In René Cardona’s beloved holiday film Santa Claus (1959) the title character (José Elías Moreno) resides in a castle of silver that orbits the earth above the North Pole. Santa can only come to earth and use his magical powers on the night of December 24th. In preparation for his annual trip, a team of children from around the world work endlessly in his toy factory just as the magician Merlin (Armando Arriola) concocts a number of magical powders, potions and flowers to aid Santa.
If the character Santa is at odds with the standard myths then the plot clearly opposes them. In Santa Claus the evil Lucifer has dispatched the devil Pitch (Cesáreo Quezadas) to thwart Santa’s mission and trap him on earth where he will die. The first act of Santa Claus serves as an introduction to the character’s fantastic machines and a kind of battle for the hearts and minds of the children on earth. Pitch succeeds in turning a trio of little boys “naughty” but fails to corrupt the poor girl Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) or the lonely rich boy.
Although the battle over children’s souls is entertaining and possibly of sentimental impact to some, the real highlight of this portion of Santa Claus is the production design. Santa’s castle is full of gadgets and gizmos that look like parodies of works by Marcel Duchamp. There’s the listening device that looks like a human ear caught in a spider’s web and the speaker machine that looks like a series of dials with a giant pair of luscious lips at its center to suggest a woman’s face. These human looking machines are oddly sexualized in a manner not dissimilar to the Übermensch in Metropolis (1927).
The look and feel of Lucifer’s Hell is a vast cavern of volcanic activities where devils dance about in elaborately choreographed numbers. The dance of the devils is mirrored in a later sequence in which Pitch tempts Lupita to steal a doll from a street vendor. In Lupita’s nightmare a dozen giant dolls come to life and perform a ballet all around her. Cardona suggests a link between sin and the sensuality of dance that is almost sexual which gives both sequences an element of danger. When the dolls appear in boxes surrounding little Lupita they almost seem to be in coffins. This image of death is echoed later in the rich boy’s dream that also equates death with desire.
As corny and strange as Santa Claus is in its first two acts the film remains intriguing largely because René Cardona presents his distinctly adult themes in so muddled a fashion. Perhaps the fact that Santa Claus is a children’s family film is responsible for Cardona dialing back his usual obsessions and symbolism. The resulting effect of these opposing impulses is akin to an adult’s nightmare of a Rankin/Bass holiday television special.
Once Merlin has Santa on his way to deliver toys Santa Claus becomes a far more straight forward adventure film. The hijinks that Pitch gets up to in order to delay and ultimately defeat Santa feel derivative of cartoons like Tom & Jerry. But even then there is a dark side to the proceedings as Pitch influences slumbering people to arm themselves with guns against “a prowler” in a tree. Santa, trapped in a tree by an angry canine, is only rescued by Merlin’s cunning at the last minute, making this scene the most drawn out of the film. It’s never clear if humor or suspense is the reaction that Cardona wants so the films elicits a mixture of both.
Although much maligned by the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 and their fans, there’s actually plenty to recommend Santa Claus. Like The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953), Santa Claus stands firmly in the genre of children’s fantasy while incorporating adult concepts. The two films also share remarkable and unique production designs that make each film a “must see” on those merits alone. Personally, I really enjoyed this madcap Santa picture and recommend it as the opening of a double bill with Christmas Evil (1980).