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Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians(1964)


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Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) is one of those low-budget independent film titles that has been burned into the memory of "bad movie" aficionados, and is even familiar to most pop culture followers, even if they may not have ever seen the movie in question. Released in 1964 to the kiddie matinee market, the film fared poorly at the box office during its initial run, but went on to turn a profit during annual reissues and later became a staple on local television stations, particularly after it fell into the Public Domain. It is now available as a dollar-store DVD and can be viewed in its entirety on the internet; its wide availability means that there is also a plethora of articles dissecting its "badness" available online. The harsh treatment of the little movie dates at least to its inclusion in The 50 Worst Films of All Time, a 1984 book by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. Without question, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is inept as entertainment for adults as well as for most kids and makes for an easy target to pick on. It was a first-and-only picture by a would-be producer trying to break in to the potentially lucrative market of children's films, and it was made on a small (but not miniscule) budget with a cast made up mostly of New York-based theatrical hopefuls and minor stage performers. Though it is no excuse for a lack of quality, it should also be remembered that the script and overall production is aimed squarely at kids.

Synopsis: A television crew at the North Pole is interviewing Santa Claus (John Call) as he and his elves are getting ready for Christmas. The broadcast is being monitored on Mars, where it is being watched by Martian children Girmar (Pia Zadora) and Bomar (Chris Month). These two are typical of Martian children (we are told - no others are seen) and are listless and dispirited. Martian leader Kimar (Leonard Hicks) and his Council consult with elder prophet Chochem (Carl Don), who advises that the lost childhood of Martian children could be recaptured if they had a Santa Claus like Earth children do. Kimar gathers a crew and travels to Earth to kidnap Santa. In Earth orbit, the Martians use powerful scopes to survey the planet and see Santas on virtually every street corner of a big city! They then kidnap two Earth children, Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti), who explain that they are seeing Santa's helpers; eventually they unwillingly guide the Martians to the North Pole. Intrigue amongst the Martians develop as the viewer is introduced to the evil Voldar (Vincent Beck), who has selfish intents, and the idiotic Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), who allows for the Earth kids to get away in a bid to warn Santa. The Martians bring along a powerful robot called Torg to help kidnap Santa, but interestingly, the robot is toy-like enough to be passive with old St. Nick. Santa is jolly and goes back to Mars with his captors anyway, although Mrs. Claus (Doris Rich) and the elves protest, and are subdued with a freeze ray.

Producer Paul L. Jacobson had previous experience with children's entertainment, working as a unit manager on the Howdy Doody (1954-1959) TV series. In the early 1960s he formed Jalor Productions and raised $200,000 (mostly from private investors) to film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, based on his own original story. The film was shot at Michael Myerberg Studios on Long Island in New York; the facility had once served as an aircraft hanger. Director Nicholas Webster had previously directed a feature film, Gone Are the Days! (1963, aka Purlie Victorious), but that had been a stagebound and by all accounts non-cinematic record of the Ossie Davis-Ruby Dee play of the same name.

As an all-ages film, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians faces a basic problem: the combined experience of the producer (working on his first and only film), the director (who had previously only filmed a stage play), and the actors (most of whom had primarily stage experience) could not serve up a suitably compelling cinematic experience, and even a matinee audience of kids deserves to see something cinematic rather than stiff and stagey, particularly when the genre is science fiction and fantasy. In addition, there was no attempt in the writing to appeal beyond the kid audience. One line of dialogue that appears early in the film holds out some promise that there will be a secondary layer of humor aimed at adults. Santa announces, "We're going out the good old fashioned way: Prancer and Dancer and Donder and Blitzen, and Vixen and Nixon... Oh, consarnit, I get those names mixed up, but the kids know their names!" The reference to the then-former-Vice President (who had also recently lost in his bid to be Governor of California) would have brought a chuckle to the adults in the audience, but sadly it was the only attempt at satire or grown-up wit in the script.

It is a well-worn bit of trivia that future 1980s-era actress Pia Zadora makes her debut in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as the Martian girl. Of the more memorable performers, John Call (Santa Claus) was recruited from the Broadway production of Oliver!, where he had a small part as a doctor. The Sad Sack Martian Dropo was played by Bill McCutcheon, who, like producer Jacobson, got his start in children's television shows. His droopy eyes and slow-witted demeanor could be spotted in character parts in film and television for years, including such movies as Vibes (1988), Steel Magnolias and Family Business (both 1989).

During the comings and goings of Santa and the Martians around the Earth's atmosphere, there is much use made of stock footage of actual U.S. Air Force jets being scrambled and interception rockets being launched; a prominent General laments that a rescue mission isn't possible because America's Rocket Fleet is not ready: "Who wouldn't give everything to bring Santa back to our children?" These scenes place Santa Claus Conquers the Martians squarely into the Space Race era of the early 1960s. In another nod to 1960s culture, there is a credit reading, "Special Toys by Louis Marx & Co." although one item on view - the Martian weapon that is used to "freeze" people - is actually an Air Blaster made by competing toy company Wham-O.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was picked up for distribution by Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures for the 1964 Christmas season. The film was widely reviewed at the time of release, and the notices were almost uniformly negative. Boxoffice called it "overly saccharine and nonsensical....A lobby sign with 'No One Admitted OVER 16 Years of Age' might be appropriate..." In Film Daily, Mandel Herbstman wrote that "the story itself runs along stereotyped lines," and that the overall, the film "...yields little in the way of substance." Ronald Gold, writing in the Motion Picture Herald, noted that "Youngsters who are old hands at science fiction may notice the limited use of special effects...[and] it could have benefitted from the interjection of a little more humor." Howard Thompson of the New York Times was in a charitable mood when he wrote that "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is aimed straight at the very small fry, who probably will eat it up....Using a small cast of unfamiliar faces, good color, a workable handful of sets (rather deftly integrated with documentary background footage), Paul Jacobson, the producer, has put together a Christmasy little movie, with science-fiction trimmings for fledgling astronauts. Adults may find it obvious and as square-cut as cheese....Mr. Jacobson's economical production and Nicholas Webster's direction, not to mention the very broad acting, make the picture seem like a children's television show enlarged on movie house screens."

Director Webster did go on to helm a bigger-budget science fiction film, Mission Mars (1968), shot in Florida and starring Darren McGavin and Nick Adams. Most of his subsequent work would be in television, on such series as Bracken's World (1969-1970), Mannix (1970-1971), and The F.B.I. (1971).

Though the vast bulk of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is likable but equally forgettable, it ends with a novelty song, "Hooray for Santy Claus," which is designed to be unforgettable. The lyrics to the song (by Roy Alfred and Milton Delugg) are displayed on the screen to prompt an in-theater sing-along, and the repetition and jaunty tune make it irresistible. As the last impression to be left with the audience, it is no wonder that this innocuous kiddie matinee offering has been burned into so many brains over the years.
Hang up that mistletoe
Soon you'll hear Ho Ho Ho
On Christmas Day
You'll wake up and you'll say
Hooray for Santy Claus
Hooray for Santy Claus

Producer: Paul L. Jacobson
Director: Nicholas Webster
Screenplay: Glenville Mareth; Paul L. Jacobson (based on a story by)
Cinematography: David L. Quaid
Art Direction: Maurice Gordon
Music: Milton Delugg
Film Editing: Bill Henry
Cast: John Call (Santa Claus), Leonard Hicks (Kimar), Vincent Beck (Voldar), Bill McCutcheon (Dropo), Victor Stiles (Billy), Donna Conforti (Betty), Chris Month (Bomar), Pia Zadora (Girmar), Leila Martin (Momar), Charles Renn (Hargo), James Cahill (Rigna), Ned Wertimer (Andy Henderson), Doris Rich (Mrs. Claus), Carl Don (Chochem/Von Green), Ivor Bodin (Winky).

by John M. Miller

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