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Santa Claus

Marquee poster for U.S. theatrical release of Santa Claus
Directed by René Cardona
K. Gordon Murray (English director, as Ken Smith)
Produced by Guillermo Calderón
Written by Adolfo Torres Portillo
René Cardona
Narrated by K. Gordon Murray
Starring José Elías Moreno
José Luis Aguirre
Armando Arriola
Cesáreo Quezadas
Music by Antonio Díaz Conde
Cinematography Raúl Martínez Solares
Editing by Jorge Bustos
Release date(s) 1959
Running time 97 minutes (original cut; 94 minutes on home video)
Country Mexico
Language Spanish
For the 1985 Alexander Salkind/Jeannot Szwarc film see Santa Claus: The Movie

Santa Claus is a 1959 live action motion picture depicting the adventures of Santa Claus in preparation for and during his annual Christmas rounds. While most commercial adaptations of the Santa Claus legend add a distinctive twist to the traditional story this film is unique in its depiction of a Santa who works from outer space doing battle with a demon sent to Earth by Lucifer to ruin Christmas—by killing Santa and "making all the children of the Earth do evil." Santa Claus was directed by René Cardona and written by Cardona and Adolfo Torres Portillo. The original film was produced in Mexico and features primarily Spanish dialog. A dubbed and slightly edited English-speaking version was produced for U.S. release in 1960 under the direction of K. Gordon Murray.

Contents

Background

In the late 1950s Santa Claus remained an unfamiliar figure in much of Mexico, where holiday gift-giving customs still focused on the Magi and their feast day, Epiphany (January 6). Even today, many discussions of Mexican Christmas customs make no mention of Santa Claus, instead focusing on such traditional holiday elements as posadas and piñatas. However, Santa has become more popular in recent decades, due in part to the efforts of urban merchants.[1]

Due, perhaps, to the lack of an established Santa figure in Mexican tradition at the time of production there are many elements of the film that differ dramatically from traditional portrayals of the Santa Claus/St. Nick/Father Christmas character familiar in the United States and some Western European cultures.

Plot

Santa Claus is set in the then-present day and contains references to Sputnik, launched in 1957. The film relies (perhaps excessively) on its heavy-handed narrator. The narration often describes on-screen action readily visible to the audience; it reiterates the moral implications of unequivocally "good" and "bad" behavior and gives explicit cues as to how the audience should react to particular circumstances.

The narrator places Santa’s castle, not at the North Pole, but “far out in space...just above the North Pole,” although its view of Earth would suggest an equatorial orbit and other plot details suggest a much greater distance. Santa is first seen decorating a nativity scene, a traditional feature of the Mexican holiday season. It is daytime on December 24. Santa excuses himself in order to supervise final preparations for his trip to Earth.

Countries and regions represented in Santa's Toyland are shown in green. The region that may be indicated by the indefinite label "The Orient" are shown in red. Notable absences include Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe, smaller nations of Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Southeast Asia (which may or may not be included under "The Orient"). "Russia" is taken to include those nations that are today former Soviet republics, and "England" is taken to represent "Great Britain".

Santa’s workshop, known as "Toyland," is staffed by representatives of the Earth’s children, rather than by elves. They are grouped by nation or region, and the camera visits each group in turn. While their comrades make toys some of the children dance and sing folk songs. They are accompanied by Santa, who is playing an organ in an empty room elsewhere in the castle. Perhaps surprisingly, few, if any, of the songs performed by the children are Christmas songs.

The camera cuts directly from Santa’s castle to the pit of Hell, where Lucifer instructs Pitch, his chief demon, to travel to Earth and turn the children of the world against Santa, or else he will make him eat chocolate ice cream. Pitch is often a comical, rather than a menacing figure, and the character relies heavily on slapstick and physical comedy. It is unclear whether or not Pitch's costume, based on a body suit that looks like long red underwear and ill-fitting prostheses, is meant to appear comical or is simply the result of budgetary limitations. Pitch generally cannot be seen or heard by mortals but can make himself known to them through their thoughts and dreams.

In a busy marketplace we encounter the children who will be the focus of Pitch’s efforts to “make Santa Claus angry”: Lupita, a poor but obedient girl; Billy, the son of wealthy and benignly negligent parents; and three unnamed brothers, described as "rude little boys." Pitch tempts Lupita to steal a doll from a vendor but she refuses. However, he succeeds in convincing the brothers to break a shop window. Santa’s child-workers alert him to these events. As he is unable to travel to Earth before nightfall on Christmas Eve he cannot intervene directly and instead uses the equipment in the Magic Observatory to watch Pitch and the children. One device, the Dreamscope, allows him to view Lupita’s dream, induced by Pitch, in which she is tormented by a troupe of life-sized dancing dolls who entice her to steal; once again, she refuses. He also listens as the three brothers plot to break into the rich boy's home and steal his presents. They then draft a letter to Santa, fraudulently claiming that they have been good. Santa is able to speak to them as a disembodied voice, and informs them that he can see and hear everything that they do.

As other children prepare their letters the post office is overwhelmed with mail to Santa. Harried postal workers dump piles of letters into a chute leading to an incinerator, but these are magically transported to the castle, where Santa sorts them into three categories: good, bad, and ‘stork’ (the latter being for letters requesting a baby sibling).

Ahead of his flight, Santa visits Merlin the Wizard. Merlin provides Santa with the Dreaming Powders and the Flower to Disappear. The former are used to induce sleep in those who stay awake to catch a glimpse of Santa, while the latter allows him to disappear and reappear at will. (As in many tellings of Santa's story it is preferred, if not imperative, that he operate unseen.) He then visits Vulcan (simply ‘Key Man’ or 'the Blacksmith' in the English dub), who provides him with a magic key that will open any door on Earth.

As Santa prepares to fly to Earth it is revealed that his reindeer are mechanical and must be wound with a key. He politely dismisses a suggestion from two Russian children to replace the mechainical reindeer with "sputniks."

On Earth, the three rude boys plot to capture and enslave Santa. Meanwhile, Lupita continues to wish for a doll. (Despite numerous assurances throughout the film that Santa brings presents to "all good children" he actually reinforces the economic status quo; he will deliver numerous presents to the wealthy Billy, while Lupita, despite her exemplary behavior, has never received a present from Santa.) Lupita and her mother say a prayer and Lupita tells that she has wished for two dolls, one of which she will give to Baby Jesus.

After his arrival, Santa has several close encounters with Pitch. Pitch moves a chimney in order to prevent Santa's entry into a house. Santa is nonetheless able to enter using his Magic Parasol. Pitch also sets a fire in a fireplace to prevent Santa's entry and turns a doorknob red hot so that Santa will burn his hand. Fortunately, Pitch’s booby traps backfire or fail to do harm to Santa.

When Santa arrives at Billy's home he finds that Billy's parents have left him alone and unsupervised in order to visit a swanky restaurant. Moved by his plight he allows Billy to see him (using the Powders That Will Make You Dream That You Are Awake) and speaks with him briefly before going in search of his parents. At the restaurant, Santa appears to them as a waiter (although only his gloved hand, holding a tray, is visible to the camera) and serves them the Cocktail of Remembrance, which causes them to think of what is most dear to them. Suddenly overcome with longing they hurry home to their son.

The three brothers are next seen on a city rooftop. With Pitch's subliminal assistance they are preparing to capture Santa and steal his toys. A device similar to a Roman candle shoots across the sky, trailing sparks. This is apparently meant to represent Santa's sleigh, as the boys then hurry inside to see what Santa has brought them. Finding only coal they begin to argue and fight. Having had little success toward his assigned goal, Pitch remarks that Lucifer will be pleased by the boys' fighting.

Pitch finds the sleigh unattended while Santa is delivering gifts. He attempts to steal the sleigh but the reindeer will not obey his commands. He does succeed in cutting a hole in the bag containing the dreaming powders, causing the bag to empty. In an unrelated incident, Santa unknowingly drops the Flower to Disappear. This combination of events leaves him vulnerable to future mischief.

Santa’s trip is nearly complete when he is chased by a vicious dog outside a large house in Mexico. Finding himself without the Powders or the Flower he climbs a tree to escape the dog. Pitch appears and proceeds to wake the household. He also phones the fire department to report a fire at that location, meaning that Santa will soon be seen by many people. In addition to these difficulties, dawn is near; sunlight will destroy the mechanical reindeer, leaving him stranded. (In such a situation Santa would starve, as castle residents eat foods made from soft clouds, which are not available on Earth.) Merlin assists with a last minute escape and Pitch appears to be soundly defeated after being doused with the spray from a fire hose.

Before returning to the castle Santa must make one final stop, leaving a beautiful doll for Lupita. His labors now completed, Santa steers the sleigh back to the castle, content in the knowledge that he has brought happiness to all of the Earth’s children. The narrator closes the film with two quotes from the New Testament: Blessed are they who believe, for they shall see God (a paraphrase of the Beatitudes, from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:8), and Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men (from the birth narrative of the Gospel of Luke, 2:14), and finally a wish for a Merry Christmas.

Production

Santa Claus was produced by Guillermo Calderón and filmed at Churubusco-Azteca Studio in Mexico. Its running time is reported as 94 minutes. This appears to be the running time of recent home video editions of the English dub. At least one brief scene was cut from the English edition, and further footage was removed from individual prints as they aged and suffered damage. The original film was approximately three minutes longer than that now seen in the United States. Santa Claus was filmed in Eastmancolor with a monaural soundtrack.

Cast and crew

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Production Crew

Director: René Cardona (1906-1988) directed nearly 150 films. Most, perhaps all, of these were originally filmed in Spanish, but a number were dubbed for English-speaking audiences, among them Night of the Bloody Apes, Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy, Sex Monster, and Man in the Golden Mask vs. the Invisible Assassin. He appeared in over one hundred films as an actor and had a number of miscellaneous film credits.

Producer: Guillermo Calderón produced over one hundred films from the 1940s through the 1990s, among them Blue Demon vs. Dracula and El Hombre Lobo; Frankenstein, the Vampire and Co.; The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, and Vengeance of the Crying Woman.

Screenwriters: Adolfo Torres Portillo (1920-1996) wrote over seventy-five Spanish-language films. While his titles include The Vampire Girls, and Pact with the Devil, he apparently wrote a number of "serious" films as well. He was also a producer, director, and actor. René Cardona, in addition to the accomplishments listed above, wrote over forty filmed scripts.

English Director: K. Gordon Murray (1922-1979), the "King of the Kiddie Matinee," made a career of dubbing Mexican and European B-grade fairy tale movies for American audiences. Towards the end of his life Murray ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, which seized his films and took them out of circulation. Before the case could be resolved, Murray died of a heart attack.

Other Crew:

Original Music: Antonio Díaz Conde
Cinematography: Raúl Martínez Solares
Film Editing: Jorge Bustos
Production Design: Francisco Marco Chillet
Costume Design: Bertha Mendoza López
Set Designer: Juan Fava
Sound Editor: Reynaldo P. Portillo
Assistant Editor: José Li-ho
Choreographer: Ricardo Luna
Camera Operator: Cirilo Rodríguez

Cast

Santa Claus: José Elías Moreno (1910-1969) starred in a number of Spanish-speaking fairy tale and wrestling movies, as well a number of other more “serious” films. He was the father of actors José Elías Moreno and Beatriz Moreno. He was killed in a car accident in Mexico City.

Pedro: Cesáreo Quezadas (credited as Pulgarcito) appeared in several films between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Pulgarcito translates roughly as Tom Thumb, a role he played several times. In spite of his limited experience (Santa Claus was only his fifth film) and the relative unimportance of his role, he received second billing in Santa Claus.

Pitch (Precio): José Luis Aguirre (AKA 'Trotsky') appeared in more than a film a year from 1945 through 1975. He was also a choreographer.

Merlin (El mago Merlín): Armando Arriola (c. 1905 – 1978) appeared in over 150 films between the early 1930s and late 1970s. He was sometimes credited as "Arriolita."

Lupita: Lupita Quezadas’s only film appearance was as the eponymous Lupita.

Billy (El Niño Rico): Antonio Díaz Conde hijo’s only film role was that of the lonely rich boy, Billy.

Vulcano (The Blacksmith): Ángel Di Stefani was born in Italy and worked as a stunt man in Mexican films. He is perhaps best known for playing Popoca, the Aztec mummy, in three films: Attack of the Aztec Mummy, The Curse of the Aztec Mummy, and Aztec Mummy vs. the Human Robot.

Narrator (English dubbed version): K. Gordon Murray (billed as Ken Smith)

Other Cast:

Nora Veryán
Polo Ortín
Manuel Calvo
José Carlos Méndez - Niño
Jesús Brook - Niño
Rubén Ramírez - Niño
Queta Lavat
Guillermo Bravo Sosa
Graciela Lara
Rosa María Aguilar
Pablo Ferrel
Juan Antonio Edwards

The English version of Santa Claus features only limited production credits and no cast information.[2][3]

Critical reception

Santa Claus was considered to be a financial success over several holiday-season theatrical releases in the 1960s and 1970s. Broadcast of the film also became a holiday tradition at several U.S. television stations. The film garnered at least one award, winning the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959.

In more recent years the film has developed a cult following. As is often the case with such films its status is not based on perceptions of artistic merit but rather on an ironic appreciation of its perceived shortcomings. (In other words, it’s so bad it’s good.) The film contains numerous bizarre or perplexing moments (for instance, in Toyland, presumably located inside Santa's extraterrestrial castle, snow is falling; Lupita's father chooses the predawn hours of Christmas morning to go job-hunting; Santa's sleigh, essentially a space vehicle, cannot be exposed to sunlight). Its dramatic departure from established Santa Claus legend, combined with B-movie production standards and an awkward dub provide ample source for satire. In fact, the film was featured in the 5th season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. MST3K’s send-up first aired on Christmas Eve, 1993. The devil Pitch became a recurring character on MST3K, played by Paul Chaplin.

Internet reviews of Santa Claus frequently describe the film, in whole or in part, as “creepy.” Santa’s traditional ability to “see you when you’re sleeping” has long provoked uneasiness in some. Santa Claus gives considerable attention to Santa’s surveillance of children, and his ability to see into their dreams may be particularly unnerving. Moreno’s portrayal of Santa Claus heightens this perception, however inadvertently, as he sometimes appears to be leering at the children or inappropriately excited by the prospect of watching them unseen. The origin of Santa’s child work force is never addressed. Several surreal dream sequences, the depiction of Santa as a bartender dispensing caustic, foaming cocktails, the movement and laughter of the mechanical reindeer, and a scene set in Hell further add to the possible perception of the film as “creepy.”

As of January 30, 2008 Santa Claus ranks 42nd on the Internet Movie Database list of the 100 worst films ever made, based on voting by the site's users.

VHS and DVD

Santa Claus was released on VHS by GoodTimes Home Video in 1992.

The film was released on Region 1 DVD on November 1, 2004 by Westlake Entertainment Group.

The running time of each version is 94 minutes. The home video releases were transferred from theatrical prints of the film. These prints had suffered damage from age and routine use; as a result the home video releases contain several awkward splices and the color reproduction is poor.

Copies of the original Spanish-speaking version of the film are sometimes available through online auction sites, particularly around Christmastime.

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the film will be released on December 1, 2009 as part of the MST3K Volume XVI DVD set. The set will also feature extras including "Santa Claus Conquers the Devil: A 50-Year Retrospective", an original radio spot, a still gallery, and a teaser for “Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray in Colorscope”.

References

  1. ^ Christmas in Mexico http://www.cvc.org/christmas/mexico.htm accessed 7 April 2007.
  2. ^ The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray
  3. ^ Santa Claus at Internet Movie Database

External links


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