Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966) – MST3K Review


When your name is Phineas T. Prune (Rossano Brazzi) then I suppose you are entitled to hate everything and everyone. Turns out that Mr. Prune does hate children and anyone that gives them joy. This puts Santa Claus (Alberto Rabagliati) on his hit list. Prune has amassed incredible wealth and ended up buying all of the North Pole! Now he is Santa’s landlord, and Prune is going to evict the kindly old man if he can’t pay the rent. We all know that Santa doesn’t make any money for his endeavors, so he is looking at an eviction notice.

In desperation Santa turns to the only boy in the world who ever wrote him a Thank You note: Sam Whipple (Paul Tripp). Now a grown up lawyer, Sam may have the skills to help Santa out. Sam journeys to the North Pole and meets Mrs. Claus (Lidia Brazzi), the eccentric Jonathan (Mischa Auer) and a whole mess of elves. He crafts a plan to get Santa the money and pay off Mr. Prune. But once Prune gets wind of this plan he and his butler Blossom (John Karlsen) attempt to thwart Sam and Santa. Will we ever find out why Mr. Prune hates everyone so much? Will Sam be able to save the day so we can all remember this as The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t?

Movie Review:

Don't get used to smiling Santa. 
When it comes to Christmas movies you have a few elements that are necessary to make the whole thing work. You need to deliver the overall feeling of joy and good cheer. Even movies like It’s a Wonderful Life that dwell in despair and darkness, do it to build to a triumphant ending. You need a touch of whimsy or magic to add to the feel of the season. And if you are going to include Santa Claus in your story, well you’ll need to crank that whimsy up to 11.

Sadly few Santa Claus themed films seem to get the mixture right. Most are too sweet and silly for adults to enjoy. Some take the concept of magic and whimsy and go into the strange and bizarre. And yes I’m looking directly at SantaClaus and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. But then you get The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t. I’m not sure if they were trying to avoid over egging the pudding, or if they just threw in all the popular Christmas film tropes into a blender and hit puree. The result is a discombobulated mess that is more tedious than fun.

Let’s look at the basic plot. Santa is threatened by has landlord and hires a lawyer. Seriously. Does that sound fun and delightful? Does that sound like it can inspire a sleigh ride full of magic and joy? No. It sounds drab and bizarre - which describes this film. This may be an attempt to make Santa’s plight more relatable to the audience, or a way to keep the budget controllable (because it becomes pretty obvious that there wasn’t a lot of money to go around). But with this uninspired core to the story, you know you are in for a weak film.

Prune even dresses dastardly.
Looking at specific plot points you begin to see where other Christmas classics were stitched together to create the monster known as The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t. Mr. Prune is essentially Ebenezer Scrooge and goes through the same transformation at the end of the story. Santa ends up working as a department store Santa mimicking the vastly superior Miracle on 34th Street. They even rip off specific beats from the older movie including the little girl pulling on Santa’s beard. And then the ending directly cribs from It’s a Wonderful Life where all the kids who love Santa band together and bring him money in huge heaps so he can pay off Mr. Prune. It really feels like the writers thought that if they just threw together a bunch of memorable moments from other films and stitched them around a Santa related film, they would have a winner.

They were wrong.

Meet the Clauses.
The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t is doomed from the start because of that dull core story. Then you have all other trappings that sink the whole thing. Visually the movie feels drab and lifeless. The brightest moments occur in the Primm’s Department Store, and they are like a breath of fresh air. Most of the film occurs in darkened streets, oppressive rooms with dark lighting and cramped quarters. Santa’s home and workshop at the North Pole are woefully unimpressive. The workshop is one tiny room crammed with elves and toys. Santa’s home is essentially a one-room cottage that looks like something from a Grimm’s fairytale. Compare this to the visuals on display in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians which also had obvious budget constraints, but they were able to do so much more. There was a real sense of fun and whimsy in that film that The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t just can’t compare too. And lets not even talk about the jaw dropping spectacle of the Mexican Santa Claus film, because that movie is on whimsy overload (and I love every minute of it).

So you have depressing visuals and almost no hint of magic or fun. Even the montage of Santa delivering gifts is a series of blurry stills over perky music trying to convey a sense of excitement. Instead it reminds you of an out of focus travel slide show playing mall holiday music. It is its own brand of depressing.

This relationship is all kinds of creepy.
One area where the film does manage to cobble together some kind of energy is with the performances. Just about everyone in The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is playing broad. They are in a musical after all (I’ll get to the songs in a minute) and this is the 1960s, so you have to overact constantly. That is one of the reasons I really don’t like musical films of that era. But at least the cast is putting in the effort. Rossano Brazzi is actually pretty despicable as Phineas T. Prune. He is a classic mustache-twirling villain who is mean to everyone and growls out his lines with gusto. It is easy to dislike this character, which is what the film expects us to do. I also think that Lidia Brazzi as Mrs. Claus does a good job giving this side character a bit more personality and warmth that is lacking in the film.

Ah yes, this is how we see Santa in 90% of the film.
But the rest of the cast is much less engaging. Alberto Rabagliati brings us a down in the dumps, befuddled and depressed Santa Claus. I don’t want to say that the actor isn’t effective, because he really is. Each time Santa is on the screen you feel his depression coming off the screen in waves. This all comes from the script that has “the jolly old elf” deliver lines about hopelessness and despair. Again, I think they were looking at Miracle on 34th Street as inspiration. Near the end of that film Kris Kringle loses his faith in the world and ends up in an asylum. But in this sequence Kris is more disappointed and bitter. There is anger in him that simmers. It fits with the character we’ve seen and understand Santa to be. And it is short sequence before Kris realizes that he is feeling sorry for himself, and he can’t give up the fight. Contrast this to Santa in The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t and you have a man who is already defeated, and given up. It makes Santa pathetic, not a hero to be cheered on. It only adds to the completely anti-whimsy tone of the film.

Riddle me this, what is red and white and depressed
all over?
It is quite possible that they were relying on Paul Tripp as Mr. Whipple to provide all the joy and happiness in the film. Tripp overplays his hand, giving us this impish grin constantly. I think it is supposed to convey his delight at working with Santa Claus and show that he is still a child at heart. But it has the opposite effect. He capers around like a child, grins like a madman and comes across as completely incompetent and ineffectual as a lawyer. Again, compare this to Miracle on 34th Street and Fred Gailey played by John Payne. Gailey comes across as a generous man with a big heart. He feels bad for Kris and steps up to defend him, not because he really believes he is Santa Claus, but because he believes in everything Kris stands for. It is much more nuanced approach and one that allows Gailey to still come across as a competent lawyer and really make that final courtroom scene work. Damn, now I want to watch the 1947 film again instead of writing about this rubbish. In any case Tripp’s performance is nonsensical and grating. It seems to escalate as the film goes along, until he is grinning like an imp from hell and I keep expecting to see Pitch from Santa Claus to show up and try to recruit him.

Um... yeah... this also happens.
The other performances are just as odd. Sonny Fox plays the department store owner Mr. Primm with an elitist snarl. Blossom the butler seems to have walked in from a really stupid horror comedy. His relationship with Mr. Prune is just plain bizarre and unsettling. And then there is Jonathon the Elf Foreman played by Mischa Auer. I’m not sure whose idea it was to have this gangly old man hanging out with the little people and looming over the bookkeeping, but it feels off, like a fever dream. The scene where he stands with his legs wide apart and has the elves duck under his crotch to enter the toyshop is just plain WRONG!

The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is also a musical of sorts. And wow… just… wow. I’m not sure if MST3K did some editing here, or if the songs were this half assed, but it seems like they rarely pass much beyond two choruses before petering out. I guess this is a good thing, since at their best they are not catchy and just take up time with the characters mugging at the screen. At the worst they are aggressively annoying and do nothing to further the story. The worst of the lot is when Jonathon the Elf Forman decides to sing about looking for the name Prune in his records. As he and the elves pull books off shelves he babbles on and on about the name Prune. It isn’t cute, or fun or entertaining. I was just shocked at how god-awful it was. Where is Krampus when you need him?

The dreaded "Prune" song never seems to end.
The music itself isn’t anything too interesting. It has that touch of whimsy that you expect, and the 1960s golden age sound. You get to focus on it a bit during two montages. One occurs in Primm’s department store as Whipple and Santa gad about with the toys and make hideous laughing faces at each other. The music doesn’t so much as add to the scenes as turn them into super sugary dollops of over acted cuteness. The other occurs when Santa delivers presents in a series of blurry still frames. This is supposed to be fun, but the lack of motion and even some of the expressions on the actor’s faces makes you feel otherwise. At least the music tries.

And that is why I feel a little bad about coming down so hard on The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. I can tell the creators were trying to make a fun delightful family film with a small budget. They understood the types of ingredients that could make this a holiday classic, but continued to make choices that just turned it into something that is probably best forgotten. Even if I caught this as a kid, I would have probably been bored with it. But alas, I caught this as an adult. Let’s see of Jonah and the bots help make this go down a little easier with some egg nog.

Episode Review:

Jonah and the bots have a very special gift for you.
When Joel announced that one of the rewards for meeting the stretch goal for the Kickstarter to bring back Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be a Christmas movie episode, I was pumped. Some of my favorite episodes revolve around riffing on the bizarre and magical world of holiday films. There were plenty of great choices out there for the crew to pick from, so I was really looking forward this episode, even though I had never heard of The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.

Well, let me amend that statement. I had heard of the film before. Joel actually mentions it during a host segment in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The name by itself just sounds goofy. I figured it was a poor made for television movie and would have the feel of a holiday themed San Francisco International. I was wrong on all counts. What I got was this badly dubbed, musical that was dreary from the first frame of low budget animation in the title sequence.

Santa looks a little tipsy. Should he be driving?
Now, dreary has never stopped Mystery Science Theater before. Season six is packed to the gills with slow and dreary episodes. But Mike, Kevin and Trace were at the top of their game and able to tackle things like The Beast of Yucca Flats and The Starfighters with great skill. But the thing is, the crew for season eleven is much less seasoned and they were coming to the end of their run. They did an Ok job with something like The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Sad to say, I think it impacted the riffing on this episode.

The boys do pick up on how odd the whole concept of the movie is and how strangely Santa is portrayed. At one point Jonah comments, “I never thought I’d get to see a Christmas film where Santa hits rock bottom.” Later when Santa frets about meeting kids while they are awake, Tom gasps, “How did we end up with a Santa with extreme anxiety disorder?” They come to the conclusion that “Giving Santa a lawyer sucks all the whimsy out of this movie.”

"Pamplona's running of the kids!"
Speaking of the lawyer Whipple he is the source of a running joke in The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t. When Tripp starts grinning directly at the camera the boys are disturbed. When Whipple puts on a bowler hat, Jonah does a pretty good Frank Gorshin in full Riddler mode and says “Now its time to kill the Batman!” But most of the time, his childish glee at everything Santa does fuels the boys saying “I’m a widdle baby!” or related baby references. I see what they are trying to do here, and certainly Tripp is playing the part with a bit too much gusto, but for some reason the “widdle baby” riffs just don’t land for me. And the boys really hammer them down (and use it as a base for the host segment later). Running gags are always dangerous, and in this case, the baby jibes just didn’t’ tickle me.

Luckily there are other moments that were really funny. Primm’s department store is packed with disturbing looking stuffed animals, and the boys riff a bunch of them. The moment when the elves have to pass under Jonathon’s crotch is a gift for riffing and they don’t miss the opportunity. At the end of the film when Prune is filled with Christmas joy the boys run down a list of all the 80s toys he missed out on. It is a fun mix of nostalgia and laughs.

Jonah and the bots are misfit elves with misfit toys.
The host segments are a mix of holiday cheer and elements inspired by the film. The episode starts with Jonah and the bots trying to sing a carol. It goes wrong. Before the invention exchange Kinga mentions her impending marriage to Jonah, which he is still not comfortable with. Jonah shows off his re-gifter box. Essentially it is a wrapped box you can just pass along to someone so they can use it next year. Kinga and Max have Humbug FM, the anti-holiday music channel that plays nothing but horrifying sounds. “It will X out X-mas” Kinga declares. At the first break, Jonah and the bots critique the odd wooden toys that always end up every Santa related Christmas film. Their cynical modern perspective on the wooden toy soldier, rocking horse and jack-in-the-box is pretty amusing. At the next break the boys try to explain away all the creepy stuffed animals in Primm’s department store. They come up with some funny back stories, but the horror overwhelms them. When we break again Santa arrives at the SOL and quickly proves to be even stranger than the one in the film. Widdle Baby Whipple is still with him and as annoying as ever. Joel gives it a solid try as Santa, but I have to say that Kevin nailed it in his brief appearance in Santa Claus. After the film ends, Jonah and the bots are caught in a badly filtered montage of joy, just like the characters in the movie. When we cut to Kinga and Max, they are also stuck in montage mode and seemed very confused by it. I was laughing pretty hard at the end.

Upon this night Prune was listed by three ghosts...
I’m going to be honest here and say after I watched The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t the first time, I was really disappointed. The film is so dreary and the riffing feels off. All the “widdle baby” jokes just failed to land. It was the weakest episode of Season 11 by far. And I still feel that way. But knowing how bad the film is helped me appreciate it for the second viewing. It has plenty of entertaining moments for sure, and is worth revisiting. But sadly it is the weakest holiday offering from MST3K.

I give it two elf head-butts to the crotch out of five.

This episode is available on Netflix download.

"Whatever you do, don't insult that polar bear behind you.
He's killed three mall Santa's this year!"


  1. Maybe if the scriptwriters had added a tax accountant, an insurance agent describing the benefits of renter's insurance, and a lecture on Boswell...

    1. Yeah nothing says whimsey and holiday cheer than a long discussion on tax codes.

      Of course George Lucas thought that trade negotiations were going to make riveting viewing in "The Phantom Menace". Maybe they went to the same screenwriting school.

  2. Regarding Jonathon's unusual height, I guess elves can also suffer from gland issues.

    One thing I found unusual about this film is how Mrs. Claus apparently is Santa's mom instead of his wife. At least I hope it's instead of rather than as well as.

    1. That might be the case. Is Jonathon supposed to be an elf? I was always unclear on what he was and why he was there, you know other than singing that horrible Prune song.

      As for Mrs. Claus - how did I miss that revelation. That just makes the whole thing a lot creepier.

    2. Several times Santa calls her Mother, and she does act rather like a mom towards him.

    3. You know, I did catch that and I took it as a term of endearment more than a literal thing. I've heard "mother" used in that context before, usually referring to her role as the mother of their children. But if that is the case... are the elves their children... Jonathan... Oh man, that might make it worse!