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Top 10 Movie Santa Clauses

by Warren Cantrell on December 23, 2013

in Top 10s

It’s Christmas time again, which means it’s time to weigh what you’re going to spend on people against what you think they will spend on you.  It’s Christmas, so ’tis the season to put on your game-face, trudge into a relative’s house, and rehash all the things you didn’t accomplish in 2013 when met with the same, “so what have you been up to?” question you unsuccessfully tried to dodge last year.  But above all, it’s Christmas, so you know it’s time to squeeze into the new clothes whose size fit last year, yet pinch slightly when you try them on right out of the box tomorrow morning (sigh).  Yes, we’re all getting older and fatter, and surprisingly less successful, but hey: it’s Christmas.  If there’s a time when a person can forget about all that crap, and just drink, eat, laugh, and enjoy themselves for one day, one goddamned day, it’s Christmas.

So!  If we’re going to try and be all positive about this, if we’re going to attempt to enjoy ourselves, why not take a look at some of the best examples of Christmas via the holiday’s unquestioned mascot: Santa Claus?  Surprisingly, the big guy doesn’t make as many significant appearances in holiday-themed pictures as one might think, for Christmas movies might touch on Santa for a time, yet usually revert back to a family or individual struggling through some late December crisis.  Today’s list was meant to celebrate those movies that gave their audiences a Santa Claus character, and made him an important part of the picture.  It didn’t have to be the “actual” Santa to make it into the ranking, simply a person properly dressed and acting the part.  To actually make it into the list, three factors were considered: the watchable nature of the film, the quality of the acting performance, and how successful that Santa was in performing his Christmas duties.  Indeed, some Santas were better suited for their work than others mentioned today, so keep that in mind before you do any griping in the comment section below.  Now, just one honorable mention before we kick this one off.  The department store Santa in A Christmas Story almost made it, yet upon further consideration: that guy was a dick!  Memorable Christmas movie though it may have been, that Santa didn’t seem worthy, especially when considering our #10 entrant…

10. Stan Francis (Claymation Santa) from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

To be fair, this Santa was made of clay, and was simply voiced by actor Stan Francis, yet his performance in the cherished Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer television movie is as much a part of Christmas as eggnog, wrapped presents, and vicious family quarreling.  Further, while this was a television movie (usually the kiss of death for these top 10s), since it has been released in movie format countless times due to the insatiable demand of audiences everywhere, its Santa got the opening nod.  Still, it took a while for this particular Santa to earn his stripes amongst the all-time greats.  After all, he shamed Rudolph’s parents just for giving birth to a reindeer that was a little different, and didn’t correct the North Pole community when they drove the poor kid out following the reindeer games.  Still, at the end of the day, Santa came correct, and made things right, for he not only took Rudolph on as a permanent sleigh-pulling back-up, he even went to the Island of Misfit Toys, and made sure they all got a good home.  Thus, for holding a spot in the minds of most American Christmas lovers (at least those over the age of 30), and for pulling through at the end of the day, Claymation Santa slid in at #10.

9. Douglas Seale from Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

Just a few quick words for Mr. Douglas Seale, an industry legend, and one damn fine Santa Claus.  Of course, extra consideration should be given to the man for enduring an entire movie of Jim Varney’s Ernest shtick, which in the professional acting community was at one time akin to hazard pay.  Still, Mr. Seale made the best of it, and turned in the most professional and respectable piece of acting that Ernest Saves Christmas witnessed.  In the picture, Seale played an aging, about-to-retire Santa Claus on assignment in Orlando, FL, where he was supposed to recruit the new Father Christmas.  Naturally, Santa ran into all sorts of trouble on his trip, most of which was the result of his misfortunate choice of a cab driver (Ernest).  Still, through a series of foibles so absurdly ludicrous that they’d stretch the bounds of plausibility for a 10 year old, Ernest managed to get Santa to the new (prospective) Santa, and save Christmas.  For those of you that enjoyed the Ernest films as a kid, like your humble author, do your best to resist the urge to revisit these.  It’s horrifying.  Still, as far as Santa portrayals go, ol’ Doug Seale turned in a straight, passionate, heartfelt performance that could have only come from a true professional with something like fifty years of film and stage work under his belt.  Respect.

8. Dan Aykroyd from Trading Places (1983)

Something of a covert, under the radar Santa, Dan Aykroyd’s turn as Old Saint Nicholas was nonetheless worthy of a spot in today’s ranking.  By the time he donned the red and white Santa suit, Winthrop (Aykroyd) was a ruined man.  His life, both personal and professional, had been annihilated by the scheming antics of two old bastards who were betting on whether a crook and wealthy businessman could function interchangeably if they were suddenly and forcibly thrown into each other’s world.  The results were staggering, for Winthrop descended into a life of crime, violence, and substance abuse in the same amount of time that it took his con-man counterpart, Valentine (Eddie Murphy), to rise into and succeed in the highest ranks of a commodity brokerage firm.  When Winthrop came for his revenge, he’d hit rock bottom, and had disguised himself as Santa Claus to get into his old firm’s holiday party.  Once there, he tried to frame Valentine for drug use, yet failed miserably at this, and contented himself with scaring the holy hell out of the wealthy yuppies in attendance.  It was a Santa Claus appearance that those Manhattan vermin probably never forgot, and for that, Aykroyd and Trading Places snuck in at #8.

7. John Call from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

You might think, “Hey!  Santa conquered the friggin’ martians!  He got over on an entire planet’s population, and he only got in at number seven!  What the hell, Cantrell?”  Yeah, yeah, just calm down.  And while you’re chilling the hell out, take another look at this movie (if you can stomach it).  Although Santa did go to Mars, he was kidnapped by a bumbling crew of Martians whose weapons and tactics seemed to come off the back of a box of Crackerjacks.  Granted, their “freeze” guns were pretty cool, yet they were so big and clunky one wonders how these people ever developed interplanetary transportation.  Putting all that aside, it’s worth remembering that Santa didn’t really “Conquer” the Martians in the physical, military sense, but rather inspired the green bastards to live in a more Christmas-inspired world.  Truth be told, Santa was kind of a pussy in Santa Conquers the Martians.  Still, he did bring Christmas to another planet, which is great for galactic commerce and economic growth.  Thus, if only for that (because the movie itself is dog shit), John Call’s Santa earned a spot at #7.

6. Kevin J. O’Connor from No Escape (1994)

Eat your heart out, Morgan Freeman: on a futuristic prison island from which there is (oh yeah, we’re going there) NO ESCAPE, the man who knows how to get things is a true and undeniable stud.  In summary, No Escape was a thriller starring Ray Liotta as a renegade ex-special forces commando, one imprisoned on a savage island prison for the rest of his natural life.  Although Robbins (Liotta) initially ran into “The Outsiders,” a kill or be killed clan of nomadic warriors, he escaped their clutches and wandered into the territory of “The Insiders.”  This latter group was a kinder, more civilized lot, and they even had a designated scrounger, Stephano.  Stephano hung out by the shore and collected whatever flotsam and/or debris passed by the island via the generous currents.  Although the guy certainly knew his way around a good haggle, Stephano also wasn’t above a little charity during the holidays.  When the Insiders had Christmas, Stephano dressed up as Santa and performed the obligatory gift distribution duties for the camp.  The move was popular, for everyone seemed to enjoy the makeshift gifts that were being tossed around.  Thus, for providing a Christmas on an unsanctioned island prison, and making a damn fine show of it, Stephano got a nod.

5. Edward Asner from Elf (2003)

If you’re just looking at the cast of this one, it’s arguably one of the strongest Christmas movies of all time.  Shit, it had Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Amy Sedaris, Peter Dinklage, Mary Steenburgen, Zooey Deschanel, Andy Richter, and of course, Ed Asner as Santa Claus.  Shit, Elf was stacked!  The story of Buddy (Ferrell), an orphaned human being raised as an elf in Santa’s North Pole workshop, the picture followed Buddy’s attempts to acclimate into human society via an excursion to Manhattan.  Of course, being a kind-hearted toy maker with no concerns in the world except the constant replenishment of his sugar stocks (and a vague desire to discover the identity of his father), Buddy ran into a few problems.  As it happened, though, the same naiveté that got Buddy into hot water at times also served to help the goofy bastard out every now and then, like when the otherwise tough, street-smart Jovie (Deschanel) let her guard down long enough to accept the spirit of Christmas into her heart.

This was crucial, too, for Ed Asner’s Santa had just emergency-landed near the end of the picture, and was clearly willing to take on all the crime and punishment New York’s Central Park was looking to give the old guy.  Christmas Eve or not, that’s not an especially fun place to be after dark, and Santa clearly knew it.  When Buddy came upon his old boss late that night, Santa damn near took his head off, ready to roll at a moment’s notice in case some punk was looking to start something.  In retrospect, thinking about it, this might have something to do with this next picture’s premise, which spread the idea that if one came upon a dead Santa, a person might just achieve immortality.  Yeah, this would be enough to make the big guy more than a little nervous and edgy…

4. Tim Allen from The Santa Clause (1994)

Come on, admit it: you’ve seen this one.  And now that we’ve got that admission out of you, how about another, eh?  Yeah, you know you kinda sorta still like this one.  Hey, it’s okay!  The Santa Clause was actually a pretty clever, original, funny little story, and it was full of heart.  Tim Allen played Scott Calvin, a divorced dad who was spending Christmas Eve with his young son when the two came upon Santa’s corpse.  Apparently the big guy had taken a tumble off of Scott’s roof, leaving Scott and his son Charlie the task of finishing rounds for Santa (as there were still presents to distribute).  Once finished, Scott was horrified to discover that by putting on Santa’s suit and finishing the man’ work, he was contractually obligated to take up the job/role/duties of Santa Claus.

Although the elves of the North Pole gave Scott 11 months to get his affairs in order, the slick Chicago executive didn’t believe he was really stuck with the job, and thus tried to resist.  Yet freakish weight gain, instantaneous hair growth, and psychic naughty-or-nice powers suggested that the supernatural clause binding him to his Santa responsibilities was serious about keeping shit real.  And really, this was a good thing, for once Scott gave in to the power of Christmas, and embraced his new Santa identity, he proved to be a perfect fit for the job.  What’s more, he tore down some of the walls that had sprung up between him and Charlie, and by the end of the picture, father and son seemed to have really connected.  As a result, for coming through in the clutch for a downed Santa, and for excelling at the job once in the sleigh’s saddle, Scott Calvin got a nod.

3. Billy Bob Thornton from Bad Santa (2003)

In the spirit of Christmas, Billy Bob’s Santa portrayal only got in at #3, for while it is this author’s personal favorite, per the constraints of this list’s parameters, he did have a few things going against him.  Okay, to be fair, he had pretty much everything ruling him out of contention.  He was surly, rude, vindictive, selfish, cruel, and above all else, a drunk.  Still, that didn’t keep Billy Bob’s character from helping out one special little boy, and in assuring that the karmic forces of Phoenix, Arizona were balanced, if only for one holiday season.  Billy Bob played Willie T. Soke in Bad Santa, a wandering con man who travelled the country with his associate, Marcus (Tony Cox).  The pair posed as a Santa and dwarf act that worked malls during the Christmas season, when they were really a couple of breaking and entering specialists who used their time at the mall to case the joint.

During a job in Phoenix, Willie befriended a lonely kid named Thurman, and slowly (reluctantly) he began to evolve into something resembling a functional human being.  This took time, however, for Willie was a violent, committed alcoholic who freely cursed in front of the children who came to sit on his lap, and even went so far as to punch the shit out of the mall’s Nativity set one afternoon.  Seriously, Willie was about as terrible a Santa Claus as one could hope for, yet he was nothing if not entertaining!  And hey, he even went the extra mile for Thurman at the end of the picture, and beat the shit out of some bullies.  This was on top of a very noble gesture that saw Willie get shot all to hell by the cops just for trying to get Thurman his elephant toy.  Thus, for making us all laugh, and for coming somewhat correct at the end, Willie T. Soke broke into the top-3.

2. David Huddleston from Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

Like so many other movies listed today, this one doesn’t hold up particularly well to the scrutiny of foresight.  Released in 1985, Santa Clause: The Movie was actually a bit of a disappointment even then, something scathing reviews and poor box office returns bore out.  This was due in large part to the fragmented nature of the film, for it took place over the course of about seven hundred years, and really told two different stories.  The first tale was actually pretty interesting, for it spun a yarn about the origins of Santa Claus that was fairly entertaining, and connected the dots between the mythology of the character and some of the more modern flourishes associated with the institution of Christmas.  Aside from the fact that Santa (David Hiddleston) was essentially a human being forced into a life of immortal servitude, the tale was a fairly cheery, reasonable one, and gave audiences a peek into some of the different origins of Christmas traditions such as Santa’s suit, the reindeer’s flying mojo, and Old Saint Nick’s reactions to his portrayal in popular fiction.

Where the film kind of took a turn was during its second portion, the one that followed a rogue elf (played by Dudley Moore) who tried to industrialize Santa’s workshop only to ruin an entire year’s batch of toys.  Bleh.  It was pretty silly stuff, and went so far over the top once John Lithgow’s character was introduced that the picture essentially came apart at the seams.  Through it all, though, Hiddleston’s Santa Claus kept things fairly stable, for the guy that would go on to immortality as the Big Lebowski turned in a believable performance as a man that went from being a kindly toy maker to one fated to be a father figure to all the world’s children.  The portions that focused on his transformation from a human into the mythological creature of joy and good fortune was actually pretty damn charming, and came about as close to the perfect Santa as any film has gotten.  “About as close” is the key phrase there, however, for we still have one more film, and one more Santa to go…

1. Richard Attenborough from Miracle on 34th Street (1994)  

All of you Christmas movie purists out there are probably gnashing your teeth because this 1994 remake and its Santa got over on the 1947 version, but I’ll take the Jurassic Park grandpa over Edmund Gwenn any damn day.  Besides, the 1994 Miracle on 34th Street was written and produced by none other than John Hughes, a man who had a corner on the sentimentality and feel-good market in the years between 1984-1994, something that gave the picture a bit of an edge over its 1947 counterpart.  In the updated version, Attenborough played Kris Kringle, a big hearted stranger who demonstrated some extraordinary appreciation for Christmas during a parade, and subsequently landed a department store Santa job as a result.  Yet Kringle wasn’t just a great Santa Claus: by the man’s own admission, he WAS Father Christmas.  Yet seeing as how his shtick was bringing all kinds of satisfied customers into the department store where he was working, the delusions were tolerated.

Yet it wasn’t just Kringle’s enthusiasm for the work, or his borderline psychosis, that catapulted him into the #1 slot: it was what the man did with his Santa powers that pushed him to the front of this ranking.  The guy not only inspired an entire city to greater Christmas cheer (which, let’s be honest, happens in most Santa Claus movies), but he also fixed a broken home, and made a little girl believe in Christmas again.  Come on!  Now that’s some good Santa Claus’n.  And really, as an actor in the role, it doesn’t get much better than Richard Attenborough, a seasoned actor and director who effortlessly slipped into the shoes…err…boots of one of cinema’s most storied and beloved characters.  So, for hitting all the right notes, and for doing one hell of a fine job as Santa (both as a perceived Claus, and perhaps even as the real deal), Attenborough and Miracle on 34th Street got the final nod.  Merry Christmas!

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 diarra Harris December 23, 2013 at 2:39 pm

How about the Santa from the original Christmas on 34 Street?


2 Eric Melin December 23, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Good one!!


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