Santa’s Workshop: Disney does Christmas
Not yet in the holiday spirit? Here’s a trio of yuletide-themed cartoons from the 1930s certain to provide a much-needed Christmas goose.
Santa’s Workshop (1932)
In my teens, my friend Timothy Murphy asked me, “You know what my Uncle Roy says Jews do on Christmas Day?” There’s nothing like hate for the holidays. No, my ruddy-faced, only goyish kid on an all-Jewish block, I thought. What does your sozzled Uncle Roy say the Jews do on Christmas Day? Timmy smiled, threw out his chest, and snarled, “They stay home and count their money.” No, Timmy. We put dead trees in our living rooms, life-sized Sears Santas with 100-watt bulbs in their bellies on our front stoops, guzzle boilermakers to commemorate the birth of our Lord and Savior, and pay retail for gifts. On top of that, Timmy, if I had your Uncle Roy’s money I’d have thrown mine away.
Fortunately, this adorable brush with ignorance was not my first foreglimpse into holiday traditions. Like many, I was introduced to Santa Claus partly through Haddon Sundblom’s nostalgic holiday illustrations for Coca-Cola and partly through a pair of merry Walt Disney cartoons. (When asked to validate the existence of Santa, my dad laughed it off with, “We’re Jews.”) Santa’s Workshop opens on Christmas Eve, with Santa’s elves still hauling last-minute sacks of mail to the titular toy mill. Santa (voiced by a basso, overly-joyous Walter Geiger) is a circle-upon-circle enchantment, a jelly-bellied gent whose cheeks are so round that it takes a second to realize that the two rings bordering his nose are facial features, not reading glasses. Allow your eyes to roam freely about the frame, taking in a myriad of pixies — each with unique character traits and functions — working their various assembly lines. (A Noah’s Ark float with at least a dozen movable characters on deck and/or poking their heads out of portholes warrants a few rewinds.)
But while I am loath to besmirch the festivity of the season, I would fall short in my duties as a critic if I failed to draw attention to the anal fetishism of Walter Elias Disney. The pre-code land of un-PC wonders starts innocently enough, with an elf lifting a reindeer’s tail to give its backside a wipe. Next up: a pile of reindeer poop being mucked out of Vixen’s stall, followed by a hobby-horse being drilled a new rectus in which to glue a tail. Then things get racially murky to boot: while passing through quality control, Santa stamps his “OK” on the behind of the “Ma-ma”-squeaking little white dolly, but won’t handle the black ragdoll, which falls to one knee and, in her best Jolson, rasps “Mammy!” before bouncing tush-fist onto the rubber stamp.
The scene in question has been excised from the print currently playing on Disney+, but there’s plenty of racial stereotyping to go around. Parades were a custom in Silly Symphonies - in this case, the toys form a line and march into Santa’s bag. The short would lose a minute of its running time and its continuity would take a hit were they to censor the band of marching minstrels, the duo of Asian stereotypes, and the hora-dancing gent with his flowing beard, hook nose, and Hasidic hat positioned squarely behind the wind-up pig. But there’s no knocking success. The cartoon was such a hit that it was followed up the next year with The Night Before Christmas.
Christmas Comes But Once a Year (1936)
The light of Christmas morn breaks. With a twist of Max and Dave Fleischer’s patented stereoscopic tabletop animation device, we’re whisked through the doors of a ramshackle orphanage, wherein stands an anorexic fir that can barely sustain an ornament. A Dickensian dormitory houses a dozen or so foundlings, who awaken to find broken toys suspended in threadbare stockings (and not a governess in sight). Thank heavens for Professor Grampy, the inveterate inventor who just happens to be dashing through the snow when the cries of the necessitous tykes reach his outboard-motor-driven sleigh.
Of the 10 Fleischer cartoons to feature Grampy, this Color Classic was the only one in which he didn’t appear opposite Betty Boop. The character arrived late on the scene, after the censors forced the studio to put Betty’s sinful ways behind her. We’re never sure of whose grandfather he is, but his superannuated presence was needed to help trammel Betty’s libidinous allure. A lightbulb where a pestel should be flashes atop the mortar board perched on his egregiously chipper noggin. Leave it to Grampy to turn the dining room table into his personal Toys R Us, a makeshift workshop where he can assemble presents made from stuff lying around the asylum. (The ingeniously hilarious inventions are spurred by a mechanical turkey that’s geared to delight.) The maniacal laugh can be a bit much, but Grampy’s otherwise brazen ingenuity and mixmaster legwork make him a delight to watch. Ditto the film’s closing minutes, in which the waifs put Grampy’s handiwork to the test. The short is in the public domain, which means there are a number of prints to watch on YouTube.
Christmas Night (1933)
Trust me on this: you have never seen anything quite like James Tyler’s Christmas Night (originally titled Pals). The short stars O. Soglow’s comic strip sensation the Little King. When first we meet, the childlike ruler sits alone in his ice skater-drawn carriage, gazing forlornly out the window at his subjects as they prepare for the holiday. A stop in town finds His Loneliness sparking an instant camaraderie with a pair of tramps eyeballing a holiday-dressed department store window. (Minstrel dolls were quite the rage in the ‘30s. They appear in all three of these cartoons.) An audience with an ominous-sounding department store Santa — he has the only speaking part in the show — finds the mini-majesty contemplating the meaning of good will toward men. Either that, or the married monarch is in the market for a little hobosexuality.
The noble naif decides to sneak the pair of even more passive vagrants past the aggressively snoring Queen. In no time, the trio strips down to frolic Sandusky-style in the royal outhouse tub. There are plenty of painstakingly precise bits of animation on display. Study the supple, lifelike movement of Santa’s hand as he plants the Christmas tree seeds. Note the tender manner in which the crowned head — scrambling to find a stocking to carefully hang by the chimney — gingerly relieves his wife’s leg of its nylon casing. This is followed by the plaster-crumbling nails that loosen from the hearth under the weight of the queen’s hosiery. Sit back and enjoy this soap-swallowing, bra-baring mélange of pre-code perversity, gussied up with just the right amount of charm and innocence to make it all seem perfectly acceptable for deviant kids of all ages. Another public domain casualty — look for it on YouTube.