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Santa Claus

Santa Claus(1959)

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Santa Claus (1959)

It seems impossible to tell the full story of Ren Cardona without bringing K. Gordon Murray into the discussion. The Havana-born Cardona immigrated to New York as the American film industry transitioned from silents to talkies. With Rodolfo Montes, he co-founded the Cuban International Film Company (later the Hispania Talking Film Corporation, Ltd.) and directed, produced and appeared in Sombras habaneras (aka Cuban Shadows, 1929), the first Spanish language film shot in North America. In Mexico by the 1930s, Cardona worked as a director-for-hire and as an actor, loaning out his intimidating corporeality to such lurid films as Juan Bustillo Oro's El misterio del rostro plido (The Mystery of the Ghastly Face, 1935), Jos Bohr's Marihuana (1936) and Miguel Zaracas El bal macabro (The Macabre Trunk, 1936). The popularity of lucha libre in Mexico in the 1950s prompted a run of masked wrestler films. Cardona's El enmascarado de plata ("The Silver Masked Man," 1954) was conceived as a vehicle for star luchador El Santo (Rodolfo Guzmn Huerta) but ultimately featured a rival grappler instead. Cardona later paired with Guzmn Huerta for a string of Santo escapades and also tried his hand at fairy tales (Pulgarcito [1957], or Adventures of Joselito and Tom Thumb), horror (La Llorona [1960], aka The Crying Woman) and science fiction (Las luchadoras contra el mdico asesino [1963] aka Doctor of Doom), becoming over the decades a reliable genre craftsman.

The son of an Illinois mortician and a former carnival huckster, Miami-based American film distributor K. Gordon Murray got his start in the film business helping to cast munchkins for The Wizard of Oz (1939). Relocated after World War II to Florida, a trade route to Latin America, Gordon began to import Mexican-made films, which he had dubbed into English for distribution in the States. Although Gordon's notoriety rests on such ghastly titles as Chano Urueta's The Brainiac (El barn del terror, 1962) and Alfonso Corona Blake's Samson and the Vampire Women (Santo vs. las mujeres vampiro, 1962), his earliest acquisitions were aimed at the kiddies. One of his earliest and most profitable finds was Cardona's disconcerting holiday morality tale Santa Claus (1959). An uncommonly lush production filmed entirely on the soundstages of Mexico City's government-run Churubusco-Azteca Studios, Santa Claus is a jaw-dropping Christmas caper that pits Kris Kringle (Jos Elas Moreno) against an agent of Satan known as Pitch (Jos Luis Aguirre), who is intent upon tarnishing the Yuletide. Dividing the action between Earth, the heavens (Santa occupies a cloud-straddling castle cum Fortress of Solitude) and deep in the bowels of Hell (where horned demons with beatnik goatees caper like Fosse dancers as the damned trudge mournfully to tarnation), Santa Claus is all the more strange for honoring a holiday not at all native to Mexico. If Cardona was thinking of potential play in North America, his gambit paid off - the film was a huge hit north of the border, where K. Gordon Murray kept it in annual rotation for nearly thirty years.

While Santa Claus' inferno sections are indebted to cinematic depictions of Hades dating back to the silents, St. Nick's anthropomorphic toyshop (whose ordinances include a Nemoesque/Phibesian pipe organ cum communication console, a privacy-violating "master eye" and an alarmingly labial computer voice generator) points to the polymorphous perversity of key 80s era "new wave" productions, notably Stephen Sayadian's Caf Flesh (1982), Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone (1982), David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), Rene Daalder's Population: 1 (1986) and even the popular CBS Saturday morning show Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986-1990). As pornographic, satiric, or more overtly horrific as they may be, those later projects lack the transgressive heft of the ghoulishly upbeat Santa Claus; for all its discomfiting elements and racist embroideries, Cardona's candied extravaganza was intended as family entertainment and remains all the more transgressive for the sincerity of its approach. Cardona would craft more pointedly questionable films later in his career, including the sleaze classic Night of the Bloody Apes (1969) and Survive! (1976), the first cinematic retelling of the desperation cannibalism of the 1972 Andes survivors, but Santa Claus remains the jewel in his crown. Whatever Cardona's intentions, the results speak for themselves. Ultimately it's hard to argue with Michael Weldon's assessment that Santa Claus represents "holiday exploitation at its finest."

Director: Ren Cardona
Producer: Guillermo Caldern
Screenplay: Adolfo Torres Portillo, Ren Cardona
Music: Antonio Daz Conde
Cinematography: Ral Martnez Solares
Editor: Jorge Bustos
Production Design: Francisco March Chillet
Choreographer: Ricardo Luna
Cast: Jos Elas Moreno (Santa Claus), Jos Luis Aguirre (Pitch), Cesreo Quezadas (Pedro), Armando Arriola (Merlin), ngel Di Stefani (Vulcano, the Blacksmith), Lupita Quezadas (The Poor Girl), Antonio Daz Conde, Jr. (The Rich Boy), K. Gordon Murray (Narrator, English version). C-94m.

by Richard Harland Smith

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teaser Santa Claus (1959)

It seems impossible to tell the full story of Ren Cardona without bringing K. Gordon Murray into the discussion. The Havana-born Cardona immigrated to New York as the American film industry transitioned from silents to talkies. With Rodolfo Montes, he co-founded the Cuban International Film Company (later the Hispania Talking Film Corporation, Ltd.) and directed, produced and appeared in Sombras habaneras (aka Cuban Shadows, 1929), the first Spanish language film shot in North America. In Mexico by the 1930s, Cardona worked as a director-for-hire and as an actor, loaning out his intimidating corporeality to such lurid films as Juan Bustillo Oro's El misterio del rostro plido (The Mystery of the Ghastly Face, 1935), Jos Bohr's Marihuana (1936) and Miguel Zaracas El bal macabro (The Macabre Trunk, 1936). The popularity of lucha libre in Mexico in the 1950s prompted a run of masked wrestler films. Cardona's El enmascarado de plata ("The Silver Masked Man," 1954) was conceived as a vehicle for star luchador El Santo (Rodolfo Guzmn Huerta) but ultimately featured a rival grappler instead. Cardona later paired with Guzmn Huerta for a string of Santo escapades and also tried his hand at fairy tales (Pulgarcito [1957], or Adventures of Joselito and Tom Thumb), horror (La Llorona [1960], aka The Crying Woman) and science fiction (Las luchadoras contra el mdico asesino [1963] aka Doctor of Doom), becoming over the decades a reliable genre craftsman.

The son of an Illinois mortician and a former carnival huckster, Miami-based American film distributor K. Gordon Murray got his start in the film business helping to cast munchkins for The Wizard of Oz (1939). Relocated after World War II to Florida, a trade route to Latin America, Gordon began to import Mexican-made films, which he had dubbed into English for distribution in the States. Although Gordon's notoriety rests on such ghastly titles as Chano Urueta's The Brainiac (El barn del terror, 1962) and Alfonso Corona Blake's Samson and the Vampire Women (Santo vs. las mujeres vampiro, 1962), his earliest acquisitions were aimed at the kiddies. One of his earliest and most profitable finds was Cardona's disconcerting holiday morality tale Santa Claus (1959). An uncommonly lush production filmed entirely on the soundstages of Mexico City's government-run Churubusco-Azteca Studios, Santa Claus is a jaw-dropping Christmas caper that pits Kris Kringle (Jos Elas Moreno) against an agent of Satan known as Pitch (Jos Luis Aguirre), who is intent upon tarnishing the Yuletide. Dividing the action between Earth, the heavens (Santa occupies a cloud-straddling castle cum Fortress of Solitude) and deep in the bowels of Hell (where horned demons with beatnik goatees caper like Fosse dancers as the damned trudge mournfully to tarnation), Santa Claus is all the more strange for honoring a holiday not at all native to Mexico. If Cardona was thinking of potential play in North America, his gambit paid off - the film was a huge hit north of the border, where K. Gordon Murray kept it in annual rotation for nearly thirty years.

While Santa Claus' inferno sections are indebted to cinematic depictions of Hades dating back to the silents, St. Nick's anthropomorphic toyshop (whose ordinances include a Nemoesque/Phibesian pipe organ cum communication console, a privacy-violating "master eye" and an alarmingly labial computer voice generator) points to the polymorphous perversity of key 80s era "new wave" productions, notably Stephen Sayadian's Caf Flesh (1982), Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone (1982), David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), Rene Daalder's Population: 1 (1986) and even the popular CBS Saturday morning show Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986-1990). As pornographic, satiric, or more overtly horrific as they may be, those later projects lack the transgressive heft of the ghoulishly upbeat Santa Claus; for all its discomfiting elements and racist embroideries, Cardona's candied extravaganza was intended as family entertainment and remains all the more transgressive for the sincerity of its approach. Cardona would craft more pointedly questionable films later in his career, including the sleaze classic Night of the Bloody Apes (1969) and Survive! (1976), the first cinematic retelling of the desperation cannibalism of the 1972 Andes survivors, but Santa Claus remains the jewel in his crown. Whatever Cardona's intentions, the results speak for themselves. Ultimately it's hard to argue with Michael Weldon's assessment that Santa Claus represents "holiday exploitation at its finest."

Director: Ren Cardona
Producer: Guillermo Caldern
Screenplay: Adolfo Torres Portillo, Ren Cardona
Music: Antonio Daz Conde
Cinematography: Ral Martnez Solares
Editor: Jorge Bustos
Production Design: Francisco March Chillet
Choreographer: Ricardo Luna
Cast: Jos Elas Moreno (Santa Claus), Jos Luis Aguirre (Pitch), Cesreo Quezadas (Pedro), Armando Arriola (Merlin), ngel Di Stefani (Vulcano, the Blacksmith), Lupita Quezadas (The Poor Girl), Antonio Daz Conde, Jr. (The Rich Boy), K. Gordon Murray (Narrator, English version). C-94m.

by Richard Harland Smith

back to top