Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, The Santa Clause, Santa Claus: the Movie, Bad Santa, the unforgettable Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: we all have a preferred depiction of Saint Nicholas on film, the selection of which grows larger each and every Christmas. The tradition of Santa in cinema goes back 120 years to a couple of obscure 1897 shorts, Santa Claus Filling Stockings and The Christmas Tree Party, made by a company called American Mutoscope, but it finds its fullest early expression in the following year's Santa Claus.
Directed by hypnotist and magic lanternist turned filmmaker George Albert Smith, this 66-second production, though a highly elaborate one for the time, purports to show just how Santa Claus makes a visit to drop off gifts for a couple of sleeping children. When their nanny turns off the lights for the night, we see superimposed on their darkened wall a vision of the jolly old elf himself landing on the roof and clambering down the chimney.
"What makes this treatment considerably more interesting than a conventional piece of editing," writes the British Film Institute's Michael Brooke, "is the way that Smith links the shots in terms of both space and time, by placing the new image over the space previously occupied by the fireplace, and continuing to show the children sleeping throughout."
Brooke calls that effect "cinema's earliest known example of parallel action and, when coupled with double-exposure techniques" that Smith had developed for his previous films, it makes Santa Claus "one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then." He notes also that Smith corresponded with Georges Méliès, his fellow pioneer of not just special effects but cinema itself, around the time of this film, no surprise since "the two men shared a common goal in terms of creating an authentic cinema of illusion."
Watch Santa Claus on this Christmas Day, and you'll find that, in the words of Kieron Casey at The Totality, "the plot is simple, but the magic is not — viewed over 100 years later, it’s impossible not to be touched to the very core with the wonder on display in the film. In the same way young hands will find the most simple of toys mesmerising when touched for the first time, there is a real innocence and enthusiasm in G.A. Smith’s film – it’s a short movie which is full of imagination and discovery, the type of which will never again be experienced in cinema." But seeing as Santa Claus existed long before cinema and will exist long after it, rest assured that he'll bring his trademark twinkle to any storytelling medium humanity comes up with next.
Santa Claus will be added to our list of Classic Silent Films, a subset of our collection 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.