Film History Essentials: Santa Claus (1898)

What it’s about:

Two children eagerly wait by the hearth for Santa Claus to arrive before they are shooed into bed. After lights out, Santa appears on the rooftop above, bearing presents and a Christmas tree. He makes his way down the chimney and into the children’s room. He stuffs toys into their stockings at the end of the bed, and then disappears as the children awake excitedly.

Why it’s essential:

In September of 1898, George Albert Smith produced what is likely the first-ever Christmas movie (in plenty of time for exhibitors to have it for the holiday season). There is no record of who played the role of Santa Claus (a character who also makes his film debut here), but perhaps it was Smith himself. Certainly the rest of the film was a decidedly family affair. The maid was played by Laura Bayley, Smith’s wife (and an actress in a number of his films), and the boy and girl were their children, Harold (9) and Dorothy (7). It’s the perfect behind-the-scenes detail for a charming and sentimental holiday movie, but that’s not what makes this film special.

Santa Claus represents an obvious leap forward in the use of special effects and other techniques to tell a uniquely cinematic story. There are several notable innovations on display here, starting with the title. Notice that it actually appears on the screen at the beginning of the movie. It actually isn’t clear whether this title card was originally a part of the film or not, but if so, it would be one of the first. Title cards and intertitles would not become common until the following decade.

Incidentally, it may seem curious to a modern viewer that this British film is called “Santa Claus,” and not “Father Christmas.” The figure of Father Christmas had been a traditional English folk character for centuries by this point, but he was not simply an Anglicized version of St. Nicholas. He also lacked many of the characteristics that have come to be associated with Santa Claus, such as bringing gifts to children. Santa Claus first appeared in England by way of America in the 1850s. (Americans had adapted him out of the traditions of Dutch settlers in New York in the 1820s.) Although Santa Claus and Father Christmas began to slowly merge in the British public consciousness, they were still sometimes depicted as distinct figures in England even into the very early 20th-century.

In any case, the film’s most noteworthy feature is not the name of its personification of Christmas, but its use of the earliest known example of parallel action in cinema. There is a little fun ambiguity to the film’s use of double-exposure. Does the inset of Santa’s arrival at the house show what’s actually happening at that moment, as the children sleep below? Or is this a vision of the children’s Christmas Eve dream? After all, Santa does vanish at the very moment they wake up. The beauty of this simple but effective Christmas vignette is that it works just as well either way.

What to watch for:

The first actual special effect in the film is a use of the stop trick that is so sophisticated, it may not be immediately evident that it’s a stop trick. When the maid reaches up to turn out the light, there is a cut and the entire backdrop is replaced or covered by some black material. The effect is so seamless that at first it just looks like part of the set got darker. The desired visual of a darkened room (where you can still see what’s important) is flawlessly realized here. At the end of the film, there is one additional (more conventional) use of the stop trick employed to make Santa and his Christmas tree disappear. (It’s not entirely clear why he’s carrying that around if he didn’t intend to leave it.)

Regardless, the black backdrop effect is actually the key to the centerpiece of the film: the use of a double-exposure to show Santa up on the roof as an inset within the room itself, before he appears in the room “in person.” Smith used double-exposures in several films around this time, and even patented his process. Although the use of this technique in film may have been pioneered by Georges Méliès the previous year, this is the earliest example that survives. The two filmmakers were correspondents, and the exact origin of this particular innovation isn’t certain. (Besides which, the concept had been well-known to still photographers for decades.)

Meanwhile, the screen that was seen before the hearth earlier in the film makes the perfect barrier so that Santa can appear to emerge from the fireplace without crawling awkwardly out on his hands and knees. The awkwardness comes a few moments later, when one of the toys he places in a stocking immediately and visibly tumbles out onto the floor and he just leaves it. These shots ran on a tight schedule, and second takes were complex and expensive enough (or perhaps it was thought that audiences simply wouldn’t care) that these sorts of small errors are quite common in early films.


~ by Jared on April 15, 2023.

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