Seventy-five years after Clement Moore penned The Night Before Christmas, which gave us the first detailed description of Mr. Claus, the jolly old elf made his debut in a minutes-long 1897 silent movie, Santa Claus Filling Stockings. This film was followed by 1899's Santa Claus, the first to take some liberties in casting St. Nick. Here the spirit of Christmas sounds more like Clark Gable than Kris Kringle: he was tall and thin and dressed in a dignified floor-length robe.
Hollywood quickly hewed to tradition, though, and holiday films after the turn of the century, including 1900's Santa Claus' Visit and 1905's Night Before Christmas stuck to more rotund, rosy-cheeked leading men.
The most elaborate of the early Santa Claus films came in 1925. Captain Frank E. Kleinschmidt, an explorer/filmmaker known for his arctic documentaries, spliced real-life footage of walruses, polar bears, and friendly Eskimos into what can only be called his feature debut: Santa Claus.
Not all Santa films import such whimsy, though. Just like anyone or anything that embodies uncorrupted goodness, St. Nick sets himself up for some serious satire.
Make that strange satire. The crayon-bright 1960 Mexican film Santa pits the bearded one (Joseph Elias Moreno) against his anagrammatic enemy—Satan. Likewise, 1964's Santa Claus Conquers the Martians—a $200,000 fever dream filmed in a converted airport hangar and starring young Pia Zadora—is one kitschy Christmas movie. Here the "little ho-ho-ho man," as a jealous Martian dubs him, is played by the disarmingly jolly John Call.