Friday, December 11, 2015

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Santa's Surprise (1947)

Santa's Surprise (A Paramount/Famous Noveltoon, 1947)
Dir.: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

And just what are you getting dear ol' Santa Claus for Christmas? After all, he's going out of his way for you, and what are you planning to give him in return? Milk and cookies again? Have you even considered that he might be either lactose intolerant or have a terrible time with gluten? He's also a pretty hefty guy. What if he has the diabetes?

I'm sorry, but these things simply must be asked these days. Sure, Santa Claus is flying wildly around the entire globe in a single night, giving out presents all willy-nilly, but you can be sure he has kept his records up on you, and knows about your vinyl allergy or that time you shoved a Lego up your own nose when you were seven and couldn't get it out for a fortnight. The guy does his research -- he has a whole year to prepare -- and it doesn't mean you can just crack open a bag of Chips Ahoy and pour out some 2% into a glass without finding out whether your actions might have some serious medical consequences for the guy. Be a little more considerate of your elders, especially when they have been around for several hundreds of years. We don't get a lot of those anymore.

Little Audrey cares. Oh, sure... over the next few years, she is going to come down with some serious problems in her cartoon series such as a nasty sugar addiction, harming little animals, attention deficit disorder, and bringing a major drought to the land simply from her wishing. And dreaming... the girl has some seriously, crazy-ass dreams. I think she has tapped into another dimension entirely built of weird fantasy worlds -- some of them nightmarish -- and she seems to get stuck in one those dreamworlds nearly every other picture. Little Audrey is nothing if not tapped in fully to her neuroses.

But in her very first picture for Famous Studios, Santa's Surprise from 1947, she is just a caring, lovable good girl. Sure, she goes a little overboard with her caring and runs away with a bunch of other little kids to the North Pole, but she is a good girl nonetheless. She had better be good, because this cartoon is all about Santa as he winds down from his annual Christmas sprint. After a warm and cozy credit sequence filled with images of a Christmas tree, cards, and presents, we see the silhouette of a very familiar sleigh pulled by reindeer across the shining moon. Santa Claus is singing from the very moment we see him in close up:

"Every once a year,
when Christmas comes,
I pack my sled 
with dolls and drums.
And I'm on my way with happiness
for little girls and boys!"

We see Santa and his reindeer fly down through a landscape filled with windmills, signifying his arrival in Holland. Inside a home, we see Santa's shadow as he fills a stocking, and crawling out from under the bed is a small, smiling, blonde-haired boy. Off on his way to the next stop, Santa continues his song:

"Oh, there isn't any
place too far.
I go wherever 
children are.
Always on my way with happiness
wrapped up in fancy toys!"

Santa next arrives in China, and while he fills the next stocking, he is scrutinized by a small Chinese boy watching Santa's reflection in a mirror. The song continues as the reindeer fly:

"On my Christmas list,
I have many names and places!"

The reindeer chime in as a chorus:

"Though we've never seen their faces,
we know each one and the good they've done!"

In a big American city, Santa fills the stockings in another home. This time, there are names for each stocking hanging from the mantle: "Mom," "Pop," and "Little Audrey". As Santa fills up Audrey's, he realizes that the toys are falling through the bottom of the stocking, but then sees there is a waiting basket collecting everything, and he chuckles warmly. The camera pans to the other side of the room, where Audrey is pretending to sleep, sneaking open one eye to check on Santa's progress. Just as he starts to leave, Santa suddenly discovers he has forgotten one stocking, that of a mouse who peeks out of his mousehole, standing next to a tiny blue sock on a nail. As Santa leans down to place a wedge of cheese in the sock, the mouse hides. Returning to his sleigh, Santa sings once more:

"Over hill and dale,
again this year,
I brought glad tidings
and good cheer!
So until another Christmas day
when I pay another call,
I say Merry Christmas to all!"

On the last line, Santa's sleigh is seen from outer space, circling the globe to reach the North Pole, sticking high out of the earth at the top. We see Santa's mailbox, empty for the moment, and the jolly old elf climbs out of his sleigh wearily. Inside his workshop, he catches the collar of his coat purposefully on a hook and allows it to slide off of him as he stumbles forward. Now dressed in his nightshirt and cap, Santa tucks himself into his bed and yawns. Sitting up suddenly, he looks into the mirror on his vanity table and tells his reflection, "Merry Christmas!" and lays back down to sleep.

As Santa starts to snore loudly, blowing the ball of his nightcap up as he does, the scene cuts to outside his workshop, where Little Audrey peeks out from under a cover on the sleigh. She says, "Hey, kids! I betcha he's asleep now, I betcha!" From inside the workshop, we see seven hands rubbing the snow off the window outside to peer in at Santa Claus asleep in his bed. We see the faces of seven children of different races and nationalities through the holes in the frost. The camera scans the room and shows that Santa has made quite the mess in preparation for the holidays.

Outside, Little Audrey stands in the middle of the kids and says sadly, "I feel sorry for Santa!" A small black boy agrees with her, adding, "Yeah, man! He's sho' tired and worn!" The little Dutch boy we met briefly before agrees, as does a small Hawaiian girl wearing only a lei and a grass skirt. (Damn! That girl has got to be freezing... plus, she's barefoot at the North Pole.) The Chinese boy says, "Him clothes very black like an [indecipherable]!," the first sign that his part in this will include the stereotypical nod to Chinese doing the laundry. A Russian boy with a fur cap agrees with "Da! Da!" and a Spanish girl says "Si, si! He helps everyone at Christmas, but no one they think of Santa Claus." It hits Audrey that what they should do is tidy up Santa's house to help him out for a change, and the entire United Nations of Stowaway Brats agrees.

The kids creep quietly into Santa's abode, each one carefully matching the previous one's tiptoeing across the threshold. But a clomping noise at the end of the line is heard, and everyone shushes the little Dutch boy, who is seen wearing a pair of wooden clogs for shoes. He clomps again once they restart, and after shushing from the group, he points at his feet. Audrey runs forward with the solution, and ties a pillow underneath each clog. He struts forward proudly, saying, "Ja! Danke!" and then blindly walks into a vase on a small table. The crash is loud, and the kids scatter at the noise, but Santa is still clinging fiercely to his snoring rest.

The camera cuts to each child in their hiding places: Audrey in Santa's hanging coat, the Chinese boy inside some long underwear pouring out of a laundry hamper (there's that theme again), the Russian boy inside the mouth of a bear rug, the Hawaiian girl in front of broom so all she had to do was bend over and hide her head so her skirt would look like the broom bristles, the Spanish girl inside a large stein, the African-American boy inside of a pair of Santa's boots (wait for the racist pay off on this later), and the Dutch boy inside the speaker of a phonograph. The Dutch boy tries to step out of the speaker backwards and ends up switching on the phonograph by mistake. He spins wildly on the turntable while a super-speeded up version of Jingle Bells plays faster and faster. Audrey switches off the phonograph, and the Dutch slows to a stop, and a closeup of his face show his eyes still doing laps on the inside of his head.

Audrey tells everyone that Santa is asleep, and as she starts to dust a goldfish bowl (and the fish inside it, which makes him very happy), Audrey sings:

"Oh, we wanna do something for Santa!
We wanna make a real big fuss!
We wanna do something for Santa
'cause he's always doin' something for us!"

As the Spanish girl cleans a pot in the kitchen, she adds (in slightly broken English):

"I'll polish pans that have rusted,
give every one shiny face."

The Hawaiian girl brushes dust and dirt across the floor with her skirt and hula movements, singing:

"I'll see that the furniture's dusted
and in its proper place!"

The Russian kid, with brushes attached to his boots, does a traditional dance with his arms folded as he kicks his way across the soapy floor, and sings:

"I'll scrub the floor all clean and neat,
no spot will test my [??]. [rhymes with "why"]

And the African-American kid shines Santa's boots, which are held in place with the legs from a chair, and adds:

"I'll shine his shoes with a boogie beat
and here's the reason why."

Audrey is standing on a stool in front of the sink, with her back to the camera while she is washing dishes. She continues the song:

"Oh, we know we owe much to Santa,
for making every Christmas gay!
We wanna do something for Santa..."

Audrey whips the clean dishes up in the air, and the camera swings up to show the Dutch boy perched atop the door of the cupboard. He has a stack of dishes already piled up to his face in his left hand, and as he attempts to catch the newly flung dish, he adds to Audrey's line:

"-- and in our little vay,
t'ank him for der happiness
dat came our vay!"

The weight of the plates in his arms is too heavy and makes them drop down low, but Audrey (unseen) flings a tea cup into the air. The Dutch boy goes to grab it, but unthinkingly lets go of the stack of plates when he does. He is successful in catching the cup, but a loud crash is heard. He pretends that nothing has happened, his eyes peering upward as if here were a little angel, polishes the cup on his shirt, and hangs it in the cupboard with a nonchalant whistle.

In the laundry room, the Chinese boy is seen with an ironing board, which the Hawaiian and Spanish girls use like a seesaw, causing the hot iron to run back and forth over each piece of laundry the Chinese boy places on it. The Russian boy is tying the arms of each shirt in Santa's wardrobe together so that they snake continuously through the mangle of the washbasin. Unfortunately, the noisemaking Dutch boy gets caught in the knot of one of the shirts and is pulled through as well. He flies out the washbasin and onto their seesawing ironing board, and the iron promptly burns his biscuits good. The burning send him flying away again, yowling in pain and heading for the outside, where he sits his bottom down in the cooling snow with a great look of relief on his face. When he stands up, the spot where he was sitting is bereft of snow, and a daisy springs to life in his place.

The kids are next seen working as a group and using a pulley to winch Santa above his bed inside a sheet so they can make the bed. They all sing:

"Oh, we know we owe much to Santa
for making every Christmas gay!
We wanna do something for Santa
and in our little way,
thank him for the happiness
that came our way!"

The girls make the bed (of course) while the boys hold Santa aloft above them. The bed made, the boys start to lose their grip on the rope, and when Santa starts to shift and moan, the rope gives way, the Dutch boy flies up to the ceiling, and Santa crashes down on the bed. Somehow, he remains asleep, and the Dutch boy jumps down and clomps his way out of the house and slams the door. The slam finally wakes up Santa with a start, and after he rubs his eyes, he sees a Christmas tree with holiday greetings on it in each language of the children in the group.

From outside, the kids yell, "Merry Christmas, Santa!" and the camera zooms in on a single present under the tree. "A present? For me" says the jolly old elf, and when he opens it, he is seen holding a music box. When he winds it, the faces of each kid in the group pass by a window in the box. There is a note attached with a calendar marking Christmas for the next year, and written above the date of the 25th is "Santa Don't Forget Us Next Year". Santa laughs merrily. Iris out.

No attention at all is paid to the fact that now Santa has to either magic these kids back to their homes, or more likely, shuttle them back via sleigh, making everyone freak out because he has already made his rounds for the year. So, they did do something for Santa after all: wear himself and his reindeer out even more after they have already gone tens of thousands of miles in a single night. Surely he has enslaved elves that can do his washing and cleaning. Stupid kids.

This film never met a stereotype about any race or country that it didn't look square in the face and say, "We're doing it anyway!" The main concern is the then standard attitude towards non-white races. While it is nice that film tries to give us a well-rounded cast and the children all seem like immediate best friends, the Chinese boy does laundry and sneaks about suspiciously even while doing what the rest of the children are doing. The black kid is a shoeshine boy and talks like he is out of Amos and Andy. Its all meant to be cute and good clean fun for children, but at the time, these were some of the only impressions most of the country saw in popular entertainment of people who were different from the status quo in America. (And I realize the costuming is a shorthand for saying, "This person is from this specific land". That's also stereotyping, but that's not what I'm discussing here.)

Santa's Surprise is directed one of the two Famous Studios mainstays, Seymour Kneitel (the other being Izzy Sparber), and the animation here is about par for the course for a Famous product. It was rare that they pushed any boundaries, and remained tied to the formulas set for each of their fairly rigid series. Each Herman and Katnip, each Popeye, and especially each Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon were barely distinguishable from the next. The same goes for Little Audrey for the most part, but they did get some truly bizarre moments tucked away inside that formula in her films, such as in the absolutely nuts addiction tale, Butterscotch and Soda (see my piece on that strange film here).

And at the start of Audrey's career, in this film, she is introduced as a good and kind girl in a Christmas movie. You cannot get more saccharine than that, and this is where the problem lies. I said at the beginning of this article that you have to be careful what you give Santa these days. Are you trying to give that fat old man sugar shock, Little Audrey?



And in case you haven't seen it:

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