Santa Claus Vs. Cupid (1915) [Revisted]

I wrote this up before, though I was feeling far from charitable at the time. In my defense, we started this blog coming at Christmas media from a very different point of view, so our early reviews were intended more as brief recommendations or warnings for modern audiences. We weren't particularly interested in analyzing these, nor were we remotely experienced enough to have done so. Eight years later, I find this stuff far more interesting, and - while I'm still no expert in early cinema - watching bucketloads of this stuff at least provides me with a little context.

Compared to most silent Christmas media I've come across, Santa Claus Vs. Cupid is notable for having a great deal of plot crammed into its 16-minute runtime. It also has a great deal of filler and side characters, which makes the short feel larger but also makes the narrative difficult to follow.

Ultimately, there are really only four significant characters: Jack, Edward, Binks, and the unnamed love interest. I say unnamed despite the fact the title cards identify her as Mrs. Norwood at the beginning, but that's a spoiler, not a name: she's single at the start, Norwood is Jack's surname, and they're engaged at the end of the movie.

The problem is there are a lot of minor characters, and it's sometimes difficult to keep straight who's who. Hell, Jack and Edward are both generic thin white guys, so if you're not paying attention (or honestly even if you are), you're likely to lose track of which one you're supposed to be rooting for.

At any rate, both are pursuing the aforementioned generic love interest. Meanwhile, Binks - a stagecoach driver - has a sick wife, hungry kids, and no money for Christmas. Jack sends roses to the future Mrs. Norwood, but Edward runs into the deliverer at the door, offers to take them inside, then passes them off as a gift from him. Meanwhile, the woman is planning a Christmas party. She'd planned to ask Jack to come as Santa, but Edward manages to weasel his way into the role. Unaware of this, Jack comes across a letter she'd been writing asking him to play Santa.

Jump ahead to Christmas Eve, and we've got two Santas. We've also got a desperate Binks ready to take desperate measures to get his kids some kind of Christmas. He sneaks upstairs to where Edward is getting ready and robs him in disguise. He then locks Edward in a closet.

Jack sees Binks sneaking out the window with the stolen gifts and confronts him. Binks confesses everything to Jack and shows him a letter from his kids. Jack takes back the sack of gifts but gives Binks a wad of cash to buy presents, food, and medicine for his family.

Jack then heads inside dressed as Santa, where he's assumed to be Edward. He distributes the presents to the kids, then pulls the woman aside to propose. She's reluctant at first, but agrees when Jack reveals his identity. Edward, finally freed from the closet, realizes he's been beaten when Jack introduces the "Future Mrs. Santa Claus." Cute joke, but in hindsight it also underscores the awkwardness around her not having much of a name.

Tonally, the whole thing is comedic but not entirely farcical. There's a great bit of physical comedy where two older servants realize they're standing under a mistletoe, look at each other for a moment, then simultaneously turn and run. That's the high point in terms of laughs, though there are some other decent moments.

The movie is very sparse in its use of speech cards, which makes it even more difficult to follow at times. This is admittedly a "now problem" - audiences in the early 1900s would be more attentive, since they'd be watching in theaters, and the experience would still have been relatively novel. They'd certainly have been much more attentive than anyone casually watching a degraded copy on a laptop (though I did have the advantage of being able to replay the movie easily). Still, I think the film was a little too ambitious around cast size.

The class issues are somewhat mixed here. Most of the main characters appear to be well off financially: Jack, Edward, and Mrs. Norwood/Mrs. Santa Claus all appear to be socialites. Binks, meanwhile, is clearly lower class, though at least the narrative doesn't punish him for resorting to crime to provide for his family. Still, it's a far cry from the progressive themes of Dickens, and the movie never seems to question whether the lifestyle its protagonists enjoy is to blame for the hardships of people like Binks.

If you actually manage to stick with the plot, there's something to appreciate here. The storytelling is nowhere near as efficient as it could be, but the components are well constructed. Despite my frustrations, it is impressive they managed to tell a comedic soap opera this complex using only a handful of lines of dialogue. There's something to respect here, though I'd hesitate to recommend it to anyone who's not already interested in this era of filmmaking.