SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN
Original air date: December 14, 1970
A stop-motion Fred Astaire & Co. answer every question you never knew you had about Santa’s life story.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was the fifth animated Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass, and it marked a return to their characteristic stop-motion after the hand-drawn animation of Frosty the Snowman. It features an animated Fred Astaire as our trusty narrator, as well as the voices of Mickey Rooney (as Kris Kringle), Keenan Wynn (as the Winter Warlock), and Rankin/Bass standby Paul Frees (as seemingly all of the remaining characters).
Santa Claus is loosely based on the 1934 song by Eddie Cantor, if by “based on” you mean “bearing the same name.” But it expands beyond the basic idea of the jolly old coot who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, painting Kris Kringle as a fascism-fighting outlaw in an effort to explain the origins of many aspects of the legend of Santa Claus.
The trademark Rankin/Bass style is in top form, creating a charming and lively winter wonderland, and featuring several classic songs sung by Astaire and beautifully scored by Maury Laws and Jules Bass himself.
Still, at the risk of stomping all over the toes of anyone who watched and loved this special as a child (or the President of the Mickey Rooney fan club), I’m just going to come right out and say it: the voice acting isn’t exactly Oscar material and the plot devices are more in-your-face than Courtney Love at an open bar, making the feature hard to take seriously enough to truly enjoy it.
Sorry to be such a party-pooper
The rights are owned by ABC Family and to this day it airs frequently on that channel, as well as on ABC itself. Several notable scenes are frequently cut from those broadcasts, though – possibly in the interest of time, but more likely for reasons that will soon become clear.
After a brief WWII-style newsreel broadcasting news of Christmas preparations the world over, we’re introduced to Special Delivery “S.D.” Kringle, the friendly postman to the North Pole who’s a dead-ringer for Fred Astaire.
Does this narrator look familiar?
How bout now?
S.D.’s truck has just broken down, so he does exactly what you know all postmen do for kicks: starts reading people’s mail. He pulls a sampling of letters from a bunch of selfless nitwits who, instead of demanding that Santa bring them entire aisles from Toys ‘R’ Us, simply want to know how and why he came to be who he is today.
A waste of a stamp
And since ol’ Twinkle Toes is stuck in the middle of a wintry nowhere with a broken mail truck, patiently awaiting the mercy of death by either freezing or starvation, he’s only too willing to paint the entire, unsolicited, rags-to-riches story in painstaking detail.
You see, the man we now know as Santa Claus actually began life rather unglamorously as a foundling infant abandoned on the front stoop of the fun-hating (but deliciously named) mayor of Sombertown, Burgermeister Meisterburger.
Oh good – a baby.
Burg knows a money pit when he sees one, so he wastes no time in sending the child away to the nearest orphanage.
Pretty shrewd, for a fatty
Fate, though, has other plans, whisking the wee Claus’ conveyance away in the whispering winds to the, uh, Mountain of the Whispering Winds – range of the grim and territorial Winter Warlock. Fortunately, a group of woodland creatures hide our hero from the Warlock’s spindly grasp and deposit him on the other side of the mountain in the Rainbow River Valley, home of a multi-generational family of toy-making elves known as the Kringles.
My worst nightmare
Matriarch Tanta Kringle takes the babe in and raises him as one of her own, christening him “Kris” and thus answering the first question that no one cares about: why is Santa called Kris Kringle?
Note that the special never addresses the one question on everyone’s minds: Santa is a ginger?
The Kringle family has been building toys for generations, all the way back to when they were the number one toymakers to the King of Sombertown, but in recent years the wrath of the Winter Warlock has left them and their playthings trapped in the Rainbow River Valley, where the toys simply build up, unused, in a pile outside the window (much to the chagrin of the Kringles).
Not cool, guys.
An overachieving teen aged Kris promises that one day when he’s old enough, he’ll cross the Mountain of the Whispering Winds himself and deliver the lonely toys to Sombertown.
“Well, what is a penguin doing in this special?” We never quite figure that one out.
But just as that day arrives, Mayor Meisterburger takes an unceremonious tumble on an aptly placed wooden duck and promptly outlaws all toys.
When Kris arrives to deliver his first round of goodies to Sombertown’s appreciative young-‘uns, he finds that he’s just made himself enemy- number-one of the state.
“We don’t want any”
Wrong answer, lady!
Thus begins probably the creepiest scene of the whole special (and there are many), as a toy-pushing Kris lecherously grabs a couple of the town’s children and launches into a song promising them that, “if you sit on my lap today, a kiss, a toy is the price you’ll pay,” followed by, “when you sit on my left knee, don’t be stingy, be prepared to pay.” You can’t make this shit up.
“Atta boy, Johnny, right there…”
Thank you, lord!
Which leads us to a blatantly transparent back-and-forth between Kris and Burgermeister that elucidates every detail of Santa’s mythos at a level even a four-year-old could understand. But just in case there are any three-year-olds in the audience, each revelation is also paired with explanatory narration by a real child, à la “so that’s why Santa wears a red suit!” Duh.
“I’m a man, and a man should dress like one”
Anyway, Kris starts to make his way back across the Mountain of the Whispering Winds, only to be intercepted by a pissed-off Winter Warlock.
Who has two thumbs and doesn’t like visitors?
This toothy fiend has been disturbed for the last time, and he’s not going to let Kris escape, EVER…unless, of course, he were to be won over by some material goods. Kris quickly forks over – I mean, presents him with – a wooden choo-choo, and the warlock’s icy exterior melts away (literally) into a warm puddle of what-can-i-do-ya-for.
“Well sure, I’ll throw my values out the window for a free tchotchke!”
Before Kris can count his blessings, though, Sombertown’s schoolteacher, Ms. Jessica, tracks him down to deliver some letters from the local tykes asking for, wouldn’t you know it, more toys! (Ostensibly to replace all the ones that the mayor wasted no time in destroying…I’m so sure.)
“It’s just the funniest thing – one of the kids requested, um, one of those Hitachi Magic Wands…”
Pedo-Kringle tells Jessica to let the children know that if they leave their doors unlocked that night (so that’s why Santa comes at night!), he’ll sneak into their homes and personally make good on his earlier promise. You know, to bring them some toys – why, what were you thinking?
This is almost too easy
But when Burgermeister discovers the new shipment of playthings in the morning, he orders all of the town’s doors locked. Fortunately, creeper Kris finds a workaround by climbing in through the chimney and leaving even more toys at the foot of the mantle. (So that’s why Santa comes down the chimney!)
Where there’s a will – or William, or Billy – there’s a way!
Still, an unrelenting Burg tries a new tactic: he commands his crew of doll-nazis to search every house for traces of any and all toys (including those that Sombertown’s denizens might be hiding, say, in their attics, or under their floorboards, or behind false walls) and arrest anyone housing them.
Pssst, Meisterburger – esents-pray, three o’clock.
Luckily, our quick-thinking star manages to disguise his wares by stuffing them in the stockings pinned above each family’s fireplace. So that’s why Santa leaves us presents in our stockings!
“I’m having a good time…”
Finally, the slow-on-the-uptake Herr does what any Grinch worth his salt would have done in the first place – sets a trap and jails the entire lawbreaking Kringle clan.
“If loving children is wrong, then lock me up!”
The special then takes a turn for a trippy as Jessica launches into an acid-tinged ballad so strange it’s not worth describing, except to say that she realizes she’s in love with a certain Kringle and should probably get off her ass and do something.
I am a beautiful lioness…hear me roar!
So she gets a hold of one of Warlock’s last bits of sorcery (see, he lost most of his powers in a card game…or at least that’s what he’d have Mrs. Warlock believe): some magic feed corn.
Did somebody say “magic feed corn??”
When Jessica gives the corn to, oh, about eight of the neighborhood reindeer, they magically gain the gift of flight, alight to the jailhouse, and bust Kris and the rest of his commie friends out.
No, not this one – that’s another story, silly!
So that’s why Santa’s reindeer can fly! Anything else you wanted to know?
Oh yeah, an on-the-lam Kris grows an Amish beard and changes his name to “Claus” to avoid being spotted by Herr Meisterburger, word spreads far and wide about the North Pole cash cow who can’t not give toys away, and Kris Claus decides that – hey! – if he’s going to be CEO of his own worldwide corporation, he may as well deliver gifts just one day a year and take the other 364 off. Which also explains how he goes from looking like this…
…to looking like this:
And then Jessica and Kris have a weirdo wedding where they for some reason give each other presents, wrapped and placed under decorated evergreens.
This is totally gonna catch on, I just know it.
Well, when you put it that way, it all makes perfect sense.
The punctured one is never mentioned by name, and the only reference to the fact that there might be a reason for the season beyond Santa and his giant sack comes as a seeming afterthought at the end, when our hand-holding narrator explains that Santa chose Christmas Eve to be his single night of gift-giving because it’s the holiest night of the year. Which I guess means that Jesus may, in fact, be the only one more insulted by this special than I was.
Uh…yeah. See above.
For as much as I’ve made fun of it, this thing really does have a lot of heartwarming holiday gumption, which is probably why it appears to be a lifelong favorite of many, many less-discerning reviewers. Still, it couldn’t break through this hipster’s hard shell of irony and cynicism, so I can’t in good conscience give it more than three balls.
PRODUCT INFORMATION (Support the Site!)
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is available on a single disc, standalone DVD but your best bet is to purchase it on The Original Christmas Classics boxed set, which also features Rankin/Bass classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman for just a few dollars more. Television broadcasts trim more and more from classics like this every year, so the DVD is your best method of preserving the version you remember. We’ve also included a link to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town Christmas Ornaments, which should look classy hung upon even the dingiest Christmas Tree/Menora.