Last week I promised you folks a Christmas movie that hailed from the Italian peninsula. With only a few days left until the big holiday, here is the film as promised. I’ve been watchingThe Christmas that Almost Wasn’t for many, many years now. Back in the early ’80’s, they used to play this every year on HBO, and I’ve been slowly wearing out my tired copy taped off TV since then. The heartwarming tale was always a favorite, but it wasn’t until I was watching it last year that I noticed something seemed a little off. I don’t know how it never occurred to me that it wasn’t an American production, but it somehow it did not. I thought I should take a look into this film, and I was a little surprised by what I found. The film I had grown up loving was an Italian production by the name ofIl Natale che quasi non fu (1966) directed by Rossano Brazzi. So today, I am very happy to share with you this little remembered gem from Italy which is one of my very favorite Christmas classics.
It’s a week before Christmas and Santa (Alberto Rabagliati) is in trouble. With nowhere else to turn, Santa asks for help from Sam Whipple (Paul Tripp), a lawyer who as a child once sent a thank you letter to Santa. It seems that Santa is being evicted from the North Pole by Phineas T. Prune (Rossano Brazzi), a child hating miser who wants to put an end to Christmas. Sam and Santa try to appeal to Prune’s better judgment, but when that doesn’t work Santa gets a job as a department store Santa to try and make the rent. Prune ruins that too, and it all looks hopeless. Santa’s only hope is the children of the world who rally to save the holiday that they all love.
Written by American children’s show personality Paul Tripp, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t is the rare case of a heartwarming holiday film that doesn’t feel mushy. In fact, at times the film feels quite grim. After all, I can’t think of another film where Santa Claus looks so depressed. While it still appealed to me as a kid, I’m not sure what youngsters today might think about it with its melancholy tone. The “grown ups” out there who have a passion for Italian genre film will probably dig on this flick. It has the same kind of look and feel as similar Italian fare from the era, and even a few genre film connections as well.
At the time, director/star Rossano Brazzi was known primarily for his turn in 1958’sSouth Pacific, and he worked on both sides of the Atlantic in both TV and film in small roles. Brazzi was just perfect for the part of Phineus T. Prune with his look that seemed like he might twirl his mustache and tie a women to railroad tracks at any moment. He clearly enjoyed the role as the Christmas stopping baddie, and his scenes with Prune’s butler, the Lurch-like Blossom (John Karlsen), are incredibly entertaining. (Karlsen would go on to appear in Michele Sovai’s 1989 film The Church as well as Roger Corman’s 1990 film Frankenstein Unbound.) Brazzi did a find job with both his duties, and while the film doesn’t contain a lot of flash, it is directed with a steady hand and is not without its artistic flourishes. Brazzi would continue to act right up until his death in 1994, and over the course of his career he appeared in 1981’s The Final Conflict, 1974’s Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and 1969’s The Italian Job.
The other star of the film is Paul Tripp as Sam Whipple, and I’m afraid genre film connections are nil as far as Mr. Tripp is concerned. His career was grounded in children’s programming, and he has that same affable nature that Fred Rogers exhibited for all those years. Tripp is entertaining, but the parts of the film that focus on Whipple and Santa are the weakest. Thankfully they are few and far between. It is interesting to note that, like most Italian films of the time, it was filmed without sound and dubbed later. Only Brazzi and Tripp provide their own voices and singing to the soundtrack.
There are several other solid supporting characters as well. This was the last film in the career of Alberto Rabagliati, who played Santa, and there is something especially endearing to me about his glum Kris Kringle. Mrs. Claus was played by Rossano Brazzi’s wife Lydia, and it must have been quite fun for her to give her heel playing husband a hard time. The last performer I have to mention is Mischa Auer as Santa’s head elf Jonathan. He’s really charismatic and entertaining, and this role came at the end of a long career playing eccentric characters in films such as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, the Abbott and Costello film Hold that Ghost, and Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You.
Now I’ve gone quite far into this film without mentioning the songs. That’s partially because I don’t want to scare anyone off because it’s a musical and partially because the music is where it has it strongest and strangest genre film connection. Like the screenplay, the lyrics to the songs were written by Paul Tripp, but the score and orchestration was handed over to Bruno Nicolai. The composer for films such as Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, Eugenie, and The Mercenary turns in a whimsical score that is far removed from his better known work. The songs are quite catchy and memorable throughout, and after you’ll often find tunes like “The Name of the Song is Prune”, “I’m Bad”, and “Why Can’t Everyday be Christmas” popping into your head. There is also an excellent title tune sung by Glen Yarborough whose voice you might recognize from the songs he sang for the Rankin-Bass versions of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. (His style was also parodied a couple of years back on South Park when they detailed the adventures of Lemmiwinks the gerbil.)
From beginning to end, I really love this film. Because of how close I am to it, I’m not sure how objectively I can rate this film, but I really encourage folks to check this one out. Unfortunately, even though it is available on DVD, Netflix does not currently carry the film. It can be picked up cheaply from Amazon. I got a spanking new DVD copy for 3 bucks.. For fans of Italian genre film, I think this is the perfect Christmas treat. The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t shouldn’t be the Christmas the film that you didn’t see. Check this one and enjoy the best thing Italy added to Christmas since Panettone. Mmm, raisins.