Santa Claus (1925)

I've been digging into old silent Christmas movies to get a better idea for how and when holiday tropes formed. This one stands out.

To clarify, I'm not saying you should track this down. Most of you would find it tedious and pointless. But for me, it's the missing link for a number of ideas and concepts common in modern Christmas films. This represents the earliest example in film I've come across to date for a number of elements, and that alone is enough to make me excited.

Let's back up and discuss what this is, because - setting aside all that - the film itself is a bit bonkers. It's the creation of Frank E. Kleinschmidt, an explorer and documentarian, who seems to have realized he could make more money off footage of the Arctic if he brought along a Santa suit and spliced that with some scenes filmed in a studio with a different actor.

As such, this isn't remotely story-driven. The movie opens with a passage from A Visit from St. Nicholas, before cutting to siblings on Christmas Eve. Rather than stay in their bed, they decide to wait up for Santa and ask him what he does for the rest of the year. They fall asleep on the couch, but wake up when Santa arrives. They discover Saint Nick is happy to tell them everything they could ever want to know about his life in the north.

That's essentially the frame story, with the caveat there's no actual story being framed. The things Santa tells them amount to facts or trivia about his life, which are displayed as footage shot in Northern Alaska. These are essentially vignettes about Santa's mythical home, his workshop, his neighbors, and other aspects of his life. The movie is almost thirty minutes long, so there are quite a few.

Some of the most impressive don't feature Santa at all. There's some fantastic footage of a gathering of walruses and of a polar bear. These are bizarrely introduced as "Goblins of the deep" and the "Monarch of the north," guarding Santa's kingdom, but it's good footage. It's also kind of fascinating to see "Santa" hanging out with a massive pack of reindeer, riding in an actual sleigh, and interacting with Inuit (of course referred to as "Eskimos" in the film, unfortunately). To Kleinschmidt's credit, the Inuit aren't the butt of any jokes, and their relationship with Santa is painted in a positive light.

The movie also features an ice castle, which appears to have actually been built on location. Whether it was constructed by employees of Kleinschmidt, locals hired for the production, or even if it existed for some other purpose will have to remain a mystery. I honestly have more questions than answers, as far as the production is concerned. (Side note: if you know anything about this film I'm not covering, please, for the love of Claus, comment or send me a message or something).

There were a handful of moments and elements that really caught my attention, starting with the depiction of Santa's workshop and its workers. These are "elves and gnomes," played by Little People. While gnomes dropped off (at least in English), Santa's workshop being populated by elves would eventually become the norm in movies and TV, and this is the earliest filmed depiction of this kind I know of. I'm not at all comfortable calling it the source (and not only because this is clearly drawing from Nast and possibly Baum), but it dates the idea as being relevant to film in 1925.

Sorry. Another side note, because I mentioned his contributions to Santa Claus in passing: L. Frank Baum advocated for genocide, incorporating those themes into the Christmas book I'm alluding to, and that should mar his legacy for all time. Moving on. 

No less fascinating is a short bit in which Santa reveals that the Easter Bunny visits him annually, and Santa offers advice on which kids deserve the best baskets. I suspect the impetus for this sequence was that they wound up with footage of Santa holding a white rabbit. The narrative justification is a bit silly (this won't be the last time I note this), but as far as I know, this still represents the first time Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny appear together on film.

I'm actually a little embarrassed I didn't already know that, seeing as I wrote a novel in which they're two of the three main characters.

That's not all! We also get a sequence with Jack Frost, here depicted as a man in a furry white suit with a magic wand. The character looks a bit absurd, but he's mostly present to justify including shots of ice formations.

Both Frost and the Easter Bunny would cross paths with Santa in Rankin/Bass specials, which makes me wonder if this partially inspired those stop-motion classics. The fact it's reminiscent of Baum's Life and Adventures of Santa Claus makes this feel like it's a missing link between the two. That said, I'm not even certain anyone who worked on the Rankin/Bass specials saw this - it's entirely possible the similarities are coincidental.

On top of all that, Santa at one point tells Jack Frost that he needs "An old-fashioned Christmas" this year. That phrase, of course, has become extremely commonplace, but it was far less so prior to World War II (at least on film). Seeing it pop up here in a title card is a little unexpected.

Other interesting elements include a comically large telescope used by Santa to spy on kids. Interestingly, he doesn't keep a separate "naughty" list, but instead crosses out kids who are particularly bad, such as a boy who harasses a blind man). The telescope is a fun prop, albeit an absurd addition to the lore that didn't stick around. The idea here isn't that Santa's always watching everyone, but rather that you never know who he's watching at any given time. Maybe best that concept didn't survive: somehow it's even creepier.

In addition to the telescope, there are a few unique (at least as far as I know) alterations to the mythos. Near the end of the movie, Santa goes to Nome, Alaska, where he encounters a house with a misshapen chimney he can't use. He tells the kids this is one of the reasons some kids don't get any presents. It's a somewhat dark aside, but at the same time it addresses a reality most specials try to hide: not every kid gets stuff on Christmas.

The other new alteration is prompted by a scene in which Santa's sleigh tips over in the snow. I feel pretty secure in assuming this sequence exists because a mishap while filming resulted in an amusing bit of footage - honestly, a great deal of this feels like it was assembled using whatever footage they had after the fact. The trouble is blamed on a mischievous elf named, "Hard Times," and Santa outright says it can sometimes result in kids getting fewer gifts. Again, probably best this idea didn't stick around.

At the very end of the special, some fairies sing and dance Santa to sleep. The effects in the sequence are quite impressive. If you watch many of these you'll have a good idea how it was accomplished, but it still looks good.

Likewise, the studio sets used for the interiors of Santa's workshop look fantastic for the time. A lot of these are conceptually similar to versions of Santa's workshop in subsequent films. 

I can't offer similar praise to the costumes, however. Santa, in particular, looks like he's wearing a cheap outfit purchased from a costume shop. Similarly, his beard is clearly fake. I understand why the Santa at the Alaska locations looks bad: they were presumably limited in options. But since they were using a different actor in the studio shots, it's disappointing they couldn't find someone with an actual beard.

I also want to caution there are a few moments in this that show the movie's age in unfortunate ways. That's a nice way of saying, "this gets a little racist." The movie has a sequence - otherwise quite good - in which it showcases a toy carnival. That section ends with a toy minstrel show, which is obviously an awful choice.

In addition, there's a section in which a girl loses a gift due in part to her putting on makeup. To be fair, she also was dismissive of a poor girl asking for help, but the makeup bit felt like it was supposed to reflect poorly on her character. I realize the 1920s were a different time, but this scene definitely aged poorly.

My understanding is this was fairly successful in its time, and it's not hard to imagine why. The director found a way to make some of Santa's fantastical elements real and put them on film in a way that hadn't previously been accomplished. Almost a century later, what amounts to documentary-style footage of the Arctic isn't quite as impressive, but to kids (and even some adults) who'd never encountered anything like it, seeing Santa Claus in his legendary northern home must have been magic.

As I said at the start, I'm not recommending this for casual viewers or even fans of Christmas media. At this point, this is really only for those of us obsessed with the history of this stuff, with how these ideas evolved and where they came from. For us, this movie's still magic.

If you find yourself in that exclusive camp, this is easily found on YouTube. One quick word of warning: I recommend steering away from the digitally colorized high-def version, at least on first viewing. Some of the image appears to be cropped, and the effect used to "upgrade" the film is a little disorienting. Stick with the black and white, and you'll be better off.