The Unenthusiastic Critic is an occasional series in which I convince my highly reluctant wife N. to finally watch movies that nearly every other person on the planet has already seen. (For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.)
What We Watched
The Year without a Santa Claus (1974), directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. Starring Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, George S. Irving, Bob McFadden, Bradley Brooke, Rhoda Mann, and Colin Duffy.
Why We Watched It
Here at The Unenthusiastic Critic, we've celebrated the hell out of Halloween—mostly because N. really hates horror movies—but we have sorely neglected the other major holidays. So, this Yuletide season, I thought it only made sense to watch something that would get us into the Christmas spirit. But what would we watch? Unlike with horror movies, N. is well-versed in most of the obvious Christmas classics. She's seen It's a Wonderful Life. She's seen A Christmas Story. She's seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. She's seen Die Hard. A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are staples of our annual holiday viewing. But 1974's The Year without a Santa Claus—a perennial favorite of my own childhood—never quite achieved the same notoriety as other Christmas specials. Two supporting characters—the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser—have entered the public consciousness, along with their catchy song, but the story itself has more or less fallen into obscurity. I myself had not seen it in a good thirty years before we decided to watch it for this post, so I was eager to revisit it—and, of course, to subject my beloved fiancée to its pleasures.
What N. Knew About It Before We Watched It
Whenever I suggest watching something for The Unenthusiastic Critic, N's first instinct is always to lie and say she's already seen it. She tries to get out of watching The Year Without a Santa Claus the same way.
She: I'm pretty sure I've already seen this one.
Me: Okay, so what's it about?
She: It's about a dentist. It's about an elf who wants to be a dentist.
Me: Right, you're thinking of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
She: I think that you're wrong about that. Because I've seen this, and I remember there's a dentist.
Me: So what's the plot, as you understand it?
She: It's about elves…fighting for dental coverage.
Me: You're just making shit up now.
She: Yeah. It's about unions. Obamacare for elves. Because Santa is basically running a sweatshop, like Apple's iPhone factories. In fact, doesn't the dentist jump out a window, like the Apple workers in China?
Me: So you think this film is all about reprehensible working conditions, corporate exploitation, and elven suicide.
Me: Don't get me wrong: I would watch the shit out of that movie. But it doesn't sound very Christmassy.
She: No, it is, in the sense that it carries an important message. You need to know where your toys come from. You need to know all about the evil systems at work just so that you can play with some dumb-ass toy.
Me: So it's more of an exposé. Like Blackfish. Only it's Greenelf.
She: I just blew the whole thing wide open.
Me: You're a psycho.
Having firmly established that N. has no idea what The Year Without a Santa Claus is about, we sit down to talk about it before popping the DVD in.
Me: So really, the only thing you know about this is the song.
She: The Heat Miser song? Yes, I've heard it many times, thanks to you.
Me: It's actually all I remember about it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the only things anyone remembers about this movie are the Heat Miser and Cold Miser.
She: Oh, that's a good sign. That's an excellent sign for this process. That bodes well.
Me: But when I was a kid in the 1970s, this was one of the things we watched every year, along with Rudolph, and Frosty, and the Grinch, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Me: And then at some point they stopped showing it, and for years it just disappeared. I think it only came back into circulation as my generation created a demand for stuff like this out of nostalgia. I still don't think they show it on any of the networks or anything.
Me: I have a theory about that.
She: Because it's horrible? Because it's horribly racist or something?
Me: I don't know why you assume that.
She: Because usually when something falls out of favor like that, it's because it no longer jibes with our current understanding of what's acceptable.
Me: Well, I don't remember it very well, but I don't remember it being particularly objectionable. But I have a theory about why it's not shown anymore, which we can discuss afterwards. But what were your holiday staples when you were a kid?
She: I don't remember watching a bunch of Christmas specials every year or anything. I remember watching Charlie Brown, and that may have been the only one I watched every year. It's the only animated special I have any deep, nostalgic love for. I've seen Rudolph two or three times—
Me:—the one that's actually about a dentist.
She: —the one that's actually about a dentist, fine. But I wasn't crazy about that one. I may just not be a stop-motion animation person. It's just weird.
Me: Does it creep you out? Sometimes weird things creep you out.
She: I don't know that it creeps me out. I just over-focus on stuff. Like, Rudolph was on the other day, and you know how the snowman comes out and introduces it, and he gesticulates a lot?
Me: Uh huh.
She: And he has this fob-watch, and they try to coordinate the movement of the chain with his movements. And I'm sure that's actually a very difficult thing to do, but his chain is moving when it shouldn't be moving, and I find myself hyper-focusing on it. So early stop-motion animation may not be for me.
Me: Thanks for that. Now that's all I'm going to notice the next time I watch Rudolph.
She: You're welcome.
Me: But why don't you try to get into the Christmas spirit for this one?
She: I have plenty of Christmas spirit. But I doubt it's to be found in the fucking Heat Miser.
How It Went
As it turns out, The Year Without a Santa Claus is unlikely to become a new perennial favorite in our house. The DVD edition of The Year Without a Santa Claus I purchased came with two bonus features, and one of them sets N's irrational prejudices off right away.
She: I don't like Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
Me:Well, we're not watching Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, so that's okay.
She: But I don't like that he's on my screen. He looks weirdly stoned. I don't like that. It's super-disturbing.
The Year Without a Santa Claus opens with Mrs. Claus (Shirley Booth) talking—in awkward semi-rhyme—about a day when Santa (Mickey Rooney) woke up feeling cranky and poorly. "Crick in my back, cold in my nose, aches in my fingers and all ten toes," Santa complains. (Santa, in fact, only has four fingers on each hand, so it would be weird if he had ten toes.) But N. is more concerned about the state of their marriage.
She: That bed's not big enough for both of them. The proportions of this room are all wrong.
Me: No, it's not even really big enough for Santa.
She: There's no way.
Me: Maybe the elves built all this shit to their own specifications.
She: Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Claus have separate sleeping arrangements. That's not a good sign.
A doctor is summoned, but the doctor is even grumpier than Santa is. He feeds Santa some mysterious blue pills, and then counsels him not to even bother getting up. "If you had any sense, you'd give it up as a bad job and stay in bed this year," he says. "Nobody cares about Christmas anymore!"
Me: I don't know why Santa is so tired. He does fuck-all the rest of the year.
She: He's obviously depressed. That blue pill the Doctor gave him was probably Xanax.
If so, it hasn't kicked in yet: Santa decides to cancel Christmas. "Warn the people, tell the papers; I'm much too tired for Christmas capers." Our premise firmly established in this little preface, we enter the title sequence, and Shirley Booth—to my fiancée's horror—begins singing.
She: Oh, Jesus.
Me: What's the problem?
She: She's singing. "Shirley Booth sings and tells…" Can't she just tell?
(N.—a notorious musical hater—wouldn't like any songs, but—to be fair—most of the music in The Year Without a Santa Claus is not particularly memorable. The jazzy Snow Miser/Heat Miser number is the only decent tune.) N. doesn't find Mickey Rooney's name in the credits reassuring either.
She: Oh, it's Mickey Rooney? Does he do a horrible Asian stereotype in this one too?
Me: OK, you need to forgive Mickey for Breakfast at Tiffany's.
She: Do I?
Me: No, not really.
Santa's decision to cancel Christmas is front-page news in all the papers.
Me: I don't understand. Did Santa put out a press release? Does he have P.R. elves?
(This is, in fact, a problem for The Year Without a Santa Claus. Much of the story hinges on whether or not people have stopped believing in Santa Claus, which doesn't seem to jibe with the fact that the Atlanta Journal and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer publish his movements and mood-swings as news.) With Santa taking himself out of the equation this year, Mrs. Claus flirts with the idea of just taking his place. "Anyone can be Santa!" she sings. "Why can't a lady like me?"
She: This is about breaking the glass ceiling.
Me: Equal opportunities for women. She's tired of being a subordinate Claus.
She: Proud of that one, are you?
Me: Not really: it's an old joke.
She puts on Santa's outfit and dances around the bedroom, marveling at herself in the mirror and fantasizing about her new life.
She: This is triggering for her. She's exploring some things now.
Me: Are you suggesting that Mrs. Claus is a cross-dresser?
She: Hey, I'm all about her finding her true self. I mean, they're obviously not sleeping together.
Me: She does seem to be finding this very empowering. But wait until she finds out she's only going to make 77 percent of Santa's salary for doing the same job.
But Mrs. Claus apparently decides that the world isn't ready for a female Santa. Instead, she enlists the help of two elves, Jingle (Bob McFadden) and Jangle (Bradley Brooke) to go out into the world and find proof that people still care about Santa Claus.
She: Santa is super-needy. Just do your damn job!
Me: Everyone wants a little affirmation once in a while.
Jingle and Jangle fly off on Vixen, the tiniest reindeer. But when Santa learns that they've gone out into the "cruel world" by themselves, he rouses himself from bed and mounts his own reindeer to fly off after them.
She: Everything is too small for these people.
Me: Are you concerned about the reindeer's back?
She: I'm concerned that the proportions of this whole world are way off.
As it turns out, Santa was right to be worried, because Jingle and Jangle have flown right into the path of warring step-brothers Heat Miser and Snow Miser, who are battling each other in the clouds. They are knocked off their tiny reindeer by Heat Miser's advanced laser technology, and nearly die.
She: And I'm concerned that Mrs. Claus sent the most clearly incompetent elves on this mission.
Me: Yeah, I'm not really sure why she thought they were the elves for the job.
Rescued out of mid-air by Vixen, the two elves make their way to "Southtown U.S.A." to dig up some Christmas spirit.
She: I'm sorry, where is this exactly?
She: And where exactly is Southtown?
Me: It's in U.S.A. Weren't you listening?
Apparently Southtown is not the friendliest city in U.S.A., however, because the two newcomers are immediately harassed by a cop.
She: Know your rights!
The cop cites them for "riding a Vixen the wrong way down a one-way street, crossing the white line, and wearing funny outfits on a Sunday."
Me: Is that really a crime?
She: None of those things are crimes. But they're lucky they're white elves: at least they walked away alive.
The elves decide that maybe it's the reindeer who is drawing attention, and so they come up with the brilliant idea of disguising it as a dog by putting socks on its antlers.
Me: What the hell kind of dog is that supposed to be, exactly?
She: Now she looks like Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
This clever subterfuge in place, they then proceed to ask the citizens of Southtown if they believe in Santa Claus. The first woman they approach is insulted by the very idea. "At my age?" she asks in exasperation.
Me: Santa was in the NEWSPAPERS, lady!
They have no better luck with a group of children. "Believing in Santa Claus is for little kids," says a young boy with the unfortunate name of Ignatious ("Iggy") Thistlewhite (Colin Duffy). It's while they're talking to Iggy that the dogcatcher hauls Vixen away.
She: Are they going to put Vixen down?
Me: It's a no-kill shelter. But what the hell kind of animal-control professional can't tell the difference between a dog and a reindeer?
She: I don't think anyone in this town is particularly bright.
Meanwhile, Santa has arrived in town in search of his wayward elves. Coincidentally, the first person he encounters is the over-eager cop, and the second is Iggy, whom Santa approaches suddenly from behind a tree.
She: That's not creepy at all.
Iggy's mother—discovering a strangely dressed older gentleman engaged in conversation with her son—naturally invites him in for lunch.
She: You don't know this guy!
Me: These are friendly, trusting people in Southtown, USA. Except for the cop and dogcatcher, whose approaches seem a little Draconian.
Over lunch, Iggy asks the stranger if he believes in Santa Claus. "Me?" he says. "Why, of course I do…"
She: Oh god, please don't sing. Is he about to sing?
He sings. "I believe in Santa Claus, like I believe in love…Just like love, I know he's there, waiting to be missed."
Me: It's kind of weird he's singing about himself.
She: And those lyrics don't make any sense. "Love is waiting to be missed"?
Me: Sure. All the time, day-in, day-out, love just hangs around waiting to be missed.
The father chimes in with a few verses about how, when he was a small boy, he woke up once to find Santa standing above his bed.
Me: You have a dirty mind.
She: I'm just saying, the father doesn't recognize him as the creepy man who was in his bedroom when he was a kid?
Meanwhile, Jingle and Jangle have gone to see the mayor of Southtown, in order to get their reindeer out of jail.
She: This wouldn't work in Chicago. Rahm wouldn't put up with this shit. He'd send them a package of deer meat in the mail.
The mayor—another person who apparently doesn't read the damn newspapers—doesn't believe a word of their story. "What kind of fool do you think I am?" he asks. He makes a deal with them: if they use their magical elf powers to make it snow in Southtown, he'll release their reindeer. N.—who tends to be skeptical of public officials—doesn't have a lot of confidence in the Mayor of Southtown.
She: I don't know how this guy got elected. He's got no papers on his desk or anything. What does he do?
We get our answer as the mayor begins his own musical number about how it's going to snow in Southtown.
Me: He sings. That's what he does.
"It's going to snow, ho ho ho, here in Dixie!" he sings. "All will be white overnight…"
She: "All will be white." Yeah, that's how they like it in Dixie.
The people of Southtown—so starved for a good old-fashioned white Christmas—apparently spend their time making straw-men instead of snowmen.
She: Oh look, it's the Wicker Man. Do they also dance around a Penis Pole?
Jingle and Jangle—not the brightest bulbs in the string of Christmas lights—have no idea how to make it snow in Southtown, so they call Mrs. Claus to help them out. She arrives and decides the only option is to go see Cold Miser and persuade him to do his magic. (Meanwhile, Santa has simply paid the fine and bailed Vixen out of jail. One wonders why Mrs. Claus didn't think of that, but perhaps Santa controls all the money in their family.) And then we arrive at the only real reason anyone remembers The Year Without a Santa Claus: the Snow Miser/Heat Miser song.
Snow Miser is up first, greeting his guests with an elaborate dance number that involves a bunch of creepy little clones of himself, and magically turning his hat into snowflakes.
She: Does he do this every time someone comes over?
She: He must go through a lot of hats.
"I never want to know a day that's over 40 degrees," Snow Miser sings. My fiancée—who describes any temperature under 80 degrees as "freezing"—decides she does not support the Snow Miser's agenda.
She: I'm anti-Snow-Miser.
Me: Yeah, I think you're more of a Heat Miser person.
Snow Miser is fairly friendly, but he regretfully informs Mrs. Claus that Southtown is under the control of his stepbrother. To accomplish this meteorological miracle, they're going to need his permission, and so the intrepid gang heads off to visit Heat Miser. Heat Miser does the same song-and-dance, with fiery clones of him, and demonstrates his powers mostly by melting shovels.
She: I don't understand. That was wood. Wood doesn't melt, really.
Me: I'm more concerned that this is actually Hell.
She: It does look like it, with fiery little troll dolls. Plus, he's wearing gold-lamé pants. He looks like that comedian. What's his name? Larger gentleman, sort of longish hair?
Me: Sam Kinison?
She: No…Bruce Vilanch!
Me: I can see that. You know, if Bruce set his hair on fire.
Heat Miser—who hates Christmas, because of all the good P.R. it gives the concept of winter—refuses to let it snow in Southtown unless Snow Miser allows it to be warm at the North Pole. The Miser brothers have a conference-call over a magical video screen.
She: Face Time!
When the squabbling siblings can't reach an amicable agreement, Mrs. Claus decides to go over their heads. "She's going to tell mother!" Heat Miser cries in alarm.
She: Who's mother?
Me: Wait and see.
Mother, it turns out, is Mother Nature.
She: Oh, Jesus.
(This is as good a time as any to mention my theory about why The Year Without a Santa Claus fell out of favor: this is the least Christian "Christmas" special imaginable. There is, as N. points out, a Noah's Ark toy in Santa's workshop, but otherwise it's all pagan propaganda: there's no mention of Jesus, no mention of God, and the supreme deity seems to be Mother Nature, who rules the universe with her two mentally unstable demi-god sons who personify the elements. It's hard to think of anything particularly Christ-like about the message—if it even has a message—so it's not hard to imagine why the show failed to really resonate as a timeless Christmas story.)
Anyway, Mother Nature fixes everything, and orders her sons to enact serious climate changes (which probably destroy millions of dollars worth of crops in the South and do untold damage to the polar ice caps in the North). All of this, we should remember, is designed for the sole purpose of getting a reindeer out of a pound from which she's already been released.
The snowstorm hits Southtown, as promised. Mrs. Claus and the elves, however, don't seem to go back there to get Vixen; it's as if they already know she's been released, which means all this Heat Miser/Snow Miser stuff was doubly pointless. They return to the North Pole—where, by the way, it does not appear to be warm. (Either Snow Miser reneged on his part of the deal, or—more likely—the creators just forgot about that plot point.) Santa is happy everyone has returned safely, but he's still determined to take this Christmas off. (Meaning—once again—that everything that has transpired so far has been for naught.) But then the children of the world decide, en masse, that they're going to give Santa a Merry Christmas for a change. In a montage of global stereotypes, they gather together to send him good wishes.
Me: They have some good diversity there.
She: Yeah, it's basically the Small World ride at Disney World.
Me: Those are a lot of kids who would not be welcome in "Southtown, USA."
One little girl writes a letter to Santa, explaining—with musical accompaniment—how she'll have a "Blue Christmas" without Santa.
She: I never thought I'd say this, but I prefer the Elvis Presley version.
The little girl sends a drawing she did of herself crying.
She: That means she murdered someone.
Me: It's a tear, not a jailhouse tat.
She: It's a tat. Because Santa wouldn't come, she had to cut a bitch.
Santa, moved by this outpouring of love, is suddenly feeling much better. His cold is gone, his back doesn't hurt, and his gout isn't bothering him anymore.
She: He has the gout?
Me: But apparently it was all psycho-somatic.
She: Because Santa is a needy hypochondriac.
Christmas is back on, and Santa hitches up his sleigh and delivers presents to the good boys and girls of Southtown to the strains of "Here Comes Santa Claus." A final song assures us that Santa has his mojo back, and there will never again be "a year without a Santa Claus."
So, I have to confess: I really didn't remember any part of this story except for the Heat Miser/Snow Miser song. And it turns out there was a good reason for that: the rest of the story really isn't very memorable. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of structural sense: all of the running around that occupies most of the film centers on this elaborate—and completely unnecessary—plan to get Vixen out of jail, and has nothing to do with the problem that's established in the beginning: how to give Santa his groove back. (The latter problem is resolved in the last five minutes, for reasons that have nothing to do with the machinations of Mrs. Claus, Jingle, or Jangle.) So it's all much ado about nothing, and—apart from the Misers—none of it is a whole lot of fun. And none of it—including the Misers—is particularly Christmassy or heart-warming. Where A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas can still warm the cockles of my Christmas heart, and even Rudolph still holds up for its important message about acceptance, The Year Without a Santa Claus left me fairly…cold.
But what did The Unenthusiastic Critic make of it?
Me: No, what?
She: No to all of that. This will not be a new Christmas classic in our house. I can see why they stopped playing that bullshit.
Me: You're saying it doesn't quite fill you up with the Christmas spirit?
She: It's not good, is what I'm saying. You know it's not good. The only thing you like about it is the Heat Miser song.
Me: It's a beautiful story about regaining the Christmas spirit.
She: It's a story about a man needing to have his ego stroked in order to do his fucking job.
Me: You're very harsh on poor Santa.
She: Just get your moody ass up and do your job! It's your job!
Me: He's feeling under-appreciated.
She: Welcome to employment! You have a job to do one night of the year!
Me: C'mon, he's been doing the same thing for millennia! Cut the guy some slack.
She: It's not coal mining! He's dropping off gifts to children, one night a year. He doesn't even have to make the toys, because he's got elf slaves to do all the actual work.
Me: And does anyone ever say "thank you"? They write him greedy letters every year demanding shit, but nobody ever says "thank you." I'd be grumpy too.
She: He's grumpy because he has the gout. Chill out on the red meat! Santa Claus is not supposed to have the gout.
Me: It was psycho-somatic gout, because he's deeply depressed.
She: I don't give a shit! Suck it up, Santa. And by the way, how come when there's work to do, the little African and Inuit kids are pulled in, but when it comes time for Santa to hand out gifts he just cruises through lily-white Southtown?
Me: I'm sure the Inuit kids got presents too. Not everything is racist. You just have no Christmas spirit.
She: I was in the Christmas spirit, but now I'm out of it. This has put me out of it. Now I've decided I'm okay with a year without Santa Claus, because Santa is a whiny bitch.
Me: Okay, he was kind of grumpy. And self-pitying. And high-maintenance.
Me: Okay, so your take-aways from this childhood classic are that Santa Claus is a depressive asshole, and Mrs. Claus is a cross-dresser and closeted lesbian.
She: She may not be a lesbian, but I think she is definitely interested in exploring some things about herself and her identity.
Me: You're drawing a lot of conclusions from the fact that the bed isn't big enough for both of them.
She: That says a lot. Says a lot about a marriage.
Me: See, this is why I enjoy this process so: you pick up on so much subtext in these things that I tend to miss.
She: That's what I'm saying.
Me: You just always seem to process these things on a deeper level than other people.
She: You can't help how incisive you are. It's not something I can turn on and off.
Me: You're getting coal this year. For crapping all over a beloved holiday classic.
She: I don't see you watching it every year.
Me: I don't really like it that much.
She: Yeah, okay, I thought so.