SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE – Henry Mancini
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The winter of 1985 saw the release of one of the strangest holiday films of all time: Santa Claus: The Movie, which purportedly told the ‘real’ story of the origin of the Santa Claus legend. However, instead of actually going into the history of the Turkish bishop Saint Nicholas, the Sinterklaas story from traditional Dutch folklore, and how the two were blended with elements of Norse and Pagan mythology, and Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ to create the contemporary Christmas icon – a movie I would actually like to see, for real! – the film invents an original story about a kind-hearted 14th century woodcutter and his wife, who are caught in a blizzard while delivering toys to local children. Magically transported to the North Pole, the woodcutter and his wife are greeted by elves, who convince the man that it is his destiny to deliver toys to the children of the world every Christmas Eve, which the elves will make in their large workshops. At the same time, the film also tells a contemporary story set in modern day New York, in which Patch – one of Santa’s elves – decides to strike out on his own and set up his own toy-making business, but unwittingly joins forces with an unscrupulous millionaire who wants to “take over” Christmas for himself.
The film was directed by Jeannot Szwarc from a screenplay by Superman writers David Newman and Leslie Newman, and starred David Huddleston, Dudley Moore, John Lithgow, and Burgess Meredith, but unfortunately was a critical misfire, with many commentators at the time referencing the film’s weak plot, overly-garish production design, and blatant product placement. The score for Santa Claus was by veteran composer and conductor Henry Mancini, who contributed an appropriately wintry and seasonal musical element to the film. The main theme, “Santa’s Theme,” appears in the second half of the opening cue, and is one of the loveliest pieces of Mancini’s film career – which is saying something for the man who wrote “Moon River”. A sweeping, emotional theme for the full orchestra, it contains a pretty central melody that passes between strings and woodwinds, and even segues into a Tchaikovsky-esque little scherzo full of sparkling whimsy.
There are echoes of Mancini’s other 1985 score, Lifeforce, in some of the woodwind writing in “Arrival of the Elves,” a piece which begins with a sense of hesitation and mystery, but has a feeling of wonderment in its second half due to the prominent use of harp glissandi, mischievous little pizzicato rhythmic sections, and staccato flute parts. “March of the Elves” is more jazzy and upbeat, with a comedic Carl Stalling/Milt Franklin quality to it in the way the music has a buoyant sense of fluidity and movement, like a musical onomatopoeia. The little snare drum rhythms, whooping trombones, and dancing piccolos are usually more at home on Broadway than in Hollywood, and could come across as a little too old-fashioned for some listeners, but I quite like them as a throwback.
Later, “Sleigh Ride Over Manhattan” revisits a similar lushly orchestrated style, but adds a more modern drumbeat lick, before moving into light pop territory with an arrangement that includes a synth organ and a boom-tish beat that is, unfortunately, terribly dated, and redolent of department store elevators the world over. “Sad Patch” is more emotionally complex, with a sensitive oboe element, while “Patch Versus Santa” has a light, flighty passage for bouncing woodwinds, bright horns, and vivacious string runs that is the closest thing the score has to an action sequence, before concluding with a statement of Santa’s Theme full of beautiful, heartfelt sincerity.
There’s also a quite beautiful “Christmas Rhapsody,” a medley of traditional carols and songs including ‘Deck the Halls’, ‘Joy to the World’, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, ‘O Tannenbaum’, ‘The First Noel’, and ‘Silent Night,’ arranged by Mancini and performed with Yuletide good cheer and a lush sweep by the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
Less successful are the quintet of original songs, written by Mancini in collaboration with the Oscar-winning writer, composer and lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse has written some legendary things in his time, ranging from Doctor Dolittle, Scrooge, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to working with John Barry on Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, and collaborating with John Williams on Home Alone and Hook. Unfortunately, the songs in Santa Claus are, for the most part, appalling, somehow contriving to be overly-saccharine, unbearably twee, and anachronistically old-fashioned and too contemporary, all at the same time. The two exceptions are the opening song, “Every Christmas Eve,” which is performed by the famous Welsh choirboy Aled Jones, and is lovely, with a gorgeous melody like a music box and a tender, intimate sound; and “It’s Christmas Again,” which has the nostalgic Christmas carol sound that Bricusse would later revisit in “Somewhere in My Memory” for Home Alone.
The rest – “Making Toys,” “Patch, Natch!,” and “Thank You, Santa” – feature the voices of the Ambrosian Children’s Choir, and while perfectly acceptable on a technical level, are simply excruciating to my ears. The choir sings the songs with that overly-confident stage school precociousness I simply can’t stand, immediately rendering them irritating to me, while the lyrics are sickeningly cheerful, in a way that makes the Sherman Brothers’ “It’s a Small World” seem positively subdued. For British readers of a certain age, you will be horrified to learn that “Thank You, Santa” stirs in me long-buried memories of novelty songs like Clive Dunn’s “Grandad,” “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma” by the St Winifred’s School Choir, and, God forbid, “Mr. Blobby”. Even worse are the two pop songs, “It’s Christmas All Over The World” performed by Sheena Easton, and “Shouldn’t Do That” performed by 1980s synthpop one-hit-wonder Kaja. Just don’t listen to them.
The soundtrack for Santa Claus was originally released on LP and cassette by EMI Records in 1985, but contained just 26 of the 85 minutes of score Mancini wrote for the film. It was also never released on CD, and was a rare collectible until 2009, when the original vinyl program was finally released on CD by Spanish label Singular Soundtrack (minus “Shouldn’t Do That”, which had to be omitted due to licensing issues). In 2012, after Singular had been absorbed by the boutique label Quartet Records, a deluxe three-disc set of the entire score was released, including every piece of score music used in the film, all the songs, as well as several outtakes and alternates, in a spectacular package featuring a 32-page booklet with notes by Jeff Bond.
Fans of the film, especially those who are more intimately acquainted with Mancini’s contribution, will clearly want to seek out the expanded edition, with certainly provides more depth, and explores the complexity of Mancini’s thematic writing. Personally, however, I have always found the 30 minutes or so on the standard release to be more than enough, because the overbearingly sweet nature of the music does tend to grate after a while. Mancini was a very talented composer, but writing Christmas music can be a tough balancing act to pull off, considering the instrumental conventions of the genre, and the need to keep everything within a certain tonal structure. I’m not sure that I could bear another hour of that, especially with the added horrors of Leslie Bricusse, Sheena Easton and Kaja lurking around the corner, making me want to shove candy canes in my ears.
Buy the Santa Claus soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title: Every Christmas Eve/Santa’s Theme – Giving (written by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, performed by Aled Jones) (4:11)
- Arrival of the Elves (4:05)
- Making Toys (written by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, performed by the Ambrosian Children’s Choir) (3:57)
- Christmas Rhapsody (3:52)
- It’s Christmas Again (written by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, performed by the Ambrosian Children’s Choir) (2:28)
- March of the Elves (2:55)
- Patch, Natch! (written by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, performed by the Ambrosian Children’s Choir) (1:13)
- It’s Christmas All Over The World (written by Bill House and John Hobbs, performed by Sheena Easton) (4:53)
- Shouldn’t Do That (written by Nick Beggs, Stuart Croxford, Neal Askew, and Steve Askew, performed by Kaja) (3:31)
- Sleigh Ride Over Manhattan (4:14)
- Sad Patch (3:09)
- Patch Versus Santa (4:10)
- Thank You, Santa (written by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, performed by the Ambrosian Children’s Choir) (3:00)
Running Time: 45 minutes 39 seconds
EMI Records 5J-17117 (1985)
Singular Soundtrack SINGSCE-004 (1985/2009)
Music composed and conducted by Henry Mancini. Performed by The National Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Henry Mancini. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Edited by Bob Hathaway. Album produced by Henry Mancini, Burt Burman and Bob Buziak.