Friday, December 01, 2017

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Christmas Comes But Once A Year (1936)

Christmas Comes But Once A Year (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936)
Dir.: Dave Fleischer; Seymour Kneitel (anim. dir. uncredited)
Animators: Seymour Kneitel and William Henning
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

I figured there would be some sort of inevitability that either myself or some of my friends would end up looking like Santa Claus. Now middle-aged guys, getting larger as we get older, and some of us have facial hair that seems to be getting lighter and lighter and downright whiter as time slips past us. Of course, one can avoid this most easily by not being lazy and keeping one's face clear of shrubbery, and the next level would be keeping in shape so that one doesn't develop the potbelly and the extra chins that come with the basic design of the character.

This is not to say it is a bad thing, at least philosophically, to look like Santa Claus. He is, after all, a right jolly old elf, who brings good cheer to all and even greater joy to children all over the world. And as I said, if you check off factors like growing out one's beard, etc., it becomes increasingly easy to affect the look as one gets older.

What I did not factor in was that one or more of us might end up actually playing Santa Claus for real. Not in a small Christmas party sense or to a family full of kids in a household; anyone could end up doing that at any point if the scenario called for it. No, I mean straight up playing Santa Claus in a very public way, hearing Christmas wishes from kid after kid seated on your lap on a grandly decorated winter wonderland set. Maybe even surrounded by others in elf costumes, handing out candy canes to impatiently waiting urchins while you try to get the currently seated brat on their way before bursting out in tears. And that is what has happened, as I saw numerous pictures of one of my nearly lifelong friends playing the kindly old saint last week back home in Alaska. Not that my friend hasn't dressed up as Santa many times in the past, but now, with the passing of much time, he is definitely more well-suited to the role than ever before. Just as much of my old gang is.

And, lest you think I am shaming my friends in any way, just as I am. My weight is certainly in the Claus-ian range at this moment (though I hope to shed much of it soon) and even if I only have a couple of weeks of scruff on my face, it is pretty clear, should I wish to grow it out at length again, that it is coming in whiter than ever before. (For the longest time, blondie-blonde me had a beard that came in quite red once full; this altered in recent years to a Kenny Rogers' Roasters-white.) And the weirdest thing, before I saw my friend's pics, was that I was lightly considering – very lightly, that is... more of a passing thought – looking into opportunities as a mall Santa, since I have been having a remarkably hard time nailing down any sort of job. It has become increasingly clear to me that my age (just turned 53) is a big factor in why I am not getting any offers, and two years out of regular work is enough. [Side note: I did finally land a job this week, but I am not ready to discuss the details or even what it is yet.]

Now, the vast majority of my friends are theatrical types, i.e. actors, writers, directors, lighting designers, etc. The Claus gig my friend has is a natural extension of their theatre company, performed in conjunction with a city organization with the mutual benefit of gaining exposure for their children's theatre company. My pal has been keeping a pretty considerable growth of beard going for some time now, and has played role along the way in shows where the beard goes hand in hand with the character. It's a nice luxury, but the best part is that when the chance to play Santa roles around, he can be even more authentic with his healthy waterfall of facial roughage. In my case, were I to truly wish to capture a mall Santa job, I would most likely have to rely on the old fake beard guise, since my significant other does not like me to have facial hair. (And, silly me, I do like to kiss her on the rare occasion... so off the beard goes!) With a chin merkin in place, I just would never really feel like a real Santa because of this. I would feel a poser at all times, and that is just not good for my already weakened ego.

But what about Grampy? You know, the old Max Fleischer Studios star from the Betty Boop series? He could definitely fill the role of Santa easily, mainly because his wizened exterior already sports at least a lamb's worth of facial wool. Plus, Grampy has that mad twinkle in his eye that only the best Clauses have, which is paired with a relentless (and sometimes frightening) joviality that cannot be abated in any measure. Luckily enough, within the list of titles in the Max Fleischer Color Classics series from the 1930s, there is one that gave ol' Grampy the opportunity to, if not exactly be Santa Claus, at least allowed him to dress for the role and be the hero of an entire orphanage of miserable children: Christmas Comes but Once a Year.

Thankfully for the orphanage in this film, the holiday does only come once a year. If it was more frequently held, how could the orphanage ever hope to overcome the amount of damage Grampy would do to the kitchenware and furnishings in the household? Confused by this? Let me explain further...

Christmas Comes but Once a Year begins strikingly with another one of those marvelous establishing shots for which the Fleischer Studios were renowned in these Color Classics (and especially in their color Popeye shorts) in the 1930s. We see a three-dimensional model of an orphanage with the camera sitting to the side of the building at a perhaps 45-degree angle to the structure's front corner. Then the camera glides sharply to the right over to the gate in front of the orphanage and then smoothly slips through the gate, underneath the overhead sign and up to the front door itself. It almost looks like a POV shot if someone just down the street had found the building for which they were looking, and ran back to pay a visit. The Fleischers' invention and use of their "setback" camera allowed for such delightful compositions, though they were rather limited in their range beyond allowing a character to run along a single axis, tricking us into believing the two-dimensional character is moving in three-dimensional space. But for setting the mood instantly at the beginning of a cartoon (even if that mood ultimately promises more than it can deliver), the setback was a stunning device years ahead of its time.

In the case of this film, the effect allows for some impressive camera movement in the early stages of the story. As the camera swoops past the gate to meet the front door, we spy a traditional Christmas wreath. Within the ornament's circumference is, as one might expect in an orphanage full of wee ones hoping to attract a set of parents of their own, a childishly scrawled message on a piece of paper pinned to the door. The paper reads, "Merry XMAS," and the last letter – the "S" – is, of course, written backwards, the major signifier that either a small child (or the 45th president) has written the note. The shot dissolves to inside the home to a rather scraggly Christmas tree and then pans to the right to reveal a fireplace mantle with about a dozen mostly worn and re-sewn stockings hanging from it. The strains of The First Noel continue on through this scene, as the camera once more dissolves to the inside of the sleeping quarters for the orphanage.

The dozen kids in the big room sleep soundly in their beds, until a large clock on the wall chimes. A small door at the top of the clock opens up to reveal not a cuckoo bird, but a small puppy. The puppy is much in the vein of Fleischer star and Boop plaything Pudgy, though this little guy is all tan and has no black spot on his back. The tiny pup barks several times as part of his job within the clock and then he jumps on a slide that allows him to land on the stomach of a nearby urchin, waking the brat up instantly. The pup licks at the kid's face, causing the kid to giggle and then leap to his feet. The girl yells, "Merry Christmas, everybody!" and the rest of the kids in the room sit up from their beds to greet the holiday properly. Each one steps to the foot of their beds atop their mattresses, returns the first kid's greeting in unison, and then leap to the floor. They all start to sing...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"



Yes, it is the major downside of the Fleischer Color Classics: their ultimate and absolute commitment to cutesy-wootsy-ness. For a company that could produce down 'n' dirty, warts 'n' all, fairly adult productions like the Koko, Bimbo and Betty Boop team-ups and the incredibly raucous beginnings of the Popeye series, to see what happened once the Production Code moved in and cleaned up these movies is almost painful to behold. While the Bob Clampetts and Tex Averys of the cartoon world would continue to push buttons where they could throughout their careers, so much of animation in the mid-to-late '30s and throughout the '40s became addicted to mush of such sheer saccharinity that it almost makes me choke to death just writing that word. Of course, everyone was following the success of Disney's Silly Symphonies with their own series full of happy, chirping, singing babies, birds, animals, toys and baked goods come to life, itself all spinning out of a very public need for a blanketing of pure happiness due to the Great Depression, that one cannot fault studios too much when that seems to have been what audiences wanted.


Speaking personally, as I almost always do, these films usually don't gall me too much as long as the happily chirping singers and dancers are the animals, toys and baked goods I mentioned. In fact, I often find such films rather infectious, depending on the talents of the animators and other artists at work. But when it comes to kewpie-headed Campbell's Soup kids, I draw the line. I can barely stand to watch them, let alone have to listen to their squeaky voices invade my eardrums. But since I know there is some worthwhile stuff ahead in this cartoon, I can put up with them for a little bit. So, let's continue...

The kewpie kids here seem somewhat androgynous in appearance, with the only difference in design being the colors of both their hair and nightshirts. (Yes, I know they are not actually Kewpie doll characters; I am just calling them that because the little creeps remind me of kewpies.) To me, they all – including the kid that the dog licked awake – seem to be girls... all that is, save for one at the end of their dance line. While the girls la-la-la and dance barefoot upon the cold floor of the orphanage, the camera pans past them to a much smaller toddler bringing up the rear. He has a bald head except for a single hair sticking upwards from his forehead. He has been granted the role of singing the next verse, and as he bounces along in his too-long nightgown, he happily whines his part...

"You and me,
and he and she,
and we are glad because...
Why? Because, 
because, because
there is a Santy Claus!"

The "he and she" part of the song started to make me doubt my declaration that all of the other kids seemed to be girls, but then I decided that this little moose-nugget is just a stupid baby and doesn't know anything but his own crap. As far as I am concerned he is the only "he" in the place. Halfway through the last line, the little dimwit trips on the overflowing length of his nightgown and smashes his face right into the floor. The remainder of the kewpie heads continue their song, while I double down on believing that every last one of these cookiecutter kids (except for the dopey baby) are still chicks...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"

As they sing, each kid reaches up to the mantle and pulls down their individual stockings (or at least, the next stocking in line) until only the toddler is left. He is almost too short to reach up and grab the decrepit looking article hanging from a nail at the very end of the mantle, which holds what appears to be a rather racially offensive sewn doll in it. Of course, and to his credit, the little brat gives it the old preschool try, rolling up his sleeves and making another leap that enables him to grab a single thread on the beat up sock that unravels it completely. He is then able to leap one last time to grab his ultra-racist prize.

A girl in front of the ratty-looking tree pulls a toy rifle out of her stocking and closes one eye to take aim with it immediately. We never see her target (nor does she need one), but when she pulls the trigger, the entire toy falls to pieces at her feet. She looks at the camera and cries wildly. Another of the kids blows up a football so hard that her face turns beet red. When the ball pops after being over-inflated, she too cries, wiping her eyes with her arm. Another child rides a tricycle that also falls apart on the first try, and then a fourth tosses a stuffed bear into the air. While at first it seems all is well after a couple of tosses, and she hugs the bear with immense affection, saying, "Oh, Teddy bear!" a couple of times, her joy causes her to hug all of the stuffing out of the poor thing. More crying ensues. At last, the camera pulls back to reveal a room full of bawling orphans standing on a floor littered with the remains of Christmas wishes dashed. (It almost plays and looks like a negative version of the Halloween dance sequence in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!)

At this point, you might be thinking Santa Claus is a real jerk for bringing poor orphans such low quality toys. You might even think that he needs some serious quality control at the North Pole. Did he trade in his workshop for buying exclusively from the 99¢ Store? But, no, as I was hinting at in the beginning of this piece, Christmas Comes but Once a Year is not a Santa Claus cartoon. Well, at least not quite yet, but even when we do get dear Santy to show up, it is not quite as you expected. However, at this spot in the cartoon, when a sleigh rides to the rescue of the wee ones, it is good ol' Grampy driving the vehicle instead! Painted on the side of the green sleigh are the words "Prof. Grampy – Inventor," and this is most appropriate because the sleigh itself slides along the street under its own propulsion. The ever so clever Grampy has rigged the sleigh with an outboard motor that leads to a propellor that drives the cart through the snow like a boat through water.

As Grampy whips down the street, the elderly genius sings the same song that the orphans did earlier...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"

As he slides down the street past the orphanage, Grampy hears the distant cries of the kids inside (who apparently have zero supervision) and turns the sleigh around in front of the gate as he asks, "What's the matter in here, I wonder?" Grampy, as always, is a veritable tornado of action in his motions. He slaps his shoes on the walkway in a neat rhythm as his legs more whirl than waddle to the front door of the orphanage. He peers through the window on the door and sees many crying children, with a couple of the kids wandering sloop-shouldered back into the dorm room. "Looks like a pretty gloomy Christmas for those poor kids," he states as he rubs his beard in thought. "What can I do?" In the manner of the Popeye cartoons, where much of what the characters say is not matched by corresponding mouth movements, Grampy too mutters much of his dialogue. He says, "Let me think," and then produces from his coat pocket his "thinking cap," a professor's mortarboard with a large light bulb screwed into the top of the board. Poking a finger at his temple and squinting, the old man works through a series of solutions. For a second, it almost appears as he has the answer, but the light bulb does not light up, meaning he was incorrect. Finally, the bulb not only starts blinking wildly, but makes a loud beeping sound!


"Hooray! I've got it!" he yells, and then he leaps over the railing of the porch and into the snow in the front yard. He starts to step through the snow, but each move causes a certain level of snow to stick to his boots. He rises higher and higher with each succeeding step, until he has enough snow stacked under his boots that he can easily reach a window on the side of the building. Now, I'm not really meaning to make Grampy's intentions seem at all creepy, but remember what I said about zero supervision at this joint? Not another adult in sight. The film is, of course, completely innocent and light, but a modern viewer – no matter how well versed in the mores and standards of decades past – can't help but be a little bit taken back at the scene where Grampy easily pops open the shutters on the orphanage and sneaks through the window (after meticulously shaking the snow off of each boot, of course). We know his intentions are pure and helpful, but it does make you wonder if, previous to the film, these kids have actually been abandoned during the cold, cruel winter or if the body of their caretaker is lying stock still on the floor of her quarters since early in the morning.

Regardless of the history of the place, Grampy crawls through the window and finds himself in the kitchen area of the orphanage. Spinning his rather nimble legs in his trademarked manner, he swiftly tosses off the outer layer of his clothing - consisting of his winter gear only – all of which lands perfectly folded into a neat pile in his arms, which he then places on a chair in the corner. The resourceful Grampy surveys the kitchen in a single glance and grabs a nearby bin full of assorted junk and pours all of it out onto the floor. Before one can get past the question of whether is he is just a mere vandal, Grampy runs to the china cabinet and throws all of the dishes, one piece at a time, into the pile, his arms and legs spinning wildly all the while. His progress continues across the kitchen, as he grabs any and all objects that cross his path as he moves past the other cabinets and the stove, and adds them to the now massive pile sitting in the middle of the floor. Dishes, flatware, cooking implements, cleaning supplies and even cans and boxes of food end up in the pile.

His next move explains his purposes fully: Grampy, with his big white beard and joyous smile, paired with the knowledge going in of his prowess as an inventor, is nothing more than a junior Santa seeking to stop the crying he heard cutting through the air from the dormitory. Setting himself at a long table next to the junk pile, Grampy begins his happy work, which is making brand new toys for all of the children from the objects in the junk pile. He grabs a washboard, straightens the hook on a pair of hangers and pushes them into the washboard like suspension rods, and adds a pair of flatiron bars to use as skis. To finish building what now looks like a brand new sled, Grampy does something that will probably have modern mothers turning off the television at this exact moment: Grampy picks up a box of nails and pours some of them into his open mouth. Using what must be superhuman powers, Grampy spits several nails at the bottom of the sled to affix the rails and other gear into place and then pushes the new sled off to the other end of the table. Using more junk and other bits, he next makes a toy plane, that buzzes past him when he winds it up and sends it flying. He uses the plume for a feather duster, an old sock, and a hand mixer to created a mechanical ostrich, which looks positively wretched and dangerous at the same time.

Time passes, and Grampy finally gets to the last few items in the pile, which he finishes by making a mandolin. As the camera scans the dormitory room once more to show all of the children crying into the pillows on their beds, Grampy is shown still hard at work (play for him?) where he has reconfigured a sewing machine Rube Goldberg-style to help him mass produce endless popcorn strings, with which he joyfully decorates the fireplace. But with the toys built and the room redecorated, what does Grampy have left to do? That's right: this party needs an actual Santa Claus.

Grampy runs to the kitchen and breaks apart the stovepipe to create boot-like coverings on his legs. He stuffs his shirt with a pillow, and then uses a red table runner to fashion a coat for a disguise. He simply punches his arms through the fabric to create holes for the coat; expending any further amount of energy into just how most of this stuff works or fits together will only create migraines. (And I'm the proof...) Turning a purse he has found in the kitchen (sure, Grampy, sure) into a red cap, and using a razor stop as a dandy belt with a picture frame for a buckle, Grampy looks for all the world like a perfect representation of jolly ol' Saint Nick. Spinning his legs as always, Grampy runs to the door of the dormitory and rings a dinner bell loudly while yelling out, "Merry Christmas, everybody!" The kids are slow to react to the noise at first, still intent on whining incessantly, but they finally realize that Santa Claus is there live and in person. At last, they shout their hero's name, and pour into the living area to see what toys he has brought.


Each new toy is tried out in turn by the kids. One hops onto a high chair affixed with wheels, which itself has been attached to a vacuum cleaner. The little girl throws the switch and rides back and forth through the room. Another kewpie head rides the bottom broken half of a rocking chair that has been turned into a hobby horse through the imaginative use of an overturned boot with an eye painted on it. Grampy is then shown pouring out the contents of a massive box full of cotton onto the stairs. Another girl finds a new train track – she cries out "Choo! Choo!" at its sight – where the train itself has been fashioned from an old tea and coffee set. Forks at the front of the coffee maker form a cowcatcher, small plates serve as wheels, and tea pots, sugar bowls and creamers work as cars for this peculiar train set. As the little girl switches on the tree, the coffee starts to boil in the pot, which creates steam to move the train through a tunnel made from a bread box and a bridge partially built with knives, on a track made of clothes pins and other objects.

Grampy is shown still working on the stairs, painting an elaborate winter scene on the walls as kids ski and sled dangerously down the stairwell atop the cotton "snow". But even more "snow" is needed... Above the stairwell, a suspended bar of soap swings back and forth over a cheese grater to create soap flakes which are then blown by a fan through the air to give the kids the impression of falling snow.

There is one last element that needs to be addressed, but Grampy hasn't forgotten anything. Grampy spins over to a stand full of numerous umbrellas and inserts each one into the next one, one after another, and then opens them all up at the same time to give the effect of a huge Christmas tree. Bending the hooked handle of the bottom umbrella, he power-shoves the base of the "tree" onto the center of what must be a very sturdy turntable. As the umbrella tree spins in circles, Grampy decorates it in record time. Grampy then invites all of the orphans into the room to see the beautiful, shiny umbrella tree. At last, everyone sings the words to the titular song once more...


"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!

You and me,
and he and he,
and we are glad because...
Why? Because, 
because, because
there is a Santy Claus!"

Once the singing starts, the film switches back to the obvious use of the setback camera, as the tree takes on a full 3-dimensional look as the characters from the film cavort in front of it. At first, the tree spins while the lights are on so all can see the fully decorated wonder of it, and then the lights go out, so that we can only make out the basic shape spinning while simple white lights simulate a night sky. While the effect of using the setback is always pretty neat no matter the context, a scene like this one is also where you see the drawbacks of the system. Once two-dimensional characters are manipulated directly in unison with the far more elaborate backgrounds, two realities are presented at once, and the effect is a little jarring in the case of this film. Regardless, the kids and Grampy continue their amped up, almost maniacal rendering of the song to its close...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"

Before heading into the last chorus, however, the image of the tree is replaced by that of a large Christmas seal stamp – with Grampy still visible beside it. The stamp shows Santa Claus surrounded by candles, along with the expected double-barred Cross of Lorraine. The words "Holiday Greetings" appear on the seal stamp, proving once and for all that there has never been a so-called "War on Christmas". After the final "Tra-la-la-la-la!" is sung in speed freak fashion, we reach the closing shot reading "A Paramount Picture" over its usual mountain setting. The End.


Let's tackle the obvious question first: Grampy is damned dangerous. His apparent disregard for whether tiny children should play with a train set employing electricity, knives and boiling water is troubling, even if these kids were supposedly from an earlier, far more hardy generation. By snapping things in two or bending items to make them fit his designs, are his junk toys any safer than the manufactured ones that had already fallen apart in the hands of the orphans? Kids are hard on toys regardless of origin; I think we are a single cartoon away from Grampy's toys leaving these kids in the same state in which he found them: crying in their beds once again. And that cotton on the stairs stuff is not going to give the kids enough support to ski, sled or even slide on top of it. Those kids are going to sink right into that stuff and more than likely break a limb or even their necks tumbling down step by step instead. Nice going, Grampy...

Grampy also seems to have no boundaries, especially in regards to breaking into establishments instead of knocking on the front door first. He doesn't hesitate at all to sneak in through a side window. In fact, that's just the beginning of his big plan. Sure, he is only planning to help the orphans out, but were he to be seen or caught in the act, no one is going to buy that as an excuse. Were someone to have actually been in the kitchen of this otherwise unsupervised institution, Grampy would be seen as nothing but a common prowler. Bursting through the window and throwing off some of his clothes in a building full of children... pretty suspicious behavior no matter how you view it.

But doesn't he make a fine Santa Claus in his suit made out of whatever he could find in the kitchen? He looks just perfect as Santa, and that is kind of the point of the film. His actions could seem suspicious today, but back then, he is nothing but a saint, coming to the rescue of the poor crying children and saving the Christmas spirit for them.

Grampy has always held the same problem for me that the little dog Pudgy does in the Betty Boop cartoons. They were characters that came in after the Production Code was installed in 1934, a code which changed the perception of Betty Boop from a wild, Jazz Age flapper to a more domesticated woman who keeps a home and has far tamer appetites. No more running around with Bimbo and Koko through surrealistic landscapes and Cab Calloway scores. Pudgy, who came first, and then Grampy, were meant to help tame Betty even further, and in fact, many of the cartoons featuring these two characters only had the poor girl as a supporting figure in her own series, sometimes barely at all. When I was much younger and seeing the run of Boop cartoons for the first time, I almost tuned out completely once the latter films started boring me to death. It was hard not to tune out, given the absolute craziness of the Boop films in their early stages, but over time, I came to embrace even the lesser films for their still excellent production values and sharp character animation. And Grampy and Pudgy came to grow on me eventually as well.

As for Christmas Comes but Once a Year, which was released to theatres in time for Christmas 1936, it too comes off as one of the lesser of the Color Classics. Grampy is his usual high-spirited self, despite how his actions play today, and the animation is of the expected quality of the Color Classics series. I just find the cookie-cutter kewpies more than a tad annoying, and therefore have a hard time caring about their caterwauling until Grampy shows up to help them. The movie tells its simple story neatly and efficiently, and Grampy's impossible toy inventions are a lot of fun. I do wish that more examples of the toys he builds were shown in action, but the film concentrates on moving the story forward instead, and so I accept that in trade. And it is bursting with Christmas atmosphere, and sometimes, that is all one really needs from a holiday cartoon.

In all, Christmas Comes but Once a Year is a colorful, if not slightly obnoxious, holiday ride that I revisit quite often over many holiday seasons. Still, I suggest that orphanages keep their windows locked these days. Even if Grampy comes sliding by on a souped-up Christmas sleigh...

RTJ


*****


And in case you haven't seen it...



1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

A classic! I have seen it many times over the years, just enjoy the fun of it. Happy Holidays!