Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Night They Saved Christmas
Hoo boy. The Night They Saved Christmas does not really fit any of the established paradigms we often discuss here. It is not a rip-off of Star Wars, an Italian sword-and-sandal cheapy or even a genuine theatrical film (at least in the states). And depending on who you talk to, it may be one of the worst Christmas movies ever made. They would be wrong, of course, as The Night They Saved Christmas is a warm fondue ready to be deployed every holiday season to remind folks about the true meaning of Christmas: oil exploration!
The plot concerns Michael Baldwin (Paul Le Mat) and his family. For the last six months, he has been drilling for oil in the North Pole region — yes, I know its all ocean there, but stick with me — and despite his knack for finding petroleum where others find bedrock, he’s come up dry on the last five holes. The news does nothing to help the disposition of his boss, Sumner Murdoch (Mason Adams), who has decided to spend the Christmas holiday at the exploration chastising Micheal.
Meanwhile, his son C.B. (R.J. Williams) is getting into fights at school because one of the other boys keeps saying there’s no Santa Claus.
One day, Michael goes to work and gets a visit from Ed (Paul Williams). He claims to be Santa’s chief elf and issues a dire warning: Michael’s use of dynamite on one of two drilling sites — Site A — is giving North Pole City a mighty shaking, but if they start blasting on Site B, Michael’s operation will destroy North Pole City entirely. Micheal laughs it off as a prank devised a rich friend, as does most of his family later that night. When C.B. asks why Ed must be lying, mother Claudia (Jaclyn Smith) ends up confirming C.B.’s worst fears. He reacts by telling her he really hates her. His older brother David (Scott Grimes) says something “clever” and his sister Marianne (Laura Jacoby) asks to be excused.
Come morning, Ed arrives at the family’s trailer to take them on a tour of North Pole City, Michael declines because he has another meeting with Murdoch, but Claudia and the kids decided to see how far this “prank” will go. Soon, they find themselves in an impossible city at the North Pole where Santa (Art Carney) and his elves make the sort of toys one used to see at K.B. Toys near Christmastime. They also drink a lot of hot chocolate and sing “Jingle Bells” when Santa, who hates the song, is out of the commissary. The whole facility has a modern edge to it, so Claudia and David remain suspicious until Santa has a heart-to-heart with Claudia about a night she asked for her toys to be replaced with a new fishing pole for her father.
Ed takes them home after a storm passes, but Micheal ends up believing that they were kidnapped by a rival oil baron named Gaylord. A suspicion Murdoch assumes as truth when Claudia tells them the Site A location Santa suggested they drill. When her concerns are dismissed by the men, David and Marianne decide to go back to North Pole City to warn Santa. Unfortunately, Murdoch wants to blast Site B on Christmas Eve.
And if the whole plot sounds terrible contrived, that’s part of the charm. The Night They Saved Christmas has a pleasant, early-80s TV movie ambition to it: which is to say it has little ambition but to fill a December timeslot on broadcast television. The oil conflict is definitely too obscure for its intended younger audience. So much so, that Murdoch clarifies December 24th as “Christmas Eve Day” for all the kids who might not know about calendars yet. Meanwhile, the performances of the children — particularly Williams — and the Santa plot adds up to something far too cloying for the adults watching along with the kiddos.
The film also suggests a lot of things for the adults watching along at home which never really get picked up. To modern eyes, C.B. has emotional problems which extend far beyond his belief in Santa. Claudia mentions this early on to Michael as a side effect of living in an isolated town near the North Pole. To saying nothing of the whole oil plot being there to give parents something to clutch onto as Santa shows off his underwhelming Research & Development department.
Let’s get back to the geography for a moment. The movie plays fast-and-loose with it. The town the Baldwins live in appears to be in Alaska. When anyone ventures out to Site A or Site B, they do so by helicopter. Real maps are used in several scenes, placing Site A somewhere off the coast of a Canadian island and Site B a good distance from the North Pole. Both sites are on sheets of ice that the movie assumes is stable enough to support drills and explosions. North Pole City itself, meanwhile, is protected from the outside world by an ice wall Santa’s elves managed to cut and motorize so their vehicles could enter and exit undetected. Though Michael later says the location of North Pole City is impossible, the oil drilling seems equally unlikely as the movie never admits they’re drilling on an ocean. Nonetheless, the film implores you to believe the verisimilitude of the situation.
Once inside North Pole City, Santa’s workshop is strangely bereft of magic. Instead, science answers all the questions the children have about Santa. His chief science elf, Dr. Fernando (Buddy Douglas) has worked out anti-gravity systems for the sled, teleportation to get into people’s houses, and even a means of slowing time to a crawl so Santa can deliver packages all over the world in a single night. It fails to explain Santa’s seeming immortality, but dialogue infers that he’s only been in the gift-giving business since the 1800s. Again, the film asks you to believe a bit of whimsy despite using pop science to explain the magic of St. Nick. It’s really quite thrilling in its way.
The performances are what you’d expect from actors like Smith, Carney and Le Mat. Smith plays Claudia as a less-glamorous version of her Charlie’s Angels character. She may not have couture or swimsuits to wear, but she’s still dedicated to her beliefs. Carney is the crankiest Santa you’ll ever meet. He bellows, growls and snaps constantly. Its a remarkable performance considering who Santa is supposed to be. It’s almost as though Carney read “warm and cuddly” and asked, “Then what do you want me for?” Le Mat plays the harried Michael as well as he can. His job for much of the movie is to be harangued by Murdoch or C.B. and after awhile, you start to feel for him.
Also, Adams is a genuine delight as the heartless Sumner Murdoch. Self-centered and oblivious to Micheal plight when his family goes missing, he’s a wonderful adversary — moreso when you consider Adams warm voice was used to sell Smuckers jam for decades. Even the character’s name, presumably comprised of Gulf+Western boss Sumner Redstone and the then-emerging News Corp titan Rupert Murdoch, perfectly captures the sort of businessmen which use to be the stock antagonist in movies like this. Curiously, though, that he never really gets a comeuppance. Instead, he just learns that Santa is real.
And that lack of any sort of stakes is part of what the film never really works, but enters the realm of cheesy movies. It’s main goal is to entertain children, but it avoids peril in order to accomplish that task. In doing so, it fails to be anything but a puff pastry. For some, that will be enough. But for others, the way the movie attempts to half-heartedly be a movie will be a source of endless fascination. The way The Night They Saved Christmas panders, but also maintains an “agreeable” tone will have you either in shock or in a laughing fit.
The Night They Saved Christmas is available for rent or purchase via Amazon Video. It can also be obtained with an add-on subscription to Hallmark Channel on Amazon.