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Santa Week Day 3: David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Santa Claus the Movie PosterNote: 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: Jeannot Szwarc

Writers: David Newman & Leslie Newman

Cast: David Huddleston, Judy Cornwell, Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, Burgess Meredith, Jeffrey Kramer, Christian Fitzpatrick, Carrie Kei Heim, John Barrard,

Plot: On a Christmas Eve many years ago, a kindly, childless old couple named Claus and Anya (David Hudleston and Judy Cornwell) are lost in a snowstorm. Their reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, collapse from exhaustion, and it seems as though they are lost, frozen to death, until a star shines through the blizzard and reveals a secret community of elves. The elves have been waiting for them, for a very long time – a good-hearted toymaker with no children of his own to take on their eternal mission of delivering toys to all the children of the world.

One of the elves, Patch (Dudley Moore) prepares Claus’s reindeer to join their own, with a magical feed that enables them to fly. The next Christmas Eve, after a blessing from special guest star Burgess “Ancient Elf” Meredith, Claus begins his work. Over centuries, which we pass through by way of convenient montage – we see the legend of Santa Claus spread throughout the world, before we finally arrive in the slick, modern utopia of the 1980s. After centuries at work, Anya convinces Santa to appoint an assistant, a task which quickly turns into a competition. Patch suggests converting the toy workshop to a modern, state-of-the-art, fully automated assembly line, while Dooley (John Barrard) wants to keep making toys the old-fashioned way. Patch easily wins, but nobody realizes the machine has malfunctioned, resulting in a large number of defective toys.

In modern New York we meet Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), a homeless boy who is given food on Christmas Eve by a wealthy girl named Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim). Santa notices Joe while he makes his rounds, and decides to take the boy for a ride – even taking him through a failed attempt at an old trick, “the Super Dooper Looper,” that Donner has never quite been able to pull off. Joe rides with Santa until they come to Cornelia’s house, where she offers to give Joe more food, and Santa encourages him to stay and eat, promising to see him again next Christmas. The next morning, Patch’s toys begin falling apart, and children all over the world turn on Santa. Patch, dejected, resigns as Santa’s assistant and flees the North Pole, hoping to find a way to redeem himself.

Traveling to New York, Patch sees a line of B.Z. Toys flying off the shelf, unaware that they’re being recalled for being cheap and dangerous. He tracks down the head of the company, B.Z. (John Lithgow) and offers to team up on a free giveaway for next Christmas, something that will show Santa his self-worth and that B.Z. sees as an opportunity for much-needed positive publicity. On Christmas Eve, Patch stars in a global commercial to announce his present – a lollipop mixed with the reindeer’s flying powder. B.Z., triumphant, returns home, where his step-niece Cornelia is watching the commercial along with the rest of the world. That year, as Santa delivers his toys, Patch drops off the magic candy in his own high-tech sleigh. Although many children have lost faith in Santa, he meets up with Joe again and gives the boy his first ever Christmas present – a wooden carving of an elf, made by Santa himself, who unconsciously carved the likeness of his missing pal Patch.

The lollipops allow children to float in the air, and Patch becomes an instant celebrity. When he announces his intention to return to the North Pole, B.Z. convinces him to stick around long enough to make a sequel to their hit – a candy cane more potent than the lollipop. Joe gets up sick and hides in Cornelia’s basement, but is found by a boasting B.Z. Things get worse when B.Z.’s flunky, Towzer (Jeffrey Kramer) tells him he discovered – the hard way – when the concentrated candy canes are exposed to heat, they explode.

Cornelia writes Santa and tells him Joe is in trouble. Santa sets out for a rescue mission down two reindeer – Comet and Cupid have the flu. Patch, meanwhile, finds Joe tied up in B.Z.’s basement. He doesn’t believe that Joe is truly a friend of Santa’s until he sees the carving Santa gave him, then the two of them set out for the North Pole together, not knowing the candy canes in the back of Patch’s super sleigh will explode when they heat up. Santa and Cornelia catch up to them at the last minute, as the candy blows up, and the reindeer pull off the heretofore impossible Super Dooper Looper to save them. B.Z., meanwhile, is tracked down by the police and gobbles candy canes to escape – but overdoses, rocketing to space. Santa offers to let Joe stay at the North Pole with him, and Joe asks if Cornelia can stay too… at least until next Christmas.

Thoughts: I was nine when this movie came out, old enough to start feeling cynical about things like Christmas and Santa Claus. And yet this movie never gave me that reaction. From the very beginning, there was something about David Huddleston’s performance as Claus that rang so wonderfully, beautifully true. I don’t know, maybe this is one of those cases where I’m watching the movie through rose-colored nostalgia goggles, but as I sit here almost 30 years later, watching it on the couch with my wife, I find it as sweet and charming as I did when I was a kid, eagerly awaiting the McDonald’s tie-in merchandize. (The product placement is actually pretty obvious now.)

As I got older, I started to realize that one of the reasons I loved this movie so much is because it’s not really the story of Santa Claus. It is in fact – and bear with me now, I can back this up – a remake of Superman: The Movie, which was also produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind and which follows a very similar formula. The movie begins with the introduction of the hero, a seemingly unsurmountable cataclysm, and the revelation that the protagonist is in fact being gifted with great power. We watch as he grows and develops his abilities, and the real villain and main plot isn’t even introduced until nearly the halfway point. Even the movie’s tagline, “Seeing is believing,” echoes Superman’s “You will believe a man can fly.” The Salkinds simply tried to make lightning strike twice, and damn if it didn’t work – at least on me.

Amazingly, Huddleston got third billing in this movie, after the more marketable Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. And don’t get me wrong, both of them are very good – Moore is a silly, loveable scamp with a pure heart, and Lithgow is chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow, but appears to be having the time of his life while he’s doing it. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for Huddleston’s performance. The energy and charm he brings to the role is one of the benchmarks I’ve judged other Cinematic Santas against ever since. From the start, he and Judy Cornwell are completely believable. I helps, I think, that they kick things off with a scene of them as mortals, already delivering toys to children, before they “die” in the snowstorm (and let me tell you, that part freaked out my wife, who hasn’t seen this movie in a very long time and didn’t remember much of it). That moment tells us who these people are, even before they meet their destiny, and like any true superhero origin story, that’s a vital part of believing the mythology.

Although this isn’t a musical, music plays a big part of the film. Henry Mancini steps in here to deliver a truly lovely piece of music, themes for Santa and the North Pole workshop that feel almost traditional, almost ancient, but still snappy and modern. The movie uses several montage sequences, and Mancini’s music pulls you straight through them one at a time. The set design at the North Pole workshop is also perhaps my favorite version of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s bright and insanely colorful, to be certain, but everything is made of wood and has a handcrafted quality that other Santa films (such as The Santa Clause) don’t come close to matching.

Okay, admittedly, in retrospect certain things are a little hard to swallow. The notion that Santa suddenly chooses one homeless kid to take an interest in after centuries of ignoring them seems a bit convenient, for example. And if any child as trusting as Cornelia existed in the real world, she’d be the subject of an Amber Alert before you can say “Ten Lords A-Leaping.” Also, I suppose Santa is technically a kidnapper at the end, and they never entirely explain why the cops bust in on B.Z., necessitating he escape. But John Lithgow as the sleazy toymaker is 100 percent believable, except for the part where he suddenly becomes hellbent on Santa’s destruction for no apparent reason.

This is a case, though, where I can honestly get past that. Although the plot is a little shaky in the second half, the depiction of Santa himself and his workshop is absolutely flawless, and the whole movie has stayed with me for years.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!


Batman Week Day 2: Adam West in Batman: The Movie (1966)

Batman 1966Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith,  Frank Gorshin, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, Stafford Repp, Madge Blake, Reginald Denny

Plot: On a peaceful afternoon, Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are summoned to save a yacht carrying an important scientific innovation to Gotham City. In their other identities as Batman and Robin, the two board their Batcopter (conveniently held and prepared for them by the employees of the Gotham airport) and fly off to investigate the disturbance. After a tussle with a shark (yep), the yacht vanishes. Batman later denies the yacht’s disappearance in a press conference, during which a young Russian reporter named Kitka asks him to take off his mask for a picture. Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) both rebuke the woman, but Batman is more understanding… while still refusing her request.

As the press leave, Batman and the police review known super-criminals at large who could be behind the current unrest. As it turns out there are four: the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). Through a thought process too ridiculous to even attempt to replicate, our heroes determine the four villains are working together and set off to look for clues.

Kitka goes to the Gotham docks, where we discover she’s really Catwoman in disguise. She joins the other villains in their “United Underworld” organization, where they reveal their plan is the disruption of the United World conference in Gotham using a secret invention developed by a man on the yacht, the daft Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny). Batman and Robin determine the yacht that vanished was, in fact, an illusion, and the real yacht was stolen some point prior. As they take to sea in the Batboat, they cruise the ocean above the Penguin’s highly-themed submarine. (How in the hell does he afford a penguin-themed submarine? He never successfully commits a crime, Batman always stops him on this show. Did he win a contest?) The Penguin traps the dynamic duo on a buoy and fires a series of torpedoes at them. When the third hits its target the villains celebrate, but we quickly cut to Batman and Robin in their boat, mourning an (unseen) heroic porpoise that swam in front of the torpedo, giving its life for theirs, and I seriously cannot believe I just typed the preceding sentence.

Back in her “Kitka” disguise, Catwoman makes a date with Bruce Wayne, planning to kidnap him as bait for a trap for Batman. Batman orders Robin and Alfred (Alan Napier) to tail him on the date in case the villains make a move. That night, after a dinner at the sort of restaurant that only exists in movies (with wandering violinists and no other customers), she takes Bruce to her apartment, and Robin turns off his monitor after seeing the two of them engage in the most awkward kiss in movie history. Unfortunately, this means he isn’t watching seconds later as the villains and their henchmen burst in and kidnap Bruce, who still thinks Kitka is their real target.

The next day the villains are confused as to why Batman hasn’t followed the clues they left and come stumbling into their trap, now baited with Bruce Wayne. A furious Bruce demands to see Kitka, so they blindfold him and toss him into a room with her after Catwoman switches identities. While trying to “comfort” her, asks Kitka to help him retrieve a hidden radio in his coat, but the villains remove him from the room and untie him to retrieve the radio. With his hands free, Bruce springs into action, battling all four villains and their henchmen at once, escaping into the bay.

Growing desperate, the Penguin hatches a new plan. Selecting five henchmen as guinea pigs, he activates Commodore Schmidlapp’s invention, a “total dehydrator” which reduces the henchmen to powder, extracting all moisture from their bodies. Batman and Robin return to the villains’ hideout which is now deserted, but sports a sparkling bomb. After a series of (frankly legendary) misadventures, Batman concludes that on some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. They encounter the Penguin disguised as the Commodore and see through the ruse immediately (making you wonder why Batman can’t tell Kitka is Catwoman without her mask). Having been taken to the Batcave, the Penguin rehydrates the five thugs, but uses heavy water from Batman’s nuclear reactor. All five are reduced to anti-matter with the slightest impact. Because science.

Batman pretends to think the Commodore was brainwashed and takes him back to the city, allowing him to escape. The villains dehydrate the United World Security Council (who can’t even stop arguing with each other long enough to notice they’re being dehydrated) and place them in vials to hold them for ransom.  The heroes track them to their submarine and force it to surface, boarding and engaging in a battle royale during which nobody actually lands a punch but everybody pretends like they’ve been hit anyway. Catwoman stumbles and loses her mask, revealing to Batman and Robin that she is, in fact, Kitka, and simultaneously taking away any rights either of them would ever have to make fun of Lois Lane. Although the vials containing the security council members have miraculously escaped unscathed, Commodore Schmidlapp stumbles in and smashes them, mixing the powders. Batman and Robin use their super molecular dust separator (of course they have a super molecular dust separator) to extract the representatives from one another and rehydrate them, but the procedure is imperfect. The arguing representatives are now weird, mishmashed amalgams of each other, speaking the wrong languages and having each others’ personalities. Batman tells Robin this may be “the single greatest service ever performed for mankind,” then the heroes sneak the hell out of there.

Thoughts: I must confess to having something of a love/hate relationship with Adam West’s Batman. Although as a child I watched the reruns of this series and found it enjoyable, as I got older I started to grow disenchanted with it. You see, as I got more and more into examining comic books as an art form, I started to get angry about the way the mainstream media so often depicts comic book culture – childish, immature, lacking real artistic merit. The fact that for decades you couldn’t get a single news story about comics without including “Biff! Pow!” in the title eventually led me to realize how much the cultural perception of superheroes and comic books was formed by this goofy Batman TV show, and I grew to resent it. (This was during a period of my life in which I tended to take everything way the hell too seriously, a time many of us identify as “being a teenager”.) Eventually I learned to lighten up, learned to accept that some characters are big enough to allow for multiple interpretations, and learned that Adam West and company essentially saved Batman from extinction during a time when interest in the character was dying away. So I’ve made my peace with it. But it’s still not my favorite version of the Batman.

People who remember the Batman TV show may not always be aware of this movie, filmed and released in theaters between the first and second seasons of the series. As a result, it has the feel and tone of the series after it gained its footing, rather than the awkward feeling you get from early episodes of many classic TV shows after you go back and watch them years later. The performances of the actors and the film as a whole carry a sense of barely-contained insanity, starting right from the beginning where a spotlight features a dedication to “lovers of adventure… pure escapism… unadulterated entertainment… the ridiculous and the bizarre,” then rolls over a couple making out and apologizes for any other groups of lovers they may have missed.

“This,” I say to myself, “is Batman?”

My spine starts to crinkle a bit in the first few minutes, as they approach the yacht in the Batcopter, drop the Bat-ladder (the labeled Bat-Ladder) and I anticipate what’s coming next… the Bat-Shark Repellant. It’s things like this that really made me hate this incarnation of Batman for a few years, and even now, still bug me a little bit. Having seen the 1943 movie serial, it’s clear that a lot of the inspiration for this version came from taking the campier bits of that to the extreme. Then I think about the other extreme, when the dreaded Joel Schumaker 30 years later would take over the Batman film franchise and go to an extreme version of this Batman… the stilted puns, the bizarre non sequiturs, the thrice-damned “Bat Credit Card,” and I’ve got to take a breath or two to calm down.

The heroes here (all the characters, really, but let’s focus on the heroes) are caricatures. West’s Batman speaks in short, stilted passages, frequently lapsing into speeches that have bizarrely inappropriate and ill-timed morality lessons and making leaps of logic that are quite simply ludicrous. The only reason this Batman ever solves any crime is because his foes are as insane as he is, and their respective brands of madness overlap. The entire universe of this series, in fact, is quite crazy. This incarnation of Bruce Wayne pretends to be the straight man, attempts to appear as an oasis of sanity in the midst of it all, but it’s an act in and of itself. The only way to accept Ward and West’s Batman and Robin is by giving in to a world of lunacy.

As ridiculous as Batman and Robin themselves are, I find myself much more entertained by the antics of the villains. Romero, Gorshin, Meriwether and Meredith are at their scene-chewing best here, grinding up film with performances so incredibly over-the-top you can only admire their skill. The first scene with the four of them features snippets of dialogue as quick and rapid-fire as Joss Whedon or Alan Sorkin would turn out decades later. I could watch them go back and forth for hours, either having the time of their lives in their silliest roles or doing a great impression of it. By contrast, West and Ward have the unenviable task of trying to pretend they’re taking things seriously while surrounded by colors that would give Jackson Pollock eyestrain and keeping a straight face when they conclude that the crime took place at sea, which means Catwoman must be the culprit, because her name begins with the letter “C”. (That’s not even a joke, that’s an example of the actual logic used in this film.) The villains aren’t the same kind of crazy we would see in later years, with Heath Ledger’s Joker, but they’re a brand of crazy that can actually be a lot of fun to watch in small doses.

The movie deals heavily in parody, which is fair enough, but at times it gets so ridiculous it’s hard to swallow, such as when we meet a Naval Admiral stupid enough to sell a preatomic submarine (complete with missiles, apparently) to a fellow named “P.N. Guinn” who had no credentials other than a post office box. The film actually taps into the anti-establishment vibe of the 60s, making the military and police into buffoons, with only Batman there to save their hides. It’s easy to see how it became so popular at the time, but the leaps in logic required for it to make any sense go too far for me at times. At most times, actually.

In truth, while I certainly understand the people who are big fans of the Adam West-era Batman, I still can’t really count myself among them anymore. I prefer a Batman who is shrewd, villains who are actually threatening, a Commissioner Gordon who is a hero in his own right rather than the head of the clown college that is the GCPD. For people who appreciate this Batman, it’s here, and it’s a cult classic. For me, though, I really can only enjoy it when I’m sitting around with my friends, cracking jokes about how ridiculous it is.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!