Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Mondo Christmas

Santa and his elves threatened by Martian robots from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

At Christmas time, we all still sit around with our kids re-watching yet again, Charlie Brown and the Grinch, Rudolph and Frosty, classics that have lasted for generations and will still be loved 50 years from now. Separate from the classics though, there's a hodgepodge (love that term) of movies, specials, plays and cartoons dedicated to the season, some quite good, but that never hit the popularity, let alone the staying power of the "big 4". Let's take a look at a few of the more memorable ones.

The team of Arthur Rankin and  Jules Bass were the absolute kings of Christmas cartoons during the 60's and 70's with their stylish, quality "Animagic", stop motion films, most famously Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. One of the duo's best looking projects was 1968's, The Little Drummer Boy, a thoroughly horrifying story of a small boy who after witnessing his parents brutal murders, survives as a beggar drumming in the streets, while being ruthlessly exploited by his "uncle" who also happens to be one of the most egregious collections of negative Arab stereotypes ever to show up on national television. To make a long story short, the drummer kid's pet lamb is killed in an accident just as they are heading to meet the baby Jesus, and after offering the newborn messiah a ripping drum solo, Christ gives his power to raise the dead a test drive and resurrects the sheep, restoring faith in God and humanity.

The Little Drummer Boy is actually very well done with beautiful animation and what is actually a very strong and moving story, but one that is so marred by the racial stereotyping that it really is not likely to be aired very often these days, and probably deservedly so.

For real Christmas depression though, there's The Littlest Angel, a 1969 all-star, made for television musical about the tribulations of a small boy adjusting to heaven that terrified the seven year old me causing nightmares and the brand spanking new concept of the existential terror brought by the reality of death.

Merry Christmas!!!

E.G. Marshal as God and Johnny Whitaker as the Littlest Angel, freaking me out at age seven

The below scene where our young hero Michael, played by Family Affair's Johnny Whitaker returns to his parents house to retrieve his prized collection of rocks and trinkets  that he wants to enter into a contest for what's going to be used to create the star signalling the birth of Jesus, while his mother and father sit and worry where their child has gotten to, when we know his crushed and very dead body is at the bottom of a ravine just waiting for mom and dad to find the next morning when they go looking for him.

Watching Michael obliviously going about his business, knowing what his parents were going to discover truly upset young me. I'd seen plenty of adults die on television, it was the 60's after all, but I'd never really seen a dead kid before, let alone one who was just so darn jolly about it. On a more positive note though the special did have Fred Gwynne singing and nice bits from Tony RandallCab Calloway and E.G. Marshal, the prey of the sentient cockroaches from George Romero's Creepshow, as God.

Let me tell you about a double feature I went to sometime around 1970 that starred old St Nick in two of his more surreal appearances.

The Devil "Pitch" from 1959's Mexican production of Santa Claus

Santa Claus (1959) is a great example of the kind of children's films to come out of Mexico during the 1950's and 60's. Brightly colored, without a touch of subtly, Santa Claus and his band of international children helpers face off against Pitch, a mostly evil devil determined to stop this Christmas nonsense once and for all. A very weird film, but totally a good time, filled with bizarre imagery and situations that somehow remind me in a way of the kind of stuff Jose Marins would bring of course in a much more adult manner, in his Coffin Joe films.

Long since slipping into the public domain, here's the complete, badly dubbed feature for your pleasure.

The second film, which is also not so coincidentally in the public domain is the much better know Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

I'm not going to go too deeply into the plot (what there is of it), and I don't even really care that a young Pia Zadora is the cute as pie little girl. All I think that really needs to be said, is Martians trying to steal Christmas, and Santa not putting up with any crap from a bunch of green guys in space ships.

Both films should be watched by anyone who really loves Christmas.

I also wanted to mention two high quality animated adaptions of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.

Created in 1971 by artist Richard Williams, his version of the classic won an academy award for best animated short. The style resemble the ink drawings of the original Victorian era and have a lovely creepiness that is perfect for the holiday ghost story. It is by no means a perfect version, but there are some wonderful images, and it was a very worthy attempt at the tale.

Surprisingly there's another version of the Dickens classic that manages to capture the spirit of the tale with both style and a sense of humor that most people might not expect, and yet Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol is a first rate adaptation of the story, with Magoo playing it straight as Scrooge.

Finally I wanted to post this version (at least the second filmed) of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, from the great Max Fleischer.

From all of us here at Studd, to each and every one of you...Merry Christmas.

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