Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to Day Seven of our Twelve Days of Shitmas celebration for 2023! Our previous special was a wild, weird and wonderful slice of Japanese tokusatsu madness, featuring wily wolfmen, vile villains and a mantis-eyed masked man with a penchant for punching palookas and kicking criminal ass. Today we turn back time to the dawn of cinema itself for a brief, two-part exploration of the mores and merriments of Christmas during the Teddy Roosevelt era. One is a quaint, homey and wistful window into a typical upper-middle class American family's Christmas Eve, and the other is a mildly odd fantasy with a surprisingly modern Home-Alone-style twist. Brew up some mulled cider, hang up your stockings and put a little coal on the fire to enjoy a tinsel-tinted time-capsule two-fer from the aught tens.  

A bulbous boil of bilious bodacity.

We're posting a brand-new review of a Christmas special every other day beginning December 3rd, and culminating in what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. So, a priest walks into a bar...and he ends up with nineteen stitches and a traumatic brain injury. Over the course of his recovery, he finds he's having problems with impulse control, and all the inappropriate thoughts he'd learned to suppress through meditative prayer seem always at the forefront of his consciousness. Months of cognitive behavioral therapy help to reorder his neural pathways and to mitigate the outward symptoms of his injury, but he comes to realize he isn't the same man who had taken his vows a decade and a half before. He feels he's fallen out of favor with God and no longer has a spiritual vocation for the priesthood, so he surrenders his vestments and moves to Montana to become a sugar beet farmer. He does well, and is enjoying the solitude of his new life, but a year later, a long period of torrential rain opens a sinkhole in his beet field, he and his tractor are swallowed up by the earth and his body is never found. The moral of the story? You may bow your head and ask God to guide you, but you still need to watch where the hell you're going.

We all know Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, inventor extraordinaire, shrewd businessman and foundational figure in the fin-de-siecle tech revolution that set America and the entire world on its path towards our current billionaire-centric entertainment technocracy. Did you know he was also a grasping, arrogant asshole who pilfered innovations, abused shady patent laws and used ruthlessly predatory business practices to build his brand and his empire? The myth would have us believe he was a great genius whose personal ingenuity was solely responsible for his success, but in reality, he built his empire on the backs of the technicians, designers and engineers in his employ and aggressively locked out other inventors from bringing their own products to the market. Edison was capitalism incarnate, a sort of gilded age Elon Musk, part idea man, part con man, part egomaniac, whose staff and competitors forged the building blocks of modernity while he took the credit and the cash.

Laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren't prepared for the exponentially increasing pace of tech innovation of the time, and much like today's slow and inadequate attempts to understand and effectively regulate artificial intelligence, there were gaps and loopholes available for any sufficiently crafty, unscrupulous and opportunistic up-and-comer to creatively exploit. Edison was the "patent caveat" king, filing letters of intention to create a particular device without having to submit a design. This would hold a space for him regarding it, so that if a competitor beat him to the punch and submitted a completed plan for something similar enough to what he'd proposed, he would get a notice from the Patent Office and have a three-month window to file a design of his own. He did this 120 times, essentially cock-blocking other inventors on many of the most fundamental and groundbreaking products for which he'd then take credit. This included the Kinetoscope, which was the very first patented motion picture camera to come to market.

Look at that smug bastard. I want to smack him.

The Night Before Christmas

From 1894 to 1918 Edison's studio made approximately 1200 films, mostly short subjects. Among these were travelogues, westerns, dramas, comedies, documentaries and some of the earliest Christmas-themed films ever made, some of which are collected on the excellent Kino Video release A Christmas Past (2001). The titles include glorified home movies, whimsical fantasies, social dramas set during the holidays and crude adaptations of existing literature. The Night Before Christmas is the first filmed adaptation of the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823) by Clement Clarke Moore and is amongst the films included in the Kino collection. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, famous for his groundbreaking piercing of the cinematic fourth wall in The Great Train Robbery (1903), the film is both holiday fantasy and a gentle, haloed portrait of upper-middle class family life in Edwardian-era America.

We open up at the North Pole, with Santa Claus feeding his reindeer pitchforks full of hay from an old wooden wheelbarrow. In these early days of cinema there weren't much in the way of "alternate takes" so unless somebody fucked up to the point that a shot was completely unusable, whatever pesky little things happened tended to stay in the movie. Here we see Santa, played by stage actor and Civil War naval veteran Harry Eytinge, visibly and repeatedly struggling to get a clump of hay off the end of the fork. You can just barely see Eytinge's lips moving, no doubt expressing his frustration at the snafu in the salty language of a crusty old sea-dog.

It's a good thing it's silent or it'd be a very different movie.

Next, we see Santa in his workshop, sawing wood and putting the finishing touches on some toys. It's worth noting that there are no elves here to help him and no Mrs. Clause to bake him cookies and provide him more carnal comforts. The Santa of The Night Before Christmas is a hermetic loner who does everything that needs to be done by himself with only basic tools and minimal resources at his disposal.

I've got a better woodshop in my basement.

Next, we see a typical, financially comfortable family in a cozy living room, sitting around a table on Christmas Eve in the final hour or so before bedtime, chatting amiably and signing Christmas cards of the sort I've been festooning this year's Shitmas articles with. It's a sizable family, with a mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, six children and a nursemaid. Having multiple generations, lots of tots and at least one domestic servant in a household was a normal thing during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Religious edicts to "be fruitful and multiply" and the lack of effective contraception aside, child mortality rates were quite high, so it was considered essential to have a few backup moppets to carry on your family name in case you lost a few to pneumonia, tuberculosis, enteritis or the number one cause of death for children under three during the 1910's, diarrhea.

A literally shitty time to be a child.

Dad has a look at his watch and figures it's about time the kids go get their nightclothes on, so the nurse marches them all up the wooden hill to their bedrooms. A few moments later they all march down again in their jim-jams to hang their stocking by the chimney with care, in the hopes that the big fella with the substandard, non-OSHA-compliant woodshop soon will be there. It's a sweet domestic scene, with dad lifting each of his children to the mantlepiece, then sending them off to bed with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. After moving the table aside to make room for the expected midnight visitor, the parents and grandparents follow upstairs, and the stage is set for a magical Christmas transformation.

The children are nestled all snug in their beds, all in one room, two to a bed, but instead of indulging in sugar plum visions they hop up and start getting out their Christmas Eve yah-yahs, at least until they hear the approaching nurse and frantically hop back in bed to pretend to be asleep. Nurse departed and crisis averted, the youngest girl walks over and whacks one of her brothers with a pillow, sneaking off surreptitiously so he can blame the other kid with whom he shares his bed. This triggers an all-out pillow-thumping grudge match between the two older boys and the two older girls, and I have to give props to the budding young sociopath who started it all for how cool she is as she pours the kerosene, lights the match, then sits back and watches it burn.

She's got a bright future as an internet troll.

It's back to Santa now, as he makes his list and checks it twice, and even crosses off a couple of names of kids who weren't so nice. He grabs his bag of toys and heads out to his waiting sleigh, and we get what to me is the highlight of the film, a primitive but charming miniature effect of the reindeer pulling the sleigh across a snowy landscape and into the sky, using a multi-layered diorama with a hidden track, designed so that the reindeer appear to be trotting as they go along. The camera keeps the team and the sleigh centered, so it gives the illusion of them travelling a great distance across snowy wastes, over the moon and through various cities, towns and burgs along Santa's route. The diorama is beautifully rendered, with a variety of topographies and some lovely details, including an ice-bound shipwreck far in the background of a frigid inlet at the outer boundaries of the North Pole. I'm a big fan of silent films and I particularly love the ingenious ways in which early film technicians created special effects shots, so to see something this early in the history of motion pictures done so effectively is a real treat. 

I could watch an entire movie of just this.

Now Santa finally reaches the home of our featured family. He pops down the chimney for his annual ass-singeing and starts stuffing stockings and distributing gifts. Once he has them all out of the bag, he makes a little "presto change-o!" gesture, and suddenly an enormous, fully-festooned Christmas tree appears. Apparently, this "Santa as magical interior decorator" trope was a thing back in these early Christmas films, as we'll see the exact same thing happen again in the second half of today's review.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

The next morning the gaggle of kids shuffle down the steps and gaze in sleepy wonder at the transformation their staid, stuffy parlor has undergone, and suddenly it's a feeding frenzy of new-toy madness, with dolls and teddy-bears and rocking horses getting their first tastes of the sort of good-natured abuse only eager, overzealous children can inflict. Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, Dad and Nursemaid all appear as well, and the happy, healthy family together enjoys the many blessings of the season.

It's fucking chaos.

A brief coda has Santa waving and tapping the side of his nose at us, with a caption below him featuring his famous farewell phrase, "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!"

"This is where I keep my boogies!"

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus

Our second short subject was made two years later, again directed by Edwin S. Porter along with co-director J. Searle Dawley, best known today for writing and directing the first screen adaptation of Frankenstein, also made for Edison in 1910. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend you seek it out, if only for the wildly effective "creation of the monster" scene, which was achieved by burning an elaborate papier-mache model and back-cranking the camera to display it in reverse.

It's only 14 minutes long. You could go watch it now

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus is an original story, simple but effective, that not only confirms what I've been saying for years about Santa being a fat-cat capitalist stooge, but also features a surprising detail about midway through that made me bust out laughing the first time I watched it. If I had any expectations going in it was for something low-key, quaint and wholesome, and it surely is all of those things, but it's also got a little something subversive just below the surface that very much appeals to my impish and contrary nature.  

We begin with a multi-part tableau, introducing the featured players, which is a not-uncommon trope for silent and even some sound films, especially weekly serials such as Undersea Kingdom, which Pam and I reviewed in two parts between 2022 and 2023. Unlike that unmitigated debacle, which had a whole gaggle of poorly-drawn characters, none of whom made you care a whit whether they lived or died, today's short feature introduces us to just three people: a poor girl, a rich boy and jolly old St. Nick.

It's narratively compact.

As the story begins, the Rich Boy is out with his nurse or au pair, pulling a sled behind him on a snowy path in a public park. They pass by a bench where the Poor Girl is huddled in her threadbare coat, and the tender-hearted young lad invites her home for a play date and a hot meal. It's unclear whether this is the first time they've met, but I suspect it is, as the class divisions in the 1910's were more clearly delineated than they are today and it's unlikely the two would have met under normal social circumstances of the time. Kudos to the kid for his open-mindedness and compassion. He's quite the little gentleman, too, pulling her along on his sled instead of making her walk through the snow in her completely inadequate poor-people shoes.

So Rich Boy takes the Poor Girl back to his sweet, palatial bachelor pad and they enter his private playroom. It's clear from the Girl's reactions that it's the most opulent place she's ever seen. With it being Christmas Eve and all the Boy has been looking at a picture book version of "The Night Before Christmas," which not only neatly ties our two features together but also gives the Girl an opportunity to air her anti-capitalist grievances against the Jolly Fat fraudster. Because she's a dirt poor, shack-dwelling gamin, she explains, he's never bothered to bring her a goddamn thing in her whole life, and on the off-off-off chance he is a real person, he's just a toy-slinging, rich man's turnspit, doing the bidding of the elite robber barons and industrialist scum who've carved up the country between them and taken all the best parts for themselves.

Preach it girl! I've been saying this shit for years!

Later, the boy's mother, who's probably a member of several Ladies' Auxiliary Societies who work to better the lot of the least among us, gives the Poor Girl a beautiful warm coat and scarf to take home with her, along with a box of food to share with the grandmother with whom she lives. As someone who works at a non-profit that exists through the largesse of our many community donors, I appreciate this gesture in a more than superficial way. I've gone through periods in my life where I was financially stressed, sometimes quite seriously, and where my own mental health struggles have threatened to derail and upend my life, but I've never been homeless or destitute and I've always had someone to whom I could turn in my darkest and leanest times. Some of the mentally ill folks I work with, though are living on a pittance or sleeping on the streets. They have no-one, and without the compassion and generosity of the individuals and organizations with whom our Center partners they would have nothing. I'm fortunate to live in a community that fosters a culture of charitable giving, but it's never quite enough to meet the need.

Getting back to our program, Poor Girl leaves this:

Even the bathroom has its own bathroom.

And goes home to this:

I got tetanus just from looking at it.

Poor Girl tells her Grandmother of all the wonders she saw that day, and out of a newfound childish hope she asks if she can hang a stocking above the unlit fireplace, just in case Santa maybe is real and her wealthy pal might have put in a good word for her.

Meanwhile, the Rich Boy has just hung his stocking, too, along with one for his Mom, one for his Dad and one for his Nursemaid. He heads upstairs, says his prayers and hops into bed, but he can't seem to get any rest, distracted as he is from thinking about the deplorable plight of his newfound friend.

He also engages in some MK-Ultra style remote viewing.

After tossing and turning it over in his mind the Boy settles on a plan to help his pal. He grabs some rope and heads downstairs to wait by the fireplace for Santa, where he plans to have a little come-to-Jesus with him about the inequitable distribution of toys. He falls asleep in a chair in a nook by the stair landing, and shortly thereafter Santa does, indeed arrive, wearing the very same spotted suit we saw in the previous production. He pulls out the presents and does his signature magic Christmas tree summoning routine.

Never gets old.

As Santa is placing the gifts under the tree the Rich Boy awakens, throws the rope around him like a lasso and pulls out a gun!

This is some vintage Christmas gangsta shit, right here.

So, yeah, this kid is serious as a goddamn heart attack. He demands that Santa gather up his his shit, get in his fucking sleigh and go straight to the Poor Girl's shack to bring her some Christmas cheer, and he'd better do it quick, too, 'cause he's got trigger finger that's just itching to pop a cap in some fat capitalist lackey ass. Seeing no alternative, Santa complies.

When they arrive at the hovel, however, it's clear that Santa is too fat to fit down the narrow chimney, so the Boy ties his leash to a fencepost and climbs up on the roof himself, sliding down and opening the front door from the inside. Once Santa steps in and sees the squalor he shakes his head and makes a move for the door, but the boy brandishes the pistol and barks orders at him until the shack is tricked out like a Christmas fantasy land. The boy then leads him back out and forces him to fly him home.

Yuletide Robin Hood.

The Girl wakes up to find her Christmas fantasies come true, with a life-sized doll, a crushed velvet teddy bear, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and all the "I don't believe in Santa" crow she can eat.

That rich kid must have slipped me some shrooms.

Back at the mansion Santa tucks the Boy into his bed and storms out to continue his rounds, vowing to put him permanently on the naughty list for the whole fiasco, and to file kidnapping, assault and terroristic threats charges, too...or maybe this is the "it was all a dream" moment and Santa found him sleeping downstairs. I am generally not a fan of "it was all a dream," usually seeing it as a cop-out. Still, it's a bleak ending either way. In the one case the Rich Boy's plans have come to naught because he's overslept, and the Poor Girl has still gotten nothing but another broken promise and probably an upper respiratory infection from exposure to the cold. In the other Santa presses charges and the Rich Boy ends up in the juvenile detention system as a prelude to a life of crime, bitterness and debauchery. So, Merry Christmas all around.

I'll see you in court, motherfucker!"

So that's not at all what I expected from a treacly little Christmas short from 1907, but it sure was a welcome surprise. I'd like to think the Rich Boy moved on from his incarceration and grew up to be a great philanthropist, putting his money where his mouth is and doing good works for the downtrodden masses. From what little we saw of his parents they seemed like genuinely kind people who were aware of the moral responsibilities wealth and privilege bring. As Andrew Carnegie once said "There are instances of millionaires' sons unspoiled by wealth, who, being rich still perform great service in the community. Such are the very salt of the Earth, as valuable as, unfortunately, they are rare." We can only hope the influence of the parents' compassion prevailed, and maybe the Rich Boy got a sweet prison tattoo as a souvenir of his adventure.

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 19th!

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December, 2023.

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