Not all holiday movies are really that good or successes on their original runs. It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office bomb that bankrupted the just started production company, Liberty Films. A Christmas Story got mediocre reviews but was a financial success at the box office. But for some reason, MGM, the studio distributing it, felt it had run its course and pulled it right before Christmas.
I’m no fan of Elf or The Nightmare Before Christmas, but these movies have become holiday hits over the years. Even Jingle All the Way is still remembered and reshown on streaming services and cable TV every holiday. But Santa Claus: The Movie has become a forgotten movie that is hardly mentioned in the cornucopia of holiday entertainment.
Part of the reason that led to the movie’s failure was that it was released the same darn weekend as Rocky IV. Both movies were at the theaters on Nov. 27, 1985 so the question is what do audiences prefer – a boxing movie that’s also a metaphor for the Cold War or a movie about a socialist character who gives away toys and is out to destroy a capitalist villain?
Okay, that might have seemed a stretch, but by 1985 or the Reaganeighties, Americans were being indoctrinated with so much pro-America/anti-Soviet Union propaganda a movie like Rocky IV was inevitable. I’ve not seen the Director’s Cut that recently was released but I understand Sylvester Stallone wanted to make a more serious movie. How do you compete with the movie that gave us the ultimate soundtrack to exercise to?
The problem with Santa Claus was there were problems from the start. As the Superman movies were waning after the not-so-stellar Superman III, the father-and-son production team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind along with their producer partner Pierre Spangler were wanting to do a movie about Jolly Old St. Nick. Their initial choice for director was John Carpenter, who wanted to have more control over the writing, directing, and musical score than the Salkinds were prepared to give him. Carpenter also wanted to cast Brian Dennehy as Kris Kringle.
Unfortunately, the Salkinds wanted someone who looked more jovial. Dennehy had played the antagonist sheriff in the blockbuster First Blood as well as the crooked sheriff in Silverado. David Huddleston, who was more known as a character actor in a lot of western and cop dramas, was cast. Huddleston really fits the part even though his mid-Atlantic States accent seems out of place in the European area where the movie begins.
Jeannot Szwarc, who had directed Supergirl, for the Salkinds and most notoriously Jaws 2 where he clashed with Roy Scheider to the point they didn’t communicate directly with each other. Rounding out the cast was John Lithgow as a corrupt toy manufacturer only referred to as B.Z. Judy Cornwell was cast as Anya, aka Mrs. Claus. And Dudley Moore still riding high after the success of Arthur and 10 was cast as Patch, an elf.
The movie seems to have two plots. The first half is an origin story as we see Claus, a woodcutter, and Anya being found by the elves, all men, in a snowstorm while they’re out delivering toys to children. The head elf, Dooley (John Barrard) informs them that the elves have been looking for someone like Claus for a long time. Now that they’ve found him, they will live with them forever delivering the toys they’ve made on Christmas Eve.
We go through montages of the elves working happily, even using the tips of their long beards to paint. And then we learn how the reindeer can fly. The elves have a special ingredient that sparkles that is put in their food. Claus’ own reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, join the six other reindeer the elves have.
As the movie goes through the centuries beginning in the middle ages and then coming to the 20th Century, it shifts gears to focus on B.Z. who is under Senate investigation for having very dangerous toys, such as a doll that is easily flammable a lit cigarette can ignite it. There’s also a panda stuffed animal that is loaded with nails and shards of glass. Obviously, this is very extreme for the 1980s but at one time, it might have seem common. Lithgow plays the role as extremely over the top as it calls for. He’s got an evil cackle of a laugh, chomps on a cigar and cracks his knuckles. The only thing missing is a fake moustache to twirl with his fingers as he laughs.
Back at the North Pole, the centuries of delivering toys to kids is taking its toll, so Claus seeks an assistant with Patch competing with fellow elf, Puffy (Anthony O’Donnell). Patch creates an assembly line machine that can produce the toys faster but when he speeds up production, the screws and bolts aren’t all put into proper place. Don’t they double check it? Patch gets the job but the toys break down and the kids and their parents get angry. With Santa upset, Patch resigns and leaves the North Pole wanting to find a way to show Santa and everyone else he can do a good job with his designs.
Confused over B.Z.’s toys being pulled off the shelves, he is able to get B.Z., who he thinks is a very popular toy distributor, to put money into making lollipops that can make anyone who eats them fly as they contain the same ingredients that is fed to the reindeer. But of course, B.Z. puts profit and greed over the health of the consumers as increasing the ingredients may be disastrous.
There’s also a subplot about a lonely orphaned girl, Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim), who lives in a New York City mansion with her step-uncle. Want a clue on who it is? She befriends a homeless boy, Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), who doesn’t believe in Santa until he goes on a sleigh ride with him.
While the movie does have some great visuals and an ending song by Sheena Easton, one must wonder what went wrong. Was it just Rocky IV? No, because some audiences didn’t want to see the Italian Stallion again. Even if the movie was a financial disaster on its initial run, many other movies that tanked at the box office are more memorable over the years with audiences, so why does this one remain almost forgotten?
A lot of movies have antagonistic businessmen who put profits over people so it’s not that. And Huddleston’s jovial look makes him one of the best Santa Claus’ ever on the screen. The cast all seem to fit in their roles. Maybe it’s because TriStar which was still a young studio at the time didn’t have much faith in the movie. Production budget ranges anywhere between $30 to $50 million, but it barely made $24 million.
Lithgow has said in recent years that it’s the “tackiest” movie he’s been in but its more popular in the United Kingdom than it is here in America. There’s a good chance that if you weren’t alive in the mid-1980s to remember it, you don’t. I don’t know what Lithgow means by tacky. The movie was set in a world in which Santa Claus was real and having to compete with real businesspeople. Elf has Will Ferrell screaming and looking like a deranged person for two hours and people like it. Almost none of the things in Love Actually are believable but people watch it at least once every Christmas season.
Who knows? Some movies just don’t jive with audiences on their initial runs and the home video market is a bigger cemetery where they’re forgotten. There’s been an argument that the reason It’s a Wonderful Life became so popular was that the copyright had expired. With the expansion of cable TV in the 1970s and 1980s, it became repeatedly aired as the stations didn’t have to pay a fee to broadcast it so people thought it was just a successful movie when it was released in 1946.
To paraphrase Huey Lewis, “The power of suggestion is a curious thing.”
Maybe it was because there were no big names attached to it to make it memorable. Lithgow had just been nominated for two Oscars Terms of Endearment and The World According to Garp, but he’s always been one of those actors who always seems to work better in supporting roles. The same can be said for Huddleston who would go on to play the “other Jeffrey Lebowski” in The Big Lebowski becoming a stable of stoner cinema. I don’t think Moore resonated with younger audiences the way Arnold Schwarzenegger did with Jingle All the Way.
I’m just wondering if it will become more popular with Gen Xers now that they are in the 40s and 50s the way It’s a Wonderful Life appealed to Baby Boomers a few decades ago. As of right now, it’s streaming on Peacock if anyone wants to watch it.