Enjoy a vintage Christmas at the movies!
In this week's Times Past column, Jonathan Smyth looks at some vintage Christmas movies...
Like the hour hand on the midnight clock, Christmas has again come around, and the turkey, plum pudding and presents are looked forward to with relish as children are filled with expectation and wonder. Santa Claus has finally read and marked off all the items on the lists he has received and it’s time to take the sleigh out for a spin. With Santa being so busy, it is no wonder that film studios have had to request actors with a resemblance to the big man to portray him on the silver screen and, in this week’s Christmas special, I take a look at the history of Christmas on early celluloid.
The first Christmas film was a short silent picture simply called ‘Santa Claus’ and was directed by a former hypnotist and psychic named George Albert Smith who, according to reelrundown.com, had ‘pioneered’ film editing and the art of using ‘the close-up’. The mesmerist Smith was to make six movies, all spooky in tone, featuring ghosts, demons, fairies, the devil and telepathic communication. But, only his Santa Claus movie survives. When Santa has filled the hung-up stockings, he vanishes as the children awaken.
In 1907, Lubin Films said of Smith’s production: ‘In this picture you see Santa Claus enter the room from the fireplace and proceed to trim the tree. He then fills the stockings that were previously hung on the mantle by the children. After walking backward and surveying his work, he suddenly darts at the fireplace and disappears up the chimney. This film surprises everyone, and leaves them to wonder how old Kris disappears.’
In 1900, ‘The Christmas Dream’ by French director Georges Méliès is a supernatural film of sorts where the children hang-up their stockings before going to sleep, and that night the sky becomes inhabited with angels delivering gifts, dropping them into each chimney. The film came under the genre known as ‘féerie’, with fantasy storylines, visual extravaganza, and mechanically operated stage effects. The children awaken and to discover their presents and, as the film concludes, it changes scene to a group sitting down to eat when a beggar turns up at the door, but in accordance with the spirit of the season he receives a welcome invitation to sit at the Christmas table.
A year later, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens was committed for the first time to film as a six-minute film, of which only three minutes have survived. The short was named ‘Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost’ and was based on a stage version of the story by J.C. Buckstone, which was directed by Walter R. Booth, a magician who specialised in ‘trick films’ in which special effects were pioneered including Scrooge’s face appearing on a door and a flashback scene recalling Scrooge’s childhood. These innovations were key to what we term today as the ‘magic’ of the movies and it is no surprise that some of the early filmmakers were themselves experienced magicians.
In 1905, a film based on Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘The Night before Christmas’ was directed by Edwin S. Porter with lines from the poem interspersed throughout the eight minutes and forty seconds production. The film is a charming silent adaptation with scenes depicting Santa feeding reindeer with hay, and making toys. At one stage, we see children getting out of bed and have a pillow fight as a maid tries to round them up and get them back into bed (a scene not present in the original poem). Then later Santa crosses beautiful snow-covered hills by sleigh followed by shots of him descending a chimney dropping off presents and, with magical powers, he decorates a sitting room for a happy family who come down the stairs that morning. The final scene goes to Santa who from afar cheerfully watches the happiness he has created. The film was distributed by the Edison company.
In 1907, a seventeen-and-a-half-minute flick titled ‘A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus’ was released that told the story of a friendship between a rich boy and a poor girl. The boy sees a girl shivering in the snow because she has no coat, so he lends her his to keep warm and then brings her for a ride on his sled before inviting her back to his family’s elegant mansion. During their playtime together, he finds out that she doesn’t believe in Santa because she says he never came to visit her.
In a subversive move, the boy waits up through the night having armed himself with a gun and a rope. He then corners the big man coming down the chimney, ties him up at gunpoint and demands that he visit the little girl. Agreeing to do so, he is released and before leaving tucks the boy into bed. On the morning after, the girl finds a Christmas tree and presents, which Santa delivered after his less than cordial ordeal at the hands of the boy.
The first Christmas films ever made can be watched on:
Happy Christmas to all!
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