Many a festive tale has been inspired by Victorian authors – now we’re looking at the Christmas films the Victorians produced.
Thanks to literary giant Charles Dickens, the Victorians are seemingly synonymous with Christmas. The holiday does harken images of ringleted women hanging colourful knitted stockings over fireplaces as poverty-stricken, sickly children gather round a dusty fireplace with dreams of Father Christmas coming down the chimney to deliver them presents. Perhaps we even think of a huge crowd scene on the lowly London streets bursting into song at the very thought of Christmas.
It transcends the simple adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (though there are many), and Victoriana is found in musicals such as Jingle Jangle (2020), Meet Me In St Louis (1944), and, more recently Spirited (2022). Even period films such as Little Women (2018) have a festive feel.
But what about Victorians actually producing Christmas films themselves? Yes, back in the later 1890s and early 1900s, there was no hesitation in bringing the festivities of the holiday to the big screen. Now we’re in December, let’s take a look at these films.
Two caveats before we go gallivanting ahead into this article. These films are all short, which is even better in my opinion because you can sit yourself down for an hour, watch these marvelous movies and wonder how they were accomplished in the early years of cinema. Secondly, I am pushing the boundaries of Victorian just a smidge. Only three of these six films are technically Victorian – the rest are Edwardian. But the residual Victorian vibe is there as every film is made before 1910!
The first ever (surviving) Christmas film was the British short silent film Santa Claus in 1898. Directed by George Albert Smith and starring his family, the movie depicts children excitedly going to bed as the titular yuletide hero shimmies down the chimney to deliver his presents – but then disappears as the children wake up.
If you, as Brian DePalma would, like split diopters, then you’ll enjoy this short. Smith cleverly uses double-exposure techniques to bring you two juxtaposing scenes – the children cosied up in bed whilst outside on the roof, while Father Christmas descends into a chimney. It’s a brilliant concept, and though you might giggle a little at the magic of Santa’s act, the visuals were so incredible for its time.
Rêve De Noël
One of the most famous early film directors, Georges Méliès did two Christmas films in the early noughties (meaning 20th century aughts here, not the recent ones). Méliès is best known for his vivid and inventive movie A Trip To The Moon, and his first fantastical festive film took place in 1900. Rêve De Noël (The Christmas Dream) is a cheery celebration of Christmas, depicting many sequences such as big banquets, stage dances and kids getting their cute, albeit horrifying, Christmas presents. There’s plenty of frolicking and even some snow. The film, however, is not without its heartaches, including striking scenes from the rich to the poor in an interesting juxtaposition.
There is no great narrative here, but the scenes on display are homages to Christian traditions including a sheep, a lion and a jester. Méliès features here as well – playing a beggar and the aforementioned magician/jester. Perhaps what’s most striking about the piece is Méliès distinct set design. From a moving bell to the great hall, there’s creative depth to the backdrops that shows an immense inventive imagination, that gifts the film its whimsy.
Scrooge Or Marley’s Ghost
In 1901, Walter R. Booth committed to film the earliest adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Produced by the absolute godfather of cinema R W Paul, whom I will talk happily about in the new year, Scrooge Or Marley’s Ghost takes the 80 page Dickens novel and sluices it down to just five minutes. Of those five minutes, only three really survived, however they are glorious. Booth takes the three ghosts – Past, Present and Future – and makes Marley the ghost who takes the cantankerous Scrooge, played by Daniel Smith, on his rehabilitating journey.
The combination of Paul and Booth – both of whom were specialists in trick photography – were adept in adding a layer of mysticism to the film. Though the action can feel stagey, and Marley draped in a white sheet comes across more silly than sinister, there are technical wonders here. One highlight is the spooky appearance of Marley in the door of Scrooge’s home. The wizards of early cinematography use dissolving between sequences and showcase the scenes of Scrooge’s past on a black sheet. The film is wrongly credited as being the first film to use intertitles, but actually, that award goes to Cecil M. Hepworth’s 1900 short film How It Feels To Be Run Over.
The Christmas Angel
Méliès returns in 1904 with film The Christmas Angel. At nearly ten minutes, the film is one of the longest on the list (however will you sit through it?) It’s also one of the saddest. Especially if you watch the French ending, moreover the American one. What is Christmas without merry depression?
The Christmas Angel introduces a young poor mother who is bedridden. The father sends his daughter to beg for alms. In the deep snow and frozen weather, the girl aimlessly tries to get money but struggles, often thrown out of businesses and scorned. A rag-and-bone man takes pity and shares his bread and a shawl. The looming snow threatens once more – but will the young girl be safe from the storm?
This melodrama is far from Méliès usual flair, but it’s no less interesting, even if it is sad. That is, if you watch the French version, where our little titular angel freezes and dies. Merry Christmas! Thanks to American audiences having a palate solely for happy endings, there was a second made where a rich family comes by, brings her home, and lavishes her with gifts. Huzzah!
Méliès was also the Hitchcock of his time, making an appearance here as the kindly man who gifts the young girl warmth and food.
Twas The Night Before Christmas
Twas The Night Before Christmas in 1905. It’s the oldest film of the poem to ever survive. It starts with Santa feeding his deer and the children all tucked up as Christmas is near! In black, white and grey, the film does display, the jovial festivities of Christmas Day.
Okay, that’s where my rhyming ends. Edwin S. Porter, of the Edison Manufacturing Company, was the first to depict Clement Clarke Moore’s poem on the big screen. Stage actor Harry Eytinge, who’d later be one of America’s earliest film stars, plays Father Christmas – hilariously, his first scene here involves shovelling hay to his reindeer.
Utilising miniatures to show Santa and his sleigh bounding across the moon, Porter enriched the film with tremendous magic. There is also a lot of love here – showing each family member from granddad to grandchild, getting excited about toys and decorations on Christmas day! A heartfelt silent film.
A Christmas Carol
Lastly, in 1908, Chicago based studio Essanay Studios made a fifteen-minute silent film adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Starring Thomas Ricketts as Scrooge, this was the first American depiction of the novella, depicting not just Marley, but all the ghosts too. Alas, the film is considered lost, with no copies remaining. Ricketts, however, would have a lengthy career as both an actor and director – even moving seamlessly to sound pictures.
With the exception of one, all of these films are available to watch online. For Christmas this year, why not roll back the clocks and see how the Victorians, and Edwardians, depicted the holiday on screen.
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