03 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Hooray for Santy Claus!

Novelty: the Kitsch Factor

Kitsch isn't just bad taste, it's the ironic appreciation of really bad taste which has been created with earnestness. This is why attempts to intentionally make kitsch always fall short of the mark, they lack the conviction of someone who truly believes they are making something of quality. Much of the paraphernalia of the Christmas holiday is based around a glamour that is prone to go over the top to reach the summits of kitsch. The heady mix of gaudy baubles, decoration, modern advertising and megawatt lighting displays, crossed with a muddled mix of religious and secular motifs is such a combustive recipe. Given that it's all ostensibly about the birth of a child in asia minor, one has to wonder what spruce trees, finnish livestock, and frickin' elves have to do with any of it.

The bravado of any version of the Santa story, has to be sold hard, without guile or irony. With the key element of earnestness, this often sends it hurtling in the direction of kitsch. Given that Santa, with his airborne reindeer, has a magical quality, which, to invert Arthur C. Clarke's dictum, is indistinguishable from pure science fiction. Particularly in the golden age of the space race, a Santa that is more Buzz in a rocket sled, than Woody wrangling reindeer across the sky, would be apt. This off-kilter conflation has given us a few examples of Christmas kitsch.

Hooray for Santa Claus, the theme from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians:

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a film I first heard of from John Waters, the cinematic emperor of bad taste. I don't remember whether he was praising the film on its own merits (although Google has turned up a recent interview where he names it the only Christmas film that he enjoys, or can even stand), or whether he was championing Pia Zadora who very briefly was a queen of trash movies, and who makes her cinematic debut as one of the Martian children.

As an adult Pia would marry well, Meshulam Riklis credited as one of the inventors of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts, owned significant shares in the American distributor of Dubonnet. Pia swiftly became the "Dubonnet Girl" spokesmodel. Hubby then financed a string of films, two of which won her "Razzies" for worst actress two years running, the first of these also won her a Golden Globe "Best Female Newcomer" beating Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth McGovern. She was kind of cute and adorable; her acting, charisma, and presence were good enough to make her eminently watchable, but her acting, poor choice of roles and scripts were bad enough to make her ridiculous. John Waters enhanced her aura by giving her a cameo as a beatnik in Hairspray. I would still have a soft spot for her today, if she and her on and off again husband hadn't bought Pickfair with promises that they'd restore it, instead demolishing it and subdividing the property.

Even though all this adds retroactively to the kitsch value of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Pia is just a child actress here, and you'd have no idea it was her if it wasn't pointed out. She went on to be Tevye's youngest daughter in Fiddler for a couple of years on Broadway. Her kitsch quotient here is nothing compared to it being just a film churned out for the no quality threshold necessary Saturday kiddie matinee market.

Saturday kiddie matinees were a cheap day care facility in the 1950's and '60's. They had a literally captive audience, and admission was paid for by parents who didn't have to stay and watch the cinematic drek. The production values are so low they at times would be envious of early Doctor Who standards. SCCTM is typical but adds the low concept that children on Mars want Santa Claus because they've been watching too much Earth TV, cue a pre-Nightmare Before Christmas Santa kidnap plot.

Check out the trailer and watch out for the incongruous giant clarinet:

If you're a glutton for punishment, or just have too much time on your hands this link will let you watch the whole shebang on YouTube. Someone with too much time on their hands has done a ten minute edit for those of you with less too much time on your hands. Here's a really short clip that should be sufficient for the rest of us. SCCTM is regularly voted amongst the worst films of all time and has been parodied in an ep of MST3K, and again by one of its successors Cinema Titanic.

Apparently this wasn't St Nick's only foray to the Red Planet, as we find from this unrelated single from 1956. This features Barry Gordon a 6-year-old novelty song whore (this being his second foray), supported by Art Mooney And His Orchestra, Zoomah, The Santa Claus From Mars perhaps presaged the later atrocity of SCCTM.

Luckily I don't have the time or energy to tell you about the kiddie matinee career of K Gordon Murray (Mark Jordan Legan describes this in horrifying detail in this Slate V Video). This entrepreneur made a business buying and redubbing dubious Mexican movies for the American kiddie matinee market, in the spirit of this piece I will send you in the direction of Santa Claus Conquers The Devil (1959) (sadly retitled Santa Claus). Santa doesn't get as far as Mars this time but lives in a castle in space a thousand miles above the north pole, and has a workshop with captive children of all races do his bidding. So at least there's a message of international harmony.

From the 50's and 60's space age lets leap forward to the post moonlanding 70's. Here are two really gaudy Star Wars Christmas songs, and they're not even from the spectacularly monumentally bad Star Wars Holiday Special. They're from the unrelated Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album produced by Meco Monardo who had previously recorded Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, and has songs written by Maury Yeston who went on to write Nine and the reworked version of Grand Hotel, and is the first professional recording of the vocal artist currently known as Jon Bon Jovi. The only links to the Star Wars franchise, apart from the obvious use of characters, are the narrations by Anthony Daniels and sound wizard Ben Burtt who apart from being the ultimate foley for the Star Wars universe has been responsible for the voice of R2D2. This actual recording is one of those rarities in Star Wars merchandise, as though the first pressing sold out, the company went under due to unrelated legal problems (if only Lucasfilms had, before Jedi).

Again, if it weren't for WFMU, this pair of songs might have escaped my attention, the first I'd only heard as a cover by performance and recording artist Ben Diwan, until this article had me find the original on YouTube. So now, I've finally heard the undistinctive lead vocal of Jon Bon Jovi, seriously you'd never guess if no one told you (just like young Pia). I think it really calls for him to go back and cover it Bon Jovi stylee, which would ramp up the absurdity to suitably intergalactic levels. Maybe he should duet with Pia, and do Hurray for Santa Claus on the flip side.

It's probably a bit late to question the taste of the person who made the video to accompany the song with its depiction of inappropriate child robot relations, and R2D2 getting spitroasted by Thundercats. R2D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas is a bit of a train wreck, but it's a masterpiece next to the musical question they never should have asked, What Do You Get a Wookie for Christmas (when he already has a comb)?

I'm really sorry to have put you through all that, as my punishment I'm going to go watch Princess Leia sing the Life Day song, and shoot myself. Preferably not in that order.



At 04 December, 2010 18:07, Blogger Brian R Tarnoff said...

The answer is "A Brazilian!"


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