Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)

December, 2022

Edison, 1907. Direction/camera: Edwin S. Porter (and J. Searle Dawley?). Cast: Mr. Lehapman, William Sorrelle, Bessie Shrednecky, Gitchner Hartman, Miss Sullivan.
            Upon seeing the title of this film, the film enthusiast will be instantly reminded of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, produced in 1947 and featuring young Natalie Wood as the little girl in question (and Edmund Gwenn as Santa). Miracle on 34th Street is one of the cinematic essentials of the holiday season, I love it as much as anyone does, and I have no doubt it will be screened countless times this month by appreciative fans of classic films—fans who certainly don’t need me to remind them of it in this column.
            Instead I’m focusing on a far more obscure film, produced 40 years earlier at the Edison studio. During the period of early cinema, Edison and other companies observed the holidays with an annual outpouring of short Christmas movies. Many of these, like the later Hollywood classics, were designed to appeal to their audiences with heartwarming Yuletide sentiment. A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus is one of those films.
            It begins with what seems a classic holiday-movie premise—with an unconventional twist. A wealthy young boy and his family, encountering a poor girl shivering in the cold, invite her into their home. She admires the boy’s collection of toys and he begins to tell her about Santa Claus, but she’s not having it. Struck with compassion for his new friend, the boy resolves to convince her of Santa Claus’ existence. How? By staying awake on Christmas Eve, ambushing Santa when he arrives, and kidnapping him at gunpoint! The two make an unscheduled side trip to the girl’s shabby little house and let themselves in. By the time they depart, Santa has conjured up a huge Christmas tree and deposited a bounty of gifts for the little girl. Santa himself seems to take all this in stride. At the end of their mission the boy is fast asleep, and Santa carries him back to his own house and gently puts him to bed.
            If we can get past the boy’s foray into criminal activity, A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe does offer some relatively subtle story points. The girl’s poverty is not blatantly stressed and, as a result, is touching. The plight of the poor at Christmastime had long been a staple of literature by the time this film was made; Dickens had famously played upon the theme in A Christmas Carol in 1843. Three decades later, in 1877, George R. Sims had produced his ballad popularly known as “Christmas Day in the Workhouse,” and its fame had lingered into the early twentieth century and found its own way into early cinema. By contrast with these pathetic and angry depictions of poverty in a season of giving, this film is gentle and understated. In one scene the girl returns home from her encounter with the boy’s family and asks her mother if she can hang up a stocking. The mother has nothing to give her child, and her pain is palpable—and, of course, makes the girl’s surprise on Christmas morning all the sweeter.
            This film is also of interest as a document of Edwin S. Porter’s career as of 1907. Today Porter is perhaps best known for the landmark film The Great Train Robbery (1902), but his career continued with a voluminous output of films throughout the early period and well into the mid-1910s. Here he offers a fair example of cinematic storytelling in the pre-D.W. Griffith years. (This film was produced in late November–early December 1907, a good six months before Griffith directed his first film at Biograph.) Porter mixes authentic snowy New York locations, in the opening scenes, with studio interiors. The “exterior” scenes of the girl’s house on the edge of town are actually a studio set, enhanced with a falling-snow effect—and, curiously, a rabbit that hops aimlessly through the scene, pausing to look around at the goings-on. We also get some modest camera tricks, principally a stopped-camera effect when Santa causes Christmas trees to appear by magic. On Christmas Eve, when the boy goes to bed, he dreams of the girl and her mother in their little hovel, and we see his vision matted into the scene above his head—less complex than the historic matte effects in Great Train Robbery, but still an effective and economical way to convey a story point.
            All in all, this little picture is a minor but pleasant addition to the vast library of Christmas movies. It’s a cheery holiday gift to those who love film, especially in its early years.

J.B. Kaufman