So, I thought this would be a truly simple assignment: List the most memorable Santa Clauses in movie history. Turns out, though, that cinematic Santas who stand out from the pack are as rare as elves in the NBA.
The sad fact is, Santa is usually a cipher in movies, a big, bearded prop that other characters perform against. Santa's there all right, what with all the sleigh-riding and gift-giving and ho-ho-ho-ing. But most of the time he's way beyond arm's length, a figure to be held in breathless awe (The Polar Express) or some kind of deep-frozen, elf-flogging CEO (The Santa Clause).
Still, I did manage to find a handful of Santas who, against all odds, bring more than stereotypes down the chimney:
Ed Asner, Elf (2003)
The Emmy-winning Mary Tyler Moore show veteran is probably my all-time favorite Santa, and that's because in Elf, Asner and director Jon Favreau manage to walk that fine line between respecting tradition and engaging in good-natured irreverence. Asner's Santa is not endlessly jolly, as too many children's films portray him, nor does he have an image-shattering mean streak, as an awful lot of "grownup" retellings present. Here, Santa is a serious-minded man with an overwhelming job to do, but he possesses a warm, generous spirit.
I think my favorite scene is when Santa is giving Buddy the Elf (Will Farrell) advice before Buddy heads off for New York in search of his father. "I've been to New York thousands of times," Santa says, and immediately we sense his unique, ageless qualities. "There are, like, 30 Ray's Pizzas," he adds. "They all claim to be the original, but the real one's on 11th." And suddenly, in a truly magical way, we sense that Santa is also just like us — and that's why he loves us all.
Jeff Gillen, A Christmas Story (1983)
"Santa's warm, moist breath poured down over me through some cosmic steam radiator," Jean Shepherd wrote in the short story that inspired the film. "Santa smoked Camels, it smelled, just like my Uncle Charles."
Nowhere in literature has anyone more authentically captured the shock and awe Santa holds over the very young, and the scene is translated to the screen brilliantly by director Bob Clark. Especially good is Jeff Gillen as Santa, reigning like some imperial red-suited ruler over a department store toy department, bellowing a "ho-ho-HO!" that sounds anything but jolly — more like a threat, really. Perfunctorily cycling kids on and off his lap ("I hate the smell of tapioca!" he growls to an elf) he impatiently hears out our hero Ralphie's plea for a Red Ryder BB gun. Just before sending him off down a truly scary slide, Santa utters the dread words, "You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" The scene could easily have come off as yet another cynical look at Christmas traditions, but from Shepherd's narration, we know that we are experiencing this story through a child's eyes — eyes that have precious little context from which to decipher the good and bad in adults, traditions — and even Christmas.
Edmund Gwenn , Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Natalie Woods hides in the shadows, spying on a department store Santa, confident that sooner or later he will drop his guard. As she watches, an adoptive mother brings her new daughter to Santa — explaining the girl won't understand a word he says, because she's a newly arrived war orphan from Rotterdam. But Santa interrupts her, begins conversing with the child in flawless Dutch — then sweeps the child onto his lap and begins singing a traditional Dutch Christmas song, Sinterklaas Kapoentje. For one glorious moment, the standard mythologies about toys and reindeer and cookies and milk melt away, and we are left with the essence of Santa Claus: a universal love for children everywhere. From her hiding place, little Natalie begins to believe. And so do we.
Richard Attenborough, Miracle on 34th Steet (1994)
The detractors say there was no need to remake a classic, but if the 1947 original had never been made, this version would stand on its own as a truly wonderful holiday classic. Attenborough is a warm, utterly accessible Santa (although you do occasionally expect him to whisper "Welcome to Jurassic Park!"). The scene in which he is first pressed into service, piloting a Santa sleigh in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, has a triumphant charm that convinces you, right from the outset, that this Santa is the real deal.
John Call, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
The concept of the title is so, well, wrong, that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has long been consigned to "never-watched-it-never-will" obscurity. But as Christmas movies go, it's by no means worse than your average Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated holiday special, and it has a self-aware sense of humor that catches you totally by surprise (you can watch the whole thing, by the way, on YouTube). John Call is a very appealing Santa, with an easy, unforced laugh and a genuine smile. We first meet him during a live TV interview from the North Pole (via Telstar!) in which he flatly denies rumors he'll ever use a rocket sled: "No siree!" he says, a smoking pipe hanging from his mouth. "We're goin' out the good old fashioned way with my reindeer," and he names them all, including one named Nixon. Call was a 30-year Broadway veteran who made just one more film, The Anderson Tapes with Sean Connery, before he died in 1973.
By the way, Santa doesn't attack the Martians at all — they kidnap him because their children want to know the kind of joy Earth children have each Christmas. If Santa conquers the Martians with anything, it's with generosity and love.