Forgotten Films: SANTA CLAUS (1960)
Kenneth Gordon Murray may not have created the Kiddie Matinee but he is certainly one of the foremost pioneers of the format. The flagship of his Childhood Productions distribution company was a 1959 Mexican holiday film, Santa Claus. K. Gordon Murray first released this Technicolor treat to American movie audiences in 1960 and would continue to haunt theaters at holiday time for the next fourteen years, using the exact same prints!
Directed by South of the Border legend, Rene Cardona, this “modern” Kris Kringle was not your parent’s Santa Claus. In a bizarre amalgamation of folklore and Christian imagery, this Santa lives high in the clouds in a huge castle. Gone are the elves to make the toys but in their place (in a move that would later be copied by Cathy Lee Gifford among others) are child laborers from every land. The reindeer have also been replaced by clockwork duplicates that are more than a little creepy looking with their half exposed mechanisms. Santa has also enlisted the help of Merlin the Magician to keep him supplied with magic items to assist in his travels. In his upgraded arsenal, Santa now wields a key that can open any door, a flower that allows him to fly, and magic dust to knock out uncooperative children! This Santa makes one other significant deviation from tradition; he has an arch enemy that is none other than Satan!
Apparently Satan is none to thrilled that Santa brings joy and happiness to children all over the world. He decides to send one of his demons, Pitch (who looks like he hopped right out of a drawing of Dante’s Inferno), to prevent Santa from making his rounds. Pitch is warned that if he fails he will be forced to eat chocolate ice cream (since everyone knows demons hate cold)! What follows is a completely surreal battle between the forces of good and evil, where logic is thrown out the window and the souls of children and a sleigh fill of toys are at stake!
While definitely aimed at children, this depiction of Santa Claus is filled with one bizarre image after another. Santa lives in a sterile white palace and spies on kids with a weird device that combines a computer and a telescope with a speaking clown face (The Master Eye and Tele-Talker). Once on Earth, Satan’s little helper sets about tempting children to get them on the naughty list so they’ll miss out on Christmas. When Pitch convinces one group of junior thugs to throw a rock at a department store mannequin dressed as Santa, the rock hits the real Santa all the way up in the clouds.
The main conflict between Satan and Santa is a young girl named Lupita. It seems her parents are so poor they can’t afford to buy her a doll for Christmas (apparently this financial hardship did not occur to them when they recently decided to have Lupita’s baby brother). Pitch tries repeatedly to tempt the poor girl to steal, despair, and generally lose faith in Christmas while he’s also wrecking havoc on Santa’s holiday rounds.
Pitch’s mischief ranges from moving chimneys to heating up doorknobs and lighting fireplaces while Santa is on his way into homes. Santa seems to always get the upper hand though and in one scene, that would have parents today calling every consumer protection group in the country, Pitch gets stabbed in the posterior by a sharp missile fired from a child’s toy cannon (boy I sure wanted one of those as a kid!). His final prank lands Santa in a tree and out of magic gimmicks while being chased by a vicious dog, the police, the fire department, and an irate homeowner with a gun!
In the days before electronic babysitters like video players and computer games, holiday matinees like this were Godsends to harried parents who still needed to shop for Christmas. Once paired with a dozen or so cartoons and a few Christmas themed short subjects (some produced by Murray himself), Santa Claus could easily be padded out into a three hour Yule tide orgy that kept the kiddies busy for a whole afternoon year after year.
Murrayre-released Santa Claus at least five times between 1960 and it’s last confirmed appearance in 1974. Depending on how carefully the print copies were monitored though, unscrupulous theater managers could have multiplied these showings many times over. Each year the advertising campaign was updated and modified just enough to convince unobservant parents and slower children that this was, in fact, a new film.
I saw this film at least twice as a young child and while I am sure most of the occult and supernatural references were lost on me, the devil was still a pretty frightening character. When I was recently reunited with it through the bargain DVD bin at K-Mart (a holiday steal at only $1.99!), I realized just what a weird and unique piece of pop culture treasure this is. With the current social climate of trying to make Christmas a more generic or blended holiday, the notion of Santa Claus as an almost omnipotent being overshadowing the religious undertones seems strangely appropriate if not inevitable.
A very merry Christmas and a happy new year to everyone. May the holidays bring you peace and joy but keep your Marx Big Bertha Howitzer loaded with needle sharp rockets just in case Satan tries to crash your Christmas party! –ED Tucker