Depression-Era Santa: “The Night Before Christmas”

In the last Tru Vue post on here, we took a look at an entirely creepy Christmas set from 1938. It featured a hobo Santa in several poses holding doll’s heads in a crusty garage, as well as a little girl who looked like she wanted to be anywhere but in a Tru Vue filmstrip. There were only two sets (and a cardboard box). It had the feel of being made in a couple of hours; nothing about it was well thought out.

By contrast, this strip – originally created in 1933, and here utilizing a 1939 print – is rather high in production value and low in creep factor. Instead of Santa playing with a variety of heads in a garage, several sets are used, and a cohesive narrative is built. There’s even some supporting elves, some parents, and a jaunty little story. It’s actually an interesting picture into children’s lives at the height of the Great Depression – beginning with the text on the intro frame:

The title slide for Tru Vue #215, “The Night Before Christmas”.

Clearly, the parents who bought their children this roll for 35¢ were going to make sure that “Santa” visited their children – with 25% unemployment throughout the nation, and these rolls costing the equivalent of around $7.00 in today’s dollars, Tru Vue strips were not being handed out to kids from very poor families. But this strip makes it pretty clear why “Santa” might be unable to visit their friends and acquaintances – “It is not easy for him to always visit all the homes he would like to. This year all the materials from which he makes his toys cost much more than they did last year”. This, on top of “if little children are good, he generally remembers them with something” makes it clear that even good children might have a present-free Christmas.

Beyond placing this film squarely during the height of the Depression, the text begins a simple narrative of a bourgeois family with two children who have been good all year, so Santa’s going to stop for a visit. We open up with our family together on Christmas Eve…

The kids undergo a quick wardrobe change – into pyjamas – and hang their stockings over the fireplace. Then it’s another wardrobe change (this time into some heavier scarves and gowns) – and it’s off to bed.

Note that the strip remains agnostic as to the parents’ role in all this – they’re not in the living room (with a dangerously burning fire), nor have they been mentioned as going to bed. No worries though, as we know that the kids are safe and sound in their beds.

Up at the North Pole, Santa’s driver is getting ready – and he’s getting a present for Jackie. Note that this Santa looks way better than the dismal, frumpy Santa from the previous strip. He even has some elves helping him! Let’s check back in at the kids’ house:

Clearly not the bedroom of an impoverished family. The kids are all tucked in, and it’s time for Santa to make his reappearance.

Huh? Are we back with the crapsack Santa from the Girls series previously? Note that our debonair Santa from two frames gone, with his spiffy Santa suit, has been replaced by this other guy – with his glued-on-felt-shapes outfit. I don’t know if this was due to reshoots from the original 1933 film (since my print is from 1939, and Tru Vue changed out images within particular strips from time to time, this is entirely possible) – or whether this rather cheesy outfit was just a staple of Tru Vue Santa photography all along. In any case, at least he’s not playing with doll’s heads, and there are none poking out of his sack.

Oooh, a plot twist! None of those in the last film, since there really wasn’t a cohesive plot. Little Jackie’s a troublemaker, trying to get a glimpse at Santa…

But c’mon now Jackie, Santa’s not going to fall for that malarkey. Jackie goes upstairs without seeing the invader, and Santa is free to finish his task.

Santa’s sack contained no elf corpses this time around (and he seemed to get along with them in this higher-rent version of his workshop) – rather, he has a whole passel of gifts, which he spreads about now that the mischievous Jackie is back in bed. He looks over his work and smiles, for it is good. Exit Santa.

The children get nice – but fairly modest – gifts, and are satisfied with them. No whining about not getting enough; not a creepy little doll figurine to be scolded. A happy ending all around.

Created at least half a decade prior to its printing, and during a much worse part of the Depression, this strip manages to be a delightful little romp appropriate for children. Altogether, a much more satisfying Christmas offering – though created years before “Santa’s Workshop (Girls)”. I’m still not clear on Santa’s costume change in between the workshop scene and the later scenes, but hopefully another strip can answer the questions asked here. I’m also not sure that this is the entire 1933 set – there are at least allusions to a 16-pair version from 1933. I haven’t seen this, though I’ll update the post if I come across it. In any case, the 15 frames here clearly delineate it as an early production. And that’s about all I have to say on the technical analysis of the set. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the thought:

Merry Christmas One and All!

Hopefully, the combination of these two strips provided some laughter / joy to your holidays, if not a hugely meaningful or consequential collection like much of the stuff I’ve posted on the Great War and other historical topics. Children’s interest films are like that – they’re simple, and good ones (like this) succeed in bringing joy, while bad ones (like “Where Dreams Come True for Girls”) fail on many levels, not the least of which being that they’re frightening and generally leave you feeling dirty.

And until the next post, I will you all Happy Holidays, no matter which one(s) you celebrate – my wife and I are atheists, but we still have tons of love for Christmas. We’re planning on having a great one on this vacation down in Charlotte, NC, with my sister and her family. I hope that wherever you’re having yours, you wind up having as much of a blast. And meanwhile, please do enjoy the…

Anaglyphs (Click for a gallery of larger images)

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