Thursday, December 26, 2013

Oddball Film Report: SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972)

Oh my. What does one say about SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY? As noted in my look at SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS, Mr. Claus has been the subject of some very strange films. There may be no stranger than this one.

Although I haven't seen every Santa Claus movie, I feel fairly comfortable in labelling SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY as the worst Santa movie ever made. How bad is it? So bad that it gets replaced by a whole other movie about half way in! Complete with opening and closing credits! Said film is a Barry Mahon featurette filmed in Florida's Pirate World amusement park and previously released in 1970 as THUMBELINA! While this film looks and feels like a high school play put on to entertain the younger classes, it's fairly opulent for a Barry Mahon picture, and it's practically Disney compared to the wrap-around footage with Santa Claus!

Barry Mahon isn't held in very high regard in the movie business, and for pretty good reason. Strictly a business man, Mahon cranked out a number of minimalist pictures of seemingly every genre. Little care or artistry went into any of them. While some guys like Ray Dennis Steckler or Larry Buchanan had projects too lofty to fit their meager budgets, Mahon was strictly a bottom line man. Unlike fellow exploitation skin-flint Roger Corman, though, Mahon never seemed to care about the end product enough to bother to make a good movie. He just threw together whatever might make some coin. These films ranged from the cynical spy flick ROCKET ATTACK U.S.A. to the colorful nudist camp/monster movie THE BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN.

Mr. Mahon seems to've spent his time jumping back and forth between New York and Florida. While in the south, he apparently shot THUMBELINA for the Pirate World amusement park. The end credits indicate THUMBELINA may have been part of a series of films made for the kiddies at said park. Oddly, parts of SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY were also shot in Pirate World. The park would close in 1975.

Our film in question can't be described by mere words, but it does warrant discussion. The most astounding aspect may be that the newer footage is more ineptly and unimaginatively shot than that provided by Mr. Mahon!

We open with some kids dressed as "elves" crammed into a tiny log cabin and going about their duties. They warble a tune written for the film, but it seems like none of them are really bothering to harmonize with anyone else. It's sort of painful, really, and with horror we note this is also the minimalist credit sequence. I say with horror, because rather than a professional musical number over these, we get these kids just barely singing. If this is an indication of what level of care went into the film, we're in trouble!

One of the "elves" hears the reindeer return and looks outside. Via a clip from a nature special (you might be interested to learn the North Pole is actually fairly lush in December, and looks rather more like Canada than an iceberg). We take note that Santa has not returned with his reindeer, and then we say goodbye to the "elves" forever. We'll spend the rest of our picture in Florida where Santa's sleigh is stuck in the sand of a lovely beach.

Santa apparently touched down pretty hard, and we're told the sleigh hit with such force that it has become stuck in the sand. It's so stuck, in fact, that Santa's team of reindeer couldn't budge it! Feeling the heat of the Florida sun, the animals returned to the Pole without St. Nick, and now our hero is worried over how he'll get his sleigh free in order to make his Christmas rounds.

The 'stuck' sleigh is being held down by an inch or two of sand spread over the runners.

Santa goes on at length about the blazing sun, and breaks into a very long "Woe Is Me" tune, during which we are introduced to a number of local children. For some reason much of the footage of the kids is done in slow motion. I think it's just to mock us in the audience, but it may have had more to do with stretching the running time. If you don't mind, I'll cut to the chase. I'll do a lot of cutting, because this movie spends tons of time on useless footage.

The kids come running to help Santa, who tells them all what a spot he's in. The kids then run off and return with a series of animals they hope can pull Santa's sleigh loose from the inch or so of sand over the runners. Weirdly, this parade of animals begins with a gorilla! Then we get some more prosaic animals like a pig, a dog, a sheep, a cow, and finally a horse. None of these mighty beasts are able to get Santa loose, however. This just goes on and on, too, well after we get the point. That's this movie in a nutshell.

Unable to escape, but with an audience at hand, Santa decides to tell the kiddies a story about never giving up (this to motivate them, and himself, in having faith in his eventual escape). He relates the story of Thumbelina, and we dive into a completely different movie!

And now our real movie...

THUMBELINA is a pretty wacky flick on it's own, but it settles for being strange instead of astoundingly bad like the Santa Claus movie.

In short, THUMBELINA opens with a fetching young lady wearing a mini-skirt (and, it must be noted, sporting some fantastic stems) visiting Pirate World. After going on a few rides, she wanders over to a pavilion where a recorded story of Thumbelina is related over a speaker as the patrons gaze upon some miniature models representing the life of Thumbelina. As you might expect, our comely lass imagines the story as it is related and projects herself into the role of Thumbelina.

I honestly don't know what that creature is supposed to be, and the movie doesn't bother to say.

Thumbelina's story opens with a poor spinster who desires more than anything else a daughter. To facilitate this, she goes to see the local witch. This witch indeed grants the wish of the spinster and gives her what looks like a pumpkin seed. This seed, when planted and nurtured, will bring forth a beautiful girl who will one day be a queen.

The bulk of this sequence is a musical number which, while terrible in the bigger world of fairy tale musicals, stands head and shoulders and waist and ankles above Santa's earlier tune. How sad is it when Barry Mahon produces a more opulent picture than someone else? It defies imagination!

Anyway, with a plot of garden all ready (just waiting for her when she goes outside), the spinster plants the seed and waters it. At once the flower springs up and buds! Inside the bud is Thumbelina, who looks like a milk maid one might see in a burlesque show.

[I was nervous occasionally that the film might turn into a nudie, actually! Given the sets and minimalist production values (and Florida filming locations) of kiddie flicks and nudies were entirely interchangeable in the 60's! So much so that I'm convinced that the actually not-bad SINDERELLA AND THE GOLDEN BRA (1964) was prepared to be a kids' movie before the producers changed their minds at the last minute.]

Hey look! An effect! (Sort of..)

So, Thumbelina moves in with the spinster and lives happily on her table top. She sleeps in a walnut shell and capers about the coffee mug. Her happiness is not to last, unfortunately, as... and how do I describe this? Well, there's this frog, you see, who apparently hasn't been much of a hit with the lady frogs. His mother heads off to find a wife for her son, and (completely off screen) abducts Thummbelina from her table-top paradise. Exactly how she did this, I have no clue.

Said frogs are played by men in suits that make them look like plush toys. Granted, there's nothing wrong with this for a kiddie film, but I can only note how much better the giant frog costume worn by Fred Mertz was.

Needless to say, though, the frog is delighted to know he's going to marry so beautiful a creature. And so begins the disturbing undercurrent of bestiality the film has. I honestly doubt this was intended by Mahon or anyone else connected with the film, but it's still there. I can't ignore it, either, because although it wasn't really written this way, it seems Thumbelina keeps getting hit on by animals. It's very uncomfortable if you try to keep a clean mind like I do. I can't imagine how this must play to an outright pervert!

Fortunately for Thumb, a fish has pity on her predicament of being forced to marry a frog and chews loose the lilly pad where she is being held prisoner. Thumbelina floats down stream and is spared the fate of becoming Mrs. Frog. This entire section of the story happens off screen, given it would have required special effects of even the most limited variety.

Thumbelina finds herself at home in the forrest, but eventually winter comes and she must seek refuge (she's still hearing her short sleeves and blue mini-skirt, which she was born wearing). She finds lodging in the home of the widow Mrs. Mole, who decides to open her home to Thumbelina for the winter.

Come spring, Thumbelina is introduced to Mr. Digger, another mole who lives just down a tunnel but winters in warmer climates. Mr. Digger asks Thumbelina over for a visit and she goes with him. In the tunnel, they happen across a dead bird who had frozen to death during the early snowfall. Although Thumb pities the poor creature, the moles think such creatures are ugly. I find myself wondering how the bird got into the tunnel without attracting the attention of anyone else living down there. It's easily twice as big as the moles.

Thumb, Mr. Digger, and Mrs. Mole

Well, after a few minutes of being in his home, Mr. Digger proposes to Thumbelina! Thumb thinks she'll be doing Mrs. Mole a favor agrees, but in the meantime tends to the dead bird. When taking a blanket to cover it with, Thumb finds the bird is faintly still alive. She wraps the blanket around the bird and hugs up to it to thaw the creature with her body heat. This eventually takes effect and the bird is well enough to fly Thumb away on the eve of her wedding. (Should Thumb find happiness elsewhere, Mr. Bird will fly back and tell the moles not to worry. In the meantime, I gotta feel for jilted Mr. Digger, who was so excited about the union -while at the same time I'm rather relieved the film didn't feature the planned wedding!)

Thumb and Mr. Bird find a tribe of "flower children" who thankfully resemble more the Buggalloos than they do the traditional flower child. These "children" (who are all college age) just happen to be the same race as Thumbelina. We're told Mr. Bird did indeed inform the moles as to Thumb's situation. Mr. Digger, deciding he really wanted to be married, became Mrs. Mole's second husband.

Turns out, Thumbelina is part of a prophecy! It has been written that she would return to her people and marry the King! Thumbelina's destiny settled, and in the arms of a human male for a change of pace, we return to our pretty starlet in her real form. She prances outside to meet up with her hubby, who just happens to look exactly like the King of the flower children. Awww.

Our comparatively pleasant detour out of the way, we return to Santa, still complaining about the heat. Although this is dragged way, way out -such is the movie's practice- Santa finds rescue when the kiddies have managed to track down the Ice Cream Bunny.

Said Bunny is a silent, 7 foot rabbit who drives around in a little fire engine. Beyond that, I know nothing about the Ice Cream Bunny. Santa sees him approaching, the narrator (all Santa movies have narrators) notes Santa finds the figure familiar, and then Santa greets "my old friend, the Ice Cream Bunny!" And that's as much identification as we ever get.

Is the Bunny another fairy tale character with his own traditions, or was he created for this movie? The actual costume appears to be a mascot for a fun-park (Pirate World?), so this may actually be a regional thing. You know, sort of like Santa meeting Mickey Mouse, but in connection to only a local park. That would actually explain quite a lot, if this film were only intended to be seen in Florida, and the audience there would be familiar with the Ice Cream Bunny. If that's not the case, this movie is just plain weird. (You know, weirder...)

Jan and Dean meet Sid and Marty Kroft?

Santa's Harvey?

Anyway, Santa joyously climbs onto the Bunny's truck and, I guess, they drive to the North Pole. It's December 20th, and they'll just make it back in time.

But, you may remember, the sleigh is still stuck on the beach, so.... When the kids run over to the sleigh, they witness it vanish into thin air! The narrator then informs us it was found by Santa when he returned to his workshop!!! So, if Santa had waited just a few more minutes, the Ice Cream Bunny would have been completely useless!

And with nothing more to say after that, the movie just ends. Merry Christmas, indeed!

Somtimes I wonder, given the stuff we watch as children, how do we ever grow into well-adjusted adults? I think I'll stick with a rather less scarring Santa Claus movie from now on...
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