Photo: Columbia Pictures
As the calendar indicates, now’s about the time that Santa Claus is comin’ to town. And try as we might, we cannot not avoid that flurry of Christmas movies that are unwrapping themselves across our favorite television networks. Because we seem to know his every move, every angle of him, and even his milk and cookie schedule, taking on the role of Santa Claus must be daunting for an actor. It’s much more than just the red suit and the beard. It’s the responsibility of getting everyone’s favorite uninvited houseguest right. Giving audiences something beyond what they’ll see at any department store or any Christmas pageant come December is an absolute must.
Decade after decade, we have seen many versions of the fabled St. Nick on the big screen. In some, he is classically jolly. Some give him an unpredictable edge. But in most of them, the fate of Christmas is placed squarely in his hands, and as he holds onto our imagination, we are up for whatever journey he’s willing to take to see its successful outcome. As for the mortals who only put on a Santa suit as part of their own personal rite of passage, they are welcome additions to the Kringle Klub. Here, were remember the ten best movie Santa’s ever.
The 10 Best Movie Santas
10. Robert Brian Wilson, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
This ‘80s slasher film is a tinsel-wrapped nightmare with a maniac in a Santa suit running amok. Witnessing the murder of your parents at the hands of a Santa-clad criminal is bad enough. Couple that with being raised from then on in a Catholic orphanage by a tyrannical nun and you’ve got yourself a recipe for homicidal rage. Silent Night, Deadly Night is probably not many moviegoers’ favorite Christmas movie or their favorite horror flick, but Robert Brian Wilson makes a memorable madman; a teenager turned monster turned Santa. The film was savaged by critics for its coupling of blood and guts with Christmas. You don’t need to be devout to know that that should be left entirely for Easter.
9. John Call, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
Back in the ‘60s, on film and television, martians were a scourge. For whatever reason, these otherworldly neighbors became reliable antagonists in one narrative after the next. It was only a matter of time before their evildoing would extend to messing with Christmas. Though the title Santa Conquers the Martians A) is a spoiler in itself, and B) turns out to be just a bit misleading, the film nonetheless is a classic example of the period’s low grade sci-fi schlock that may get jeers from critics. But it has become a cult favorite for the rest of us. As Santa, John Call keeps his merry cool despite his abduction to a hostile planet that thankfully does not include one of those naughty orifice probes that alien captors are known for.
8. Edward Asner, Elf (2003)
In Elf, Buddy the elf — played with rapt enthusiasm by Will Ferrell — finds out he is actually a human, even though his comparative gigantism should have clued him in earlier. He leaves his beloved home at the North Pole for New York City to find his real father, which leads to all kinds of hilarious trouble. This is indeed a Christmas movie, which, like the month of December itself, meets its end with a visit from Santa Claus. Ed Asner’s St. Nick carries a crestfallen attitude along with his sackful of toys because of all the Christmas nonbelievers out there, particularly in a cynical Big Apple. That whips Buddy into action to prove to Santa that the Christmas spirit is still alive and well and just needs the right amount of encouragement — elven or otherwise – to bare itself.
7. Jeff Gillen, A Christmas Story (1983)
He appears only briefly, but it’s an important role nonetheless, particularly since the holiday is part of the film’s title. A department store Santa seems like a thankless job, and nowhere is that reinforced more clearly than with Jeff Gillen’s portrayal in A Christmas Story. Our hero Ralphie is on a mission to receive a BB gun for Christmas, but when the idea is shot down by everyone that matters, a visit with Santa Claus is his last hope. What Ralphie’s starstruck eyes don’t see is that this St. Nick is merely a clock-watching hourly employee with little time left to go on his shift — and even less patience for the enraptured tots still lined up to pay him a visit. Flanked by two equally irritated elves, Santa’s response to Ralphie turns out to be the last thing the eager boy wants to here, and is capped off with the cruelest “Chutes and Ladders”-esque descent imaginable.
6. Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa (2003)
What happens when the naughtiest one of all is Santa himself? That’s the question posed by the aptly titled Bad Santa. Billy Bob Thornton stars as William Soke, a department store Santa who is really a serial thief preparing for another workplace robbery with his companion elf. William is also a sex-addicted alcoholic, which sometimes gets in the way of North Polar professionalism. But like the Christmastime humbugs before him, it is the influence of a child, steeped in the faith of the season who unlocks a buried benevolent heart — which just leaves his kidneys and organs to worry about.
5. Jim Broadbent, Arthur Christmas (2011)
Familial rivalry is a familiar theme in many films, but in the surprisingly entertaining Arthur Christmas, we learn that this extends to Santa’s brood as well. Here, his real name is Malcolm, whose ego-driven desire to forgo a planned retirement comes at the consternation of his aged father, once a Santa himself, and his overly ambitious eldest son. It is his younger, under-confident son Arthur who sees Christmas in its purest light, free from any of the pride with which such a lofty position has taken hold of his male relatives. Jim Broadbent is a hoot voicing Santa, a complex figure who is equally jolly and vain, and fixated on holding onto a relevance that he fears will fade away like the last grip of winter at the onset of spring.
4. Ed Ivory, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This big screen stop-motion extravaganza is an homage to the classic animated Christmas specials that came before, set askew by the weird and wonderful mind of Tim Burton. The setting, of all places, is Halloween Town, where the skeletal Jack Skellington bores of his role as the holiday’s master of ceremonies and tries to switch things up by embracing the traditions and trappings of the adjacent Christmas Town instead. Things unspool quickly from there, leading to — once again on this list — the abduction of Santa Claus. Not by aliens this time, but young mischievous ghoulies, who wind up putting Santa in mortal danger while laughing all the way. Voiced by Ed Ivory, this Santa might be a captive requiring the aid of others for his rescue, but he is no less a badass with a trick or two of his own down his shiny boot.
3. David Huddleston, Santa Clause: The Movie (1985)
We learn a lot about Santa Claus (appropriately) in the movie called Santa Claus: The Movie — how he met Mrs. Claus, how his reindeers fly, and how he does that chimney thing, among them. To keep the Santa myth even more legitimate, he is played by The Big Lebowski himself David Huddleston, whose appearances in scores of movies and television shows are so familiar, taking on such a recognizable role makes perfect sense. Dampened Christmas spirit, evil opportunists, and over-enthusiastic elves — all tried and true Christmas movie themes — return here for this box office disappointment that has grown into a cult classic and holiday favorite. Much of that credit can go to Huddleston’s Santa, whose journey in the film is as wondrous as a ride in an eight reindeer open sleigh.
2. Tim Allen, The Santa Clause (1994)
According to the Santa Clause, if you unwittingly injure Santa on Christmas Eve, swipe his suit, and finish his deliveries for him — like any good Samaritan would — then you effectively become St. Nick himself and inherit all the responsibilities that go with that distinction. As Scott Calvin, Tim Allen plays that Samaritan. Despite his disbelief in the whole arrangement, he soon cannot deny the swift bodily changes in weight, facial hair growth, and change in color. Already beloved for his runaway TV hit Home Improvement, Allen had gained the goodwill of a vast audience. So literally stepping into that big red suit and taking on the role Santa was not much of a stretch. It was easy for moviegoers to believe this jolly TV dad as an even jollier Father Christmas.
1. Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The best movie Santa of all time is one many may think as the only movie Santa, despite a crowded list of alternatives such as those above. Miracle on 34th Street is not just a classic film, but for many, a Christmas ritual that has brought joy to families for generations. Edmund Gwenn’s portrayal of a department store Santa who might just be the real thing hits all the right notes, so much so that he was awarded with a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar. What Gwenn has above all the rest is the ability to spread cinematic magic without any animation, green screen, of other SFX that seem to encompass the others. He merely employs a commendable beard, compassionate demeanor, and the ability to make everyone believe, with all their heart, the unbelievable.