Five Dark and Odd Christmas Shows

Christmas is usually associated with brightness:  the North Star over Bethlehem, the lights on a Christmas tree, the whiteness of snow, the silver of tinsel. Fairy tales, on the other hand, are notoriously dark, with their stories about lost children, and the wolves, witches, ogres, giants, and trolls out to get them — unconscious maps of the anxieties that lie just underneath every human psyche. In any good yarn, the characters need to get into trouble. For the most part, the best Christmas stories walk a fine balance between the treacly and the treacherous: the Abominable Snowman, the Winter Warlock, the Mayor of Sombertown, the Grinch, and that evil magician who harasses Frosty for his top hat are all fine villains, yet all are redeemed and transformed by the Christmas spirit.

The psychologies of some people who make Christmas movies and television specials however are apparently so badly wired or damaged that they unconsciously produce nightmarish effects far beyond the normally accepted bounds of the genre. Those are the shows I like to watch again and again and again and again and again.

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1. Babes in Toyland a.k.a. March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)

I’d never heard of this film until they began to show it on cable television in the 1980s. It rapidly became my favorite holiday film, for it is every bit as bizarre and dark as it is charming and festive.

For some reason Hal Roach liked to experiment with starring Laurel and Hardy in operas and operettas (he’d done the same with The Bohemian Girl and Fra Diavolo). Here of course, the team adapted the popular 1903 show by Victor Herbert. Much is changed from the stage version however. The film is set in a land populated by all the characters from nursery rhymes and other children’s literature (Stan and Babe are versions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, two toymakers who live in the Old Woman’s Shoe). The thing is very stage bound — they seem to have built two sets (the storybook village, and the hellish land of the bogeymen) on a couple of sound stages and shot the whole thing in a heartbeat.

Much more enjoyable than the conventional plot about young lovers and a rapacious landlord/suitor are the film’s memorable details: a guy in a cat costume and a live monkey inexplicably dressed as Mickey Mouse:

three midgets or children costumed as the Three Little Pigs;

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the army of hairy little bogeymen;

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And then there’s the scene where Oliver Hardy, nabbed for burglary, is made to receive a medieval dunking punishment while Old King Cole laughs merrily at the spectacle. My favorite line is “Oh, help! I’m smothering!”

This clip is colorized I’m afraid:

 The whole thing is both sweet and unsettling and I can never get enough of it. You can watch it in its entirety right here:

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2. Santa Claus (1959)

Oh the mighty power of the internet! This has to have been one of the first movies I ever saw. Three years old? Four? It can’t have been much later than that or the memory wouldn’t be this fuzzy, and truthfully I don’t remember whether I saw it in an auditorium or whether I watched it on tv at a relative’s house, but I do remember some special effort was made and that it felt like a special event of some sort, and that I fell asleep for at least part of it. While the film was made in Mexico, no note of that was taken of that at the time. It was just presented as a nice movie about Santa Claus. The film was over a decade old at that point.

A few weeks ago it crashed back on to my radar as people began sharing clips of it on the internet. I watched it the other night, and the memory of having seen it as a small child came flooding back. It is a bizarre film; no two ways about. Santa and one “Pitch”, a devil, battle for the souls of several Mexican children on Christmas eve. On Santa’s side are Merlin the Magician, and delegations of children from all over the world. The first 20 minutes of the film are eaten up by a concert featuring songs from each nation. It gets quite preposterous after a while, and I must say the delegates from the U.S.A. make a pretty poor showing indeed.

At any rate, this is the NEW classic around my house…I’ll need to watch it many more dozens of times until I get it out of my system:

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3. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

I have undoubtedly watched this one more than any other on this list. I first encountered it on those lists critics and pundits make of “the worst movies of all time”. In the 80′s I finally got to see it, first on cable, and then I got the VHS, and watched it and watched it and watched it. I even wrote a play based on it. Then, when my kids were born, we watched it and watched it and watched it again. And the children turned out surprisingly normal.

Back in the day, people used to laugh at the kind of “cheap production values” evinced by this kind of movie. From where I sit, on the contrary — it’s more like an example of the kind of magic you can make on a shoestring. Everything you need to know is in the title. The leaders of Mars are concerned about the growing apathy and depression of their children (one of whom is a very young Pia Zadora). To bring them joy, they kidnap Santa Claus, and (by accident) two stowaway earth children. Some of the Martians are good, some are evil. The evil ones are dispatched by an army of Santa’s wind-up toys, in a scene that is truly a triumph of early psychedelia. I find the colors in this movie beautiful to look at.

And furthermore, there is no more perfect film to watch on a double bill with Santa Claus:

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4. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

This popular Rankin-Bass show premiered when I was nine years old, and I can’t tell you the unspeakable excitement with which we elementary schoolers greeted the event. All the previous Rankin-Bass specials had premiered before our time (Rudolph in ’64, Drummer Boy in ’68, Frosty in ’69, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town in ’70). And while we gave this new one high marks (especially the Heat and Snow Miser songs), something was different. In modern parlance, it seems to me that with this special, the series jumped the shark.

How many holiday angles can you hit? Eventually you have to go downbeat. “What if, one year, there was no Christmas?” Though this show was based on a book written in 1956, it certainly feels very much in tune with the spirit of 1974, with its soaring divorce rates and cynicism. It was perhaps inevitable that given the tenor of the times, we would be given a Santa who is clinically depressed, who is having some kind of nervous breakdown or identity crisis. ” I don’t know, maw, ” he mutters, “There just doesn’t seem to be any reason to bother any more.”

My favorite part (and the Duchess’s, too) is during the show’s closing number, when Santa shouts to the heavens: “I dreamed unpleasant things!”

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5. It Nearly Wasn’t Christmas (1989)

I lied when I said I watched all of these shows over and over. I’ve only watched this one two or three times, and it was at least three times too much. My substitute name for this made-for-tv holiday movie is “The Worst Christmas Special Ever”. Some may take umbrage (given entries number two and three above), but I stand by it. Those movies at least have entertainment value, they provide a spectacle and entertainment, however bizarre. That sort of thing is never “bad” in my eyes, although that’s the word people often resort to. Much worse than that in my eyes is bland mediocrity. The only true sin in cinema is to be boring.

This one has almost the identical plot to The Year Without a Santa Claus. Charles Durning’s Santa is so depressed he does everything but drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes. “I don’t know why I’m knockin’ myself out,” he sighs, as though Santa were some under-paid, under-appreciated civil servant. Fortunately (or unfortunately) he is accosted by a very disturbing, over-sized, apparently retarded elf who tries to stir him back into action. The day will be saved by none other than Wayne Osmond (not even Donny or Jimmy), who plays piano at the mall, and his wide-eyed little girl. Wayne Osmond, as you have already surmised, is not a towering paragon of thespianism:

To find out more about show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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