Santa Claus is a bit of an oddball character. He lives at the North Pole (probably to avoid paying his income taxes), has flying reindeer, elves, and makes a yearly journey across the globe to hand out presents to children, delivering them by crawling down the chimney (billions of such structures in a single night). So any three-dimensional media adaptation of the character is going to be a bit strange when compared to the more run of the mill fare like westerns and police dramas. Being a seasonal figure, Santa is also subject to constant revision and updates as new movies or shows are prepared about him on an annual basis.
For me, Mickey Rooney is Santa Claus, as the former Andy Hardy was perfectly cast to voice the Jolly One in at least two of the charming Rankin/Bass Christmas specials featuring all those stop-motion puppets. 1970's SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN relates Santa's origin, and how he befriended a lost penguin and set the evil Winter Warlock on the road to being the gentle old man Winter (it was he, we learn, who made the flying reindeer with some magic feed corn so Santa and his gang could break out of jail!). As told by Fred Astaire, the film remains one of the most endearing of the Rankin/Bass specials. Rooney returned for 1974's THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS, detailing how Old Saint Nick decided to take a year off, and Mrs. Claus had to scare up some Christmas cheer by making an arrangement with Mother Nature!
In 1987, Santa had to retire because his magic was running out, so he went to Florida to hire his replacement with the help of Jim Varney's infamous TV pitch-man turned movie star in ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS. Together, Santa and your old buddy Ernest P. Worrell managed to pass the Christmas torch to a new Mr. Claus, and turn a teen runaway onto the right path in their spare time. Although many would argue in favor of ERNEST GOES TO JAIL, I'd actually swing my support for this Christmas episode as being the best film of the Ernest series (which is pretty impressive as it's only the second Ernest movie and it followed the largely lackluster ERNEST GOES TO CAMP). I wouldn't let the season go by without giving it a viewing.
Undoubtedly the weirdest Santa Claus movie has to be the 1959 Mexican epic SANTA CLAUS. I'd review this wacky adventure of Santa Claus fighting the demon Pitch for the souls of Mexican children during the yuletide, but I couldn't possibly do a better job than Mr. Ken Begg of www.jabootu.net. Check out the review here: http://www.jabootu.com/acolytes/brandiweed/santa.htm (not sure why the link isn't working, but you can copy and paste it into the search bar), but be sure you're not drinking when you read it. I depart from Mr. Begg in assessing SANTA CLAUS as a "bad" movie, however. I actually thought the film pretty good (not great or anything, but pretty good), just bizarre! The Mexicans made the most psychotically weird kiddie flicks on the planet, SANTA CLAUS being a prime example (or you could try LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, or PUSS N BOOTS if you don't mind nightmares). But in the end, it's not really a bad film. It certainly carries it's own berserk charm.
The most famous oddball Santa flick has to be our current subject, if only because the title is so quotable (and the trivia factoid that Pia Zadora first appeared in this film as a little girl, years before she was unleashed on the world as "a new Bardot" in the monstrous turkey BUTTERFLY).
SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS is a film that, despite all its goofy cheapness, remains an fun little kiddie flick. Shot in New York and using sets worthy of a slightly-better-than-average grade school play, the film exudes a charm worthy of it's main character. Who knows, with a larger budget and familiar actors (say, Vincent Price as the heavy? James Cagney as Santa?), the film might be held in much better regard today. Or maybe not, since we're still talking about a film depicting a Martian plot to kidnap Santa Claus.
Despite what you might think, the film is a straight (if dirt cheap) science fiction epic. The question posed to writer must have been an earnest "what would it be like if Martians kidnapped Santa Claus?" I think that's one reason I enjoy the film so much, is that I admire the fact they didn't just play it as a comedy (although one wonders what Bob Hope or Jack Benny would have done with the material). The children's world of the 50's and early 60's can possibly be best summed up by two matinee flicks from 1964, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS and PINOCCHIO IN OUTER SPACE. Both are straight science fiction pieces (Pinocchio's adventure even playing up the realism of it's science regarding space travel) about storybook characters going to Mars.
|Santa makes fun of Martian|
food pills, but Kimar, leader
of Mars, doesn't get the
Our story begins on Mars. The children of that planet have become listless and/or downright rebellious (for a controlled society like Mars, anyway). Their only interest is in watching "those silly earth programs" and conditions are getting worse. Kimar, the leader of Mars, gathers his council and seeks advice from the ancient wise man Chochem. "Chochem is over 800 years old. You can't dismiss the wisdom of centuries." "I can!" blurts Voldar, who will oppose Kimar at nearly every move. Voldar's main concern being that Mars has lost its combative edge, and that the actions taken by Kimar as the film progresses will only lead to the further collapse of Martian greatness in the galaxy.
Chochem indeed knows what the problem is. The children of Mars are not children anymore. From the moment they are born, devices are attached to their brains and they are fed information in a constant stream. "And by the time they can walk," Chochem warbles, "they are adults!" In terms of the rebellion against this scientific programming, Chochem also notes, "I've seen this coming for centuries!" The answer is to again make it possible for the children to have actual childhoods full of play and laughter and wonder. When Kimar asks what can be done to save the children of Mars, Chochem notes the time of year. On Earth, it is early December, the time of "the Christmas" will soon be upon the Green Planet. "That explains it" Chochem notes, as apparently the spirit of Christmas is so powerful that it can be sensed by the children of alien worlds.
For the children of Earth, Christmas has the added bonus of Santa's yearly visit. As the spokesman for the Christmas spirit (odd, that Chochem the Wise never mentions God or Jesus or Mary), only Santa Claus can get the Martian children out of their funk. Having said his piece, Chochem makes his exit (via a blast of smoke and a film splice). Kimar takes Chochem at his words. "Earth has had Santa Claus long enough!" An expedition leaves for earth. Voldar, for his part, is less than thrilled with the notion of kids running underfoot and being noisy.
As previously established via a special broadcast from Santa's workshop at the north pole (on station KID TV, whose remote reporter Andy Henderson is a pretty authentic example of the sort of reporter who does his job but pads his remotes with jokes that nobody else is laughing at), is Mr. Claus himself. He and his elves are working day and night to be ready for Christmas, which always sneaks up on you no matter how well you prepare for it. In this version of the story, Santa's workshop doesn't appear to be any larger than a small house, and he only employs a small handful of elves ("Winky is in charge of our space department" Santa tells Andy as the pair examine a toy rocket* that "runs on real rocket fuel!"). Santa Claus works away, unaware that strange forces from across the gulf of space are moving against him.....
(* Just as in pretty much every movie about Santa Claus, the elves are seen building a number of wooden trains and such, as would have been popular items around 1900. Winky's table houses the plastic rocket Santa picks up, as well as a doll that Winky made depicting "his idea of a Martian" which is 100% accurate to Kimar -said doll looks like a Mego action figure from the 70's. Otherwise, though, there are none of the sort of toys I'd think kids from 1964 would actually be expecting. We later see some wind-up tin toys, but I'd think the big season for those would be a decade earlier. Where are all the Barbie dolls and Marx Army Men? The dinosaurs? The Mickey Mouse collectibles? Did a lot of kids in 1964 dream about a wooden train when Lionel had accurate streamliners and the like, including massive sets featuring military cargo trains with launching rockets, ICBMs, space probes, and aircraft?)
As Kimar and his crew (the council of Mars itself! If this expedition crashes, Mars is out its entire political structure) reach earth and find our world typically "primitive" as they spy New York City on the viewscreen. (Across this universe, few things let aliens know how infantile out culture is as quickly as the sight of above-ground buildings -see also PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.) Voldar notes how easy it would be to conquer the earth, claiming that "one blast from our Q-Ray" would level the city. Kimar insists conquest is not their goal, he intends to slip in and grab Santa Claus and get out before anybody knows what has happened. Using the cameras to search for Santa Claus (and Voldar notes how impossible the task of finding one man among billions would be), the Martians spot multiple Salvation Army Santas. "Why, there are hundreds of Santa Clauses down there" Kimar gasps, "and with so many, the earth people won't miss one."
About this time, SAC radar has spotted the Martian craft and defenses are made ready. Pilots scramble and missiles are moved into position, because it allows for some really cool stock footage from the Air Force! (This same bit was used to more comedic effect in ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS, as Ernest took up Santa's sleigh found himself nearing Cape Canaveral airspace!) We'll cut back to footage like this a few times as a news broadcaster details our side of the invasion. Some might find mid-air refueling footage a tad boring, but it hit pretty close to home, even for the kiddies, so soon after the missile crisis. Myself, I just find 20th century aircraft to be a fascinating subject, so I'm happy as a clam.
Aware that we've finally spotted them on radar ("it took them long enough" Voldar sneers, but he sneers everything he says, so I don't take it too personally), Kimar orders the radar shield activated. There's something wrong with radar box, though, when comic relief Martian Droppo (something like Kimar's butler, as established earlier) is found sleeping inside. Droppo explains that he came to the launch pad to say goodbye, then stowed away because he'd never been to earth before. "We may leave you there in place of Santa Claus!" Kimar threatens before sending Droppo below decks. The "slight case of Droppo" that was screwing with the radar shield also sends the ship off course when Droppo accidentally grabs the landing gear controls on his way out of the bridge. They must land to make repairs.
Two typical earth-children, Billy and Betty Foster, are listening to the UFO reports on a transistor radio. Betty asks a trying-to-nap Billy about Martians before Kimar and his men walk up behind the two tykes. Kimar insists he means them no harm before asking about Santa Claus. Billy explains that the city-sighted Santa's are only helpers of the "real" Santa, who lives at the north pole. With the information they need gathered, the Martians ready to depart. Voldar grabs for the kids, much to Kimar's dislike. Voldar (wasn't that they guy from The Space Giants? Oh, no, I guess that was Goldar) explains his actions as a means to guard against any discovery of their mission (lest the Foster children contact the authorities). Faced with this reality (and what Kimar's planning to do with Santa would indeed be an act of war), he allows Billy and Betty to be taken hostage. Then it's off to the north pole!
Droppo becomes the keeper for the children. Being the most childlike of Martians, excluding the bully Voldar, they probably felt Droppo could handle the job. I have my doubts, though, that anyone expected Droppo to give the kids a tour of the control deck. This allows Billy to sabotage the radar screen and escape with Betty to warn Santa Claus after the Martians touch down near the workshop.
Kimar activates a lame robot called Torg to help capture Santa. When I say lame, I mean Torg has to be the cheapest robot costume ever filmed that wasn't supposed to be a kid's halloween costume. The arms are dryer hoses, the body is obviously made from a cardboard box, and the head looks as if it were manufactured from a paint can. However, it must be noted that Torg's eyes are really cool. They look like amber glass lenses that go all the way back into Torg's head, creating a very neat light shift as he turns his head. That's probably the only time you'll hear someone say something nice about Torg, by the way.
Meanwhile Voldar discovers the kids have taken it on the lam. Before they can capture our man Santa, the Martians must first track down the kids so they can't warn the Claus ahead of time. After the kids evade a polar bear (the worst bear suit in movie history? It looks like a guy pulled the stuffing out of plush toy and crawled inside. It's easily the most embarrassing element on display here, which is a pretty impressive achievement when you take into account that the Martian helmets include attachments made of upside-down pilots' goggles, and even more obviously, flex-hoses for gas furnaces!), Torg finds the kids and grabs them. Voldar orders Torg to kill the children, but Torg won't comply. Kimar, worried about Voldar's behavior, has set Torg's controls to obey only his own voice. Kimar insists there be no violence, prompting another tantrum from Voldar ("What ever happened to the great warriors of Mars? Mars used to be the Planet of War!") The children reclaimed, Kimar orders the siege of Santa's workshop!
Torg is sent in first, smashing down the door to the workshop as Santa and the elves turn to see the invader, which Santa assumes to be a toy. ("You're the biggest toy I've ever seen!") Torg becomes a toy upon exposure to Santa Claus, and the robot is no longer under the control of Kimar. I'm not sure how this all works, but it forces the Martians to handle the abduction personally.
Voldar's earlier proclamation that Martians are fierce warriors is soon demonstrated, as they'd HAVE to be great warriors to keep their enemies from laughing at them, since they're carrying Marx air-pump guns. I'm not sure what the names of these devices were, but they were spacey-looking black plastic numbers that you'd cock by slapping a lever up and down, and then you'd get a 'thump' sound when you pulled the trigger. (There is a credit in the titles to Louis Marx and Co. for 'special toys' but seeing them used as the awesome weapons of the Martian invaders is more than a little rich.) Making the problem worse is that nobody thought to dub in a more menacing sound as these guns release their invisible paralysis rays, so it sounds like a pop-gun being used to freeze people.
This attack must be after hours, as all but two elves have gone home for the night. Winky is on hand, though, and he identifies the culprits as Martians before he and his coworker get shot. Santa is saddened by this, until Kimar explains that the effects of the ray are only temporary. "Oh," Santa regains his jolly tone, "why didn't you say so?" About here, Mrs. Claus barges in and starts chewing everybody out for standing around while there's work to be done. Mrs. Claus, as established earlier when Santa was being interviewed by Andy, is a bit of a loud-mouth who never shuts up. This annoys the Martians as much as anybody else so they zap Mrs. C.
With everyone else frozen in place, Santa has little choice but go with the Martains. Kimar orders Torg to grab Santa, but the robot is but a toy (still not sure what that means) and no longer responds to orders. Kimar must leave Torg behind.*
(* Now, remember earlier when Voldar convinced Kimar that they had to be covert and take the Foster children with, lest the authorities know who had taken Santa Claus? Here, not only do they leave witnesses behind (once that paralysis ray wears off, anyway), but Torg as well. Torg is a piece of alien machinery, and could be reverse engineered and.... Then again, I doubt earth presents much of a threat if we have a bunch of Torgs running around, despite the robot's function as a soldier unit. Unless we send armies of robots to Mars twenty years later, there isn't much to worry about. And if we do send ships loaded with killer robots to another planet decades down the road, surely the Martians would have much newer and more powerful models to outclass our robots. So I guess there's minimal threat in leaving Torg behind, but it's awful sloppy. Shouldn't Kimar have some means of vaporizing Torg, just in case he gets lost in the field? A self-destruct button or something?)
As the Martians rush back to Mars, with the Foster kids and Santa Claus in the brig (and why not leave the kids at Santa's workshop with Mrs. C and Winky? Is Kimar worried the kids will be able to tell the military important technical information about their ship?), the world reaction is reported on the news. "Mrs. Claus has positively identified the kidnappers as Martians..." the newscaster reads with all the urgency and gravity of the recent missile crisis. (Actually, I think it was Winky who spelled this out, as Mrs. Claus was too busy jabbering to even notice that she had visitors from out of town, unless she was still aware of what was going on around her when frozen -when Santa noted that he'd never seen her "so silent, for so long.")
"The lights in the United Nations building will burn until dawn..." we're told, as the world's leaders have come together in unprecedented unanimity to find a way to get Santa back. The Air Force has rushed their Star-Shot program into the final phase, ignoring the required six months testing and training for the men, who are itching to blast off and reclaim Santa Claus from the invaders. This part is explained to us by leading rocket expert Warner Von Breen, in charge of the Star-Shot project. This gag, a play on real-life rocket expert Warner Von Braun (who helped develop the V2 during World War 2 and was placed in charge of Air Force rocket development after the war), might be lost on younger viewers today but in 1964 the gag would have made perfect sense to the space-obsessed youngsters in the audience. (Mr. Von Braun can even be seen on Dinsey's science specials for TV, which would have been repeated often in the heyday of the Space Race.)
"Kimar," second-in-command Rignar reports, "that blip on the radar screen isn't a small asteroid. It's a ship, and it's gaining on us!" Kimar is awed, wondering if the earth men have some kind of device that can penetrate their radar sheild. Discovering Billy's sabotage, Voldar is angered even more that Kimar won't listen to him. "They have a secret weapon," Voldar continues to sneer, "and his name is Billy Foster!" Voldar leaves the bridge, implying fully that he intends harm to the captives, but Kimar fails to act on this. Looking at the radar box, Kimar is impressed with the lad's ingenuity.
In the brig, Santa tries to cheer up the kids with a story about his climbing down a huge chimney in a heavy fog, only to find himself in a smokestack on the Queen Elizabeth, but the kids are still in a funk. Droppo drops by with dinner (food pills, because they're from Mars and are all futuristic and such, you know), be even he can't snap the kids out of their mood, despite Santa's prediction to the contrary. The kids perk up, oddly enough, when Voldar offers to take the earth trio on a tour of the ship (maybe Martian policy dictates the showing off of one's vehicle to POWs?). Though the kids don't trust Voldar ("the mean one" they call him at one point. "He's not like Kimar and the others"), Santa is game and the tour is on.
The tour ends up in the airlock, where Billy provides a little exposition on how an airlock works (for the benefit of the one or two space-happy little kids in the audience who might not already know how an airlock works). Voldar is impressed ("Smart lad!") and Betty explains that Billy plans to be a spaceman when he grows up. Voldar, near the door, and with all the subtly of Snidely Whiplash, replies to Betty "Maybe sooner than that!" Before you can say "Martian" Voldar is out the door and in the bridge with the airlock controls.* The air going fast, our heroes look for a way to escape. Santa asks Billy where the air duct leads, a port which looks like it could be plugged with an orange.
(* Really, shouldn't there be back-up/manual controls in the airlock chamber itself? Then again, that didn't work out very well in THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE.....)
In the bridge, Kimar enters just as Voldar has opened the airlock doors. Voldar claims to have killed Santa Claus and Kimar engages him in a very awkwardly staged fight scene (although slightly increasing the speed of the film might have made the fight play much smoother and help camoflage the pulled punches and karate chops). Just as Kimar is about choke Voldar to death, Santa and the kids enter the bridge. "Merry Christmas!" The Martians are confused, and Kimar asks how they escaped. Santa explains that they used the air duct. The small size of the duct prompts further confusion from Kimar, who asks how escape was possible. "You're talking to Santa Claus, Son!" The Jolly One explains that he doesn't want to give away his secrets (thus glossing over one of the biggest "how does he do" questions in the Santa Claus mythos -another thing brought up but unanswered when Santa met Mr. Worrell, although your old buddy Ernest had his theories on the matter). Voldar faints as the others enjoy a hearty laugh. "Poor man," Santa notes, "he looks like he's seen a ghost!" And there was much laughing.
When the ship arrives on Mars, it is discovered that Voldar has escaped and taken refuge in the tunnels under the infamous canals of the Red Planet. Santa is introduced to Kimar's children Bomar and Girmar, and he instantly snaps the kids out of their scientifically induced trances. Kimar and his wife Momar are thrilled, and plans are made to build Santa the greatest toy factory of all time. Santa is set to get to work (which makes sense after he's helped Bomar and Girmar, as Santa's calling is to bring happiness to children, no matter what planet he's on) in hopes to have things ready in time for him to return to Earth before Christmas. Then Kimar breaks the news to the Right Jolly Old Elf, he's not there to be an advisor. He belongs to Mars now. Meanwhile, the renegade Voldar plans revenge on Santa Claus.....
For the benefit of anyone who might want to see the film for themselves, I'll leave off there.
One thing that strikes me is that the writer may have created a more complex Martian society than he'd planned (or so I'd think, as I doubt anyone besides myself has put so much thought into the following). Chiefly, the names of the first family of Mars were simple combinations of words that stink of laziness, Kimar (KIng of MARs), Momar (MOther MARtian), Bomar (BOy of MARs), and Girmar (GIRl of MARs). But this actually makes sense for a computer-like society like the one shown here, where everyone wears numbers along with their names (Momar, for example, wears a tag on her chest reading M-02 -although the numbering on their costumes seems to correspond with how important each player is to the script, with Kimar numbered 01, Momar 02, and on down the line). Assuming the family names of Mars are the latter half of the given name (Mar, Dar, Chem, Po, Nas, Mas, etc) and the first half of each name connects to a person's position in society, you begin to see a pattern. Kimar is so named because he's the King of Mars, signifying his authority by being the only one who wears a cape. 'Mar' may be his family name due to his being from a lineage that built the current order for Mars. His name was likely Bomar as a child, then he became a man named Mamar, until he took Momar as his wife (we have no clue what her maiden name was).
Let's say the couple at that point was named Humar and Wimar ('husband' and 'wife', or maybe Brimar for 'bride'). Upon having children, their names would be changed to Famar (father) and Momar (mother). Granted, I have no idea at what point Kimar took authority and had to change his name again, but he seems youngish. But what then could be the meaning of names like Rignas, Voldar, Chochem, Lomas, and Shim?
Another clue we're given to the development of their society is that Chochem is the only one we see without a helmet, meaning the cranial attachments were developed within the last 800 years, and that they were voluntary at one time. These devices, in fact, might be a major reason Chochem lives off by himself in Thunder Forrest. Then again, I seem to be putting WAY too much thought into a kiddie flick about Santa Claus being taken to Mars.
John Call as Santa Claus comes off best, managing to display pretty much the exact persona you'd expect Santa Claus to have. He's good natured, never has anything bad to say about others no matter how bad they treat him, and jumps at the chance to make others happy. He's perfectly cast, even getting a special "and John Call as Santa Claus" credit, although he was known mostly from the stage. He popped up in several movies over the years, often in tiny, un-billed parts.
Leonard Hicks, playing Kimar, comes off pretty good, having exactly the sort of grounded, serious tone needed to hold the wacky material together. Not that he gives the most natural performance, but he reads his lines with enough conviction that you buy him as leader of the Martians. Overacting Vincent Beck (Voldar) would go onto a fruitful career in television, getting guest spots on more or less every major show from Bonanza to Mannix (he was one of the Russian cosmonauts -Igor- who landed on Gilligan's Island in the second season, for example). Bill McCutcheon is more irritating than lovable as Droppo, our official comic relief, but he's not terrible or anything. I'm sure the kids found him lovable, but adult eyes just see a guy trying to be Bobby Van, and failing. You could easily picture him as a regular on a local kiddie show, though, and probably would have made a decent Bozo (actually, he'd make a perfect Oliver O. Oliver).
Pia Zadora plays Girmar, for those curious. She would go on to a fairly fruitful career, but she's never had much respect tossed her way. She offended a lot of people when she bought the Pickfair mansion in the late 80's and then destroyed it. It must be said, though, Miss Zadora boasts more talent than her reputation would suggest.
Most everyone here was from the stage, and their acting reflects that. They haven't yet figured out the subtleties of acting for the camera, but they can speak their lines clearly. They win a certain amount of grace from the fact that they're making a kiddie flick, and you certainly can't nitpick some folks who got together to make a movie that would entertain the children. Underfunded as the production looks, you can tell they still tried pretty hard to keep the kids entertained.
Still, that polar bear and the Torg costume are kinda painful to watch no matter how limited the budget may be. And check out the supply closet we see on Mars, which contains, among other things, a water ski!
Oh, there's also Milton Delugg's catchy title tune "Hooray for Santa Claus!" which has been the subject of much hatred in the internet age. I don't know, I actually found it a not bad pop song composed for a kiddie flick. (Oh, it's no Ballad of Davy Crockett, but I don't think anyone expects it to be either.) To each their own, as they say.
Having fallen into the public domain, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS has been released by multiple independent labels. Here's a link (again requiring copy and paste, sorry) to the version sold by Something Weird Video: http://www.somethingweird.com/cart.php?target=product&product_id=29016&substring=santa+claus+conquers
|Bomar, Santa, Billy, Girmar, |
Merry Christmas, Everybody!!!