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Santa Week Day 2: John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Nicholas Webster

Writer: Glenville Mareth, based on a story by Paul L. Jacobson

Cast: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Chris Month, Pia Zadora, Leila Martin, Charles Renn, James Cahill, Ned Wertimer, Doris Rich, Carl Don

Plot: On the planet Mars, a pair of Martian children watch a TV broadcast from Earth featuring Santa Claus (John Call) as he prepares for his yearly rounds. Their father, Kimar (Leonard Hicks) realizes that the children of Mars are restless and unhappy, and turns to the ancient Chochem (Carl Don) for advice. Chochem explains that the Martian children are upset because they don’t have Christmas, so Kimar takes the logical step of invading Earth to kidnap Santa. The incompetent Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) stows away, having never seen Earth before, and the Martians are soon discovered in orbit by the United States government, which scrambles to shoot the spaceship down.

Landing on Earth, the Martians encounter a pair of children, Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), whom they abduct after interrogating them about where to find Santa. One of the Martians, Voldar (Vincent Beck) continues to express his displeasure with the plan, and the human children make his disposition even worse. When they arrive at the North Pole, the children escape the ship, and Kimar sends a robot to catch them, because for some reason Nicholas Webster thought it would be a better use of his funding to spray-paint some cardboard boxes silver than to pay a writer to take a second pass at the script. The robot also fights a guy in a really bad polar bear costume that the child actors fail to convince us is real. Once the robot recaptures the children, he and the Martians get Santa as well, using their previously unmentioned weapon that allows them to freeze time.

On the journey back to Mars, Santa comforts Billy and Betty and begins to win over all the Martians except Voldar, who we know by now is the villain because he has a black mustache. As a rocket from Earth follows the Martians, Voldar discovers that Billy sabotaged the radar screen, and decides to take care of things by shoving Santa and the kids in an airlock. No really, that’s what tries to do. And if it weren’t for Santa using his magic to save them – off-screen – they’d be dead and the audience would be happier. On Mars, Santa is given a large, elaborate machine consisting of a few chutes, buttons, and lights, intended to make his toys for him. As Santa and the kids try to make their peace with their new life of slavery, Dropo puts on one of Santa’s suits and begins dancing around like a lunatic, before being mistaken for the real Santa and kidnapped by Voldar, who sabotages the machine.

Voldar’s “forces” (such as they are) attack Santa and the kids in the toy room, where he is summarily humiliated by being beaten back by children and their playthings. Somehow, this convinces Kimar to take Santa home to Earth and make Dropo the Santa Claus on Mars. Don’t think about it too much, it’ll give you a holiday nosebleed.

Thoughts: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is, by any reasonable standard, an absolutely terrible movie. The story is absurd. The acting is incompetent. The special effects, make-up and set design look like they were all done by the same seven-year-old child who is desperately attempting to convey his vision of both the North Pole and Mars, all on a budget of approximately four dollars and eleven cents after remembering about it at 2:30 a.m. the night before it was due. And yet, despite that, it’s such a deliciously stupid movie that it has been riffed not only by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but by both of its successor franchises, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (Yes. I own all three versions.) Anything so bad has to be good.

But goodness, where to begin with the badness? Well… with Dropo, I guess. He’s a stupid character, to be sure, one that flashes around bland slapstick and over-the-top antics that nevertheless manage to be completely underwhelming. But it’s rather hypocritical of the Martians to attack Dropo – at least he’s open in his incompetence. The rest of the crew is just as stupid as he is, but less obvious about it. When Dropo is wearing Santa’s clothing, our main antagonist Volar is too idiotic to tell the difference, even though his skin is still green and the Santa hat is literally dangling from the antenna on Dropo’s permanently affixed Martian helmet. Their kidnapping plan is idiotic on the face of it, and from the moment they enter Earth orbit they make one mistake after another. They have a “radar screen,” but fail to use it early enough to prevent becoming targets. They show themselves to a pair of children in order to find out where Santa Claus lives, even though the answer to that question (it’s the North Pole, guys) was included in the very news broadcast that alerted them to Santa’s existence in the first place. They kidnap those same children so that they can’t tell the authorities what the Martians are planning, even though they do absolutely everything out in the open and in full view of the world, then put the kids in the care of the imminently stupid Dropo, who immediately starts breaking the rules by showing them around the ship and hiding them in a surprisingly spacious radar box. As alien menaces go, these guys rank somewhere below ALF.

Speaking of the radar, that’s the next thing that drives me crazy about this movie, and it’s a flaw in a lot of bad science fiction (which this most certainly is). At assorted points in the movie, the Martians use technology that would make the predicaments in other scenes way easier to resolve if they would only remember that such technology exists. Besides the aforementioned radar screen, which nobody remembers exists until it’s too late to keep the humans from discovering them, we also have a hilariously stupid robot that is never used except to fight a polar bear that makes the one that hangs out at the Coca-Cola store look convincing. Here’s a basic rule, people: if you control a battle robot, you use that robot all the time. And as for the time-freeze gun… why don’t they use that constantly? The situation with the children, the confrontation with Voldar at the end… hell, if I could make somebody freeze I would be waving that gun around on my way to the checkout counter at Walmart.

John Call, our Santa Claus, is probably the best thing about this movie. He’s not bad in the part, but the role is poorly written and he desperately tries to make the most out of the awful material. He sounds like a Santa, he has a dance in his step that feels like a good match for his jokes, which are so bad that even your father would be embarrassed to repeat them to anybody. But he doesn’t save the movie from the depths of mediocrity, and in truth, that’s probably a good thing. If it were even slightly better than it is, it probably wouldn’t have become the classic of cheesy cinema that it now is.

Also, in case you didn’t know, Pia Zadora is in it as one of the Martian kids. It doesn’t get goofier than that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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The Christmas Special Day 1: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerDirector: Larry Roemer

Writers: Robert May, Romeo Muller

Cast: Burl Ives, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, Stan Francis, Paul Kligman, Janis Orenstein, Alfie Scopp

Plot: On a cold winter’s day Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) invites us to listen to the story of the most tumultuous Christmas of all time. The reindeer Donner (Paul Kligman) is shocked when his wife gives birth to a fawn with a glowing red nose. Naming the child Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards), Donner attempts to hide the strange nose from the rest of the reindeer, afraid the boy will never be accepted enough to join Santa’s sleigh team. Rudolph joins in the reindeer games, and his attempt to impress a doe named Clarice (Janis Orenstein) goes off brilliantly… until, in his joy, he exposes his nose. The rest of the reindeer mock him and drive him away, but Clarice follows, trying to convince him his nose is something to be proud of.

In Santa’s workshop, meanwhile, an elf named Hermey (Paul Soles) is feeling trapped in his toymaking tasks… he really wants to be a dentist. He encounters Rudolph, who has just been warned off by Clarice’s father, and the two outcasts strike up a friendship, deciding to become “independent together.” They set off from the North Pole, hoping to find a place where they fit in, but find themselves tracked by the Abominable Snowman. They get stuck in ice, but are rescued by a prospector named Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann), who is determined to mine for silver and gold in the great white north. The three of them are attacked by Abominable, and Yukon breaks them off onto an ice floe to escape. Eventually they arrive at the Island of Misfit Toys, a land populated entirely by playthings that are flawed in some way: a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie, a train with square wheels, a water pistol that only shoots jelly, and other such manufacturer’s defects. They’re taken to the island’s king, Moonracer (Stan Francis, who also voices Santa), who offers to give them shelter for a night if Rudolph agrees to ask Santa to deliver the misfit toys to children so they can finally be happy. That night, however, Rudolph realizes the Abominable Snowman is tracking them via his nose, so he leaves his friends behind.

As time passes, Rudolph grows up and returns to the North Pole two days before Christmas Eve, where he finds that his parents and Clarice are missing, having spent months searching for him. Before he can set out to look for them, an incredible snowstorm strikes. Rudolph manages to find the missing reindeer in a cave, trapped by the Abominable Snowman. He saves them as Hermey and Yukon arrive. Hermey extracts the Snowman’s teeth, but he traps them all before Yukon plunges off a cliff with the monster and is lost. The misfits return to the North Pole, where Santa agrees to deliver the Misfit Toys and Hermey is given permission to set up his dentist’s practice. As apologies are made, Yukon Cornelius appears with the bound and reformed snowman, now called “Bumble,” who cheerfully joins in the celebration by placing the star atop the Christmas tree. All may still be lost, though, because the storm isn’t letting up… until Santa realizes Rudolph’s brilliant nose is just the thing to guide his sleigh.

Thoughts: As far as beloved symbols of the holiday season go, Rudolph didn’t get the most auspicious start… and I’m not talking about the whole “Reindeer Games” thing. Rudolph began life not because someone had a vision, not because of an abiding thirst to add something to the Christmas pantheon, but because a department store wanted to save money. Montgomery Ward had been giving away coloring books to children for a few years and decided it would be cheaper if they made their own instead of just buying them from others, so in 1939 the company assigned copyrighter Robert May to come up with a story. The resulting poem, about an outcast reindeer with a red nose, became a hit. In 1944 Max Fleisher’s studio made an animated short starring the character, in 1949 songwriter Johnny Marks adapted the poem into a song made legendary by Gene Autry, and throughout the 1950s and 60s he starred in an annual comic book special published by DC. But the most enduring (and, I’d argue, most endearing) version of the character is this one, the one who raced onto NBC and 1964 and brought with him not only the hope for the Christmas season, but also the beginning of a golden age of animated specials by Rankin/Bass Productions.

Rudolph’s tale has a good, positive message even in the original poem: it’s a story about accepting who you are and finding your utmost potential. But the added dimension this special gives to a relatively simple story is a big part of what makes it so memorable. When Hermey first shows up, wanting to practice dentistry, it feels like a throwaway joke at first. And it’s a funny joke, don’t misunderstand. The notion of an elf tossing away his heritage to do something so decidedly un-elflike is silly on the face of it. But Hermey’s character arc parallel’s Rudolph’s in a very interesting way. Rudolph is separated from the other reindeer by something physical that he can’t change; Hermey is separated from the other elves by something spiritual that he wants to change. The friendship the two of them strike up is undeniably heartwarming.

Although the rest of the cast hasn’t become as famous as Rudolph himself, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius and Bumble have most definitely ascended to the level of B-list players on the Christmas scene. Yukon is goofy enough to be fun in any context, and in most company you need only say “I want to be a dentist!” in Hermey’s intonation to get across the point that you feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole. But Bumble is my favorite of the trio. Although Rankin/Bass are best known for their Christmas specials (and for their later 80s animation), they did occasionally swerve into other seasons. Bumble was their first great monster, and the sensibility that went into his design would turn up three years later, when they produced the feature film Mad Monster Party, including versions of all the great Universal monsters.

The Misfit Toys, likewise, have become classics, but I’ve always felt like the writers were stretching just a bit with this section. Some of the “defects” seem almost too silly to accept (the Charlie-in-the-Box, for example… doesn’t it occur to anybody he could just change his name?). Still, the charm of the characters is enough to deflate these more practical notions, and the idea that a toy needs the love of a child to be complete is the sort of beautiful thing that Jim Henson and the boys at Pixar would pick up on in years to come. I’m not saying that Toy Story never would have happened if it weren’t for Rudolph, but I guarantee you the people who made that movie were fans of this one.

Although the original Johnny Marks song is the hallmark of the special’s musical numbers, it would be practically criminal to ignore the rest of the music he composed to accompany it. “We’re a Couple of Misfits,” the song Rudolph and Hermey each sing solo before coming together for a brilliant duet, is almost an anthem for outcasts, and deservedly so. It’s quick, it’s catchy, and it’s infinitely adaptable. Burl Ives is at his all-time best turning out “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas,” both songs that have become perennials in their own right – and with all due respect to Gene Autry, it’s the Ives version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I hear whenever the music begins playing in my head (usually a few days before Thanksgiving, at which point I attempt to force it back until the turkey and stuffing are digested… or at least eaten).

Having Rudolph grow up during the course of this cartoon was an interesting choice. This was, if you’ll recall, Rankin/Bass’s first big Christmas hit, and they probably didn’t expect it to become the trademark of their brand. They’d bring Rudolph back for other specials over the years, when he would save the New Year and, along with Frosty, the Fourth of July, but whenever he turned up after this, he was the young Rudolph again. And that’s as it should be. That is, after all, the way he went down in history.