There Ain’t No “Santa Claus” Silent Film

If a venue and I are looking at a December date, I get asked the same thing other film accompanists get asked. Is there a good Christmas silent movie we can show?

It’s easy to program to the calendar with films from the 1940s onward. There are a couple perennial Xmas favorites, thanks to Laurel & Hardy’s Babes in Toyland and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life having been run on TV annually for decades. And White Christmas. And Miracle on 34th Street. And all the versions of A Christmas Carol from Alastair Sims to Mr. Magoo to the Muppets.. And on and on.

In the last couple decades, deliberately making a “holiday” picture has become a Hollywood trope. You know it’s time to flip your wall calendar to the next month just from the trailers appearing on TV.

But there is no Christmas-time silent movie.

Oh, yes, I know. Big Business with Laurel and Hardy. It takes place at Christmas time. But it’s not the warm-and-fuzzy Christmas movie people are thinking of when they ask me for film ideas. It’s about three men who get into a reciprocal destruction battle and destroy each other’s property. It was released in 1929…in April. So, even the folks at the Roach studios and MGM’s publicity machine didn’t think this was a Christmas release. And these days, it may not be be what you want to run at Christmas; I blogged about this here.

There is a funny Charley Chase short called There Ain’t No Santa Claus (1926), which was released at Christmas time. I saw it at Slapsticon maybe 15 years ago. Good luck finding a print of it. Doesn’t survive in 35mm as far as I know, and there are one or two 16mm Kodascopes of it in the hands of collectors who, well, let’s just say the film isn’t on any Charley Chase DVD. There is an old standard 8mm Kodascope of it on YouTube, but you’ll need to change the speed to 1.25x. or 1.5x.

There’s a fun Our Gang short called Good Cheer. Also only survives in less-than-razor-sharp 16mm, and is only available on an older, standard-def DVD. Which I scored.

But you were looking for a feature film,weren’t you?

What about that one with Charlie Chaplin, the one where he eats his shoe? Oh, you mean The Gold Rush? A good fit, with all the snow, and its storyline encompasses Thanksgiving (the boot meal), Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The reason you’ve thought of it is that it was in the public domain until the mid-1990s and was run on TV every year. But it’s been back under copyright since the mid-1990s. If you want to show The Gold Rush with live accompaniment you have to hire an orchestra to play Chaplin’s musical score, and also license the film from Association Chaplin. It’s a fantastic presentation (I’ve seen it!) but it comes with a price tag.

Well, that’s the end of a very short list of three shorts and a feature.

That is, if you are only interested in movies about Christmas time, winter and buying trees or presents.

I’ve been unsuccessfully pushing for years for one of the greatest silent films of the 1920s to become an annual holiday offering. A film that’s fun for the whole family, for kids and adults of all ages, a film that’s got charm, humor and the home-and-hearth theme at its core that you look for in a holiday picture and which saturates the Hallmark Channel during the last two months of every year.

That film is Peter Pan (1924). 

If you haven’t seen it, you should. You need to. It’s been available on DVD for years from Kino, who just reissued it on Blu-ray, and both editions have an excellent orchestral score by Philip Carli. The film features Betty Bronson as Peter — hand-picked for the film by J. M. Barrie — as well as Ernest Torrence as a deliciously evil Captain Hook. The picture is awfully faithful to the original text, with both Nana and the Croc played by humans in animal suits, and with the sequences with the mermaids intact. And it’s an easy draw for a novice-newbie audience…everyone already knows the story.

I may be going out on a limb here (well, maybe not as far out as the Die Hard argument), but I realize it’s a wee bit of a stretch. However, I implore you (looks into camera), if you believe in silent movies, please clap for the silent film of Peter Pan. And book it for a show next year with live musical accompaniment at your local art cinema.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions of the 1924 Peter Pan are available on Amazon.

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