This post originally appeared as part of the “12 Days of Shitmas” on Shit Movie Fest. I was happy to be included as a contributor!
In prosperous post-war America, the once-humble European Christmas holiday became a commercially profitable empire. Social norms valued Christianity within a nuclear family structure, meaning that more Americans were now celebrating Christmas while living more comfortable lives in larger homes. With the accessibility of the automobile, families that once occupied small apartments in the city began spreading out to larger suburban
homes to settle down with a few kids and a rumpus room! Dad might now commute further for better opportunity and the resulting financial boom (along with husbands returning home from the war) led to the American baby boom. Children’s entertainment grew to meet the needs of this new generation of bored kids stuck home all day with mom.
The television became the focal point of the room, with the Christmas tree setup nearby all December. Regional TV hosts became a kid’s best friend and created daily or weekly original content for young viewers.
Many of these regional shows and films were sadly lost to time.
It was around this same time that some of the most beloved and timeless family specials began their annual runs on television; Rankin Bass produced Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special first aired in 1965, and we met Dr. Seuss’s most famous villain-turned-good-guy in 1966. By 1970 Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town and Frosty the Snowman were already poised to become new holiday favorites.
However, before we had the classics, we had the little guys; those schlocky producers trying to capture a little bit of that Christmas magic on film (and hopefully earn a quick buck in the process!). Regional filmmakers turned to wholesome subject material to capitalize on the “Kiddie Matinee” trend of the 1950’s and 60’s. On weekend mornings it was not uncommon to drop unsupervised children off at the theater for a few hours to watch a series of cartoons, fairy tale pictures, and Santa Claus movies. This style of quick & dirty entertainment rarely stood the test of time, typically eliciting laughs from most modern audiences. Cheap puppets, amateur acting, and homemade sets were easily overlooked by kids as long as they were presented by a clown, cowboy, or princess. Many of the surviving films are all but forgotten by even the most discerning cult film fans, but their undeniable charm keeps them in my heart (and on my TV) year after year!
Santa in Animal Land (1949)
In 1949, documentary filmmaker (and friend of Alfred Hitchcock) Stefan Sharff decided to try his hand at producing a children’s short and the resulting product can only be described as…well, creepy! This 9 minute puppet film has become something of a rite of passage in my home at Christmas. If you visit me in December, prepare to be subjected to this one! A group of surly animal roommates bemoan the fact they never get any presents from Santa, so they send Annie the Bird and Kitty Cat (obviously chosen because she’s “so smart and sooo beautiful”) out to ask him why. Meanwhile, Felix the Frog and Horace the Dog stay home staring out the window worrying while the women search for the jolly old elf. Cranky puppets snap lines like “Outta My Way, Bird!” and “Don’t rush me, don’t push me!” at one other with raspy voice acting reminiscent of a John Waters movie. Once Kitty Cat finds the big guy (who incidentally wears more eyeliner than Jack Sparrow and Billie Joe Armstrong combined) he gives her a Santa coat and dubs her “Official Santa Claus For Animals Always!” -Further proof that Santa still doesn’t give a crap about about Animal Land Puppets.
Suzy Snowflake (1953)
What is George Clooney’s connection to Christmas Kitch? Easy! Suzy Snowflake! His aunt, hammy recording artist Rosemary Clooney, recorded “Suzy Snowflake” in 1951. Two years later, Centaur Productions filmed a stop-motion animated short based on the popular song. The short uses sculptures by famous designer Wah Ming Chang, best known for his work on Star Trek, including famous monsters like the Gorn and even the design of the iconic communicator. Chang also worked on sculpture and character design for Walt Disney, Land of the Lost, The Outer Limits, and Planet of the Apes, so it’s no surprise that his early creations have been firmly embedded in the memories of generations of kids from Chicago and Western PA. According to the Chicago Museum of Television, the Suzy Snowflake short originally aired in December 1953 on “Garfield Goose and Friends” (then on WBBM, before it moved to WGN). This version doesn’t include Rosemary Clooney’s over-the-top rendition, but instead is scored by an unknown group of female singers. Growing up in Western PA, I knew Christmas had arrived because this spot would run constantly on WJAC Johnstown between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day every time the news ran a few minutes short. Suzy is personified as a graceful ballerina wearing an ice-white taffeta dress with a wand she uses to create snowflakes. She glides and drifts through town tapping on window panes and stopping to play with snowmen. As a small girl living in a snowy Pennsylvania winterscape, nothing was more magical.
The Three Little Dwarfs (Hardrock, Coco, and Joe) (1956)
In 1956, likely capitalizing on the popularity of Suzy Snowflake, Centaur pictures released a second stop motion animated film for “Garfield Goose and Friends” out of Chicago, utilizing the same formula and animating a holiday children’s song (wisely calling upon Wah Ming Chang for his character design and animation again). The song was composed and sung by Stuart Hamblen, the first “singing cowboy” of early American Radio. A radio man turned musician, Hamblin had several charting hits, but is probably best remembered by pop culture fans for his song “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In) which was famously covered in 1965 (10 years after its initial release) by Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm on the Flintstones. Where Suzy was a delicate, gliding, feminine figure; Hardrock, Coco, and Joe are silly, clumsy dwarfs with deep tenor voices played up for comedy; “I’m JOOOOOE!” bellows the smallest of the three. Something new viewers tend to notice about this film is that Santa Claus appears to be Asian. I’ve read that this is because Chang modeled the sculpt of Old Saint Nick after himself, truly giving it an artist’s personal touch! I should warn you, after watching this one you might be singing it for the rest of your life.
K Gordon Murray’s Christmas Shorts (1964-1966)
Santa Claus and His Helpers(1964)
Santa’s Enchanted Village (1964)
Santa’s Magic Kingdom (1966)
Well known to seasoned fans of weirdo cinema, the 1959 Mexploitation film Santa Claus is an unforgettable experience. Originally directed by Rene Cordona, the US version of the film was re-dubbed by producer K. Gordon Murray. In it, Santa is portrayed as more of a creepy voyeur than benevolent giver of gifts. Among his high-tech tools are a giant telescope, huge ear lobe, and a massive set of creepy pulsating lips referred to as the “TeleTalker”, all of them for watching your every move! The plot is beyond bizarre with Santa (who lives in Heaven with groups of children, represented as cultural stereotypes from around the world) facing off against Pitch, (the Devil’s henchman clad in red greasepaint and red short shorts) in a battle for one little girl’s soul. Santa is assisted in this fight by none other than Merlin the Magician (sure, why not?). This weird example of kiddie matinee trash is not soon scrubbed from the viewer’s mind.
It comes as no surprise then that a few years later Murray saw a second opportunity to cash in on this film by editing its scenes into three new short films and interspersing them alongside footage of his own original characters at a chain of Santa Claus themed amusement parks (why build a set when you can borrow a park’s backdrop and its employees for the day?). Stinky the Skunk, Duke the Dog, Puss in Boots, and The Big Bad Wolf all show up (since he already had the costumes for them from his earlier films!) Many of these plots center on the repetitive arguments between the characters, some holding enormous threatening hunting rifles in their scenes and complaining of their ulcer pain! Add a healthy dose of jokes about how much poor, abused Stinky the Skunk REALLY, REALLY STINKS, throw in a singing princess for good measure, and you’ve got yourself a truly painful viewing experience. Starring alongside the usual cast of K. Gordon Murray favorites are actual employees of Santa’s Village amusement parks, whose acting chops are not good enough to prevent them from smiling directly into the camera wearing”what exactly am I supposed to be doing” expressions. In one seemingly endless scene from Santa Claus and His Helpers, a park employee attempts to put a head on a doll, but it keeps popping off. Rather than spare the audience by doing another take or editing this scene out, Murray uses every excruciating second of it-TWICE (Hey, film stock is expensive, and we are only shooting for one day!). This agonizing scene is unbelievably re-used later in Santa’s Enchanted Village. These short films are truly among the weirdest of the weird and are a must-see if you are already a fan of Santa Claus and this infamous schlockmeister!
Santa Claus and his Helpers:
Santa’s Magic Kingdom (in 2 Parts)
Santa’s Enchanted Village (in 2 Parts)
Every year I force friends and family to squirm through these films with me, and I hope some of these become holiday classics in your home. Here’s hoping that you’ll share the joy and discomfort of these wonderful forgotten kiddie classics with your loved ones this year!
Happy Holidays from Enchanted Kiddieland!