The Night Before Christmas (1905)
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Synopsis: Santa feeds his reindeer in preparation for the long night ahead, while excited children await his arrival.
Although Edwin S. Porter’s The Night Before Christmas didn’t mark the first appearance of Santa Claus on cinema screens, the portrayal of the jolly fat man in this movie must surely have been the most convincing to date. Compare him, for example, with the thin and shadowy figure from George Albert Smith’s 1898 movie Santa Claus. The identity of the actor playing Santa has long-since been forgotten — Wikipedia credits the role to Harry Eytinge, but it appears to have confused this version with the one made in 1914 — but, whoever he is, with his portly frame, luxuriant beard and ruddy-looking features, he certainly looks the part.
The Night Before Christmas opens with a scene of Santa feeding his reindeer and putting the finishing touches to some toys as he makes final preparations for his big night. I can’t help thinking he’s cutting it a bit fine there, but it’s perhaps understandable considering that his elves all seem to have gone AWOL. While he’s hard at work on making a toy sled, we see the six children of a typical family writing letters to him under the supervision of their parents and grandparents. After changing into their nightclothes and hanging their stockings over the fireplace, the kids are put to bed by the family maid (so maybe it’s not quite a ‘typical’ family after all). Like all kids on Christmas Eve, they’re in a state of high excitement and feign sleep until the maid has departed. Once she’s safely out of the way the excitable tots engage in a vigorous pillow fight that has feathers flying everywhere. Now, by rights that sort of behaviour should have them struck off Santa’s delivery schedule, but it seems as if all the children in the city between their home and the North Pole were even worse behaved because Santa and his reindeer drive right past them without stopping and the family awakens on Christmas morn to find their front room filled with presents and a Christmas tree.
It’s clear from the film’s production values that the Edison studio lavished a lot of care and attention on The Night Before Christmas. The sets are elaborate for 1905, there are exterior shots for the scene in which Santa feeds real reindeer in the roles of Donner, Blitzen and co, and the special effects are nicely realised. Porter makes effective use of cross-cutting, a device which would be perfected by D W Griffith a few years later, to alternate scenes of Santa’s preparations with the children’s growing excitement, and while this doesn’t add any level of suspense in the way Griffith’s later use of the technique would, it does convey a nice sense of the household’s mounting anticipation. Perhaps surprisingly, The Night Before Christmas continues to capture a glowing festive atmosphere of warmth and excitement which perhaps shows that, despite its commercialisation, the Christmas we know today isn’t too far removed from that of a century ago. Perhaps the only flaw is in the way Porter tends to allow each individual scene to last a good few seconds longer than necessary.
(Reviewed 16th September 2014)