A Trap for Santa Claus (1909)

This fifteen-minute film was directed by D.W. Griffith, which should probably be addressed before we get into the movie itself. Griffith of course also directed the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which glorified the founding of the KKK. I am not a film historian, nor have I actually seen Birth of a Nation, so I will not be commenting on its significance in the history of the medium. I will say that any discussion of Griffith as a filmmaker - or any of his films - should probably acknowledge his legacy is at least as connected to the history of white supremacy as it is to the evolution of early film.

For what it's worth, I actually watched A Trap for Santa Claus and wrote the remainder of this review prior to realizing who directed it. In short, I'm not just attempting to separate the art from the racist here: I literally didn't notice until after.

The story starts with a family down on their luck. Unable to find work, the father is taking their misfortune particularly hard and turns to drink. This leads to him arguing with his wife. Ashamed, he leaves them a note saying they'll be better off without him and runs off. This of course leaves the mother and her kids in a bad situation. They go begging for food without luck, and all hope seems lost.

Fortunately, a title card comes to the rescue, informing us that an aunt's estate, long held up in litigation, is cleared, leaving a decent sum to the mother, who's overjoyed to be able to make ends meet and even move to a nicer house.

We jump ahead again, this time to Christmas Eve. The kids set up a trap for Santa, so they'll be woken when he comes through the window (they don't have a chimney -  it's a whole thing). Meanwhile, we learn the father's fallen on hard times and turned to crime. And what house should he choose to burgle on Christmas Eve?

He trips the alarm, which wakes the kids and alerts the mother, who sends them back to bed. But it means she passes through the room the intruder's in, and of course, they recognize each other. He pleads to be taken back, and she eventually relents. Then she gives him a Santa suit she was planning to wear and grabs the kids, who presumably think it's Santa. No clue if they're disappointed to learn it's just their estranged father: the film ends with him in disguise and the family reunited.

I feel a little bad criticizing something from 1909 for not doing a better job managing tone [side note: after realizing who made this, I no longer feel bad about criticizing it for any reason], but I really do think it misses the mark. It wallows in its drama a bit too much given its absurdly ludicrous premise and resolution. This strikes me as a comedy that thinks it's more serious and emotionally resonant than it is.

The makeup and acting are both stylized and exaggerated, which isn't uncommon for the form. These movies lacked sound, so they used design and performance to ensure emotional beats were communicated to the audience. And, to its credit, this was easy to follow, even though the title cards were used minimally and never for dialogue.

It's worth noting less than half of this is actually set at the holidays, but the resolution hinging on Santa, etc., cements this as a Christmas story, at least according to any definition we use.

This didn't really win me over, but it was interesting seeing early Christmas media experiment with story types and tones. I just don't think the experiment was particularly successful. Guess they can't all be, though.