Some traditions, no matter how ill-advised, just won't die. Every December for nearly a decade I've watched at least one Mystery Science Theater 3000 or RiffTrax Christmas movie. Sadly, I neglected to record which movie I watched in 2015, but I'm pretty sure it was either Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) or Santa Claus (1959). In 2016 my Warhammer/X-Wing gaming group watched a collection of Christmas shorts released by RiffTrax as Santa's Village of Madness. Although these weren't quite as excruciating as Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), they were at least on par with The Magic Christmas Tree (1964).
Only an excess of Christmas spirit could possibly explain why I watched three Christmas-themed movies this year. I started out with Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, followed it up with The Magic Christmas Tree, and finished it with The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1966). The latter movie was riffed as part of Season 11 of the revived Mystery Science Theater 3000.
|The "Almost" in the title is kind of a spoiler, isn't it?|
In the joint American-Italian film, The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, we learn that Santa long ago built his comically small workshop at the North Pole with the Eskimo's permission. Unfortunately, the Eskimo have recently sold the land to a miser named Phineas T. Prune (as expected for this kind of film, the filmmakers either don't know that there is no dry land at the geographic North Pole or have chosen to ignore the fact). Prune isn't nearly as generous as the original landowners and demands rent from the Jolly Fat Man, whose job doesn't exactly pay well. If the rent isn't paid by midnight on Christmas Eve, the workshop and the toys within will be confiscated.
|Proud owner of a large slab of sea ice north of the Arctic Circle|
With only a couple weeks to go before Christmas Eve, Santa seeks out the help of a kindly lawyer named Sam Whipple, who just happens to live in the same town as Prune. Although Saint Nick is in disguise, Whipple immediately recognizes him and gladly agrees to represent Santa. Sadly, their attempts to reason with Prune go nowhere; the miser admits that he doesn't actually care about the money. The truth is that Prune, who genuinely believes that he was never a child, loathes children and despises Santa's annual tradition of gift-giving.
With no other option but to come up with the money, Whipple suggests that Santa get a job at the local department store. The lawyer sells the store's manager on the idea of letting his bearded friend "pretend" to be Santa, asking children what they want for Christmas and generally attracting customers, thus inventing the idea of the department store Santa. Whipple also gets a side job as the store's janitor, although he spends more time playing with toys and acting as Santa's helper than actually cleaning.
While Santa easily gets the job of playing himself, he's extremely nervous about his first day at work. The reason why is surprisingly clever for a children's Christmas movie from the mid-60s. For centuries Santa has been leaving gifts for children in the middle of the night while they were sleeping; he has never actually spoken with a child and doesn't know how to interact with them. Whipple is put in the unexpected position of coaching Santa Claus himself on how to ask a child what he or she wants for Christmas and how to give a boisterous "ho, ho, ho". Santa, as portrayed in The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is a kindly but quiet man whose personality doesn't match people's expectations.
|It's fortunate that Santa's first interaction with children wasn't|
with the spoiled hellions that you often find at the mall
Santa quickly adapts to his role once the children start lining up to see him. Despite Prune's and his creepy butler's attempts to sabotage them, Whipple and Santa have earned enough to pay the rent by the close of business on Christmas Eve. (That a couple weeks' worth of a janitor's and a department store Santa's salary could pay the rent is probably the least believable part of the film.) However, before they can pay off Santa's landlord, a concealed Prune and his butler start knocking toys to the floor. As Santa and Whipple puzzle over the inexplicably broken toys, Prune appears and reveals that he bought the department store earlier that afternoon. While he will certainly pay Santa and Whipple what they're owed, he insists that they cover the cost of the items that were damaged on their watch.
Left with nothing, a devastated Santa Claus wanders out into the town square. When a little boy asks him what's wrong, Whipple informs him of the situation. The boy insists on giving him what little money he has, declaring that it's the least he can do for a man who has shown so much generosity. The boy then starts waking all the children in town, telling them that Santa is in trouble. Saint Nick is soon swarmed by children carrying their purses and piggy banks. With literally seconds to spare, Santa pays the irate Prune with an enormous pile of coins.
With the debt paid and the time short, the elves, Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Whipple load the sleigh. Breaking from tradition, Santa decides to take the latter two along so that he can finish his deliveries in time. Just before Santa can fly off, his chief elf, Jonathan, hands him a final package.
After an overlong montage of still photos depicting them distributing gifts, the three discover that the last package of the night is intended for Prune. When Prune awakens to find the three uninvited guests in his home, Santa gives him the gift, which turns out to be a toy sailboat. Along with the sailboat is a letter from Jonathan. Apparently, while looking for any record of a young Phineas T. Prune, Jonathan discovered a long-misplaced postcard from a five-year-old Phineas asking for a sailboat. In the letter, Jonathan apologizes for the error and the resulting delay in delivering the gift.
|He has his own sleigh, flying reindeer, and a magic bag|
that can hold as many packages as necessary; has Santa
considered a side job as a subcontractor for FedEx?
With the sailboat in hand, Prune begins to remember his youth and how the disappointment of the missing sailboat had soured him on childhood and children. Realizing that he has wasted years of his life wallowing in bitterness, Prune rushes out of his house with his toy sailboat and begins greeting people in the town square and wishing them a Merry Christmas. When he notices one little boy admiring the sailboat, Prune chases him down and practically shoves the boat into his hands, apparently having learned in the space of a few minutes that it is better to give than to receive. The film ends with Prune inviting the town's children to a Christmas party in his spacious (but cobweb-filled) home that certainly lacks any of the essentials for hosting a party.
The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is a surprisingly decent film. Of course there's enough badness to give Jonah and the 'bots plenty to work with. For example, the film has some pretty terrible musical numbers. These scenes seem totally out of place since there aren't enough of them to make the movie a real musical. The elves are more creepy than funny, especially the head elf, Jonathan. And Santa sometimes comes across as a bit too dour. At the same time, like Santa Claus, the movie has some surprisingly effective scenes. As I mentioned before, it was a clever decision to portray a Santa who is initially reluctant to interact with children. But the happiness he shows when he finally gets to meet the children who love him so dearly is genuinely sweet.
Since a movie can be made or broken by its villain, it's fortunate that Phineas T. Prune is effectively played by Rossano Brazzi; an internationally-known actor who had been the male lead in films with actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Brazzi plays a reasonably comical character who avoids being as over-the-top as the villains in movies like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. While Prune's conversion from Grinch to kindly old man is a bit sudden, it's reasonably well done.
The Christmas That Almost Wasn't is the fourth film I've seen as part of the MST3K revival. When I first heard that Netflix was going to continue the show, I was skeptical that it could match the quality of the original series. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first episode of the new season, Reptilicus (1961), was as well done as some of my favorite classic episodes. Nor have I been disappointed by any of the other episodes I've since watched. Hopefully the new MST3K has found a long term home on Netflix.