Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) – a Rankin/Bass Production – Starring Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, and Robie Lester.
SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN is one of Rankin/Bass’ better Christmas specials, but it often has the feel of existing simply to explain how the song of the same name is possible, rather than a fully-realized story of its own. That’s not to say it isn’t a fantastic special, because it is, but like many of the Rankin-Bass specials (which by now you know that I love), CLAUS often makes the narrative sense of a seven-year old telling a story to a three-year old using whatever toys they have laying around.
How else do you explain the presence of Topper, a lost penguin who hangs out with Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney) for much of the special, but doesn’t really add a whole lot to the proceedings?
The Marvel Comics No-Prize has been around since the ’60s, and has meant a bunch of different things over the years. When I was a kid, it generally represented your ability to find a continuity mistake in some comic, and then explain it away to show why it really wasn’t a continuity mistake. I tried once or twice to get one, but at that point everyone was trying to get one and the alleged errors and attempted fixes were awfully forced and lame. SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, however, feels like a No-Prize attempt by someone who is determined to make the “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” song make some kind of narrative sense, and show what made it all possible for Santa Claus to know what you’re doing, who knows when you’re awake, who knows if you’ve been bad or good, and who wants you to be good, for goodness sake.
Which, when you think about it, is where Santa’s plausible deniability is built into the process. He wants you to be good for goodness sake, but it could also mean he wants you to be good or you don’t get a present, so don’t muck up the process by being bad. Just be good, for crying out loud, and the system keeps rolling.
CLAUS is narrated by Special Delivery “S.D.” Kluger (Fred Astaire), who is in charge of delivering Santa’s mail to the North Pole. Kluger is a good dancer, a good singer, and more than a bit creepy. While he seems like an affable guy, he also sees no problem in opening up your mail and reading it for his own enjoyment. Since his truck has broken down, he decides he’s going to tell us the origin of Santa Claus.
Also, the letters in his mail truck talk to him.
Also, who, exactly, is good ol’ S.D. talking to during this special? It’s not like this was a planned stop on his route. The truck breaks down and he just starts yapping away to us. Christmas Serendipity, I suppose.
Santa’s origin starts in the appropriately named town of Sombertown when he’s abandoned on the doorstop of the town’s mayor, Burgermeister Meisterburger, a grumpy old dolt who’s diagnosed with a broken funny bone. The mayor sends the baby to the orphanage, but a storm kicks up, the baby’s sled is lost, and the animals of the forest bring him to the home of the elves. The Kringles all dress like Santa Claus will come to dress. They are expert toy makers, but since Burgermeister is a fuddy duddy, they’re skills are wasted.
Also, there’s the matter of the Winter Warlock, who lives in an ice castle on a mountaintop and prevents the elves from bringing their toys to Sombertown. It’s a double-dose of evil that the elven-named Kris Kringle will have to overcome to deliver toys, and when he comes of age he makes his first attempt. Putting some toys on a sled, he says goodbye to the Kringles and heads across the mountain, where he meets a lost penguin, whom he names Topper.
Yeah, I have no idea why Rankin-Bass decided, “Hey, you know what Kris Kringle needs? A penguin sidekick who doesn’t talk,” except that they thought it never hurts to add a cute animal to one of these specials.
Kris gets to Sombertown (after the Warlock promises to take care of him on his way back) and starts delivering some presents. The kids like them, but the adults don’t because they take their town’s name to heart. The power of bribery is in full-effect in CLAUS; whenever someone important to the story gives Kris some grief about giving presents, he gives them a present and their hearts melt. Most importantly, Kris meets a beautiful young school marm named Miss Jessica. She scolds him but then he gives her a China Doll and she realizes presents are awesome. The same trick almost works with Burgermeister; Kris gives him a yo-yo and he gets all happy about how loves yo-yos, but then his second-in-command reminds him that by using the yo-yo he’s breaking his own law, so he stops.
Be glad he did; if Burgermeister had been so moved by the yo-yo that he overturned his own law banning toys and changed the name of the town to Toysareawesomeville, it would have been a really short special.
Kris hightails it out of town and gets captured by the Winter Warlock. He talks his way out of this mess by, you guessed it, giving the Warlock a gift. He gives him a toy train, to be exact, and this small gift melts the Warlock’s icy heart and he becomes human again and wants to help Kris out with his mighty magic powers.
And this is how the special goes: Burgermeister tries to stop Kris from giving gifts, Kris keeps giving gifts with assistance from Jessica. The special tosses in a love story with a wedding and Kris retaking the name Claus to hide himself. He grows a beard to hide his identity because he’s an outlaw, and then he defeats Burgermeister by the power of his creepy ability to see children sleeping.
No, that’s a lie. He defeats Burgermeister because the Meisterburger line dies out. Really. That’s the resolution to that whole opening conflict – the Burgermeisters just fade away and the townsfolk realize they’d rather have gifts then not have gifts.
There’s plenty of great songs and enough interesting bits to continually keep you amused. They push the explanations on how Santa got to be the Santa we know a bit too much, and he certainly comes off as creepy a few too many times with the spying on the kids, but the talents of Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Paul Frees are top-notch and the stop-motion animation is as delightful as ever. SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN is one of Rankin-Bass’ best.
Be sure to check out the Holiday Review Index for all the Holiday-themed reviews to be found at Atomic Anxiety.