The Night Before Christmas (1905)

As the title suggests, this is a loose adaptation of Clement Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas (i.e.: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas), with title cards using excerpts from the poem.

It starts with a brief look at Santa feeding a herd of reindeer before heading into his workshop to build toys. The sequence with the deer is fine, with the caveat that it's literally just a guy with a beard shoveling hay for a bunch of animals. The toy construction is well handled - he seems to be using real tools, and the workshop (while simple) feels lived in.

We then cut to a living room where a family is hanging stockings on Christmas Eve (cue relevant passage from the poem). The set is well constructed, though you can absolutely tell it's not a real location, even if you overlook the fact the front edge of the stage it's built on is visible at times.

Next, we get to the best gag in the movie. The title card quotes the passage about children being asleep in their beds; instead, we're shown an extended sequence of them running amok and fighting with pillows. The kids here are little monsters, and it's delightful seeing them contrasted with Moore's loving depiction of innocence.

Next we cut back to Santa Claus, now checking his list and crossing off a presumably bad kid's name. I've seen this idea in at least one other silent movie. I'm not sure when the use of a separate "naughty" list became the universal standard: I actually prefer this, assuming the naughty/nice dichotomy is being used at all (I've always found it problematic).

We then get a moment where Santa opens the door of his palace, revealing his reindeer outside. It's just a painted backdrop, but the perspective sells it surprisingly well. Next, we get the sequence this movie is best known for: an extended miniature sleigh ride beginning at Santa's palace, over mountains and clouds, into a town, and finally landing on the roof of the home we were in earlier. This is all accomplished using some intricate miniature work, with a tiny sleigh and bobbing deer following what must be a cleverly hidden track. You can tell it's essentially a toy, but the scale on display is jaw-dropping.

This transitions to a short sequence with Santa on the roof, which again utilizes a painted backdrop to good effect. Down the chimney he goes, and we cut to the living room from earlier. Santa fills the stockings and starts doing some minor decorating before magicking the rest into place. The effect is simple enough, but the pacing of the scene as a whole makes it more effective than usual.

All that's left is for the kids to come downstairs and discover the presents, along with a brief shot of Santa waving goodbye from the rooftop.

This is one of my favorite Christmas movies from the first decade of the 20th century. The holiday movies from this era I've come across tend to fall in one of two camps: either they're short vignettes relying on camera tricks to create a sense of wonder, or they're early attempts to use the medium to tell fuller stories. Oddly, the visual effects films (which is the bucket I group this in) tend to feel more developed - from what I've seen, it was the plot-driven stuff that needed more time to evolve.

The Night Before Christmas feels very simple and childlike. It doesn't even try to adapt the entire poem, which wasn't that long to begin with. Instead, it's more evocative of the ideas of that story, as well as the larger mythos around Santa Claus. The visuals aren't the most groundbreaking, but they're handled competently and used to good effect. The pacing is brisk, and the aside with kids refusing to sleep or behave on Christmas Eve is genuinely funny. This isn't for everyone - I don't think any of these movies are, to be frank - but it does stand out among others from the same decade.