Do you collect vintage Christmas decorations? Love singing vintage Christmas songs? Maybe even enjoy trying out vintage holiday recipes? Then how about taking the next step and trying out some very vintage Christmas films?
I’m not talking about the familiar holiday staples like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life or the hallowed classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians–I’m talking about the very earliest Christmas films ever made, pre-dating our more commercialized era. Heck, they pre-date the widespread use of electricity. The discovery of penicillin. Even the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. These are holiday movies over a century old, from the literal horse and buggy era, and they are charming peeks into a long-gone world. Let’s start with:
7. Santa Claus (1898)
Behold, the oldest surviving Christmas movie ever! It was directed by George Albert Smith, inventor, stage hypnotist, magic lantern lecturer, psychic, and all-around character who is several articles unto himself. It is, of course, very short (although many films at the time were shorter). Don’t be deceived by its primitive look–it contains perhaps the earliest example of two separate scenes happening onscreen at once, tinkering with some of our earliest double-exposure effects. (P.s. Most of the films in this post don’t have background music, because trust me, much of the modern “music” shackled to these poor things is better left to the imagination. Or not even that.)
6. The Christmas Dream (1900)
Leave it to Georges Méliès to help pioneer holiday movies! (Like I always say, every movie trope is 6 degrees of separation from Méliès.) This one contains much frolicking, puffs of fake snow and plenty of those wonderfully vivid painted backdrops and props (I love the giant bell). Keep an eye out for Méliès himself, who appears in two roles.
5. Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901)
Since we’ve just seen the first Christmas movie ever made, how about watching the earliest screen version of Charles Dickens’s famed novel? This short Walter R. Booth drama was originally about 6 minutes long, although only 3 1/2 minutes survive today. Yes, that does mean the plot of the entire novel was condensed down to a brisk 6 minutes–no small feat! Note the use of double exposures again, as well as Marley substituting for the three ghosts.
4. The Night Before Christmas (1905)
This straightforward short is like being a fly on the wall of genteel Edwardian household on Christmas Eve–you kind of wish you could join them. We switch back and forth from scenes of Santa Claus feeding his herd of reindeer (actually a herd of elk) and working on wooden toys, and several children from a happy city family trying to go to bed and getting so excited that they have a pillowfight instead. If the tiny miniature reindeer and tiny Santa’s sleigh skittering through a painted, miniature snowscape set doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart then I don’t know what can.
3. A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)
This little story has a plot twist that will definitely surprise you. (Let’s just say it probably wouldn’t work today.) I love the period detail in this one, from the boy’s Buster Brown-type outfit to the festooned tree to the big teddy bear which today would probably be worth more than my car.
2. A Christmas Carol (1910)
Now for a (moderately) more famous early Christmas Carol movie. In this fine 10 minute Edison drama, Bob Cratchit is played by Charles Ogle, famed for portraying the first screen version of Frankenstein’s monster, and Marc McDermott gives it his all as Ebenezer Scrooge. The scenes are well staged, and the acting is quite good when you consider the fact that many scenes were later filled in with double exposures–the old-timey version of actors using their imaginations with green screens!
…By the way, McDermott was only 29 when he played Ebenezer Scrooge. Yes.
1.The Insects’ Christmas (1913)
This is one of my favorite vintage holiday films, a strange little gem from the great Russian stop-motion animator Ladislas Starevich (spellings vary). He’s credited with being the first person to make an animated puppet film, having made a stop-motion documentary of stag beetles in 1910 using real dead beetles as puppets, posed with bits of wire and sealing wax. He went on to produce a number of surreal films with bug protagonists, like The Grasshopper and the Ant (1911) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). Some folks wondered if he had trained live insects!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little selection of Victorian and Edwardian Yuletide shorts, and that perhaps they’ll give extra meaning to the phrase “auld lang syne”!
Note: Some of these shorts can be found on Kino’s A Christmas Past DVD, which includes 9 rare, very old holiday films. The music is terrible, but it’s still a nice list.