THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SANTA CLAUS’ PUNCH AND JUDY” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 160: “Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy” (1949 short that brings violence and racism to the holidays).

LAST SEEN: Available for viewing at several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in anthologies of weird public domain shorts.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: When you see it, you’ll understand why.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Ho Ho No!

How is this for Christmas entertainment: spousal abuse, animal abuse, racist imagery and an alligator gnawing a man’s head? No, this isn’t Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto Holiday Special” – this unlikely line-up of mayhem and misery is part of the 1949 “Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy.”

This black-and-white holiday offering runs about nine minutes, but it probably represents the worst nine minutes of Yule-season filmmaking to snake its way through a projector. The incompetence of the filmmaking is rivaled only by the level of violence aimed at a kiddie audience. Of course, there’s nothing particularly wrong with violent kiddie programming. Even the dumbest of toddlers realizes that Bugs Bunny’s propensity for sticking TNT sticks in Yosemite Sam’s mouth is supposed to be a burlesque of violence, not a clue on how to behave in the adult world. And the truly violent kiddie fare serves to reinforce the scientific notion of every action creating a reaction (Moe just doesn’t walk into a room and start slapping Larry and Curly, nor does Popeye pummel Bluto without just cause – there is always a good reason for the knockabout to start).

Yet “Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy” only serves to reinforce senseless and causeless violence through the presentation of the always-obnoxious puppetry antics of Punch and Judy. Those shows date back to the 16th century and are still being performed in Europe – they were never that popular in America and are usually seen on this side of the Atlantic only at Renaissance fairs. However, this film somehow decided to import Punch and Judy into a place they were never meant to be: a Christmas celebration, when peace on Earth and goodwill to men is supposedly the modus operandi.

“Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy” opens in a spacious living room, complete with roaring fire. Santa is the guest and a line of neatly dressed kids take turns sitting on his lap with requests for toys. It is a shame they don’t ask for a real Santa, because this Santa doesn’t fit the bill – the actor underneath that flowing white beard and bulky red suit is clearly not the big jolly Kris Kingle, but rather some wizened old man who appears to be dying within his holiday finery.

After handing out dollhouses, train sets and other postwar toy favorites, Santa agrees to one boy’s request for a Punch and Judy show. Through the magic of very bad special effects, the wish is granted and a fit-up booth appears, complete with the raucous puppets. Santa, visibly huffing and puffing, makes his way to the back of the room and takes a seat to watch the show.

The fun begins with Punch trying to interest Judy in romantic cuddling. She refuses, so he forces her on the ground and starts bouncing on her. Judy pushes him off, and Punch grabs a large stick to smack her with. After a few whacks, Judy takes the stick and starts beating Punch. There are constant cutaway shots of the kids laughing and shrieking, but the editing is so sloppy that it’s obvious the youngsters were filmed separately and haphazardly spliced in.

Judy leaves and then a cat shows up. The cat tries to be affectionate with Punch, but he keeps pushing the cat away. Punch quickly becomes irritated with the feline and tries to whack it with his stick. The cat grabs the stick and starts beating Punch. This is repeated shortly after with a monkey taking the place of the cat. Throughout both sequences, the kiddie audience and Santa are rolling with laughter – obviously the notion of beating animals was quite funny back in the day.

When that gets tiresome, Punch and animals disappear and they are replaced with two male puppets designed in a minstrel show caricature of African-Americans. One of them is introduced as Joe Louis! The high-pitched voices used in this puppet show make it difficult to know if they’re being presented with the words “jigaboo” or “take a bow” (I suspect it is the first choice). The two black puppets begin pummeling each other with their fists and their wooly heads. Of course, Santa and the kids cannot stop laughing.

Punch eventually comes back and is joined by a huge alligator. Punch shoves his stick into the alligator’s jaws, immobilizing its mouth. Punch then daringly sticks his head in and out of the alligator’s open jaws. Needless to say, the alligator manages to dislodge the stick and then starts chewing rapidly on Punch’s head. The puppet screams in pain while Santa and his kids scream with laughter.

Thankfully, Santa realizes that his gig is up and he makes the puppet booth disappear. Then Santa himself disappears. And “The End” pops up on screen.

Trying to research this film has been quite the challenge, since there doesn’t appear to be any readily available information on who created this movie. A web site devoted to puppeteer history reports that the Punch and Judy show was performed by George Prentice, who did specialized in this type of entertainment during the vaudeville era. As for the actor who played Santa and the people behind the camera, I’ve not been able to identify them.

“Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy” was apparently created by Universal Pictures. This is an educated guess since the bootleg prints circulating today bear the opening and closing titles of Castle Films, which was the home movie and non-theatrical distribution unit for Universal. Now that’s a fun story by itself: Castle Films began in the 1920s but didn’t quite hit its stride until the 1940s when it began to distribute jukebox films called “Soundies” (a forerunner of the 1960s’ Scopitones and the MTV-era music videos). In 1946, United World Films, a Universal subsidiary that produced industrial films, bought 75% of Castle Films for $2.25 million (which was a whopping figure for that time); it later bought the remaining 25%. Castle Films was then used to distribute clips from the Universal movies on 16mm to the home market. The most popular titles were from the Abbott and Costello movies, but Universal neglected to tell the comics of this new sales channel and the profits they were being denied. The duo found out and brought a lawsuit against Universal that was eventually settled out of court.

Anyway, I am assuming that “Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy” was distributed theatrically in 1949 by Universal and was later sold exclusively on 16mm via Castle Films as a home entertainment offering. This assumption is made because Universal did not produce movies exclusively for home entertainment release in the 1940s. Since the Castle Films operations shut down years ago, some people may assume that this film is in the public domain. It has turned up on video and DVD collections and online sites devoted to public domain weirdness. This might not be the case, since very few of Universal’s shorts are circulating in public domain release. However, Universal’s lawyers have not issued cease-and-desist notices to halt unauthorized presentations.

But then again, who in their right mind would want to take credit and claim ownership for “Santa Claus’ Punch and Judy”? Really, one could easily be forgiven for grabbing Punch’s stick and beating those who put this atrocity together. Bah humbug, indeed!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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