Eighty year old Fred Astaire takes on nine different roles in THE MAN WITH THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT, his next to last film. Fred is as charming and debonair as ever, and his presence is what carries the saccharine script, with three varied tales of romance, comedy, and drama interwoven and played by a cast of Familiar TV and Movie Faces, kind of like a “very special Christmas episode” of THE LOVE BOAT.
Gary Burghoff (M*A*S*H’s Radar) is a nerdy math teacher in love with his neighbor, a beautiful (are there any other kind?) fashion model (Tara Buckman, THE CANNONBALL RUN). The model secretly digs him too, but the nerd’s too shy to express his feelings, until a chance encounter with a jeweler (Fred) leads him to rent a Santa suit and propose before she makes the mistake of marrying a rich, handsome playboy (again, are there any other kind?). This leads to slapstick hijinks as he pursues her down the runway at Macy’s. Will they finally get together? Is this a TV Christmas Movie? Of course they do!
Story #2 involves John Byner (BIZARRE) as an ex-restauranteur turned street bum because of his fondness for booze. Byner’s got another problem: he found the gun used in a recent bank robbery, and the hoods who dropped it are after him. Taking a cue from his bell-ringing buddy (Ray Vitte, THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY), he too rents a Santa suit to disguise himself and rob a pair of rich ex-vaudevillians (Nanette Fabray , Harold Gould). But the lush passes out, and instead of calling the cops, the couple, along with their butler (Danny Wells, THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SHOW) and their two obnoxious grandkids, nurse him back to health. Then the crooks show up, demanding their gun or else everybody gets it! This one also ends on a slapstick note and, corny though it may be, was my favorite segment, thanks in large part to old pros Fabray and Gould doing some nostalgic soft-shoe routines.
The third story arc gets more heavy, as Bert Convy (TATTLETALES) plays a failed novelist, now a self-important senatorial aide whose work caused him to become estranged from his wife (Brooke Bundy, from just about every TV show made in the 70’s, not to mention A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS) and son (Andre Gower, THE MONSTER SQUAD). The uptight Convy gets the idea to dress like Santa from his chauffeur (Fred again) and surprise the boy before attending a big political speech by the senator. The kid runs away, Convy and Bundy argue, but you just know by the time the credits roll they’ll all be together for Christmas Eve.
Fred pops up everywhere in this, as the costume shop owner, chauffeur, jeweler, an Irish cop, a Macy’s floorwalker, cabbie, hot dog vendor, and Salvation Army chorus director. I don’t think it’ll spoil things to reveal he’s really jolly old St. Nick himself, in New York to spread some Christmas magic to the protagonists. Astaire is graceful as ever, and though he doesn’t dance, he does get to warble the theme song “Once a Year Night” in that trademark light-as-air voice. The late 70’s New York locations add atmosphere, and the cast is more than capable of making the syrupy material work. THE MAN IN THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT won’t disappoint fans of confectionary Christmas films, and it does gives us all one more chance to see Fred Astaire perform his own brand of onscreen magic. What more could you ask for in a Christmas TV Movie?
Merry Christmas from Cracked Rear Viewer!