Monday, December 24, 2018

You Better Watch Out!

By Bill S.

The holiday season is upon us once again, and that means it's that time of years for Christmas carols, gift shopping, tons of cookies, and of course, TV special. A few years back, Scott and I both revisited the Rankin-Bass classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This year, I've decided to have a look at another Rankin-Bass childhood favorite, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Like the previous one, it boasts good production values, nice music...and a story so insane you wonder what they were smoking when they made it.

It begins with newsreel footage of children preparing for Santa's Christmas Eve visit, then cuts to a postman, riding a snowmobile en route to the North Pole. His name is S.D. Kruger, and he informs us that the "S.D." stands for "Special Delivery", but I'm guessing it doesn't stand for anything and he just makes up something different to fit the occasion, like T.S. Garp did. S.D. is voiced by Fred Astaire (hiring a brilliant dancer to do voiceover work makes as much sense as anything else in this special). When the snowmobile stalls in a snow bank, he has a lot of free time, so he tells us about the letters kids write to Santa Claus, revealing that he opens their mail and reads it before delivering it, which can't possibly be legal. According to him, in addition to the usual requests for toys, kids ask a lot of questions about Santa: "Why do you wear a red suit?" "Why do you come down the chimney?" "How do you know if we've been bad or good?", etc. We hear a lot of children, off-camera. They might simply be voices in S.D.'s head, which is preferable to a bunch of kids being stranded in a frozen wasteland. Real or imaginary, he tells them to settle down, and spins for us a tale of Santa's origin.

It begins in a bleak, depressing place called Sombertown, presided by the Mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a squat, ugly man with a thick German accent and a permanent scowl on his face. His dinner is interrupted one day by the appearance of Grimsley, described as "the lawkeeper" (Police chief? Army general? Ancestor of Wayland Smithers?). Grimsley sports a Kaiser helmet, a pencil thin mustache, and a prissy British accent. He also brings with him a baby, found on the Murgerbeister's doorstop. There's no identification, other than a name tag reading "Claus" and a note, asking the Burgerchedder to raise the baby. (And really, who wouldn't want to leave their kid with that guy?) Of course he refuses, and tells Grimsley to take the baby to the "Orphan Asylum", which, according to him, is "the proper place for foundlings" (I'm guessing "foundling" is a euphemism for "bastard").

Grimsley heads for the orphanage, dragging baby Claus on a sled, because I guess pulling a bulky object through the snow during a blizzard is easier than simply carrying a baby. The rope breaks, and the sled is carried away by a heavy wind. Grimsley half-heartedly races after it, calling out, "Do come back!" (Even as a kid, I thought that was a stupid thing to say). After making the barest minimum effort to rescue baby Claus, Grimsley gives him up for dead and heads back home. Fortunately, the animals of the forest are able to rescue Baby Claus, shielding him from the dreaded Winter Warlock. They bring him to the home of an elf family, the Kringles, leaving him on their doorstop. The baby is discovered by brothers Ringle, Dingle, Wingle, Tingle and Zingle, who immediately take a liking to him and bring him to the Elf Queen, Tanta Kringle, a sweet-voiced old lady with a perennially cheery demeanor. She decides they should adopt the baby, naming him Kris Kringle. There are cheers all around over this decision.

The elves raise the boy, and while they home school him, the animals of the forest are in charge of P.E., teaching him to run, jump, and laugh like a seal. They also school him in the family business: toy making. According to Tanta Kringle, the Kringles were well known for their fine craftsmanship, as she explains in the musical number "The First Toy Makers To the King". She doesn't explain how they went from being internationally known toy makers, working for royalty, to living in a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere. I can't imagine the elves blowing their earning on hookers and coke. (Well, to be more precise, I don't want to imagine that). But the real reason might be that they have no way to transport the toys, so they just keep piling them up on the porch, which doesn't seem like the best way to run a successful business.

Years pass, and Kris grows into a young man, sounding like Mickey Rooney, only taller. He decides it's time to deliver the toys to actual people, which delights the family. Tanta even makes him a red suit like the ones the elves wear. He kisses Tanta, bids goodbye to Jingle, Pringle, Single, Mingle and Der Bingle, then gathers the toys in a sack and heads for Sombertown.

Along the way he meets up with a stranded penguin, who was headed for the South Pole, but apparently took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. He names the bird Topper, and adopts him as a pet. Together, they manage to get away from the Winter Warlock, who lives in the Mountain of the Whispering Wind. As a kid, I found the Warlock scary, but he doesn't actually do anything but cackle maniacally and issue threats in a booming voice.( I guess when you're six, that's plenty scary.)
Meanwhile, in Sombertown, the Burgerurger suffers a fall down the steps of City Hall. When he discovers the cause was a toy left on the steps, he decides to ban all toys, and, in a parody of Tanta Kringle's song, he describes the various ways he'd like to mutilate them. Having all toys outlawed over a minor, avoidable injury seems like a rather extreme reaction; I guess we should be glad he didn't trip on a banana peel, because then all the Sombertownians would be condemned to a life of severe potassium deficiency. 

Kris finally arrives in Sombertown, and doesn't make much of a favorable impression with his colorful clothes and cheery disposition. He seems baffled that inhabitants of a place called Sombertown are a bunch of crabby assholes. When he explains that he just wants to distribute some toys, they all go apeshit and run back home, locking their doors. He comes upon a couple of kids who are washing socks. They look completely miserable, as any kid would, and he scolds them for it. He then cheers them up by offering them toys. They spread the news to some other kids, and pretty soon they're all flocking to this friendly stranger. Miss Jessica, the school teacher, comes upon this scene and explains to Kris that toys are illegal, and at first tries to defend the law. When Kris, who finds this law ridiculous, hands her a china doll, she acknowledges that the law is stupid, and agrees to help him hand out the toys. Kris expresses the joy of giving in a song:

If you sit on my lap today
A kiss a toy is the price you'll pay
If you sit on my left knee
Don't be stingy! Be prepared to pay!

WHAT. THE. FUCK? It sounds like a pedophile anthem. Which may be the reason it was cut from the most recent televised broadcast of the special.

The Burgerchef intrudes on this happy scene. He's ready to have the children arrested until Kris rushes to their defense, claiming responsibility for the toys. He then gives the BrentMussburger a yo-yo, which delights the old man, until Grimsley reminds him that he's breaking his own law. Flustered and embarrassed, he urges the police to arrest Kris, who escapes by climbing up a tree and hopping from rooftop to rooftop until he reaches the forest, and finally racing away. The policemen take one look at the woods where Kris disappeared, decide it's not worth the trouble to go after him, and return to Sombertown. What efficient law enforcement they are. (Incidentally, while everyone is impressed by the skill with which Kris eludes capture, nobody mentions that Topper, a tiny penguin, was able to keep up with him the whole way.)

Kris and Topper make their way to the Mountain of the Whispering Wind, and are captured by a pair of Tree Monsters. The Winter Warlock threatens to destroy them, but Kris pleads with him to be let go, offering him a present. The Warlock, touched by this gesture, orders the trees to release him. When Kris hands the Warlock a toy train, his icy heart melts, and he feels reborn, He wonders how long that feeling will last, but Kris assures him that making a change from bad to good is as easy as walking, in a toe tapping number, "Put One Foot In Front of the Other".

(The lesson to be learned here is that it's easier to reform a centuries old evil wizard than a grouchy old man with a sprained ankle.) Winter (as he's now called) strikes a bargain: in exchange for more toys, he'll teach Kris some of his magic tricks, including the Magic Crystal Snowball, which allows he to see and hear people far away. Kris gazes into it, and sees Miss Jessica wandering in the woods calling for him. He finds her, and discovers that the children want more toys to replace the ones Burmashaver had destroyed. He agrees to this, and she kisses him, causing him to blush.

When the Boogiemaster discovers the children have toys again, he calls for all the homes of Sombertown to be locked during the night. Kris is discouraged by this, until Topper, through a series of gestures, gives him the idea to go down the chimney. This enrages the Masterblaster even further, so he demands that the police go from house to house searching for toys. (This might be a good time to point out that the animation was outsourced to Germany, which possibly explains why the police look like Nazis). 

With the doors locked the night, and daily searches of homes by the police, Kris wonders how he'll be able to get more toys to the children. He should probably be more concerned with the human rights abuses going on in the town, but I suppose when you have several decades worth of toys piled up in front of your house, finding a way to get rid of them might feel like a bigger priority. So he comes up with the idea of hiding the toys in the children's stockings, which are hung above the fireplace to dry, on the not unreasonable assumption that no police officer will want to stick his hand inside a wet, crusty sock. His instinct prove correct, and once again the kids have toys to play with. This proves to be the last straw for the Murkinblister, so he decides to lay a trap for Kris, arranging for police officers to lay in wait at one of the houses to arrest him. At first Kris protests, but when he looks out a window and sees another officer holding Topper in one hand and a jar of barbecue sauce in the other, he goes quietly. Meanwhile, officers are dispatched to the Mountain of the Whispering Wind, where they arrest Winter, Tanta Kringle, Jangle, Bangle, Spangle, Tangle and Dangle, as accomplices to Kris' crimes. All of them are thrown in jail. The Megabastard then gathers up all the toys in a pile and lights them on fire, in front of the children, who are all reduced to sobbing messes. (Since Kris warned against them crying, but didn't mention any exceptions to that rule, those poor kids must think they're really screwed.)

Jessica goes to the Burgermerger and tries to make plea on behalf of the prisoners, asking him to let them go. When he refuses to listen to reason, she has an epiphany: Sombertown really, really sucks. (We figured this out in the first five minutes) She expresses her newfound clarity in the song "My World Is Beginning Today", which is my favorite number in the show, partly because the song is pretty, and partly because the visuals are so utterly weird. Here, watch:

It's like tripping on acid with Petula Clark -- which is why it's my favorite number in the show. The most recent broadcast of the special omitted this entire sequence. When it was being carried on cable, the conversation between Jessica and the Meister Bräu was retained, but the song was cut down to the final two lines, which was jarring for those of us who remembered it, and probably more so for first time viewers. (Lesson learned: Cable networks are such greedy assholes they'll sacrifice plot continuity for two more minutes' worth of advertising time. But you already knew that.)

Jessica visits the jail, and asks Winter if he has any magic that might help them get out. Alas, his magic mojo is off, and all he has is a handful of magic feed corn that enables reindeer to fly. This seems like an oddly specific thing for anyone to be carrying around in their pocket, even a wizard. Jessica takes the corn and feeds it to some reindeer. Sure enough it works -- they soar into the sky and fly to the jail, where they free Kris, Winter, Topper, Tanta Kringle, Mango, Tango, Django, Durango and Fandango. (Wait, TOPPER? They threw the penguin in jail?) It's not clear how the reindeer managed to get in the jail cell, unless it has no roof, which seems like a major design flaw.

The group (along with Jessica, who has joined them) are now on the run from the Sombertown police. Wanted posters bearing Kris Kringle's likeness are plastered everywhere. But Kris has now altered his appearance by growing a heavy beard. Tanta Kringle suggests he stop using the family name, and go by his birth name, "Claus". (Oddly, nobody wonders whether that's his first or last name. I guess he's a one-named celebrity, like Cher.) 

Kris and Jessica are married in the forest, under some stars, on Christmas Eve. There's no minister officiating, but they "stood before the Lord", which I guess is enough for a trailer park-style common law marriage. Hoping to make the ceremony special by lighting up the trees, Winter prays to Jesus for a little more magic. It works. (Kids, don't try that at home -- at least not in front of your parents.)

In order to evade the police force of one little town, the group treks all the way to the North Pole, where Kris decides they should build a new home, and the best toy factory in the world. And so they do, although how they accomplished that in such an isolated region remains a mystery. (Did the Kringles assemble an entire house with their little hammers?)

Kris continues to deliver toys to all the children of the world. Because of his outlaw status, he still has to make these deliveries in the dark of night. Years pass, his legend grows, and his outlaw status changes when the Burgermeisters die off and people realize the toy ban is stupid. Now too old to keep making frequent deliveries, Kris decides to limit his trips to one night a year, and picks that holiest of night, Christmas Eve. And that's the whole...


The Burgermeisters "died off"? That was an inherited title? So, at some point, years after this story took place, the Bugermeister Majorbugfuck had a kid? Really? That fucking guy?

With who? I can't imagine anyone having sex with him. (Well, to be more exact, I don't want to imagine that.)

So, to recap, here are the answers to the questions asked by the children at the start of the show:

"Why is Santa Claus sometimes called Kris Kringle?" He was adopted by an elf family named Kringle. "Claus" is his birth name. The "Santa" part was added when people decided to canonize him even though he isn't dead, because why wait?

"Why does Santa wear a red suit?" It's the uniform of his elf family.

"How did he learn to make toys?" Again, the elves.

"How does he see us when we're sleeping, and know when we're awake?" He learned black magic from a born-again demon.

"Why does he visit homes by going down the chimney?" A penguin suggested it.

"Why does he leave toys in stockings?" To hide them in case Nazis search your house, a problem that still persists to this day.

"Why does he have a beard?" So he wouldn't be recognized by the police. Of course, today he'd have to shave it for that to happen.

"Speaking of beards, how did he meet Mrs.Claus?" After spending his entire life (well into adulthood) living with five old men and his adopted mother, and having had zero contact with any other human beings, he married literally the first single woman he met.

"How does he make reindeer fly?" Magic corn, which contradicts what we saw in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, where they were a race of metas who could fly, talk, and apply false eyelashes.

"Why does Santa visit us on Christmas Eve?" Because he figured it would be easier to deliver gifts to all the children of the world in one night, instead of spacing things out in multiple trips.

"Why didn't the parents of Sombertown rise together in disgust, and kick the living shit out of the Burgermeister?"

Oh, wait, that wasn't a question on the show. That was my question.

Merry Christmas to all of you, from all of me!


Dr.BDH said...

Merry Christmas, you wonderful old World o' Crap! And thanks for the exegesis of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" so I won't ever have to watch it.

Hank said...

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a fixture of my late childhood, but by the time this one came along I was in my mid-teens and far too cool (in my own, if no one else's, estimation) to watch a kid's movie. After reading this, I'll have to reconsider that decision. At least if I'm in the mood for stop-action puppetry with lots of WTF.

Nice one, Bill S.

Merry Christmas, all!

Debbi said...

Thank you! That was hilarious!

Merry Christmas!

maryclev said...

Bill, as a child I watched that dumb show every year, even though I thought it was dumb even then. I haven't watched it since I turned into a teen and now-if I should ever be tempted to watch it, I have your hilarious riff on it and will read that instead of watching the dumb show.

Thank you, Bill for making us laugh at Fred Astair and Mickey Rooney--again.

Carl said...

Fred Astaire used to do phone porn back in his prime.

Unfortunately, they couldn't monetize it since it was all party lines back then, so he ended up just doing it for fun.

Carl said...

Oh. And Marry Christmas to you all.

You can do that now. We've become sophisticates.

Carl said...

>>"Why didn't the parents of Sombertown rise together in disgust, and kick the living shit out of the Burgermeister?"<<

Who run Bartertown?