May 25, 2010
The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus (1914) (part 1 of 3)
Ah, Christmas. Yuletide. When the yule and the tide rush together, each one yuling and tiding until they finally meet in a fiery explosion, raining down their beautiful holiday messianic Jesus goop.
I do not know a lot about Christmas. It wasn’t extensively covered in my Bar Mitzvah class. But there is one tradition I’ve always cherished: the Patrick Swayze Christmas. Sadly, Patrick Swayze passed away this year. So, instead of relentlessly mocking a Swayze film this year, let’s observe a moment of silence… by relentlessly mocking a silent film instead.
Frankly, I’m kind of psyched to do a silent movie. I mean, if movies with Natalie Portman in them can suck, imagine how bad things must have been 67 years before she was born. We’re talking about a world without Beautiful Girls, without Garden State, without this rap video. It’s a miracle anyone even survived.
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This is the Agony Booth’s first silent movie, and its oldest entry by an astonishing 38 years. And unless someone recaps the Lumiere brothers’ famous film People Wandering Around, I’m pretty sure it will stay that way.
Today’s movie is The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus. That’s right, “adventure”. Singular. The wrong Santa Claus had exactly one adventure and then just hung it up entirely. It was filmed at the Edison Studios in the Bronx. And, just to get this out of the way, it is not good. It’s only ten minutes, but it may well be the longest movie I’ve ever watched. And I’ve seen Elephant.
Almost none of Thomas Edison’s films were good. Edison was pretty proud of himself for having more or less invented movie cameras and projectors… for about five minutes. That’s when it dawned on him that nobody would pay to look at a projector. If he wanted to make money, he had to produce movies for people to actually watch. They didn’t have to be good; they just had to exist. Edison was the Roger Corman of the Edwardian Age.
This film was shot in 1914. It was not a great year in cinema. Things we take for granted, like the shutter wipe and the “She Broke Up With Me Montage”, didn’t even exist. It would be another year until D.W. Griffith released his seminal work, Here’s a Really Racist Tutorial on How to Make Movies. And say what you want about really racist tutorials on how to make movies, they taught people how to make movies. In a really racist way.
As bad as it is, The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus is, amazingly, the twelfth movie in a series. During 1914, Edison Studios released a short every two to four weeks of something called Octavius, Amateur Detective. It was the Star Trek of its day. I don’t mean that it was popular; I mean that the eleventh movie completely ruined the franchise forever. The captain of the Enterprise is an acting ensign? I mean, what?
In case you missed the first 11 chapters, here’s a quick summary: Some guy named Octavius inherited a lot of money, freeing him to quit his job and live a life of luxury. He spent his time reading so many detective stories that he decided to become a detective himself. Now (and by “now”, I mean “95 years ago”), he wanders around involving himself in criminal investigations as a hobby. Sort of like the LAPD.
We open on a title card informing us that the screenplay was written by Frederic Arnold Kummer. Apparently, Kummer was a well-known playwright and novelist. No one remembers him today, but that’s only because he wasn’t very good.
The first action card reads, “Octavius receives an invitation.” It also includes the names of the actors in the scene. Octavius was played by Barry O’Moore. He starred in almost a hundred movies between 1908 and 1915. Those are some crazy numbers. They’re like porn star numbers. He even has a porn star name. Barry O’Moore… Barry More… Lionel Barrymore… get it? His real name was Herbert Yost. Incidentally, porn actress Dru Berrymore’s real name is Nicole Hilbig. As near as I can tell, she is not related to Herbert Yost, although I think you’ll agree that would be awesome.
Herbert Yost’s biggest hit was playing Edgar Allan Poe in the D.W. Griffith movie, Edgar Allen Poe. He earned eighty-five cents and an extra ration of chocolate. It was the world’s first biopic. You might notice that Griffith actually spelled Poe’s name wrong.
Our current non-D. W. Griffith movie opens with Octavius drinking coffee at his dining room table. This is our hero? A middle-aged guy with a comb-over and a bowtie? He looks like James Rebhorn in Scent of a Woman. If that’s what passed for good looking back then, I have got to get my hands on a flux capacitor. I would be like a Greek god. Also, Harry, Jimmy, Trent, wherever you are out there, fuck you, too.
So Octavius is having his coffee and studying the paper. His butler bursts in, holding an envelope. Octavius puts down his paper, picks up a knife, and commences to open the envelope. And this is absolutely necessary to the story. They couldn’t just start with a still shot of the letter and then cut to Octavius acting on it. Jumping into the action like that might have caused the audience to develop tuberculosis. We need to be eased slowly into the concept of reading a letter.
Good lord, he’s still opening the letter. Now he’s taking it out of the envelope. Now he’s unfolding it. And… success! Octavius is able to read the letter.
What was your favorite part of the letter? Mine was the fact that the message failed to include either a date or a time. My second favorite part was when she threatened him.
Also, there really were people named Bertha? I thought that was just a joke name. Like Herbert, or Barack.
Octavius reads the letter for a while. He gets annoyed when the butler tries to read over his shoulder. Then he continues reading. People used to read slowly back in 1914. The alphabet had just been invented.
Octavius talks to the butler, who nods and leaves the room. We watch for a while as Octavius does, literally, nothing. The butler finally returns with his hat and cloak. We watch the butler put the cloak on him and cut already! Just cut! We already saw the letter. If, in the next scene, Octavius is outside of his house, I don’t think we’ll be wondering where he got the coat.
They finally cut to Octavius entering… somewhere. At first I thought it was Mrs. Bertha Randall’s house. It’s just a single flat with a couple of shelves with toys on them. It took me a while to figure it out, but this is supposed to be a toy store/costume shop type of place. Another phrase that didn’t exist in 1914: “Location scout.”
So Octavius talks to the proprietor for a while. The store owner touches Octavius’ shoulder and collar. I think he’s sizing him up for the Santa suit, but he may just be hitting on him. Were people a lot gayer during the Wilson Administration?
The owner leaves and we get to watch Octavius do nothing again. Joy. Finally, the owner wanders back into the frame with the Santa suit. He unfolds it, and it apparently passes inspection. Octavius takes out a dollar to pay for the costume and Oh my God, the dollar is huge! It’s the biggest dollar I’ve ever seen. It’s like a tablecloth. The past is funny because it’s old.
The toy shop thing is over. So now, we not only know why Octavius got his Santa costume, but how. I’m not sure what point this information serves, but there you go. The nitpickers in 1914 must have been merciless.
A title card announces, “Mrs. Randall’s home in Oakville.” According to the style at the time, the card also bears the title, “The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus.” It’s a good thing, too. I frequently forget what movie I’m watching.
We watch Octavius walk up to the house and… he doesn’t knock or anything. The maid just somehow knows to open the door. Maybe he yelled something, and the microphone on Edison’s camera didn’t pick it up.
The maid invites Octavius in, and a title card reveals he is “Just in time for dinner.” The title card also lists the cast that’s in the following scene. That’s annoying. Imagine if halfway through Grease, they stopped the film to announce that Sid Caesar would be playing Coach Calhoun.
The maid waits by the empty dinner table for, like, a month. The whole family comes in: husband, wife, two little girls, a young boy, and Octavius. He’s carrying the boy on his back and joking with the children in a… convincing way. I never thought I’d see a scene in a silent movie that was underplayed. I thought it was all Lillian Gish holding the back of her hand against her forehead and fainting as white guys in blackface jumped around like idiots.
Mr. Randall actually pulls out Mrs. Randall’s chair for her. That’s great. Old people sure were courteous. My wife would be so sitting on the floor right now.
By the way, keep your eye on Mr. Randall. The actor who played him, Richard Neill, is the only member of the cast who made it into talkies. He made about forty features, the most famous of which was Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind. The entire rest of the cast combined made only four talking pictures. Also, Neill would live to the age of 94. So, congratulations, descendants of Richard Neill, I can’t find anything bad to say about your Paw Paw.
As the family sits down to eat, we cut to a vagrant skulking around outside the house. And I mean, he’s actually skulking. It’s broad daylight, but he’s kind of hunched over and scurrying from here to there. So much for realism. But, hey, the director just cut away to show simultaneous action in two different places! The lessons of The Great Train Robbery were not in vain.
One more word about the vagrant: he’s wearing a suit. And a hat. The fact that he isn’t wearing a tie is the only reason we have to suspect he’s not a Princeton alum. Of course, he may well have gone to Rutgers.
The vagrant is still creeping around. I think he’s doing that acting exercise where you pretend you’re a spider. Cut back to the dining room, and dinner is already over. People ate fast during the Reformation.
As Mr. Randall distracts the children with stories about the Spanish-American war, Mrs. Randall and Octavius sneak away to execute Operation: Santa Claus Thing. And the maid is just standing there. She’s not even listed in the cast. Well, that’s Hollywood for you. Or, you know, the Bronx.
The title card announces, “An unwelcome visitor.” Because all the skulking and non-tie-wearing didn’t tip me off. I thought the Randalls encouraged burglary.
The vagrant sneaks around a bedroom. At least, I think it’s supposed to be a bedroom. Once again, it’s just a blank wall with some furniture pushed into the frame as the camera sits there, stationary. In any case, the burglar doesn’t find anything in the one drawer he opens.
Cut to Mrs. Randall and Octavius admiring the Christmas tree, fully decorated and surrounded by presents. And there’s just so much to say about this. First of all, none of the presents are wrapped. I don’t know if it was just a choice the director made for the film, or if people really didn’t wrap presents back in Copernicus’ time, but it makes no sense.
Second, this is honestly the saddest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen. The tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas was healthier than this. I have mold in my bathroom that’s more festive. I’m pretty sure Osama Bin Laden has a nicer tree this year. I sincerely hope that this is just the product of directorial incompetence, and not an indication that evergreens back then only had eleven pine needles. Say what you want about eugenics, it produced greener Christmas trees. And World War II.
Mrs. Randall leads Octavius away from the tree, saying (via another title card), “You will find a Santa Claus outfit upstairs in the closet of the spare room.” See, I knew she didn’t put enough detail in the letter. She could have saved everybody four minutes. Octavius wouldn’t have had to buy a costume, and he wouldn’t have herniated a disc carrying that enormous dollar bill.