The Night Before Christmas (1905)
This is a 1905 Edison release with clearly seasonal intent from Edwin S. Porter, based loosely on the famous poem, much of which appears in the Intertitles.
We open on Santa feeding his reindeer, then going inside to labor over toys in a crude woodshop. There is no sign of any Elves or “helpers” present, and it appears Santa must work backbreaking hours on each toy to produce it by hand. We then see the interior of a middle class home with a large family. There is a brief ritual in which the kids appear to write their wishes to Santa and throw them in the fireplace, then all the children run upstairs for their stockings to hang. The smaller ones are helped by the parents and a servant, possibly their nurse. Then they are led upstairs and the parents clear the room for the presents that will appear. The next sequence is in the children’s room, where the excited kids keep getting out of bed and causing the nurse to come back in. Eventually, they break out into a pillow-fight. Now we see Santa again, he goes through a big book with first names written in it, putting check marks next to some, and crossing others out (I noticed he laughed especially hard when he came to my name and crossed it out). He loads up his sleigh and there is an “effect” sequence in which we see a tiny model sleigh with eight reindeer dash across the (painted) countryside, evidently drawn by a string. They do very little flying, but do manage to get to the top of the house at the end. Now we switch back to live-action and Santa throws the bag of toys down the chimney before descending himself. He emerges in the middle-class dining room we saw before, and deposits toys in all the stockings, sometimes checking the letters in the fireplace. He then waves his arms and lots of bigger tows and decorations appear. He makes his signature wink, and goes up the chimney, just before all the kids run downstairs and eagerly start grabbing toys. The movie ends with a close-up on Santa with his finger beside his nose, and the words “Merry Christmas” at the bottom of the screen.
No doubt this was a successful movie in its day, with familiar material convincingly brought to life through simple storytelling techniques. The reindeer-sleigh sequence hasn’t held up terribly well, although its use does seem to add a kind of Méliès-charm to the whole thing (Méliès would’ve made them fly, I bet). The shots are static and scenes are edited in sequence. The one somewhat odd piece is the pillow fight, which isn’t in the original poem (indeed, supposedly “not a creature” should be “stirring”). Pillow fights were, interestingly enough, a fairly common subject at Edison, where they were seen to supply a certain slapstick humor to family fare, so I suppose Porter felt it would be appropriate to put one in here. My thought, as the pillows flew apart and feathers went everywhere, was that Santa should cross these naughty kids off his list!
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Run Time: 9 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)