A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)

I'll warn you upfront this falls in a sort of awkward space between "conceptually good" and "actually good," at least by today's standards. The fact I'm comparing a movie 116 years old to anything remotely modern should be an indication there's something pretty neat about this, so if you've got 14 minutes to kill and don't want to be spoiled, go look this up on Youtube: it's not hard to find. And make no mistake, there's absolutely something in this to spoil.

Let's get into what this is, because I doubt it's what you're expecting from the title. Or more accurately, it starts like what you're expecting then goes in a wildly different direction about halfway through.

The first half is a bit slow. We're introduced to the characters: a kind little rich boy with tons of toys, and a poor girl who lives in a small shack. While on a walk, the boy comes across the girl, who's standing in the cold. He gives her his coat and brings her home, where he shows her his possessions. Here, while looking through a book about Santa, he discovers she doesn't believe. Eventually, she returns home.

I should note all this is communicated visually: there are no title cards, aside from the introduction. The film is shot in a mix of exterior locations and interior sets, and - for its time - it looks good.

On Christmas Eve, the boy falls asleep, but he wakes after being troubled by dreams of the little girl in her tiny home. He sneaks downstairs and hides. Eventually, Santa Claus shows up and begins decorating the boy's house and laying out gifts.

The boy then sneaks out, ties Santa up, and seemingly holds him at gunpoint. Okay, I should note it's not at all clear to me whether he actually has a gun or not - the version I'm watching isn't the best quality - but the implication is he's captured Santa. At first, Saint Nick tries to bribe the kid with gifts, but the boy shakes his head and brings him to the home of the little girl. He breaks in and forces Santa to decorate her home and leave her presents.

They leave, and the girl wakes up, overjoyed to see she's received a proper Christmas. At the end, we see Santa carrying the boy, now asleep, back to his bed, so I guess there are no hard feelings.

Like I said, conceptually this is great. The idea of using Santa as a symbol for unfair wealth distribution is wonderful. Also, given how fixated so many modern Christmas films are on compelled belief, it's wonderful to see an old film where not believing is neither presented as a moral failing or deserving of punishment. And I love that there's nothing in the conventional first half that reveals this is going to go in a subversive direction.

All that said, the experience of watching is a bit less impactful than you'd hope. While the concept is great, the style feels underdeveloped. That shouldn't be surprising - again, this was made in the early days of film - but it does mean the pace and tone don't use the concept to its maximum effect. Everything plays out somewhat naturally, one event after the next, without the benefit of techniques that could have played up the comedy or absurdity of the story. I was left impressed this was made but not particularly invested in what I was seeing.

This uses several visual effects common to the era, including having the dream imposed on the film above the boy, as well as several hidden cuts for Santa's magic. These are well enough executed for the time, though neither new nor exceptional.

I love that this exists, but this is definitely something to be admired more than enjoyed.