Santa Claus (1898)
Director: George Albert Smith
Cast: Laura Bayley, Dorothy Smith, Harold Smith
Synopsis: “In this picture you see Santa Claus enter the room from the fireplace and proceed to trim the tree. He then fills the stockings that were previously hung on the mantle by the children. …”
The Americanisation of Britain stretches further back in time than you’d think if this quaint little film from British pioneer George Albert Smith is anything to go by. As recently as the 1970s, the big man was predominantly known as Father Christmas in the UK, and its only in the last couple of decades that, as with all things, we Brits have adopted the bastardisation of Saint Nicholas used by our American cousins. And yet this film, made in the 1890s chooses to name itself after the American name. Is this a sly piece of marketing on the part of Smith and his production company? A savvy awareness that American buyers would not readily recognise the British name and, therefore, commercial potential of this seasonal film?
Santa Claus is quite a polished effort for 1898, with a fairly elaborate set, some effective trick photography, and a storyline. It’s the simplest of narratives, to be sure, but that’s still a lot more than most movies were attempting at the time. It opens with a curly-haired tot and his older sister excitedly peering up the bedroom of their chimney on Christmas Eve, clearly hoping for a site of the Big Man’s bottom working its way towards them. Their hopes are dashed, however, when a maid puts them to bed. Smith manages an effective transition from light to dark as the maid turns out the lamp in their room, and although we remain in the children’s bedroom we see, superimposed on the wall, a rather emaciated Santa stealing across the snowy rooftops and climbing down their chimney. A few moments later he appears in the sleeping children’s room with a Christmas tree and a few gifts which he places in the stockings hanging from the end of their bed before returning from whence he came.
It’s a neat little story, simply told and easy to understand.
(Reviewed 17th August 2014)