Holiday Movie Monday – Santa Claus (1959)

If you’ll remember before I skipped last week, I had been revisiting lost treasures of my childhood: movies I had been intrigued by the commercials for, but never seen, or movies I had seen part of, but not the whole thing. This week’s featured movie is a slightly different beast–a movie I know I saw in its entirety, more than once, but in later years came to think I was misremembering it, because it was too bizarre.

Turns out I was remembering it just fine.

Santa Claus was produced in Mexico in the late 1950’s and then dubbed and released to America in 1960 by independent producer K. Gordon Murray. Back in the days before multiplexes and wide 1000+ screen releases, it wasn’t unusual to see small independent releases show up for a weekend or two, then disappear. Santa Claus came out every year or two at Christmastime, grabbed as many dollars as it could from parents looking to dump their kids off for a couple of hours so they could get stuff done, and then disappeared until next time. The movie was pretty bad, so repeat business wasn’t a real option.

But like comic books in those days, the way Santa Claus was able to make money (and according to Wikipedia, it made a lot of money) was that by the time it came back around, for every kid who’d aged out of the target range, there were 1.4 kids who’d aged into it. And once they got into the theater, they were in for a boring, but surreal ride.

The movie opens with a narrator (apparently Murray himself) telling us about Santa Claus, who lives in a magical castle in space, floating above the North Pole. And yes, we actually see three space castles floating up there.

You may be wondering exactly where space castles fit into Santa’s narrative. Well, here’s the deal. From what I’ve read on the web, Santa wasn’t really a thing in Mexico. The elaborate details of the Santa myth–the North Pole, the elves, the reindeer–are apparently a distinctly American development. So although director and co-writer Rene Cardona knew the broad outlines of Santa–jolly fat man in a red suit who delivers toys on Christmas Eve–he relied on his own imagination to fill in a lot of the blanks. And at that time–between the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first manned space launch in 1961–space was on everybody’s minds.

For instance, moments after we’re introduced to Santa (who laughs a little too damn much), we are given a sort of tour of his toy factory, staffed by children from around the world. First, we see kids from “Africa,” dressed in loincloths with bones tied in their hair, dancing to drums (as Santa mimes playing the organ). Then we’re introduced to kids from various nations like Russia, England and “the Orient,” who all sing songs in their native languages.

But not Christmas songs. The English kids sing “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” the American kids (who are not only tone-deaf but also dressed as cowboys) sing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” and the Mexican kids sing “La Cucaracha.” This part of the movie is virtually unwatchable, the camera locked and static, the kids frozen in place for the most part, the singing tuneless, and it continues for over nine minutes! That’s like a tenth of the movie spent on singing even worse than Burt Reynolds’s in  At Long Last Love.

After the singing finally ends, one of the kids bring Santa a toy he made, a toy devil. Santa’s a little disturbed by the imagery, and as the kid demonstrates the way it spins, suddenly we’re in Hell, watching a devil dance.

Yes, this is really happening. Other devils join in, when suddenly, the number is interrupted by the booming voice of Lucifer, who orders the devil, named Pitch, to Earth to thwart Santa Claus’s mission of goodwill. If Pitch fails, he will be forced to eat ice cream.

So Pitch heads for Earth to corrupt all the Earth’s children, although like Godzilla and Tokyo, Pitch seems to confine his activities to Mexico City. Both Santa and Pitch have their eyes on a distinct group of kids–rich little Billy, who only wants his parents to pay attention to him, poor little Lupita, who only wants a doll, and three little punks whom Pitch convinces to turn against Santa.

Santa and his child assistants watch the Earth through a viewing device that consists of an eye on a stalk. It bears a disturbing resemblance to the alien devices in War of the Worlds, which was released in 1953, six years before this movie was made.

There is also a control console that looks like a creepy human face, with moving lips that can repeat what is being said on Earth.

Santa watches as little Lupita attempts to steal a doll from a street vendor by unobtrusively sticking it underneath her sweater.

The little girl playing Lupita is cute, but spends the entire movie in this wide-eyed daze. Eventually, even though Pitch tempts her as hard as he can, Lupita decides not to steal the doll and returns it. Santa is pleased.

Then he looks in on little Billy, who is dreaming about coming down to the living room and finding two giant presents that contain his parents. But the blue lighting with harsh spotlights on the parents’ faces, as well as the giant coffin-like boxes, make Billy’s parents look kind of like zombies.

Next Santa goes back to look in on Lupita again, and these people are poor. They live in one room, with a bare bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. Another light hangs over Lupita’s father’s workbench, but it is shaded by a cone of newspaper. They’re poor.

Pitch tries once more to corrupt Lupita by making her dream about a dozen giant dolls coming to life and dancing around her in a field of fog. The girl playing Lupita looks a little terrified to be at the center of the action.

Small wonder that Lupita refuses when the dolls demand she steal them. I would, too.

Lupita wakes from the dream and tells her mom about it. Mom tearfully recommends that they pray for help from Santa, even though her face shows that she knows Lupita will end up with nothing. Which is stupid, because while she’s saying this, she is sewing on an old sewing machine in their one little room. Mom could sew together a stuffed doll for Lupita easily. Lupita says she will write Santa a letter asking for two little dolls, and give one to Baby Jesus.

Then we get a letter-writing sequence, as kids around the world write letters to Santa, which end up being dumped in the incinerator at the post office. However, instead of being burned, the letters are carried up to space in the updraft, where they rain onto Santa like a huge pile of tribbles from a quadrotriticale bin.

Santa reads three of the letters. One he drops into a slot marked with “telling the truth” or “honest” or something (I don’t read Spanish). Another (written by one of the three punks working for Pitch) he drops into the “liar” slot for future punishment. And one, asking for a baby brother,  get dropped into a slot marked “stork” (who lives in Paris, BTW–City of Love, donchaknow).

Now it’s finally time to get ready to go.  Santa does a little last-second spot-reducing with one of those vibrating weight-reducing belts, then checks himself in one of his test chimneys to make sure he fits. Then he visits his assistant, Merlin the Magician.

Say what? Yeah, apparently the reason nobody sees Santa coming or going is that he drugs them into unconsciousness with magic powder. Merlin mixes up the drugs in a radioactive urn, and also gives Santa a flower which makes him invisible when he smells it. Santa gets all the good drugs.

Next he visits the Key Man (in the English version–he’s apparently actually Vulcan, God of Smiths), who gives him a magic key that will open any lock in the world.

Cause that’s what this movie really needed, a little shirtless hairy beefcake for the mommies. Thus properly armed and equipped, Santa supervises the loading of his sleigh for the night’s trip. But first, he has to wind up the reindeer.

Cause seriously, where were they going to get reindeer in Mexico? The deer begin to twitch and shoot steam out their nostrils like Bio Booster Armor Guyver.

Okay, maybe not that extreme, but I’m desperately trying to inject some excitement into this thing. The kids load the packages onto the sleigh, and Santa mentions that he has to hurry, because he can only make the trip to Earth and back during that one night, and if he gets trapped, he’ll have nothing to eat. In Santa’s castle, they only eat pastries, while on Earth, they eat animals and plants and smoke and alcohol (the best line in the movie, right there). One of the Russian kids suggests (in Russian, which is a nice touch in the movie as well–the foreign kids speak in their own tongues, but Santa still understands them, like C-3PO and R2-D2) that Santa replace the reindeer with modern spacecraft, but Santa dismisses the idea that he use “Spootniks” to get around.

So Santa’s on his way, and evil devil Pitch is right there to stop him. “First stop, Mexico City!” says the narrator. Pitch begins his assault of evil by moving a chimney so Santa can’t go down it. But  Santa has the magic door opening key, so he just goes in the front door (and drugs the kids who hear him with magic dust, prompting him to make this really creepy smile).

Then Santa visits Billy’s house, where he drugs a sleeping Billy into waking, but believing it’s all a dream or something. Billy clutches his boot and asks if Santa loves him. Santa tells Billy that his parents still love him, they just don’t show it. Then he visits the fancy restaurant where Billy’s parents are celebrating, and gives them a couple of smoking cocktails meant to make them remember what’s really important. The mom is all, like, “Oh yeah, we have a kid. We should visit him,” and Billy’s story ends happily, at least for now.

Pitch’s next gambit is to appear inside a house and use his fiery breath to make the fire too hot to come down. Then he blows on the doorknob to make it super-hot.

This and the wind-up reindeer bit are the two parts I remembered from my childhood that led me to search this out, actually. Anyway, Santa sneaks in through a window and fires a toy missile that sticks in Pitch’s butt like a big tranquilizer dart. But Pitch gets the last laugh; after he fails to steal the sleigh, he secretly cuts a hole in Santa’s bag of drug powder, causing him to lose both it and the flower.

Meanwhile, the three punk kids who were recruited by Pitch fail in their attempt to kidnap Santa like those three creepy monster kids in Nightmare Before Christmas and end up going home to find their shoes full of coal. Pitch, frustrated by their failure, sets them to fighting amongst themselves.

Now comes the big finale, where Santa, entering a large estate, encounters a bulldog named Dante (pronounced by Pitch to rhyme with “shanty”). Pitch sets the dog loose, and Santa, without his dust or flower, is forced into a tree. Pitch then has the homeowners call the police and the fire department. His evil scheme: with dawn approaching, Santa will not only be exposed, but will also be trapped on Earth at sunrise, and without sufficient pastry, will starve to death. That’s if they don’t just shoot him as a prowler. Evil.

But Santa manages to shout loud enough for the kids in the space castle to hear him. They fetch Merlin, who helps Santa escape (and during the conversation, one kid mentions that Santa has already been to Asia, Europe and Australia, and is on his last stop in Mexico–remember when the narrator said Mexico was the first stop? This movie lies!) Pitch is foiled. Santa says he has one last stop to make.

Lupita’s dad returns home, having not found a job all night, when Lupita wakes up and says Santa spoke to her in her dream and delivered a doll. He left it just outside. Lupita’s mom tries to tell her it was just a dream, but Lupita runs to the door, opens it and brings in this ginormous doll that’s almost as big as she is.

Lupita’s mom crosses herself and they say a prayer of thanks to Santa as he flies back into space.

And that’s the end. Alternately weird and boring, it makes me wonder what a 1950’s Japanese Santa Claus movie would have looked like. I shudder to think of it, but not in an entirely bad way.

Have a Merry Christmas and let’s all look forward to next year.

Oh yeah, if you really must, you can watch the film on-line here. There will be commercials to relieve the boredom.

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