Merry Christmas! I’ve got one more present for you to unwrap, and it’s a doozy! It’s the Mexican fantasy film SANTA CLAUS, brought to you by K. Gordon Murray, the enterprising film distributor who made a career out of unleashing South-of-the-Border lensed luchadore and children’s flicks on American audiences. SANTA CLAUS made oodles of money for good ol’ K. Gordon, and he rereleased it every few years to bank oodles more!
In this version of the Kris Kringle legend, Santa Claus lives in a castle up in the clouds above the North Pole, and has enlisted children from all over the world to work at Toyland, where they make all the toys for good girls & boys (can you say “slave labor”?). Santa inadvertently summons up The Devil Himself (here called Mr. Pitch), who does his best (worst?) to get kids to misbehave and piss off Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. Santa’s all-seeing Eye of Agamotto (er, that’s Cosmic Telescope… sorry, wrong movie!) helps him see the mischief Pitch’s trying to spread around, so Santa’s good buddy Merlin the Wizard concocts some Magic Powder to put the kids to sleep on Christmas Eve, and a Magic Flower that renders him invisible. But Pitch is up to his old tricks, cutting a hole in Santa’s bag that dumps his magic stuff, and the Jolly One winds up treed by a vicious dog just as daylight is approaching. Can Merlin save Christmas? Of course he can!
I know he’s supposed to be jolly, but Santa’s manical laughter throughout the film makes it seem like he’s had too much Tequila-spiked eggnog and Acapulco Gold (and speaking of mind-altering substances, little Lupita’s dream about the Dancing Dolls comes off more like an LSD-fueled nightmare!). The movie’s so nonsensical, it makes SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS look like Academy Award material! Yet it’s got a charm of it’s own, and you’ll find yourself laughing as manically as Santa himself while watching 1959’s SANTA CLAUS:
And remember, as Santa says during the film, “A dream is a wish that the heart makes” (hmmm… seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before…)
Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.
Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy father’s assistant Haskell (“of the New York office”), goes to the police, who laugh her off, thinking the crime novel’s gone to her brain. So Nikki seeks help from the mystery writer himself, Wayne Morgan, who wants nothing to do with this ditzy dame (and neither does his society gal, Joyce Williams). Nikki learns at a newsreel screening the man was shipping magnate Josiah Waring, whose body was moved from the scene of the crime to his Long Island estate to make his death look like he fell off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree.
The plucky girl heads to Long Island, and is mistaken for Waring’s “fiancé”, nightclub singer Margot Martin, by the deceased’s irresponsible nephew, Arnold Waring. She’s arrived just in time for the reading of the will, in which Arnold and his more sedate brother Jonathan receive a grand total of a dollar each, while the bulk of the estate goes to Margot. Nikki keeps up the charade, and finds a pair of bloody slippers stashed in Waring’s room. The trail leads to the Circus Club, where Nikki meets the real Margot, and she and Wayne get arrested for the murder of the club’s manager. Nikki’s bailed out, not by Haskell, but Arnold, and the entertaining comedy-mystery winds up with a suspenseful conclusion that’ll keep you guessing whodunnit right until the end.
Deanna’s a delight in a film that juggles elements of screwball comedy, musical segments, film noir, and straight mystery, never once dropping any of the balls. Deanna was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time (second only to Bette Davis), and the studio lavished attention on their star, with numerous costume and hairstyle changes throughout the film. Of course, her beautiful soprano voice is on display, and she sings “Give Me a Little Kiss”, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and the Christmas perennial “Silent Night”, sweetly serenading her dad in San Francisco over the phone on Christmas Eve:
The supporting cast is a real Christmas present for Familiar Face spotters: there’s Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring, Dan Duryea as his wastrel brother Arnold, the underrated and underutilized David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL) as Wayne, the late Patricia Morison as Joyce, Edward Everett Horton as the flustered Haskell, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris as a pair of henchmen, Samuel S. Hinds as the family lawyer, plus Jane Adams , Bobby Barber, Barbara Bates, Ben Carter (Mantan Moreland’s longtime vaudeville partner), Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Jaqueline deWit (as nasty Aunt Charlotte Waring), Tom Dugan, William Frawley , Thurston Hall (the unfortunate victim), a pre-stardom Lash LaRue, George Lloyd, Sam McDaniel (the friendly train porter), Matt McHugh, Maria Palmer (the real Margot), Addison Richards, and Bert Roach, among many others.
LADY ON A TRAIN’s screenplay was written by Edward Beloin and Robert O’Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who knew a thing or two about mysteries – he was the creator of Simon Templar, aka The Saint! DP Woody Bredell adds some shadowy shots reminiscent of his work on Universal’s horror and noir flicks that enhance the film’s overall atmosphere, and Bernard B. Brown (who once contributed sound effects for Warner’s early Merrie Melodies cartoons) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Every Christmas season, I try to find holiday-themed films a little off the beaten track, and LADY ON A TRAIN is a real gem. Add it to your Christmas watch list!
There’s no sign of Robin Hood to be found in the Roy Rogers vehicle TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD. However, the film has gained a cult following among sagebrush aficionados for the plethora of cowboy stars gathered together in this extremely likable little ‘B’ Western directed by Republic Pictures workhorse William Whitney , with plenty of songs by Roy and the Riders of the Purple Sage to go along with that trademark Republic fightin’ and a-ridin’ action (thanks, stuntmen Art Dillon, Ken Terrell, and Joe Yrigoyen!).
Some rustlers have been stealing Christmas trees from ‘retired actor’ Jack Holt’s tree farm. The benign Jack raises his trees to sell at cost to parents of poor kids, but avaricious J.C. Aldridge (Emory Parnell ) and his foreman Mitch McCall (former Our Gang member Clifton Young ) want to put an end to it and corner the Christmas tree market! U.S. Forestry Agent Roy is out to stop the varmints, along with his goofy sidekick Splinters McGonigle (Gordon Jones ) and his kid sister, whose name, appropriately enough, is Sis (Carol Nugent)! Aldridge’s purdy but haughty daughter Toby (Penny Edwards) is sent to get Jack to sell out, and when he refuses, the baddies use every dirty trick in the book (including murder!) to put him out of business!
Toby has a change of heart when she learns McCall has kidnapped her pappy after the villains resort to arson, causing Jack to be overcome by smoke inhalation. Things look bleak, as the tree wranglers are scared to bring the firs to market, so Sis gets the idea to call in the troops: Western icons Rex Allen, George Cheseboro, Crash Corrigan , William Farnum, Monte Hale, Tom Keene , Allan “Rocky” Lane, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler ! They rush the trees by wagon over a burning bridge (with special effects courtesy of Republic’s Lydecker Brothers), the baddies are defeated, and Christmas for them thar poor kids is saved!
Anyone familiar with these Roy Rogers Westerns knows about the weird mix of Old West cowboys in modern times, and this one is no exception. Roy’s overgrown Boy Scout character is pure corn, but he was a big box office draw for the kiddies, and the film sure looks good in Trucolor (Technicolor’s poor cousin). Jack Holt, older and balding, is still as square-jawed as ever, and it’s a treat to see him along with all the other former cowboy stars under one Western sky. They don’t actually get to do much besides a little shooting and riding, but that’s okay, their mere presence helps up grade the material. Despite all these cowboy heroes appearing together, it’s Roy’s palomino Trigger, “The Smartest Horse in the West” , who receives second billing (his German Shepherd Bullet is featured, too)!
Roy gets to sing a few songs with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage (“Home Town Jubilee”, “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny”, “Every Day is Christmas in the West”), and there’s a cute subplot involving Sis and her pet turkey Sir Galahad, who Splinters envisions as a tasty Christmas dinner! Nobody did these things better than Republic, and it’s all harmless fun from the waning days of the Saturday matinee Westerns. The glimpse of cowboy heroes past makes it more than worth your time, and while it’s no classic, it sho’ nuff is a lot of fun!
(Okay, so technically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE isn’t a Christmas Movie. But neither is DIE HARD, though many consider it to be because it’s set during the holiday season. Well, so is this film, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a James Bond Christmas Movie, so I’m gonna go with that!)
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was the first Bond film to not star Sean Connery . Instead, newcomer George Lazenby was given the plum role of 007. Lazenby was a model whose claim to fame was a British TV commercial for a chocolate bar; despite having virtually zero acting experience, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli offered him an audition and gave him the part. Critics of the time derided Lazenby’s performance, more due to the fact that he wasn’t Sean Connery than anything else. Looking back on the film, he isn’t bad at all; he handles the action, romance, and quips more than adequately, and makes Bond all-too human. Perhaps that’s the trouble, that they wanted their super-spy to be super, but personally I think Lazenby made a fine Bond, and wish he’d continued in the part.
Along with humanizing 007, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE gives us a back-to-basics approach, with more emphasis on plot and less gadgets and gimmicks. This is evident in the pre-credits sequence, where Bond (whose new face isn’t fully shown until around the halfway mark) saves a young woman from drowning herself in the ocean, then is attacked by and fights off some unknown assailants (and gets off the witty line “This never happened to the other fellow”). There’s no bombastic theme song; what we get instead is a montage of the previous Bond films inside a stylized martini glass, as if to state “out with the old, in with the new”!
The young woman is Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo, who prefers to be called Tracy (“Teresa was a saint; I am not”), who turns out to be the daughter of European crime boss Draco, who may have information leading to the location of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld. But Bond is taken off the Blofeld case by M (still played by Bernard Lee ), and the licenced-to-kill agent angrily submits his resignation. The loyal Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell ) arranges instead for Bond to be granted two weeks leave. Bond travels to Portugal to meet Draco, who thinks Bond would make a good match for Tracy, and uses his information as leverage.
Bond and Tracy fall in love for real, and 007 then goes back on Blofeld’s trail, disguising himself as a genealogist to infiltrate the SPECTRE chief’s Swiss Alps mountaintop lair. Blofeld is posing as a benevolent research scientist seeking to cure the world’s allergies, and his patients are twelve beautiful women – Bond’s in heaven! But heaven can wait, as he discovers Blofeld’s fiendish plan to use the girls as his “Angels of Death” and spread his deadly “Virus Omega”, which will cause infertility among all species of life on Earth and the destruction of the human race unless his demands are met…
There’s no lacking on the action front, with exciting sequences like Bond’s daring escape down the mountain on skis while pursued by Blofeld and his minions, an icy stock car race in Tracy’s Mercury Cougar XR7, Bond vs. Blofeld in a bobsled chase, and Draco’s team assault on Blofeld’s lair. First time director Peter Hunt had been an editor on several Bond films and was more than familiar with the territory. Editing chores were taken over by John Glen, who’d eventually move to the director’s chair for five Bonds (the final three with Roger Moore, two with Timothy Dalton).
Diana Rigg was no stranger to the spy game, having spent three seasons as Mrs. Emma Peel on TV’s THE AVENGERS. Diana makes a great Bond girl as Tracy, the only woman he’d ever fallen in love with to this point, and can hold her own in the action department (*SPOILER ALERT* her death by Blofeld’s assassin after her wedding to James comes as a sad but necessary shock, as Bond must always remain a man alone). A pre-KOJAK Telly Savalas is an elegantly evil Blofeld (though my favorite is still Charles Gray ). Italian star Gabrielle Ferzetti (L’AVVENTURA, WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) is equally elegant as the cultured crime lord Draco. Among those “Angels of Death” you’ll find Julie Ege (Hammer’s CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT), Joanna Lumley (ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’s Patsy), Catherine Schell (SPACE: 1999’s Maya), and Angela Scoular (the ’67 Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE).
As for George Lazenby, he marched to his own drum, and has had a varied career, including the Italian giallo WHO SAW HER DIE?, some kung-fu films for producer Raymond Chow, and the French soft-core EMMANUELLE series. His post-Bond work doesn’t amount to much, but he’s happy. We’re happy too, if only for his one appearance as Her Majesty’s Greatest Secret Agent. I’ll leave you with James & Tracy’s love theme, “We Have All the Time in the World”, sung by jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong:
Before Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and The Grinch, nearsighted cartoon star Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus ) headlined the first animated Christmas special, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL. First broadcast on NBC-TV in 1962, the special is presented as a Broadway musical, with Magoo as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Directed by Chuck Jones acolyte Abe Levitow , it features songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (FUNNY GIRL), and a voice cast that includes Morey Amsterdam , Jack Cassidy , Royal Dano, Paul Frees (of course!) , Jane Kean, and Les Tremayne. And yes, that is Magoo’s fellow UPA cartoon stablemate Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim! Besides 1938’s Reginald Owen version , this may very well be my favorite adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas classic! So here’s my Christmas gift to you all, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL in its entirety!:
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?
If you grew up in the “Monster Kid” generation like me… well, you’re old! That is, old enough to remember THE MUNSTERS, the silly 60’s sitcom about a family of monsters adjusting to life in suburbia. The show ran two seasons and inspired a feature film, 1966’s MUNSTER, GO HOME!, with Fred Gwynne (Herman, the Frankenstein’s Monster surrogate), Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily, a vampire resembling Carroll Borland in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE), Al Lewis (Grandpa, aka Count Dracula himself!), and Butch Patrick (Eddie, a wolf-boy) reprising their roles. The Munsters returned in a 1981 TV Movie THE MUNSTERS’ REVENGE with Gwynne, DeCarlo, and Lewis, then as a 1988-91 syndicated sitcom THE MUNSTERS TODAY, this time starring John Schuck (Herman), Lee Meriweather (Lily) and Howard Morton (Grandpa).
The fright family have proved durable, and were trotted out yet again for a 1996 holiday TV Movie, THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS. I’m usually not a fan of reboots, being a stickler for the originals (as us old folks do!), but this one surprisingly stuck to the spirit of the classic series. Okay, so it’s not the original cast, but the actors involved captured the essence of The Munsters, and the set recreates the Munster Mansion’s groovy gloom. Most importantly, it made me laugh out loud in places!
The story concerns little Eddie Munster (Bug Hall, THE LITTLE RASCALS) homesick for a traditional Transylvanian Christmas, and the family trying to cheer him up. Herman (Sam McMurray of TV’s DINOSAURS and KING OF QUEENS) takes a series of part time jobs to earn enough money to purchase the year’s hottest item, a Marquis De Sade Dungeon Action Playset! Lily (Ann Magnuson, MAKING MR. RIGHT) gets Eddie involved with decorating the house and yard, Transylvanian style. Marilyn (Elaine Hendrix), the “ugly duckling” of the bunch, sends Christmas invitations to long-lost family members (Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, etc).
Grandpa (stand-up comic Sandy Baron, Jack Klompus on SEINFELD), who tells everyone within earshot he was “Eastern Europe’s preeminent alchemist”, uses his wizardry to conjure up snow in Southern California. But his experiment backfires, and instead conjures up none other than Santa Claus, along with a couple of naughty elves. Now Santa’s stuck in LA while Grandpa tries to figure out how to reverse the spell. The naughty elves, sick and tired of working every Christmas and just wanting to party, try to slip a mickey in Santa’s figgy pudding, and Jolly Ol’ St. Nick transmogrifies into a giant fruitcake (Elf #!: “But what if, while we’re gone, someone tries to eat Santa?” Elf #2: “Never happen – NOBODY likes fruitcake!”). Can Grandpa’s mad science restore Santa in time to save Christmas Eve, and will little Eddie finally get his traditional Transylvanian Christmas?
There’s gobs of ghoulish humor and references to Ghosts of Classic Horror Past. The cast also features marvelous Mary Woronov as neighbor Edna Dimwitty, winner of the neighborhood Christmas decorating contest five years running, and out to stop Lily’s gruesome tableau from taking first prize. Producer John Landis (AN AMERCIAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE) is an old ‘Monster Kid’ himself, and certainly knows the territory. Veteran TV writers Ed Ferrara (who was a part time pro wrestler and worked behind the scenes for WWF & WCW in their 90’s heydays) and Kevin Murphy (later the head writer for DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) put together a fun filled script, and director Ian Emes, an animator noted for his work with Pink Floyd, aids tremendously with his bizarre visual concepts.
THE MUNSTERS SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS first aired on Fox , and is available online, streaming, and DVD. Sure, it gets a bit saccharine in the scenes between Eddie and Santa, but whaddaya want – it’s a Christmas TV Movie! I really enjoyed this pretty much forgotten holiday classic, certain to make a “scary little Christmas” for the ‘Monster Kid’ in everyone!