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Santa Claus (1898)


Main image of Santa Claus (1898)
35mm, black and white, silent, 74 feet
DirectorG.A. Smith
Production CompanyG.A. Smith

Cast: Laura Bayley (mother)

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After the children have been packed off to bed, the household receives a visitor via the chimney...

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Made in 1898, G.A. Smith's Santa Claus is a film of considerable technical ambition and accomplishment for the period. A former magic lanternist and hypnotist, Smith was one of the first British film-makers - indeed, one of the first film-makers anywhere - to make extensive use of special effects to create fantastical scenes.

The opening of the film is a straightforward single-shot drama in which expectant children are hurried off to bed by the maid. She then turns out the light, which leads to an imaginative transition whereby the background is replaced by a black space (via a jump cut) while the foreground remains as before. Onto this space is superimposed a circular image of Santa landing on the roof and descending the chimney.

What makes this treatment considerably more interesting than a conventional piece of editing is the way that Smith links the shots in terms of both space and time, by placing the new image over the space previously occupied by the fireplace, and continuing to show the children sleeping throughout (their bed occupies the left-hand side of the screen throughout the entire film). Santa then emerges from where the fireplace used to be, distributes the presents, and disappears via another jump cut.

This is believed to be the cinema's earliest known example of parallel action and, when coupled with double-exposure techniques that Smith had already demonstrated in the same year's The Mesmerist and Photographing a Ghost, the result is one of the most visually and conceptually sophisticated British films made up to then. It comes as little surprise that Smith corresponded with the French pioneer Georges Méliès at about this time, as the two men shared a common goal in terms of creating an authentic cinema of illusion.

Michael Brooke

*This film can be downloaded in its entirety from the BFI's Creative Archive. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone within the UK under the terms of the Creative Archive Licence.

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Video Clips
Complete film (1:20)
Smith, G.A. (1864-1959)