When the holidays come around each year we have many things to look forward to and be thankful for. Our families, the colorful decorations, and of course the expected visit from our Jolly old friend, St. Nick. One of the dearest yearly traditions over the holiday season is watching the overabundance of Holiday-themed TV shows. I have re-arranged many a schedule going back to from when I was 6 years old. Always making sure I was able to watch “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Year Without a Santa” or “Frosty” or “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas” and there are so many more. Many of these great shows were released in the 60’s and 70’s with a lot of wannabe’s that are still coming out even today. What you might not know is that there was a definite precursor to this fun family tradition that goes back to the 1930’s. Walt Disney and Silly Symphonies came out with two great little Christmas themed shorts that really did set the bar for the holiday animation to follow. “Santa’s Workshop” (1932) and “The Night Before Christmas” (1933).
With the creation of the Skeleton Dance (1929), they were off. There were 75 Silly Symphony shorts produced by 1939 and many follow up shorts similar, up through 2000. One of the things that stands out when you see the title cells is that all of the Silly Symphonies are presented by Walt Disney or Mickey Mouse.
“Santa’s Workshop” was released in Dec. 1932 and was directed by Wilfred Jackson and runs about 7 minutes. Of the animators listed, some more well-known names stand out; Les Clark, Norm Ferguson, and Fred Moore. Art Babbit was also was listed and although I know he was an animator, I really only heard his name mentioned as a big organizer when the Disney Studio went union. It was not the first animated short in color, but it was one of the first. The Disney company had released their first color short that same year, “Flowers and Trees”.
Santa’s Workshop starts out as almost everyone’s childhood dream of what Santa’s North Pole headquarters would look like with the bundles of mail from the kids being delivered. What’s more important to my history degree trained mind is this is how the people of 1932 viewed Santa’s workshop. This becomes apparent pretty quickly as we view Santa’s Elves getting the reindeer ready for their flight. As one Elf is shoveling hay into one stall, another is shoveling Reindeer manure out of another. As we watch this today we get the giggles from the kid once they figure out what is going on. A child in 1932 would have overlooked this as the norm and in fact being odd if that did not happen.
As we watch Santa’s elves getting ready in the stables along with the reindeer the sled needs a good cleaning. “The Merry, Merry men of the Midnight Sun”, they sing. Then onto the Who’s Good or Bad room where Santa gets to read the various letters from the good and not so good little boys and girls. Then onto the Toy Factory which is filled with all kinds of wondrous machinery and other goodies. We could really have used the checkerboard paint a couple of months ago.
The tour of the factory continues until we catch up to Santa and the perhaps only iffy point of the short. As Santa is testing dollies, a black-faced version of a doll comes down and gives Santa a “Mammy ” before stamping herself OK and moving on. Again, the mindset of the ’30’s. I also liked the World War 1 version of the toy tank as opposed to the more popular turret version we are used to seeing as it had not been invented yet in real life. The parade into Santa’s sack does have a couple stereotypical race moments but I don’t think they detract from the effect. The final scene has Santa waving goodbye to his elves as he guides his sleigh into the sky. This almost matches the Polar Express in it’s Santa departure scene. As we see Santa and his reindeer fly past the Man in the Moon, we can only wonder how his night is going to go.
Well, Walt was not one to wait long for a sequel and almost to the day one year later, the Silly Symphony short, “The Night Before Christmas” (1933) was released. Wilfred Jackson also directed and the usual list of animators were listed in the credits. This wonderful short is a little over 8 minutes and picks up where we left off above.
With the musical version of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem playing in the background, we enter a house of the era. We follow the lyrics of the song as they describe what we see. There is not a lot of straying from the script until Santa enters the house. There were some great scenes and some gags certainly stick out. It appears that Santa is given the job of bringing the Christmas tree and all it’s fixins. Just as we saw the parade into the bag in “Santa’s Workshop”, we see the toys on the way out of the bag and to the tree. None match what was loaded in the first cartoon, but some the new Toy gags are great. I especially like the way the soldiers are using a cannon to put ornaments on the tree.
All the toys and Santa make so much noise that the children all wake up, all 8 of them. As soon as the toys hear the kids awake, they did the familiar Toy Story scramble to get back into their original positions and boxes. As the children begin to play with their new toys we see Santa flying off into the distance again and hear the famous line that ends that really great poem, “Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night.” Perfect.
If you’re looking for something so old that it’s new to you and your kids I really recommend these two great Silly Symphony shorts. You could make these two shorts the opening shorts on your next holiday movie night. It’ll be a fun, holiday, blast from the past.