Laurel and Hardy, in the sweet but unsettling “Babes in Toyland.” HAL ROACH STUDIOS
BY TRAV S.D. (travsd.wordpress.com) | 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.
Essential viewings balance the treacly and the treacherous
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.
“BABES IN TOYLAND” a.k.a. “MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS” (1934)
I’d never heard of this movie 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 Broadway 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 Ollie are versions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, two toymakers who live in the Old Woman’s Shoe).
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; little people (or children?) costumed as the Three Little Pigs; the army of hairy little bogeymen — 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!” The whole thing is both sweet and unsettling and I can never get enough of it.
Bizarre: Santa battles a devil. CINEMATOGRÁFICA CALDERÓN
“SANTA CLAUS” (1959)
This is a bizarre film, no two ways about it. In this Mexican-made Christmas story, Santa and one “Pitch,” a devil, battle for the souls of several children on Christmas Eve. On Santa’s side are Merlin the Magician and contingents of child labor 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 USA make a pretty poor showing indeed. Don’t forget to keep an eye peeled for the “Dance of the Giant Dolls” nightmare. 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.
This 1964 cheapo has shoestring magic — and Pia Zadora! EMBASSY PICTURES CORPORATION
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)
Back in the day, people used to laugh at the kind of “cheap production values” evinced by movies like this. On the contrary. From where I sit, 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. There is no more perfect film to watch on a double bill with “Santa Claus.”
Snow Miser’s the real star of 1974’s “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” RANKIN/BASS
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 fourth graders greeted the event. All the previous Rankin/Bass specials had premiered before our time (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed” in 1964, “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1968, “Frosty the Snow Man” in 1969, and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in 1970). 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 is during the show’s closing number, when Santa shouts to the heavens: “I dreamed unpleasant things!”
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), 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 elf creature 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 daughter. Wayne Osmond, as you have already surmised, is not a towering paragon of thespianism. One only hopes that Santa will leave a coupon for acting lessons in his stocking!
Trav S.D. has been producing the American Vaudeville Theatre since 1995, and periodically trots it out in new incarnations. Stay in the loop at travsd.wordpress.com, and also catch up with him at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al. His books include “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous” and “Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube.”