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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Santa Claus Movies (originally published 12/97)

Aside from Baby Jesus himself, no other figure is more universally associated with Christmas than Santa Claus. The merchants, among others, make certain of that. You can hardly navigate your way through a mall in December without bumping into one of the old boy's many surrogates.

That being the case, it's rather interesting that there are comparatively few Christmas movies in which Santa himself plays a significant role. I suspect that's because the same qualities that make him ideal as an icon make him problematic as a dramatic character. An eternally benevolent figure whose charity and devotion to children remains unchanged down through the ages makes for an admirable symbol, but in the arena of drama, where conflict and change are of the essence, such a character can be an absolute liability. Consequently, any filmmaker who wishes to build a movie around Santa Claus has set set himself a particularly difficult challenge. Even so, a hardy few have sought to rise to that challenge. For a representative sampling of their efforts, look for these titles on video.

"Santa Claus" (1985). After three Superman films, producer Ilya Salkind and screenwriter David Newman were ready for a change of pace. Taking on the forbidding task of spending $50 million to create the definitive Santa Claus movie, the approach they came up with was to portray Santa essentially as a superhero. Just as they had taken the time to show us how Kal-El of Krypton became Earth's Superman, this film uses its opening scenes to show us how a kindly toymaker and his wife magically became the beloved Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Just as Superman had supervillains to struggle against, so does Santa Claus. His nemesis is an evil toy manufacturer, played by John Lithgow, who wants to promote a second Christmas day in March. This new holiday, Christmas II, will have no spiritual significance whatsoever; it will exist purely to line the pockets of the toy industry. David Huddleston stars as the Super-Claus.

"The Night They Saved Christmas" (1984). Actually, the approach pursued by Salkind and Newman had already been tried on a much smaller scale in this relatively modest TV movie. Here Santa Claus, played by Art Carney, is called upon to rescue his workshop from an oil company whose drilling practices near the North Pole threaten to wipe out the whole enterprise. He is assisted, ironically enough, by the wife and children of the geological engineer who is in charge of the drilling. Carney is a wonderfully eccentric Santa. If he seems comfortable in the role, perhaps it is because he donned the red suit once before in a classic "Twilight Zone" episode called "Night of the Meek" (1960). It too is available on video, and is well worth seeking out.

"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (1970). For my money, one of the best of the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas shows for television, and one of the better Santa Claus movies, is this charming little hour-long confection. Like Salkind and Newman's film, it concentrates on the story of Santa's origin, but without all the supervillain business. All that young Kris Kringle has to contend with is a forbidding Winter Warlock who turns out to be a softy after all and a grumpy mayor who doesn't like toys. The cast includes Mickey Rooney as the voice of Kris and Fred Astaire as the narrator.

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). Fifty years after its release, writer-director George Seaton's classic Santa Claus movie remains the best of them all. Edmund Gwenn gives a performance for the ages as Kris Kringle, a charming old fellow who claims to be Santa Claus. Hard-hearted Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) and her very practical daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) are skeptical at first, but by the end of the movie they've become believers. And so will you.

For reasons I can't begin to fathom, "Miracle on 34th Street" has been remade not once but twice, once for television and once for theatrical release. I happen to think they got it right the first time. Do yourself a favor and just look for the original. And for mercy's sake stay away from that wretched computer-colored version of the 1947 release, or you just might find a lump of coal in your stocking.

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