The Great Train Robbery of Christmas Films


Note: This is the thirty-third 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 third favorite 1905 film, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, directed by Edwin S. Porter.

OK, it might be a bit of a stretch to compare Edwin S. Porter’s THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1905) to his seminal film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903), mostly because the former is nowhere near as good as the latter. But THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS does feature a couple techniques Porter utilized in his Western, and closes with an approximation of the iconic close up shot of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Of course, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS uses these techniques to establish a peaceful and magical mise-en-scène rather than an action-packed and dangerous one.

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) — Edwin S. Porter

Perhaps THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS’ strongest technical tie to THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, and really to the inconsistent style and approach that makes up Porter’s filmography, is the director’s bad habit. Porter tended to linger overlong on mundane or boring moments in his films; THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is exceptional, in part, because it almost entirely eschews this weakness of its director. One scene, in which the train occupants shuffle off the locomotive and line up, stands as Porter’s trademark portrayal of the deliberate. THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, on the other hand, is stamped throughout its first half with moments that should have been cut to at least half of their final length.

It may be prudent to note that THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS is indeed based upon the poem of the same name, but truly in inspiration only. The film does feature, surprisingly for the era, intertitles that set up scenes with lines from the poem, but otherwise, Porter created his own take on the “Christmas spirit.” This take opens with the earliest iconic portrayal of Santa Clause performing ordinary tasks, such as feeding his (real) reindeer and constructing toys for children. The film also uses cross-cutting, a technique Porter brought to America in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, as it shows Santa’s actions and the the build up of excitement in a seemingly middle class household. This combination of scenes, for the first half of the approximately 12 minute long film, could honestly have been cut.

My appreciation for the film, certainly, was fostered with the second half, when Santa begins to venture out to complete his seasonal task. Here, the féerie steps in with a brilliant panning sequence of Santa’s cross-country sleigh ride, rendered in miniature. This sequence really saves the film, as its artistry and “world-building” make up for the mundane moments of its beginning.

Santa’s delivery of the presents and the family’s excitement is a cathartic and heartfelt conclusion, followed up by a close up shot (a la THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY) of the convincing Santa Clause himself. Instead of threatening, it’s nice and…well, it does feel a little creepy. That early 20th century approach to Christmas and “heartwarming” or innocent iconography always does feel a bit bizarre.

Full film

So, yes, at first blush, it may be hard to compare THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS to THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. But as much as Porter is described as a “chameleon” director, of sorts, as he never seemed to develop a collection of hallmarks or cohesive style across his canon, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS does exhibit a few links to his most influential work. Unfortunately, his focus on the mundane is one of those links, rendering THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS as my third favorite film of an admittedly weak year for film, 1905. Nevertheless, the movie’s back half carries the magic my favorite early films instill in me, and is an important installment in the American tradition of Christmas films.

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




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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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