Sunday, December 16, 2012

Santa Claus in the Movies

There have been many charming movies featuring Santa Claus.  Fortunately, all of them have been Christmas movies.  It just wouldn’t work if Santa showed up in a movie about Valentine’s Day or Easter — although in a perfect world, Mel Gibson would have cast him as the guy who whipped Jesus to a bloody pulp in his gay BDSM Easter porn flick, The Passion of the Christ.  Sure, there have been a few horror movies featuring someone posing as Santa Claus that would make appropriate Halloween viewing, but they’re not specifically Halloween movies.  Santa mostly confines himself to secular Christmas movies featuring music written by Jewish people.

One of my favorite Santa Claus movies is Miracle on 34th Street from 1947.  It’s the first live-action movie I remember seeing in which Santa was depicted as a real person.  Edmund Gwenn, who was such a charming Kris Kringle, had a big influence on my idea of Santa as a small child.

We have the movie on DVD, but I haven’t watched it yet this year.  A couple of days ago, I was happy to discover that it was playing on AMC.  When I turned it on, I got a queasy feeling.  Something was wrong.  Everything was a sickening shade of pink, as if the movie had been shot through a thin filter of Pepto Bismol.  Then I became aware of the problem: it was the colorized version.

I had almost forgotten about colorization.  At least, I hadn’t thought about it in many years.  The period of years during which I did not think about the colorization of black-and-white movies was a peaceful one.  Because I did not think about the colorization of black-and-white movies.

When Ted Turner, owner of the MGM film library, announced back in the 1980s that he was going to colorize Citizen Kane, a genuine effort should have been made to have him committed.  He later said it was a joke and he’d had no intention of colorizing the classic, and even though he never did, I didn't believe him at the time.  But he colorized other classics.  Movies shot in black and white were not meant to be shown in color.  Otherwise, they would have been shot in color.  Because Turner was incapable of grasping that nugget of logic, movie buffs had a great deal of hostility toward him back then.  But the fad didn’t last long and, mercifully, it all faded away.

Before I turned on AMC the other day, decades had passed since I’d last thought about or seen a colorized movie.  I don’t know if Ted Turner had anything to do with colorizing Miracle on 34th Street, but I blamed him, anyway.  All that Ted Turner hostility came rushing back.  I felt myself tensing up, clenching my teeth, wishing that all kinds of creatively horrible things would happen to Turner.  (For those not familiar with it, this is very similar to the hostility felt by many fans toward Joel Schumacher for putting nipples on Batman’s suit — something else I haven’t thought about in a long time, so now I’ve just pissed myself off again, dammit.)  Then I remembered that he’d been married to Jane Fonda for ten years and figured the poor son of a bitch has probably suffered enough.

John Favreau’s Elf is a more recent example of Santa being depicted as a real person, portrayed in this case by Lou Grant.  Um, I’m sorry, I meant Edward Asner.  But Santa is overshadowed by Buddy the elf, played by Will Ferrell.  Your enjoyment of Elf will depend a great deal on your enjoyment of Will Ferrell.  I know many people who think he's about as funny as a pilonidal cyst.  He makes me laugh when he’s in the right role, and I think the role of Buddy fits him perfectly.  My problem with the movie is another actor in the cast.  Elf is a light holiday comedy, but casting James Caan as Buddy’s father transformed it into a light holiday comedy that could, at any moment, explode with brutal violence and bloodshed.  Or, at the very least, a bunch of F-bombs.

This isn’t the only light comedy James Caan has been in, either, which is bizarre when you think about it.  Ever see a 1982 romantic comedy called Kiss Me Goodbye?  Sally Field plays Kay, a widow who’s about to marry Rupert, played by Jeff Bridges.  So far, so good, right?  The ghost of Kay’s dead husband, a light-hearted song-and-dance man named Jolly, comes back to prevent the marriage.  James Caan plays Jolly.  Did you get that?  James Caan plays a dancer named Jolly — and that name is not meant to be ironic.  He tap dances.  No, really, I’m not kidding.  Holy crap, that movie was exhausting!  I kept waiting for Caan to drop the ruse and knock Sally Field’s teeth down her throat.

I once dated a woman who claimed to have lived with James Caan, and she said every time they had sex, when he came he would spit in her face.  I later learned she was a pathological liar and that nothing she’d told me was true, but the point is that I believed it at the time.  Because it was James Caan.  He’s a scary guy.  He is not light comedy material.  And yet he starred in Neil Simon's Chapter Two.

But unlike Kiss Me Goodbye, I’ve seen Elf several times now, and I no longer flinch when it looks like Caan might be making a move to beat the shit out of Buddy.  It’s a funny, amiable holiday movie.

I don’t mean to be a Grinch, but I have a problem with Santa movies — specifically those movies in which everyone learns that Santa really exists and really has a toy factory run by elves at the North Pole.  These movies share a flaw that, as far as I know, has never been addressed. It doesn’t seem to bother people, and I imagine most haven’t even noticed it.  But as a writer, I am annoyed by stories that contain a logical flaw and then try to ignore it by never mentioning it and just hoping nobody will notice.  Elf is a perfect example.

Walter (Caan) and Emily (Mary Steenburgen) have a son named Michael (Daniel Tay) of about ten or eleven years of age.  When Walter and Emily meet Buddy, Walter’s biological son, at first they think he’s a little goofy in the head because he insists he’s an elf from the North Pole.  Later, when they learn he’s telling the truth, they also learn that he works in Santa’s workshop making toys to be delivered by Santa to all the children of the world at Christmas.

Why don’t Walter and Emily already know Santa exists?  If he delivers toys to all the children of the world every Christmas, there should be something under the tree for Michael that was not put there by Walter and Emily.  I think it would be pretty hard to miss an extra gift under the tree, especially if it was the toy Michael had been requesting from Santa.  It seems like there would have to be some communication between Santa and parents.  You wouldn't want to give your child the same toy Santa had brought, would you?  Now that would be awkward.  I would think that discovering that Santa is real — especially for parents — would create more questions than it answered.

I don’t know how the other Santa movie fathers would react to learning that Santa is real, but I can easily imagine how James Caan would react.

“What the hell is this?  You’re real?  I mean, you gotta toy factory up at the North Pole, the sleigh and the reindeer, the whole show, and you’re tellin’ me you deliver toys to all the children of the world at Christmas?  Then where the fuck you been, huh?  Huh?  Where the fuck you been?  What about all those Christmas Eves I spent tryin’ to figure out how to assemble the kid's fuckin’ toys until five in the morning?  Huh?  What was that?  And then you get the credit for it?  After I do all the work?”

Caan rushes the fat man, pulls out his piece, levels it with Santa’s forehead and says slowly, “I am the last guy in the world ... that you wanna fuck with.  You ain’t been deliverin’ toys.  Whatta you up to, huh?  You runnin’ drugs?  Weapons?  Doin’ some human trafficking?  ‘Cause I’ll tell ya what you’re not doin’.  You’re not deliverin’ any fuckin’ toys!”

That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

If I were a parent and learned that Santa was real, I would be tempted to sue the lazy bastard.  At the very least, I would ask, “Then what the hell have I been doing the last few years?”  But that never happens in the movies.  The parents always shed their skepticism and embrace the fact that this fat guy has been flying all over the world delivering toys, but for some reason, not to their house.  And nobody says, "Oh, god, what else were my parents telling me the truth about?"

When you think about the relatively small period of time during which children believe in Santa Claus, it’s pretty amazing how much time, effort and money our culture puts into convincing them of his existence.  Movies, TV shows, books, advertisements — they all conspire to maintain for children the belief that Santa Claus is a real, magical guy who has flying reindeer, and those childre will, very soon, figure out, or be told, the truth.  It’s a short period of time, but it’s an important process, because in this way, we soften their brains for religion and politics.

Do you have a favorite movie Santa?  Was there a movie Santa who didn’t work for you?  One who frightened you?  Let's talk Santa in the comments.