Saturday, December 8, 2012

Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (1970) - Learn Where Santa Came From

Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town: And He's Gonna Stay in Prime Time Forever

DVD cover for Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (1970).
Having used traditional cel animation in 1969 for Frosty the Snowman, Rankin/Bass decided to go back to their usual stop-motion animation process with "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (1970). Using characters made out of wood and plastic, the special aims to educate children about the origins of Santa Claus and why he delivers presents to well-behaved children.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970

After years of seeing spectacular ratings for their holiday shows, the company had no trouble lining up top talent to do the voices. Whereas "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" had Burl Ives as narrator/character, and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" had Boris Karloff, for "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" they lined up several legends of Hollywood: Fred Astaire as S.D. Kluger the mailman, Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle/Santa Claus, and Keenan Wynn as the Winter Warlock.

S.D. Kruger in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
That is one fine caricature of Fred Astaire.
S.D. Kruger has some free time on his hands after his mail truck breaks down, and he uses it to answer many of the questions that he sees in the mail from children every Christmas. He narrates the story of Sombertown, where the evil Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees) finds a baby left on his doorstep. It has a tag identifying its name as "Claus." He orders his assistant Grimsby to take the child to the local orphanage. Instead, the wind blows the baby to the Mountains of the Whispering Winds, ruled by the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn).

Claus with the Kringles in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
Kris and the Kringles.
The baby is hidden from the Winter Warlock and taken by animals to an elf family named Kringle. They name the baby "Kris" and raise him. The Kringles would like to deliver toys to children, but the Winter Warlock controls the road and won't let them. The Burgermeister also has outlawed all toys in his town.

Burgermeiser in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
He looks very Germanic.
Kris volunteers to deliver toys to Sombertown despite the danger. When he gets there, he meets schoolteacher Miss Jessica (Robie Lester) and a lost penguin named Topper, and they all become friends, He starts handing out toys, but the Burgermeister finds out and Kris has to leave town fast.

Kris meets Jessica in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
She's kinda cute.
The Winter Warlock then captures Kris and Topper. Kris gives him a toy, and they become friends. The Warlock tells Kris that Jessica is worried about him, and he finds her. She tells him the Burgermeister destroyed all the toys that Kris handed out, and they need new ones. A struggle ensues between Kris and the Burgermeister over whether Kris can keep the children supplied with toys despite the Burgermeister's efforts to destroy them. Becoming frustrated, the Burgermeister finally just arrests Kris, Topper, the Winter Warlock, and the Kringles.

Winter Warlock in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
Winter Warlock is scary!
Jessica tries to convince the Winter Warlock to use his powers to break everyone out of jail, but he says he only has a magic feed that can make reindeer fly. Jessica feeds some reindeer the feed, and the flying reindeer help everyone to escape. The Kringles then make plans to supply all the world's children with toys.

I like this panel of the four main characters.
While popular and loaded with star power, this special never quite achieved the truly iconic status of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but "Rudolph" is one of a kind. Any special like "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" that continues airing on network television over 40 years after it was made deserves to go in the animation Hall of Fame - and any other movie Hall of Fame you care to mention. On the downside, despite being a clever script, "Santa" is an hour-long special that very young children may find difficult to sit through with a convoluted story and four major characters that some may not have the requisite patience to follow.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970

"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" also is completely secular, negating any religious influence on the holiday season in place of Jolly Old Saint Nick and presents. This is contrary to the most popular seasonal specials that at the very least nod in the direction of the religious roots of the holiday, such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas and "Rudolph." People, in general, may not be as religious as they once were, but an awful lot still are religious, and many others at least want to think that they are when the holidays spin around. You have to show a little respect, kiss the ring as in "The Godfather."

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970

Furthermore, it's not clear that children especially care where Santa comes from as long as the old man is all right and makes his annual rounds, or at least care enough to make this show as memorable as the other top Christmas specials. Finally, the Winter Warlock is a bit scary for some small children and that hurts the special's reach just a tiny bit.

Main characters sitting in the snow in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
Where's the sled?
For all that, this special still is beloved by the generation that saw this telecast every year for decades. In fact, the animation reeks of the '70s, such as the flowers that appear when Jessica sings and the simple toys the children enjoy. The bobcat mail delivery vehicle also comes from that time. It is a cute and innocent tale for children who have not become jaded and spoiled.

Kris delivering presents in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
Come to my house!
The Burgermeister has quite a bit in common with the misguided king in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968). One could look at the special as a veiled meditation on Germany and events there during the middle of the 20th Century - but that may be looking a little too closely under the hood. There are, though, serious themes and undercurrents that make this a little more difficult for a toddler to grasp than a simple tale about, say, a Snowman who comes to life, or a mean old man who learns the true meaning of Christmas.

S.D. Kruger standing by his tractor in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970
Fred is the perfect narrator.
Since this is no longer broadcast by any of the major networks, you can only find it on cable. Anyone with a desire to see some classic stop-motion animation and fine vocal performances from some true icons of Hollywood might want to hunt this down. They might find themselves enthralled by this curious tale about Claus.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town 1970


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