This year, she'll deliver her own holiday magic.
Behind every great man, the saying goes, is a great woman. The great woman in this case is none other than Mrs. Santa Claus, who, as you may have guessed, is the wife of…Santa Claus. Heretofore given short shrift in the annals of Christmas lore, the First Lady of Holiday Cheer gets her 91 minutes in the spotlight at last, in what may be the first ever feminist-Marxist Christmas musical.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1910. The place: Santa's Workshop, the North Pole. It's crunch time for Santa, just a week before the big day, and Mrs. Claus (Angela Lansbury) is feeling neglected. Not only is Santa too preoccupied with his Christmas preparations to pay proper attention to his wife, but he won't even take the time to look over the missus's plan for a more efficient sleigh route. (Of course, one might wonder why she waited until now to bring this up, but that's women for y—I mean, what a mean old Santa for not honoring his life partner's contributions!)
Now, if this were a Lifetime TV movie, this would be the point where Mrs. Claus would start seeing Hanukah Harry on the sly, but this is a Hallmark special. So, undaunted by Santa's dismissal, Mrs. C takes it upon herself to try out her new and improved route. Predictably enough, disaster strikes when the sleigh experiences mechanical trouble—which is to say, magic-reindeer trouble—over New York City, and Mrs. C is forced to make an emergency landing.
Fortunately for Mrs. C, she doesn't land anywhere near the Four Corners of Scorsese's Gangs of New York, or this would have been a very different sort of movie. Instead, she winds up in one of those squeaky clean, multicultural turn-of-the-century New York neighborhoods that only existed, so far as we know, on studio backlots. You know, the kind where the Irish, Jews, Italians, African-Americans, and Asians all lived on the same block and got along famously.
It isn't long before the gregarious Mrs. C settles into the community, befriending a young Italian stable boy, the Jewish feminist activist he's in love with, a little Irish girl pining for her Ma back in the old country, and a crew of child workers at a decrepit toy factory run by Augustine Tavish, a cruel, miserly escapee from an abandoned Charles Dickens novel.
This being a musical, much singing and dancing ensues.
Did you notice I said "feminist activist" above? I wasn't kidding. A large part of Mrs. Santa Claus is taken up with the theme of feminist empowerment, which in 1910 New York means that we get Sadie, a sort of Susan B. Anthony in training, who spends her days perched on a soapbox agitating for women's right to vote. Even Mrs. Claus jumps on the political action bandwagon, organizing the toy factory workers into a sort of kiddie labor union. This movie isn't content to just be a cheery all-singing, all-dancing holiday musical. It's out to make a point.
It's hard to fault Mrs. Santa Claus for its noble ambitions. It's the rare holiday special that goes beyond the standard warm 'n fuzzy Christmastime sentimentality and attempts to impart a historical and sociological lesson as well as awakening the political consciousness of its viewers. Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl who, as a result of this special, will reject the male-dominated patriarchal power structure and demand the right to vote. (At which point she'll be told that women got the right to vote in 1918, and in any case you have to be a legal adult. But still.) For a Hallmark TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, this is pretty ambitious stuff.
Unfortunately, there's a reason why holiday specials and politics don't mix very well. Nobody sits down to watch something like Mrs. Santa Claus in order to have their political consciousness raised, or to be lectured on feminism and workers' rights. As a thematic undercurrent it might have worked, the way class issues worm their way into It's a Wonderful Life without overwhelming the human story, but here these themes are shoved at the viewer without a shred of subtlety, and that strident, shrill tone strikes enough of a discordant note to throw the entire enterprise off its axis. As much as it galls me to bash a film for having too many ideas, the fact is that these serious themes are way too heavy for lighthearted family fare. Points awarded for high mindedness, but as an effervescent holiday special, Mrs. Santa Claus is a bit of a drag.
The heavy-handed treatment of its social themes might not be so noticeable if the other elements of the story were stronger. The stock cast of characters—complete with gruff-but-kindly Irish cop and plucky street urchins—never transcend their types or their atrocious accents, and end up as little more than a parade of clichés all clamoring for a tug at your heartstrings. Normally I'm a sucker for this type of high-spirited schmaltz, but here it just left me cold.
Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, we have Charles Durning playing what has to be the most glum Santa Claus ever captured on film, with the possible exception of the Silent Night, Deadly Night slasher flicks. Despite the frantic efforts of his elven crew, nothing can lift his spirits—who knew that Santa suffered from seasonal affective disorder?—and it gets even worse when he discovers that his wife's gone AWOL. While it's a great bit of casting—Durning is Saint Nick—he overplays the tired distractedness bit to the point where even the viewer is likely to get depressed. It's too bad they didn't have Prozac in 1910.
This is an Artisan catalog release, which may tell you everything you need to know about the technical quality of this disc. If that's the case, you may as well skip this section, because you've seen it all before. Mrs. Santa Claus gets the standard Artisan treatment, which means an abysmally bad transfer—fuzzy, washed out, VHS-grade images—and an alleged "Dolby Surround" audio track that barely makes it past mono, let alone surround. Upon first viewing, I assumed this was an early '80s production, so I was startled to find that Mrs. Santa Claus was made in 1996. There is no excuse for a production that recent to be presented in such a shoddy fashion on DVD.
When they say "Special Features" on the packaging, I can only assume they mean "special" in the Special Education, Special Olympics sense. Because if "features" like this got any more "special," they'd run out of room on the short bus. If nothing else, the list of extras on an Artisan catalog title makes for reliably amusing reading. The disc is graced with a "Full Screen Version" and "Interactive Menus," and, oh, look, we get "Scene Selections" as well! I'm surprised they managed to fit this cornucopia of extras on one disc.
Shockingly, there is actually one special feature on this DVD that isn't a cruel joke: a making-of featurette. In standard EPK fashion, members of the cast and crew go on about this musical as if they're talking about West Side Story instead of forgettable made-for-TV fluff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you can ignore the non-singing, non-dancing parts of Mrs. Santa Claus, you may actually enjoy it quite a bit; the singing and dancing are first-rate, and would be perfectly at home on any Broadway stage. Fans of Chicago take note: that film's Oscar-nominated director, Rob Marshall, is the choreographer on Mrs. Santa Claus, and won an Emmy award for his work on this special. The songs, by legendary Broadway veteran Jerry Herman, who brought us Hello, Dolly! and Mame (a role Lansbury created on Broadway), are eminently hummable and right up there with Herman's best work.
Whatever the faults of this show, they don't lie with the musical half of the production. Lansbury clearly has a good time with this role, singing her old musical partner's songs with undeniable gusto and charm. While it doesn't reach high enough to completely transcend its mundane surroundings, there are plenty of moments throughout Mrs. Santa Claus that evoke the spirit and heart of a good old-fashioned stage musical. Even the low production values lend the show a kind of school Christmas pageant quality that's charming in a nostalgic way. If the disc weren't presented in such a shoddy fashion, I might have enjoyed it despite its flaws.
Good intentions go a long way with me, so I tend to be favorably disposed towards holiday specials, as even the mediocre ones are usually infused with earnest effort. In that spirit, I wanted to like Mrs. Santa Claus—I really did. No doubt there are viewers out there who will be taken enough by this production's catchy tunes and colorful dance numbers to enjoy it on that basis alone. Fans of Angela Lansbury especially are guaranteed to have a good time. Even disregarding the many creative problems with this special, though, the DVD package itself is so crummy that I couldn't in good conscience recommend that anyone purchase this title. If you're looking to replace a worn-out VHS copy, then this DVD will certainly be an improvement, but everyone else is advised to avoid this substandard release.
This court does not wish to get a lump of coal in its Christmas stocking, so Mrs. Santa Claus is released on her own recognizance.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of Mrs. Santa Claus
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