Santa Claus and Merlin Take on Satan: My First Movie at Marquette’s Historic Delft Theatre
In December, 1974, when I was only three and a half years old, my dad took me for the first time to Marquette’s Delft Theatre to see my first movie. It was a terrible film—at three years old, I was already smart enough to ascertain that. I remembered very little of it over the years, but I would occasionally think about that terrible first movie I saw, which had the Devil chasing Santa Claus, moving the chimney on him so he couldn’t get inside houses to deliver toys, and sicking a dog on him. My dad also thought the movie terrible. For many years, I wondered what this film was named, and I looked in many video books for it, but only thanks to the Internet did I recently discover it was the 1959 Mexican film Santa Claus. And, I was even more surprised to discover it had an Arthurian legend connection—yes, Merlin and Santa Claus are buddies. I didn’t remember that part of the film when I was three—but I don’t think I knew who Merlin was yet, though of course, I knew Santa Claus.
So when I found this film on Amazon, I had to see it. Knowing it would be terrible, I opted to watch the Mystery Science Theater episode that featured it. I’m glad I did because I would have groaned through most of it, but the Mystery Science Theater’s cast made me laugh throughout.
The story is simple and lame. Santa lives in a castle on a cloud above the North Pole. Instead of elves, he has children from around the world who help him. The beginning of the film shows Santa playing the organ as we are shown scenes of children from a slew of countries: Africa, Spain, China, England, Japan, the Orient, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, the Islands of the Caribbean, South America, Central America, USA, and Mexico—I know those aren’t all technically countries, but Santa and the Narrator don’t know that—yeah, there’s a narrator; sure sign the film is bad; he sounds like he’s detailing a documentary, like one of the old Disney wildlife films. Since we have to listen to children sing from each country, this part of the film really drags.
It gets more interesting when Lucifer (the chief devil) tells the devil Pitch he must leave Hades and go to earth to make children evil and to destroy Santa Claus. Pitch isn’t a very convincing devil—he likes to dance about as if he thinks he can do ballet. He goes to Mexico where he whispers in children’s ears, trying to make them do things like steal a doll and later throw rocks at Santa. Santa, however, can see everything through his magical telescope, so he knows what Pitch is doing. Santa even has a machine so he can watch children’s dreams. He’s quite the Big Santa, and it’s only 1959!
Soon it’s time for Santa to go to earth to deliver Christmas toys. Pitch is now out to stop Santa by moving the chimney so Santa can’t get in a house, as well as other, less effective ways to hurt Santa. Santa does get back at him in one scene by shooting at him with a toy cannon.
But where does Merlin come into the story? Merlin has given Santa a magic dreaming power he can blow in children’s faces to put them to sleep. Santa also has a special invisibility flower. Of course, Pitch destroys the powder and Santa loses the flower. Then Pitch sicks a dog on Santa so he has to climb a tree and is trapped. Santa is now in big trouble since he can’t get out of the tree and morning is coming; if the sun rises before Santa gets back to the North Pole, the reindeer will turn to dust. But no worries, Santa’s voice is so loud he can yell to “Mr. Merlin” who hears him from where he lives with Santa in the castle in a cloud above the North Pole. (You have to wonder why there’s no Mrs. Claus in the film.) Merlin is decked out in the typical blue robe with the big pointy hat and moon and star pictures on his clothes. He also wobbles around when he walks. (Mystery Science Theater asks, “Why can’t Santa give him another leg?”)
Merlin, being a great wizard and capable of doing magical things, quickly solves the problem. Does he cast a fantastic spell to make Santa Claus suddenly appear back home? No. Does he turn the dog into a toad? No. Does he resurrect the Knights of the Round Table to ride to Santa’s rescue? No. No magical spells for Merlin in this film—other than the lame dreaming powder. Merlin yells back at Santa, telling him to reach into his bag of toys and pull out a toy cat on wheels, throw it down, and let the dog chase it. Once that works, Santa can climb down from the tree and escapes. Merlin tells Santa it’s time now for him to come home, but first, Santa delivers a doll to a poor little girl who has tried to be good.
The film does have a few magical moments. It is somewhat enchanting in its North Pole sets despite its overall cheesiness, and Santa is kind enough to let a child who doesn’t feel loved by his parents, see Santa Claus. He also convinces those parents to go home to their son, after giving them some sort of “drink of remembrance”—as Mystery Science Theatre says, “Booze helps parents care for their children.”
The film is overly sentimental and moralistic for our tastes today, but even in 1959, I don’t know how anyone could have considered it a good movie.
The film certainly didn’t deserve its popularity. Why ever did the Delft Theatre decide to show this strange Satanic-Christmas concoction? According to Wikipedia, Santa Claus was quite a hit: “Santa Claus was considered to be a financial success over several holiday-season theatrical releases in the 1960s and 1970s. Broadcast of the film also became a holiday tradition at several U.S. television stations. The film garnered at least one award, winning the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959.” And apparently, it was so popular it was worthy of being shown at the Delft Theatre in Marquette, Michigan when it was fifteen years old and I was three. I can only assume this popularity was due to a lack of children’s Christmas movies at that time, and that it was a time when we only got three channels on television, and we had no VCRs, much less Netflix to choose from. If we wanted to see a movie, we went to see whatever was playing.
Today, the film is listed on IMDB as one of the worst movies of all time. Considering that even as a three old child I thought it was terrible, I’m not surprised. If you want to groan, watch this film, but if you want a lot of laughs, watch the Mystery Science Theatre episode of it. Both are available on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99 if you search simply for “Santa Claus.”
If you’ve seen this movie—especially if you saw it as a child like I did—I’d love to know your own thoughts about it.