Open Culture tells us about the “earliest movie about St. Nick in existence.”
Directed by hypnotist and magic lanternist turned filmmaker George Albert Smith, this 66-second production, though a highly elaborate one for the time, purports to show just how Santa Claus makes a visit to drop off gifts for a couple of sleeping children. When their nanny turns off the lights for the night, we see superimposed on their darkened wall a vision of the jolly old elf himself landing on the roof and clambering down the chimney.
Santa looks a little sickly thin, but it’s fun to watch Smith figuring out some of what this whole motion picture art form might be able to do.
That 1898 Santa Claus is, of course, a silent movie. So I’ve hunted for something of a similar length to use as its soundtrack. Open that video in one tab of your browser, then in another, open this one. Then click play on both as close to simultaneously as possible. Not bad. (This one doesn’t work as well, but it’s fun.)
In the generations since that pioneering short film, hundreds of actors have played the jolly old elf. Alas, this long list does not include Liam Neeson:
Over the past 120 years, we’ve had some good movie Santas and some very un-Santa movie Santas. We’ve had really good Santas in some less-than really good movies, and vice versa.
So let’s have some fun with this. Here is an unranked list of some notable cinematic Santas. Rank them worst-to-best, and feel free to fight over it. (Firm and fierce arguments over such things are welcome. But be nice, not naughty. I may be lax about moderating comments, but Santa knows if you’ve been bad or good.)
- Tim Allen, The Santa Clause
- Ed Asner, Elf
- Fred Astaire, The Man in the Santa Claus Suit
- Richard Attenborough, Miracle on 34th Street
- Sebastian Cabot, Miracle on 34th Street
- Art Carney, The Night They Saved Christmas
- Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street
- Tom Hanks, Polar Express
- David Huddleston, Santa Claus: The Movie
- Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa