The Foibles of the Village in The Night Before Christmas

Note: This is the seventy-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1913 film, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, directed by Ladislas Starevich.

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1913), based on the tale by Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, is an early Russian feature directed by stop-motion animation pioneer Ladislas Starevich in a rare live-action turn. Also known as CHRISTMAS EVE, translated literally, the film is a microscopic look at the foibles of a small Cossack village.

Starevich treats the characters, much like Gogol did, as archetypal curiosities, and that keeps THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS in line with Starevich’s early renowned stop-motion films that use the corpses of insects and animals. Films like THE CAMERAMAN’S REVENGE (1912) examine the jealous machinations of insects, and Starevich treated his human subjects similarly, just on a bigger scale.

Even still, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a small film, just barely feature length at about 42 minutes. The actual space of the film fits this. Its sets are fairly limited, although the snowy outdoor scenes are still beautiful in their artificial way. And the villagers go about their self-centered, very much human lives. Starevich crafted a little microcosm of human behavior with the film, but the supernatural adds a level of surrealism.

The film opens, strikingly, with shots of the main characters in a set-up not unlike a police lineup/mugshot, and the demon, played by Ivan Mosjoukine, steals the show immediately. His goofy costume is hairy and has a funny little monkey tail the demon often plays with, but of course, the face of the creature is immediately arresting. It’s actually a convincing get-up for 1913, and the receding mane, horns, pig nose, protruding mouth, and huge teeth make for a cool-looking dude.

Anyways, after the introduction of our motley crew, the demon flirts with the friendly neighborhood witch, a woman who actually conveys a convincing sense of flirty-ness and confident sexuality that surprised me for the era and subject matter. They fly around a bit in a beautiful display of early flight special effects, which I really like, and the demon steals the moon, kind of inexplicably. The rendering of it is really interesting; the crescent, held in the hands of the demon, is super bright and simply designed. Eventually, we learn about the drunkenness of a group of old men, the blacksmith’s pining for the dismissive daughter of one of those old men, and the witch’s habit of engaging in at least flirting with many of the village’s men. Oh, and the blacksmith is the witch’s son.

These early set-ups create a universe of the film’s own, with a set of rules and character relationships that inform much of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS’ comedy and strange goings-on. When the witch and demon are getting all handsy, one of her beaus arrives, knocking at the door. She hides the demon in a sack, and proceeds to do that with at least three more men who arrive at her hut…somehow. Through a series of bizarre events that require a bit of disbelief suspending, the blacksmith ends up with the demon in a sack on his back and compels the creature to take him to St. Petersburg and the Tsar’s palace. Oh, yeah, I forgot that the girl he wants to marry said she would if he got the Tsarina’s slippers. Another fun flight sequence later, the pair arrive at the palace, and Starevich implements the live-action film’s only bit of stop-motion. The demon shrinks in size to fit in the blacksmith’s pocket, and the motion comes out of nowhere and is a pleasant surprise. The blacksmith gets the shoes quite easily, returns to the village, and his crush agrees to marry him. The end.

I’ve omitted many small moments in this summary/evaluation of the film’s most standout moments, but they help solidify the feeling that the inhabitants of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS have lives of their own, though it isn’t an intense character study by any means. But as is the case with early features, the extra time helps distinguish it, with relative complexity and subtlety, from the shorts that had been fueling the film industry for already fifteen years, at least. The foibles of rural Russian villagers are truly at the forefront of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, not the special effects, bizarre costumes, or supernatural events. Those facets are great, and certainly strengthen the film, but especially the romantic issues of the witch echo the “mixed up identity and relationship” shorts of Mack Sennett, Keystone, and Charlie Chaplin.

Starevich doesn’t make another appearance on this list (yet), but the groundbreaking work he did in the stop-motion space is worth checking out. His work the from the 1930s, including the Terry Gilliam-lauded THE MASCOT (1933) and THE TALE OF THE FOX (1937), are among his most well-known movies. The latter was the sixth animated feature film, and one of the few that predate SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) and still survive. Perhaps those will make their way into my favorites, but as mentioned earlier, his early, morbid 1910s work with dead animals is…fun? It’s certainly a sight to see. In any event, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a deviation from Starevich’s “comfort zone,” is an unexpected success. It moves at a decent clip in demonstrating the strangeness of the relationships in a small village, and THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS is somehow grounded and sensational in its treatment of rural life and human behavior.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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