(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)
By Doug Gibson
Every December the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."
We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.
There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!
Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?
Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?
Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.
So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:
"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)
And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:
* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it.
Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:
* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."
A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Also, YouTube has all three (see Santa Claus below). However, the live action of Santa and the Three Bears is getting hard to find. Most prints omit it.