December 25, 2008

The Night Before Christmas (1905)

On December 23, 1823, an anonymous poem was published on the New York Sentinel that would redefine the American ideas about Santa Claus and his image: "A Visit from St. Nicholas". Later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem describes a man awakening at night after hearing a noise only to discover St. Nicholas arriving to his house to deliver presents for the children. It describes St. Nick 's appearance and "working method", as well as his way of transportation and the names of his reindeer, completing the modern image of the old Christmastide visitor. More than 80 years later, the classic poem would find a new outlet in cinema, which still was a vibrant new art form with a language in constant development. After making the classic "The Great Train Robbery" (cinema's first Western), film pioneer Edwin S. Porter was the prime director at Edison Manufacturing Company, and on his hands fell the job of adapting the beloved poem to the new medium. It would be the first time Santa Claus would appear on the big screen.

Titled "The Night Before Christmas" (which is also another popular name of Moore's poem), the movie begins with Saint Nicholas feeding up his reindeer, preparing them for the big trip. Later, we see him giving the final touches to the toys at his workshop. In the mean time, a family is celebrating Christmas with a dinner, but the kids are already preparing themselves to go to bed, but not without first hanging their socks by the chimney. The kids can't really sleep with all the excitement, and they start a pillow fight, however, sleep ends up taking them all. Just before leaving the North Pole, Santa Claus gives a final checking to his book, and then he flies away on his sled to fulfill his yearly mission. Saint Nicholas arrives to the family's house, where as usual, he makes his way in through the chimney. Inside the room, Saint Nicholas not only delivers the presents into the children's socks, but also using his magic, he makes a beautiful Christmas tree appear along many presents more. The family will find a great surprise the following morning.

It's not clear who adapted the poem (probably Porter himself, but it can't be verified), but what's clear is that "The Night Before Christmas" is more or less a pretty straightforward adaptation of the classic Christmas poem, as it shows Saint Nicholas' visit to a family on Christmas' eve and it even uses bits of the poem as intertitles. The short film also makes some changes and additions, like for example, the scenes detailing Saint Nicholas' preparations for the trip and his work at the North Pole; however, the most interesting change is the fact that the witness of Saint Nicholas' visit is no longer a character of the story (the poem is written in first person, as the recounting of a witness), but us, the audience. Through the camera's eye (proof that it has always had something of a voyeur in it), we become witnesses of the magic of Christmas and, like the character in Moore's poem, not only see St. Nick delivering happiness to the children of the house, but also become his partners in crime.

Director Edwin S. Porter created his version of "The Night Before Christmas" employing the cross-cutting editing style that he had been employed since "Life of an American Fireman" and most notably, in "The Great Train Robbery" (both in 1903). This use of editing makes the film quite dynamical, however, this time the focus is more on the special effects than on the storytelling, and to achieve Saint Nicholas' magic Porter uses all the tricks he knows, and borrows a couple more from the filmmaker he admired the most: Georges Méliès. This is most notorious in the wonderful scene of Saint Nicholas' sled dashing swiftly through the mountains before flying away, which was achieved using beautifully designed models and a clever mechanical devise. The idea of course comes from Méliès' 1904 masterpiece, "Le Voyage à travers l'impossible", where a similar model is used for "The Impossible Carriage". Still, the fact that the idea was borrowed from another film doesn't diminish the merit of a scene like this one, which showcases a lot of talent on the side of the crew.

Many early filmmakers borrowed tricks from each other (Porter's own "The Great Train Robbery" was copied almost frame by frame by Siegmund Lubin in 1904), but Edwin S. Porter was one of the few who could imprint his own style despite of it. The key was that Porter wasn't interested in merely copying a film, but in using a trick or two from one film into a completely different one, often making some improvements in the process. When the movies are based on storytelling, Porter is a great director, but for films based on special effects, Méliès was the one to go. Still, while this time Porter can't beat Méliès' superior artistry in terms of film-making, his rendition of "The Night Before Christmas" is very bit as magical as the poem where it originates. And that's definitely quite an achievement.


Buy "The Night Before Christmas" (1905) and other early holiday films
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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