Christmas Matinees -– Forgotten Holiday Turkeys!
Christmas Matinees -– Forgotten Holiday Turkeys!
Earlier in the year I paid tribute to the Kiddie Matinee or Summer Fun Movies as they were known where I grew up. There was one other facet to these fractured features that had a seasonal slant, the Christmas Matinee. These screenings were specifically designed as weekend babysitters to keep the kids placated with two to three hours of mind candy while mom shopped for presents. Many parents considered these a godsend since they were cheaper than babysitters and most malls or large shopping areas had theaters located conveniently nearby. Nothing could possibly be objectionable about a holiday themed children’s film and a dozen or so cartoons, right? Well it was this kind of thinking that caused children across the country to be subjected, on an annual basis no less, to some of the most bizarre and pathetic films to ever illuminate the silver screen. In honor of the holidays, this week’s Retrorama pays tribute some of the pastel-colored crap-fests that were the Christmas Matinees!
Santa Claus (1959)
We have Florida based film pioneer K. Gordon Murray to thank for importing this south of the border Santa spectacle. This neon nightmare story of St. Nick battling Old Nick (Satan) was re-released every few years the entire time I was growing up, making it one of the chief offenders of the Christmas show crowd. I did a full disclosure on this film in a previous PCR so if you dare to learn more I direct you to that article.
The Magic Christmas Tree (1964)
This film has the gall to rip off the style of The Wizard of Oz with B&W “reality” footage bookending its fantasy sequence middle. Loud-mouthed Mark challenges his friends to visit the house of the local “witch” (who looks more like a Russian immigrant from the 20’s) and ends up knocking himself senseless trying to rescue her cat Lucifer from a tree. While unconscious, Mark dreams that the old lady really is a witch and gives him the seed to a magic Christmas tree that can grant him three wishes. After lots of lame padding, the tree finally becomes fully grown and it’s instant gratification time. Mark first wishes for a “power hour” in which he can do anything. Not being very bright, Mark wastes his sixty minutes of omnipotence tormenting the local community with lame pranks designed to get the short pants crowd in the audience laughing. Becoming more creative with wish number two, Mark traps Santa Claus at his house and gives him a huge ransom list of toys he wants. After reading off half a department store’s worth of items, the scene switches to Mark in the woods with only a BB gun (come on kid you should have at least asked for a .22!). Here he meets the Giant of Selfishness, who looks like an overweight amateur wrestler, and gets the crap, I mean greed, scared right out of him. For his final wish, Mark repents and sets everything back to the way it was before Christmas. Finally awaking from his less than stellar dream, Mark has learned an important lesson about judging people and abusing power and returns to his mundane world (right out of an elementary school hygiene film) a better person.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
It never ceases to amaze me what incongruent subject matter filmmakers think would make a good movie. In this case, our two title combatants are brought together when the citizens of Mars decide they need Santa Claus to entertain their increasingly despondent children (apparently they lack Prozac as well). Of course the simplest thing to do is to kidnap him from Earth and grab a couple of typical Earth children in the process. Once on Mars, Santa is set up in a new toy shop and has to deal with political intrigue while trying to convince the Martians to let him go. In the end, Santa trains a dimwitted Martian to take his place and gets to return home with the two children. Poor Santa, battling Satan, trapped by greedy children, and now having to take on an entire planet, it’s a wonder he ever finds time to make toys! Look for a ten-year-old Pia Zadora as one of the young Martians.
Santa and the Three Bears (1970)
Two young bear cubs become curious about Santa and learn about Christmas (along with their mother, bear #3) from a kindly forest ranger (voice by Hal Smith, “Otis” the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show). The animated tale of the bears is sandwiched between live action footage of another park ranger telling the title story to his grandchildren. This is another “feature” in name only and was always preceded by a huge batch of cartoons. The animated portion is about 45 minutes in length and the entire running time barely passes the hour mark. While this film wore out its welcome in local theaters like the rest of its ilk, it is more fondly remembered as a TV staple, syndicated every year to local stations. To get the most out their rental fees, the film was usually aired multiple times between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)
Last and by all means least on the list of Christmas Matinee movies is this bottom of the barrel entry from 1972. This subterranean budget production opens with Santa in Florida of all places (probably due to a pre-Christmas drinking binge) where his sleigh becomes stuck in the sand (sadly not quick sand). Apparently possessing powers similar to the Pied Piper, Santa psychically summons some nearby children to rescue him. Unfortunately the kids (obviously the products of public school education) have no clue how to do this. After several attempts to utilize barnyard animals and a guy in a moth eaten gorilla costume to pull out the sleigh, the kids settle down to hear Santa tell the story of Thumbelina! That’s right kids, if the preceding scenes of Santa weren’t bad enough, you have just been tricked into watching a fairy tale disguised as a Christmas film! Those children with too little self esteem to walk out at this point were forced to endure a condensed version of another film by the same director, Barry Mahon (the same person who directed the live action sequences for Santa and the Three Bears and a whole slew of sexploitation pictures). The Thumbelina footage has its own wrap around footage (I’m getting dizzy here) shot in the “present” day at the long defunct Pirate’s World amusement park in Dania, Florida. When the recycled feature within a feature is finally finished, someone realizes that the film is almost over and there’s still no Ice Cream Bunny! Right on cue, the ridiculous rabbit (a guy in a leftover Easter Bunny costume) pulls up in an antique fire engine (I swear I am NOT making this up) and pulls Santa out of the sand (and the audience out of a deep sleep). I refused to believe this film existed until a friend of mine showed me the poster, which turned out to be the most interesting facet of the entire boring production!
The Christmas Matinees gradually began fading out by the mid-70’s (I suspect the Ice Cream Bunny may have helped hasten their demise) and were just a (not so) fond memory by the end of that decade. The entertainment value of this genre was marginal at best (I always enjoyed the cartoon padding more than the movies themselves) and in many cases probably drove jaded children away from theaters for years afterwards. For kids like me though, these Yule-tide gems only further advanced our love for cult cinema and nurtured an appreciation of Santa Claus as the great protector of humanity that he is.