Movie Santas (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)
The other day I watched our three-year-old’s stage début, typecast already as a wise man. The performance wasn’t all it might have been, to be honest. He seemed more interested in feeding straw to Baby Jesus than joining in any of the carols. Until, that is, a rousing rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" triggered his inner Kanye.
That was also the cue for a special surprise guest star: the big guy in the red suit made his entrance ringing bells, showing off his dance moves, tossing off one-liners and generally making like a pro. I’ve seen a lot of Santas over the years, but this guy was the Las Vegas of Saint Nicks… Mr Showbiz. He was funny, he was hearty, and he made sure everybody got their photo op. Even the three-year-old was impressed.
It got me thinking: who are the best movie Santas? According to the Internet Movie Database more than 300 actors have played the role on screen – and that’s just in the last ten years. Still, I hope we can agree that there are stand-outs. At least, here are my top Four Father Christmases…
When it comes to that all-important inner-twinkle, it would be hard to beat Edmund Gwenn or Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle in either version of Miracle on 34th Street. This is the classic Father Christmas, grandfatherly, wise and warm, with real white whiskers and an English accent to boot… About as close to the real thing as you’re likely to meet.
At the opposite extreme, there’s no getting away from Billy Bob Thornton as Willie, aka Bad Santa. This horny ex-alcoholic is constantly inebriated, hates kids, and only sinks lower the longer you get to know him. It's wonderful to watch, rekindling the sour persimmons of WC Fields at his most offensive. Apparently this was the Coen brothers idea, which makes a lot of sense. Just don’t spoil it for your children… you should have to be at least 16 before you discover Bad Santa exists.
Somewhere in the middle ground there’s Tim Allen as Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause, an ordinary mortal who is none too happy to assume the role (he puts on 45 pounds in a week), The two sequels are decidedly lame, but the first film is solid family entertainment, neatly balanced between hip cynicism and heartwarming sentiment.
Before we go on, let’s spare a thought for some of the also-rans. Tom Hanks is a fine actor, but he made a decidedly creepy digitized Santa in The Polar Express. It didn’t help that the technology’s limitations gave everyone dead eyes and waxy skin. Tom compounded the problem by putting on a fake voice – and director Robert Zemeckis made the North Pole looked like a gulag. I wasn’t too keen on Paul Giamatti in last year’s Fred Claus either. Giamatti is a good actor, but he’s a prize neurotic, not my idea of a saint. He was also stuck with a truly feeble script and fisticuffs with Vince Vaughn. David Huddleston was much closer to the mark in Santa Claus The Movie – he had the right roly-poly figure and gregarious character, but this was a good Santa in a poor movie (controversial, I know).
A few more memorable walk-ons: Mekhi Phifer as a lovesick Santa in This Christmas… Dan Aykroyd, plastered in Trading Places… James Cosmo, bringing good cheer in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe… Ed Asner, a stern taskmaster in Elf… and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson incognito in Hot Fuzz.
Now, back to business: My personal favourite Santa is a bit of an imposter (but aren’t they all?): Pumpkin King Jack Skellington (voiced by composer Danny Elfman and actor Chris Sarandon) in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, this film also offers a very decent legitimate Santa (voiced by Edward Ivory), but what I like about Jack is the way he combines some bad Santa naughtiness – kidnapping, fraud, booby-trapped presents – with real innocence. He genuinely believes his “Sandy Claws” act will delight the little ones, and who wouldn’t want to find a shrunken head in your stocking? According to Tim Burton the character was inspired by his friend Vincent Price – “especially the hand gestures” – and by Fred Astaire. He may not have Kris Kringle’s twinkling eyes – or any eyes at all – but he can hold a tune, and he’s got far and away the best sidekick in Zero, the red-nosed ghost dog.
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