmas embraces traditional imagery, all the better to contrast with the often playfully horrific things that happen in the story. Inspired by the simple sets of Rankin and Bass (marathon connections!), Santa's home and workshop is nothing more than a collection of small cottages and a handful of elves, all of them supposedly relying on magic and such to get the job done.

Santa vs The World: How the human world treats and interacts with Santa Claus in The Nightmare Before Christmas is virtually identical to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians -- they acknowledge his existence, adore him and call in the military when he's abducted by an outside force. However, the crux of the movie follows the citizens of Halloween Town, who live in a world where ghosts and monsters and playful murder/torture are everyday encounters. Naturally, Santa Claus is an oddity to them, a concept they can't grasp. The plot of the film stems entirely from these horror archetypes fundamentally misunderstanding the meaning of Christmas. Their interpretation of this kindly, traditional Santa as the frightening master of his strange, bizarre world is a funny take on material we've seen countless times before.

Thoughts: The Nightmare Before Christmas has done a good enough job permeating popular culture that it's easy to forget what a clever and subversive little movie it is. The stop motion animation isn't just a gorgeous aesthetic choice for subject matter that would have never translated to live action, it's a direct commentary on Rankin and Bass holiday specials, suggesting that the friendly little universe that is home to their interpretation of Santa and Rudolph and the like is also home to all kinds of holiday specials…including Halloween characters who don't blink at the thought of abducting Santa and taking his place as part of a well-meaning but misguided attempt to solve a mid-life crisis. Also, like so many Rankin and Bass specials, The Nightmare Before Christmas isn't so much a musical as it is an opera. The dialogue exists simply to propel the movie from one terrific musical number to another (and many story developments and most of the character development is handled through song). While songs about tormenting and torturing Santa Claus aren't going to make it onto any holiday compilation albums anytime soon, I'd put the tracks here up against any Christmas song that was written after 1958.

The Santa Clause (1994)

Our Santa: As far as I can tell, The Santa Clause is the first film to introduce a now-popular concept to the Santa mythos -- there has been more than one Santa Claus and the name is a title for whoever is currently wearing the red suit. In this case, Scott Calvin (Tim Allen, at the height of his power) accidentally causes Santa Claus to plummet to his death and finds himself bound to take over the job through iron-clad magical law. Naturally, Scott is a piss-poor single dad who learns to love his son and find himself by becoming an obese fairy tale character. That may be Hollywood Screenwriting 101, but it's a fresh concept to Santa. If Santa is actually a job and not a person, that means that various Santas throughout history have had differing personalities and philosophies and even as Santa, Scott retains enough of his trademark snark to be distinguishable as himself. It's like Bucky Barnes taking up the mantle of Captain America after the death of Steve Rogers: the man in the costume isn't important, but the symbol must be kept alive. I'm so very sorry for that analogy.

Santa's Operation: Santa as a job isn't the only concept The Santa Clause brings to the table. For the first time -- at least in this marathon -- Santa's workshop is portrayed as being a state of the art complex where elves (played by children even though they have the attitudes and, seemingly, sex drives of adults) appear to be producing modern electronic toys alongside the traditional dolls and model trucks. Even Santa's sleigh has been given a high tech redesign. This model of the "modern industrial Santa" has remained popular over the years and continues to be the go-to aesthetic for mainstream Christmas movies (see Fred Claus and Arthur Christmas). Of special note, when Scott arrives back at the North Pole as the new Santa, the elves don't even bat an eye. Apparently, there is no time to mourn the death of their former leader. Things just immediately go back to business as usual. Harsh. Very harsh.

Santa vs The World: The Santa Clause takes place in the "real world," so the cast consists of adults who don't believe that Santa is real and children who do. Unlike most Christmas movies intended for families, this film chooses to outright address the fact that adults don't believe in a fat man who circumnavigates the globe delivering toys and eventually must inform their spawn of his non-existence. The original Miracle on 34th Street is all about this outlook, but it's odd to see a big budget family film that is being sold almost directly to children being filled with rational (albeit, misguided in the universe of the film) characters who clearly state that Santa Claus is a myth.

Thoughts: It's easy to look at this film, scoff and dismiss it. Blame the fact that in spawned a franchise that, by all accounts, got worse as it went along. Blame the fact that is led to an entire generation not getting the joke of the title and misspelling Santa Claus' name. Blame the fact that it starts Tim Allen, who was one of the biggest stars in America at the time but is now something of a whipping boy for people who don't like mediocre junk. Viewed by itself, The Santa Clause is a surprisingly strong film for the first hour, filled with enough laughs and clever conceits to keep things moving. Allen does his usual Allen schtick and the film itself is loose and fast. It's the last half hour where the film stops working, cutting the tether to reality that made the first sixty minutes feel grounded and embracing dumb jokes and giving way too many lines to the elf actors, all of whom are terrible. The final act of the film also involves Scott/Santa abducting his young son for a month while his mother and step-father hunt for him, which is…er…let's just say it's an unpleasant turn that the film doesn't treat as unpleasant at all.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2011)

Our Santa: One of the great ironies of the Santa Claus myth is that this a character with roots in European pagan folklore who was adopted by the Christian religion in an attempt to win more converts. It worked (See also: the Christmas Tree). Rare Exports is the story of the "non-Cola Cola Santa," the mythical beast who would travel the countryside, scooping up naughty children and flaying them to death. To go into detail about the Santa in Rare Exports would be a crime, since his appearance is part of the film's mystery (and this recent Finnish film, while quickly developing a cult following, has yet to be seen by as many audiences as the others in this marathon). Let's just say that he doesn't wear a red coat, doesn't leave gifts and is very, very hungry.

Santa's Operation: At the start of Rare Exports, archaeologists uncover the tomb of the long-lost Santa and the rest of the film details the chaos that ensues. Since we stay with our human protagonists for the bulk of the film, we only catch glimpses of what Santa and his forces are up to. If they have a permanent base of operations, we don't see it, but we do know that him and his "helpers" scavenge the nearby town, abducting children and replacing their bodies with creepy dolls. There is not a workshop or a flying reindeer to be found…which makes sense, since this is the kind of Santa who would probably rampage and destroy a building before he'd ever even consider working in it.

Santa vs The World: Once again, we're in our world -- Santa is a myth and only the young children believe in him. Here, that view makes a lot more sense than in a film like The Santa Clause, where presents keep on mysteriously showing up under the tree every Christmas morning and adults continue to deny the big man's existence. In this world, Santa has been buried under the ice for about a thousand years, so of course no one believes he exists!

Thoughts: One of these days, Rare Exports will be a yearly tradition for cinephiles. Until then, the best I can do is spread the gospel of this terrific, scary, funny and completely wacky little anti-Christmas movie. Tonally, it's definitely a cousin of Joe Dante's '80s output, combining real scares and scenes of horror with plenty of deadpan character comedy (a double feature with Gremlins on Christmas Eve feels like an inevitability). Despite the R rating, this may very well be a great jumping-off point for a young budding horror fan. It's creepy without being violent, seemingly devoid of sex and profanity and its hero is a ten-year-old boy who manages to act his age and be a complete and total badass. Not to mention, the 8-12 set will surely get a kick out of seeing Santa portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster. At least the ones who are destined to be horror movie fans.

Best Santa: This really isn't a question. Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street is everything I want out of my Santa Claus. Wise and funny, he cares just as much about ensuring your emotional happiness as he does about getting your present under the tree.

Worst Santa: I was tempted to put John Call's baffling and unintentionally creepy Santa from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians here, but at least he's blessed with a personality. David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie is completely dull…except for the parts where he's being selfish and short-sighted.

Best Santa's Operation: No matter the style of the workshop, all of Santa's routines ultimately work to achieve the same goal, with few particular styles of operation standing above the others. That's why I'm giving it to Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which showcases that the flying reindeer, the climb down the chimney and the isolated base of operations were all part of a scheme to avoid an evil government and conduct a small rebellion.

Worst Santa's Operation: I'm giving this one to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on general principal. I wonder which community theater dumpster they stole these sets from.

The Best of Santa vs The World: It's a tie between Rare Exports and Miracle on 34th Street, both of which deal with rational adults coming to terms with the existence of Santa Claus. Of course, one Santa is generous saint and the other is a monster, but it's same concept, really.

The Worst of Santa vs The World: This one is also a tie, this time between Santa Claus: The Movie and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, both of which present worldviews that inspire more questions than answers.

Best Film: The humane, beautiful and effortlessly entertaining Miracle on 34th Street is a classic for a reason.

Worst Film: The crass, overlong and poorly made Santa Claus: The Movie is the kind of Christmas movie you show your kids if you hate them.

Marathon Ranking:

1. Miracle on 34th Street
2. Rare Exports
3. The Nightmare Before Christmas
4. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
5. The Santa Clause
6. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
7. Santa Claus: The Movie

Tags: Marathon Man
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