Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." -Luke 2:10-11
Monday, December 24, 2018
Saturday, December 15, 2018
MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE (1964 - color)
The short story: "A kid learns some vague lesson with the help of a witch, a talking Christmas tree, a giant, and Santa Claus."
Oh, wow. I hardly know where to begin. As you can see, I've managed to unearth yet another crazy Christmas movie. Moreover, one of those weird Christmas movies which actually takes place on halloween!
Kids' movies really seemed to come into their own during the 60's and 70's, if only because it was during this period that producers realized kiddie fare didn't require much in the way of production values. Earlier kiddie films usually strained for some sort of grandeur, being shot on sound stages meant to evoke fantasy worlds of castles, magical woodlands, candy palaces and the like. With the 60's, the trend seemed to move toward the more mundane. Real houses, streets, and parks became the ideal shooting locations, as now kids found fantastic events invading their familiar world, rather than being taken away to some fantasy land as has been the earlier premise.
In a sense, one can see this as a natural extension of fantasy films in general. Monster movies in particular during the 50's had greater impact by bringing their unearthly menaces into small American everytowns, whereas earlier decades saw horror usually strike in far off European locals. Kids raised on this 50's variation of monster movie probably didn't see anything strange about their more fanciful fare following a similar track. For the producers, both genres moved in this direction as a matter of budgetary concern. Kiddie flicks were known for having the most meager of budgets* anyway. The result is a bunch of movies about and for kids which seldom rise above the level of an ambitious home-made production their parents might've forced them into making for the other kids in the neighborhood.
(* This condition remained more or less axiomatic until the 80's. Film techniques had been refined to a point that truly spectacular effects began to define fantasy cinema. Kiddie fare in the 80's tended toward massive sets and incredible effects, as in THE NEVER ENDING STORY and it's brethren. Ironically, most of the smaller scale, more intimate kiddie films produced afterward tended to be animated!)
Of course, something producers of kiddie flicks often misunderstand is that kids don't require an identification figure their own age. If there's a knight in a fantasy play, the kids in the audience are more likely to identify with him than with his young apprentice or whatever that was added to actually provide an identification figure. An obvious example of this is Batman. His writers introduced Robin as an identification figure, seemingly unaware that the boys reading the title were already identifying with Batman just fine. It would benefit writers to look at the way children actually play. If they play soldier or cowboy or whatever, they're not pretending to be child soldiers or cowboys or whatever. The boy at play always imagines himself to be a man, because it's the grown man who actually gets to do stuff. I imagine this also applies to girls, given games like playing house or nurse involve pretending to be grownups as well.
So it is with modern fantasy flicks. Though any protagonist would do, it was felt that a child should be the main star in an effort to appeal to the child audience. More often than not, this just comes across as an excuse to not try overly hard to make a good movie. "It's just for kids," they seem to be saying, "it doesn't have to be great because they won't care." Fortunately, the world at this time still had Walt Disney to show how it was done. The independent producer hoping to get some coin from the movie racket, though, saw the kiddie flick as the perfect means of making some returns on a minimal investment.
Christmas, of course, appeals to children as the holiday seems to center on presenting them with gifts. One has to grow a little before fully understanding the gift of God's Son to take away the sins of a fallen humanity in an act of loving reconciliation with the ultimate parent. To the child, Christmas is mostly like an extra birthday, albeit one in which your siblings get presents also. Getting time off from school takes priority over such cosmic matters as eternal salvation and timeless love, at least for the first decade or so of one's life on Earth. I assume this isn't that unusual when it comes to childish thinking. I know I myself was a pretty self-centered child. Still, the season is associated with the material desires of kids in the eyes of advertisers and producers.
The ultimate Christmas kiddie flick, of course, is SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS. More opulent, but less reserved, was the seasonal favorite SANTA CLAUS imported from Mexico by K. Gordon Murray. For the independent producer, though, MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE offered up as much strangeness for a fraction of the cost.
Following our credits, we open in black and white. I at first wondered if this print had to be pieced together from multiple sources, but this is instead a steal from THE WIZARD OF OZ. It also represents a stab at showmanship, I suppose, though the first few minutes look exactly like home movie footage that might've been shot a decade or two earlier. As you might expect from a movie called MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE (not 'the' Magic Christmas Tree, either, it's just a generic one it seems), we open on a calendar alerting us to the fact that it's... halloween!
A young boy named Mark chats with his friends concerning what they'll be doing that night. One young man will be attending a party with girls, a situation sneered at by the other boys, though not with the level of teasing that would arise in real life. Mark suggests a visit to the neighborhood's haunted house to get a peek at the resident Old Witch. Mark's friends go with him to the house, but take off as Mark enters the grounds. (The movie doesn't move anywhere near this fast, but the drawn-out scenes that pass slowly by us really don't lend themselves to overmuch comment. The film runs an hour, but you can describe it in detail and give the impression that it's only half that long.)
It's broad daylight, by the way, so don't get the idea that the witch-and-her-haunted-house sequence offers any spooky visuals. In fact, there's nothing particularly spooky about the house at all. It's occupant, however, is an ugly old hag with a pet tabby named Lucifer. Frankly, she doesn't seem to've done much to counter the rumors of her being a witch. Lucifer gets himself stuck up a tree and the Old Woman asks a spooked Mark to retrieve the cat. In doing so, Mark falls, hits his head, and wakes to find the world is now in COLOR.
This is explained as Mark now being able to see beauty rather than limiting monotone self-interest. There's actually a fairly intriguing concept there that a more skilled storyteller could work with... But this is MAGIC CHRISTMAS TREE, so just skip it. Oddly, the color photography does look slightly crisper than the rudimentary black and white footage. I'd applaud this if not for the fact that the movie opened with a long stretch of dull footage and all but a captive audience has probably already left the theater!
The Old Woman is now dressed in the regalia of a storybook Old Witch, though she now comes across as far less sinister for some reason, and she thanks Mark for getting her cat down. She then rewards him with a magic ring containing a magic seed which will bring forth a magic tree when planted according to a specific set of magic instructions -the ultimate payoff of this being three magical wishes being magically granted by said magical tree. These instructions seem needlessly complex (apart from expanding the running time to feature length) and involve a wishbone from a Thanksgiving turkey planted with the seed, twirling of the ring, and confusing magic words the kid is supposed to remember a month later.
It's during this scene, by the way, that the dreadfully amateurish nature of all this loses any charm it might've possessed. Now it's just painful, as scenes drag on and on and unnatural lines are spouted by non-actors (said lines evidently looped in in post without an iota more smoothness than they were spoken during the actual shooting). It's the sort of film that really makes you appreciate the craft of more capable hands. (Ironically, it also gives the film the vibe of art house fare supposedly created by cinematic geniuses.)
Anyway, we zip forward to Thanksgiving. Mark begs his father for the turkey's wishbone. He almost doesn't get it, but Mom has already promised. Mark has a slightly older sister seated at the table, too. Though sibling rivalry could offer a means of eating up more running time, Sis has little interaction with Mark. In fact, I don't know why she's there at all. We'll see quite a bit of Mom and Dad, together and by themselves, but Sis just breezes through the background like a phantom. In fact, in this scene, we see nothing but the back of her head. Why include her in the first place? Was she the producer's daughter?
During the night, Mark goes through the ritual explained to him and plants the seed in the back yard before spouting some magic words. A streak of lightning and clap of thunder send Mark scurrying back inside the house. The moment he's gone, however, a magical powder of some sort falls on the ground. Immediately, a fully-grown tree appears in the middle of the back yard.
The next day, Dad is puzzled as to why the morning paper doesn't carry any news of last night's freak storm. Then he heads out to mow the back yard. For some reason, this sequence goes on and on (like much of the film does) as we see Dad start the mower and push the machine about the yard as Mark's pet turtle looks on! The payoff is when Dad crashes the mower head on into the tree, apparently with enough force to reduce the mower to a pile of smoking parts! The mysterious tree doesn't garner as much conversation as one might imagine. Dad sets about to remove the tree, which proves impervious to both a saw and an ax. Dad gives up and leaves the tree where it is.
Again, all this might generate a little more concern (or at least mention) than it does. After all, one can easily imagine a science fiction picture about killer vegetation opening with the discovery of an indestructible tree which wasn't there the night before. Presumably, such a picture would be a bit swifter in getting to it's destination, too. (In fact, there's a segment in the anthology horror film DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS which involves the mysterious appearance of a plant which proves difficult to destroy. Much like the tree in this film, that plant proves not only stubborn, but intelligent as well.)
Come Christmas Eve and we learn Mark's family likes to put things off to the last minute. Only now, well into the night of Christmas Eve, are Dad, Mom, and Sis heading out to find a tree and do some gift shopping! Mark is left behind, but he's not as alone as he might think. The Tree suddenly starts talking to Mark! The Tree tells Mark to say his magic words and then the timber blinks out of existence! Or so it seems. It actually teleports into the living room and begins speaking with Mark there. Seeing the Tree magically adorn itself with tinsel, Mark expresses a desire to have such power. The Tree tells him to make an official wish, and Mark goes through the routine with the ring and magic words before requesting infinite power -for the space of but one hour!
No more than Mark does with his supernatural abilities, we should be grateful he wanted them for only an hour. The most impressive thing he does is turn the night into day before wandering around the neighborhood seeing who he can mess with. As you might imagine, the night of Christmas Eve finds several people going about their routine duties like making deliveries and stocking up on supplies! Also of note, none of them seem the slightest bit disturbed by the sudden daylight pouring down upon them. (Another thing is that this was obviously shot in the Summer. I know it's supposed to be California, but it just doesn't feel Christmas-y with all the greenery and convertibles and such...)
Mark's idea of exercising his powers involves pointing at a delivery truck and making it drive off by itself, making it's hapless driver chase after it. Then he does the same thing to a squad car, causing a bunch of cops to give chase, followed by a growing number of business owners and pedestrians (who, again, are going about their business on the night of Christmas Eve in 1964)! Most oddly, Mark causes a minimal pie fight to break out between a pasty shop owner and his pretty blonde associate. For the next several minutes, the shop owner will chase her down the street, both of them refusing to wipe the pie off their faces...
The self-moving automobile trick was too good not to use it again, I guess, because Mark climaxes his supernatural dominion of the town by causing the (weirdly antiquated) fire truck to likewise begin moving by itself. The firemen give chase and eventually climb aboard the moving vehicle in a manner likely meant to suggest the Keystone Kops, had their adventures been shot in such a manner as to indicate that all traffic laws were clearly obeyed during their madcap chases. Apparently, even Mark has limits and calls an end to the scene.
We return to the house (and regular night time) to see Mark's family pull up. They couldn't find a tree (big surprise, it's Christmas Eve and all), and Dad plans to take another swing at the indestructible Tree. It's no longer in the back yard, of course, and Dad steps into the living room. He's shocked to see the Tree there, and in full decoration. Assuming Mark (somehow) did it, Dad fakes like he helped plan the whole thing when Mom enters. (That probably sounds more humorous than the scene actually is.)
Later that night, Mark suddenly becomes a lot more maniacal in his wishes. He suddenly asks the Tree to bring him Santa Claus as his own personal captive! Wow! Since Mark uses the magic words, Tree has to comply and Santa Claus suddenly finds himself trapped on a chair in Mark's living room. Mark dreams of all the neato stuff he can squeeze out of the Jolly One. Sometime later, Santa and the Tree are left alone. Santa asks where Mark has gotten off to.
Somewhere in the wilderness, and back in broad daylight, Mark is hunting with his new BB gun. This, it would seem, is the limit of what he got out of Santa (though how he got it at all remains a mystery, as Santa's magic sack of toys isn't in evidence, only the man himself). At any rate, Mark wanders the woods without finding anything to shoot. When he stops to get a drink from a stream, he is approached by a Giant! Moreover, a giant who is evidently the personification of Greed. The Giant looks forward to making Mark his slave, but seems to be the sort to play fair in giving a kid plenty of chances to reverse his mistakes.
Using the stream as a magic television screen of some sort, the Giant shows Mark a television broadcast showing the public reacting to Santa's disappearance. In tone, this is similar to the aftermath of Santa being kidnapped by Martians in the same year's SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, and even features generous amounts of stock footage. Less military shots here, though, but we do see some jets. At any rate, Mark regrets his greed and begs to return to the house so as to undo his (rather stupid) wish. And indeed, once home, Mark wishes things to return to normal as they were the previous night. It would seem Santa was glued to that chair for nearly a full day! (I have to wonder what Mom and Dad did when they saw him...)
The Tree returns everything to normal before blinking out of existence again. Mark wakes to find the world is still black and white and it's the moment just after he fell out of the tree on halloween afternoon. The old woman, grateful for Mark helping rescue her cat, goes into the house to give the boy some cookies and milk. Mark then looks across to the next hillside and expresses his shock. In a fairly neat camera move (truly saving the best for last), the camera zips across to see a stand of trees on color film. One of them is speaking, and tells Mark that magic is in us all, or something like that, as we finally fade out.
What a weird movie. At only an hour, it's a bit easier to endure than SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY or THE CHRISTMAS MARTIAN, but it's still a challenge. One could joke that the film plays like Ed Wood's Christmas special, but the truth is it's actually more like watching a movie from Doris Wishman. It's static, unfunny, never charming, everything that a Christmas movie shouldn't be. The color is nice, for what that's worth.
Obviously, there isn't a whole lot of Christmas to be found in this particular Christmas movie. The Tree being a Christmas tree isn't really central to the plot, and the inclusion of Santa Claus doesn't seem overly indicative of the date on which the picture is set either. One nice touch is the bit where Mark begs Santa to forgive him, which of course Old Santa has already done. Nor do we get a scene of the family enjoying The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year being restored to it's proper state. A fleeting stock shot glimpse of city decorations is all the seasonal establishment we really get aside from seeing the tree itself covered in tinsel. Everything else here looks like Summer time, complete with green lawns and short sleeves.
As a kiddie flick in general, this isn't exactly gangbusters stuff, either. Mark is a lump, for the most part. His change from bratty kid to greedy monster to reformed child is barely noticeable, as the actor seems to just be going through the motions. He doesn't seem particularly poorly mannered, and his sudden desire to own Saint Nick seems completely unmotivated. The whole idea of his becoming a potential slave to Greed comes and goes with nary a ripple, aside from the idea coming out of nowhere as it does. And of course, since the bulk of the film is but a dream sequence, the film is actually set entirely on halloween!
In the end, one can see why the film has remained so obscure. Even for a 60's independent, the film sits there with full absence of production value or interest. It really feels like a home movie (admittedly, had it been a home movie, it would be a pretty impressive one). I can't say if the film was ever seen on television, though there is evidence of a theatrical release. The film only came to my attention when it surfaced on a Rifftrax Christmas special DVD release. Their print is pretty nice, being low on wear (in fact, I don't recall any wear at all*). The master print was obviously taken from a VHS source, as tracking lines surface a couple of times. Sadly (?) this release does not include the option of viewing the film minus the Nelson/Murphy/Corbett commentary track, since the film is part of a larger show.
* Screening the film again with this in mind, I did spot some light wear -such as a few scratches during the scene where Mark is climbing the tree. No splices, though, that I noticed.
MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!