Santa Claus is a 1959 American live-action motion picture, directed by René Cardona and written by Cardona and Adolfo Torres Portillo. The original film was produced in Mexico and featured 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, and was annually rereleased for a number of years, it may be considered the only film in U.S. history (with the possible exception of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) to be released profitably in theaters every few years for three decades.
In the late 1950s, Santa 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.
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.
The film is set in the then-present day and contains references to Sputnik, launched in 1957. It 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.
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.
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.
The film was produced by Guillermo Calderón and filmed at Churubusco-Azteca Studio in Mexico. 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.
- Since this film is now in the public domain, it can be widely found at stores that sell bargain movies, such as Dollar Tree and Big Lots.
- The popular television series Mystery Science Theatre 3000 riffed on this movie in Episode 521, which originally aired on Comedy Central on December 24, 1993. The episode can be seen in Volume XVI of the MST3K Collection.
- How “Santa Claus Vs. The Devil” Came To America, by Michael Edward Miller (WUTC 88.1 FM; Chattanooga, Tennessee)
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