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Cult Movies: 'Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny' (1972)

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Ho ho ho? Oh no, no, no.

In order to understand good films, you must experience bad films, and by ‘bad film’, I don’t mean the big-budget blockbuster that bombed at the box-office, or the latest Adam Sandler comedy, or the umpteenth installment of some interminable horror franchise. I’m talking about films which don’t even look or sound like regular films and defy the usual laws of film-making. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is a special case in that it gives the viewer not just one bad film to experience but two.

Bunny
Cut-and-weld jobs are rare in cinema, and it’s even rarer anything good comes from splicing two films to make a new one; They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963/69) is the most famous example, with Curse of Bigfoot (1963/76) and Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (1984/95) even worse cases of re-animating old films with new footage which were better off forgotten. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny presents a cheaply shot 1970 version of the Hans Christian Andersen story ‘Thumbelina’ sandwiched by an extremely cheaply shot framing story involving Santa stranded on a beach in Florida, filmed a couple of years after the ‘Thumbelina’ footage, in order the pad out the film to ninety minutes for a cinema release. The only thing in common between the two films is location filming in and around the defunct Pirates World theme park in Dania, Florida, which closed in 1975 thanks to a certain Mr Disney opening his own little park just down the road.

OK, so you are a kid in the mid-1970s, it’s a couple of weeks before Christmas, and you’ve been dropped off/abandoned by your parents at the shopping mall’s cinema for a weekend matinée while they get some gift shopping done. You’re double excited because of the time of year and you’re at a movie with your siblings or friends, throwing popcorn at each other. What do you see?

The film opens with its first big mistake, a bunch of kids dressed up as Santa’s elves, singing and enjoying a jolly time with lots of fun toys. Kids don’t like watching other kids having fun – they want to be the kids having fun. The only way this scene could be made fun to the average kid is if the roof caved in thanks to a build-up of snow and buried the elves. For the grown-ups in the audience, the dreadful racket these kids make crushes any enjoyment of seeing cute little urchins singing a Christmas tune in a performance which would shame a junior school nativity play. The best you can say is what they lack in talent, they make up in volume, or least they would if the film’s sound quality wasn’t so poor. The credits add to the feel of something wrong with Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, with producer, director and songwriter identified as ‘R. Winer’, ‘B. Mahon’, and ‘B. Martin’, respectively, as if they were part of some witness protection program.

Certainly something’s amiss at the North Pole as, poking her head out of the workshop’s door, one of the little girl elves (identified by website The Agony Booth’s reviewer as future Impulse (1974) star Kim Gordon) gazes upon stock footage of reindeer chewing the cud in what looks more like North Wales than the North Pole. The elves’ song turns to gloom, if not any recognisable melody, as they realise Santa is missing in action.  

The film lurches, through the first of many jerky jump-cuts, to a beach in Florida, where Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the sand, his reindeer having fled the heat for home. Forget whatever mental image these words conjure in your mind and replace them with some dream version after you went to bed with a fever you’d fed with cheese all evening. Santa’s sleigh is not embedded in sand, but resting atop it; the sleigh itself looks like it fell of a Christmas tree; the actor cast as Santa (Jay Clark) channels Art Carney’s performance as a drunken dime-store Santa in The Twilight Zone’s ‘Night of the Meek’ episode, minus the charm or pathos, but with all the booze, with all his speech over-dubbed and improvised, adding to the film’s sense of delirium. 

The repetitive dialogue, struggling to pad out the over-acted mime of the visuals, is occasionally ‘enhanced’ by a narrator (Dorothy Brown Green) who sounds as if she’d been dragged out of a side alley and plonked in front of a microphone on promise of a free packet of Camel Full Flavor. The main role of the narrator here is to fill in the long, aching silences where impro-dubbing booth Santa ran out of things to say, and to reiterate the plot which, like the sleigh, is feeble and run into the ground.

Santa, through drink and sunstroke, conducts an imaginary orchestra and sings of his hopes of

choc
rescue and complains of the heat. Nearby, local kids play hopscotch, baseball, teach their dog tricks, punch lumps out of each other or jump off the roof of their house holding a patio umbrella, only to freeze in mid-action. Unimpressed by breaking the laws of physics, Santa dozes off. The kids each un-freeze and respond to a mysterious call to aid Santa.

The children run to the beach through scrapyards, parking lots and sun-bleached suburban streets complete with refuse, in an interminable sequence ended by the sight of two young boys, wearing straw hats and floating downriver on a door, talking like Prince Charles with a mouthful of fudge. This is 1970s Florida, so of course these two scamps, one with a pet raccoon, are Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, who land and follow the other children. As they do so, we hear ‘Old Man River’ played on kazoos like a swarm of blue-bottles passing the time on Death Row. The raccoon flees at the first opportunity.

Huck and Tom watch from a bush and the 1970s kids approach sleepy Santa, noisily discuss his plight, and run away again. One by one they return, each with a different animal to pull Santa's sleigh clear and save Christmas. Well, I say ‘animal,’ the first to try is a man in a gorilla costume, who must have half-drowned in his own sweat if Santa’s constant griping about the heat is anything to go by. The other children bring, in succession, a donkey, a horse, a pig, a sheep and a cow, none of whom face the right way between the sleigh’s spindly shafts, and at least one, the pig, sounds in genuine distress when manhandled by a child into place. Santa, for the most part, sits and does nothing to help the children with the animals. What a bum.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Santa digs out the sleigh by hand, and starts to do this easily, until he gives up and has the children gather round to hear a story on how important it is never to give up. The story is ‘Thumbelina’, introduced with a whole new set of credits, just to make it more obvious what a hack job the film is (some versions of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny play with another Pirates World-based short film, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ inserted instead).

A Very Florida 'Thumbelina' 

The production values in this section go up a notch, in that the ‘Thumbelina’ segment had some money spent on it, as opposed to whatever could be found down the back of the director’s couch. We watch as an attractive girl in her late teens and dressed in red wanders around Pirates World, trying out various dangerous-looking rides with random strangers, until she wanders into the Hans Christian Andersen playhouse to hear the story of Thumbelina, relayed by a woman’s voice projected through a speaker over a set of dioramas. A family near our Lady in Red look embarrassed by this cheap set-up and quickly move on, but Red is entranced and stares in wonder at the diorama as the story spills from the speaker, the shots of which convey an inexpressible sense of beige.

As with all the best fairy tales, ‘Thumbelina’ deals with loneliness, loss, forced marriage and inter-species romance. A childless spinster (Ruth McMahon) visits a good witch (Heather Grinter) to ask for a child to love. The lonely spinster hoped for marriage and her own family “but no-one would have me.” With the supernatural the old-timey equivalent of the internet, and a cauldron performing the task of Google, the witch soon throws a few random ingredients together and the spinster gets her wish in the form of a magic seed, for the knock-down price of twelve pennies.        

Planting the seed in the most unassuming garden possible, the spinster watches as the plant grows into an Audrey-style creation, out of which steps a perfectly formed but tiny young woman, Thumbelina, also played by Shay Garner. The impression is that Lady in Red is imagining herself playing out the fairy tale with the diorama acting as stage sets; the impression it gives is of Red being a raving psychotic with an extraordinarily high boredom threshold.

Addressing her new ‘child’ using a terrifyingly bad back-projection shot, the spinster declares her wish to cherish Thumbelina, and she’s as good as her word; the new narrator tells us Thumbelina “lived entirely on a kitchen table...her life was perfect.” Alas, the golden days of playing with cutlery end when, in a scene not depicted for fear of costing money, a leopard-print frog steals Thumbelina as a wife for her dopey son. The two amphibians discuss how nice it will be for him to marry a miniscule mammal until a fish helps Thumbelina to escape (also unseen). The spinster discovers Thumbelina is missing, and weeps, and isn't seen again during the rest of the film. Happy holidays, folks!

We cut to some ambiguous looking insects who talk like children playing at being adults (“Let

Thumbelina
us go and find bugs to eat. I’ll go this way. You go that way. I’ll stay here.”). Thumbelina, lost, wanders into their midst and the bugs pinch her for her troubles. No matter; Thumbelina has a song for every occasion, including terror-induced insect attacks, and this one goes: “I’m as scared as can be, fiddle-de-dee!” As our hero remains lost in the woods for months, I'm guessing the unfortunate woodland creatures heard this doggerel an awful lot.

The winter snow arrives and Thumbelina throws herself on the mercy of Mrs Mole (Pat Morrell), who is underground for the season. “Frogs are terrible creatures,” agrees Mrs Mole, in a way that sounds a little racist, before adding “you should marry a mole,” in a way that will always sound just awful. The elderly widow is glad of the young girl’s company through the lonely winter months and one day introduces Thumbelina to her friend, the wealthy bachelor and fellow mole, Mr Digger. You can see where this is heading, can’t you?

Mr Digger walks Thumbelina to his bachelor pad, casually dismissing a dead bird they find along the way as “a stupid creature” which froze to death by not flying south for winter soon enough. Thumbelina gets the full guided tour of Mr Digger’s home, which looks like a down-at-heel tea room, full of items collected from his travels around the world. As Mr Digger never ventures above ground, we are left to puzzle how he came by Persian rugs and Dutch furniture, least of all paintings which Thumbelina learns are “the best of the Old Masters,” making Mr Digger one of the most successful art thieves in history.   

Having known Thumbelina for several minutes now, the aging Mr Digger proposes marriage, which is one up on marrying a frog, with Mr Digger and Thumbelina at least being in the same scientific classification of animal. Thumbelina confers later with Mrs Mole, and is told “When you get as old as I am, one has to be practical,” and advises to go ahead with the marriage. Thumbelina is a modern girl though, and wants to see the world before settling for a stultifying marriage with a member of the talpidae family.    

Weeks pass and Thumbelina seeks comfort in her predicament by cuddling the frozen bird corpse in the tunnel, which looks less like a bird and more a piñata some Mexican kids tired of hitting halfway through. Hearing a faint heartbeat from the bird, Thumbelina nurtures the creature back to life.

Next time she visits the bird, Thumbelina finds her friend has flown the coup. Saddened and lonely, with her marriage taking place the next day, Thumbelina ventures above ground to experience the sky and the flowers for the last time. There, she meets the bird, stretching his wings for a test flight. The bird explains he has seen others like Thumbelina on his travels, and so off they go, in one of the lamest fantasy effects committed to screen, Thumbelina straddling the bird’s back as it flaps its mechanical wings before a white sheet as backdrop.

The pair land at the Kingdom of the Flower People. The narrator, revealed as Mrs Mole, explains that in Thumbelina’s absence, Mr Digger settled downwards for marrying her instead, though Mrs Mole’s story is obscured by her talking over the bird’s dialogue to Thumbelina, who then recites the story so far for the benefit of the truly stupid. Soon, Thumbelina meets the Prince of the Flower People (Mike Yuenger, who looks like all The Monkees at once) and having known Thumbelina for several seconds, proposes marriage. Allowing a few hours to pass first, Thumbelina accepts and we’re treated to a wedding every bit as awkward and dull as the real thing. “Thank you for listening,” says the loudspeaker/Mrs Mole and Lady in Red tears herself away from the diorama and leaves the playhouse. Outside, she meets her boyfriend, played by the same actor as played the Prince. Hand in hand, the two leave Pirates World, The End.

Sorry, not The End

‘The End’ proves a false promise, as we’re back to Santa of the Desert. Still clueless about how to dislodge the sleigh, Santa spends an age with a little girl fussing over her dog (Rebel). The children run off, leaving Santa to complain of the heat and sleep off his eggnog breakfast.

Santa comes too at the sound of a siren, presumably thinking the police are moving him on for

Fire Truck
vagrancy again, but no; remember the title of the film, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny? Well, here he comes at last, in a fire engine truck that last saw service in a Harold Lloyd film, a giant leering white rabbit that would have sent James Stewart screaming to the asylum. Driving through that godforsaken theme park again, at speeds approaching walking pace, the Ice Cream Bunny almost runs over both the cameraman and Rebel the dog on his way to the beach in a journey that Odysseus would’ve considered long-winded. By now, the kids in the theatre are wishing they could’ve stood in queue with Mom in an apartment store after trying on sweaters all afternoon.

Santa recognizes the Ice Cream Bunny and after a few close-ups we’ll never be able to forget this wonky-eyed monster with pinched, golf-ball cheeks and a head liable to fall off its shoulders at any moment. Rebel, somehow mistaking this silent grotesque for the real thing, goes crazy trying to bite the Ice Cream Bunny’s hand off. Santa, muttering “You will help me, of course you will, of course you will,” consults the world’s cheapest calendar (basically a grid of numbers) which confirms that date at December 20th, taking some of the urgency out his need for rescue now it’s finally arrived.

Cranking up the fire engine, the Ice Cream Bunny gives Santa a lift to the North Pole; given the film’s date, and the speed of the fire truck, they should be somewhere in Saskatchewan by now. The children, left behind by Santa as revenge for all that nonsense with the cattle, gather round the abandoned sleigh. The sleigh promptly vanishes, because of magic, and it travels, so our expectorating narrator tells us, back to the North Pole, without explaining why it didn’t do that ninety minutes ago.

“Merry Christmas,” states a caption, the cue for the theatre staff to clean up and/or counsel the poor brats who saw this cynical, slapdash rubbish, made not in the Christmas spirit, but the belief that kids will put up with any old crap thrown together on a cinema screen. For example, at no point during Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is it explained what the Ice Cream Bunny has to do with ice cream, apart from sharing the same painful effect as cramming too much raspberry ripple into your mouth.  

The director of the Thumbelina segment, Barry Mahon, cuts his directorial teeth on Errol Flynn’s woeful last film Cuban Rebel Girls (1959); then, Mahon acted as Flynn’s personal pilot and manager. Mahon went on to direct fifty or so of the infamous ‘nude cutie’ softcore films shot in Florida during the 1960s, before turning his attention to children’s films late in the decade, with titles such as The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969) and Santa and the Three Bears (1970) which, while hardly classics, are at least a few steps up from Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

Barry Mahon
Mahon served as a fighter pilot during World War Two, joining the Royal Air Force’s 121 (Eagle) Squadron as an American volunteer in 1941. During an Allied raid on Dieppe in August 1942, Mahon bailed from his burning plane, got captured and made a POW in Stalag Luft III, from which he briefly escaped twice and dug tunnels to help fellow prisoners reach freedom. In case you are wondering why this remarkable story didn’t get made into a film, it did; the character Steve McQueen plays in The Great Escape (1968) comes from Barry Mahon’s experiences. 

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, a sustained exercise in that strain of bleak cheeriness unique to the 1970s, has a rating of 1.3 on IMDB, but doesn’t make the bottom 100 list (and 1.3 would place it easily at the very bottom) due to insufficient votes. Reading the site’s review for the film is like sifting through the minutes of a support group as haunted adults share stories of seeing Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny when they were unsuspecting kids taken out for a treat in a theater in Houston or Minneapolis, or Norwich, Connecticut, and have sought fellow survivors ever since. This Christmas, why not share with your loved ones the gift of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny? They'll never forget it...and never forgive you.  

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