All sorts of destined-to-be-classic movies were playing at Baltimore theaters in December 1964, movies that would earn Oscars, garner grand critical praise and set the groundwork for enduring cinematic legacies. “Tom Jones” was showing at the Mayfair on Howard Street, Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” and The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” at the Town on Fayette Street, “Charade” at the Northway on Harford Road, "My Fair Lady" at the Hippodrome.
But one movie was playing all over. On Dec. 13, 1964, 17 Baltimore-area movie theaters were showing a film that had been released less than a month earlier, a holiday offering featuring Santa Claus and little kids, even a healthy dose of sci-fi. And yet, little notice of the movie appeared in The Sun, no review (at least not that our archives have preserved), no interviews with the stars, no director explaining how he’d brought such a grand tale to the screen. In fact, the movie appears to have received little press at all, anywhere.
Why no contemporary love for “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”?
Well, it was a film for kids, so maybe it escaped film critics’ notice. It wasn’t released by a major studio, so there was no well-oiled publicity machine behind it. It had no big-name stars, so maybe there was no one the media deemed particularly interview-worthy.
Or maybe it’s because the film was so utterly terrible.
Here’s the plot: A group of Martian leaders, disturbed that the planet’s youngsters are so obsessed with Earth’s Santa Claus, decide to kidnap Saint Nick from his North Pole home and bring him to the red planet, bringing two Earth children along for good measure. Once on Mars, the ever-good-natured elf does his best to make Mars merry, despite the best efforts of some grouchy Martian authoritarian types to undermine his efforts.
Complete with cheesy green suits, flimsy antennae and a polar bear who’s clearly some poor stunt guy in a not-remotely-realistic suit, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is a howlingly awful film, but one that, even in 1964, was so bad that people loved it. Theaters certainly embraced it, booking it for weekend matinees. In the Baltimore area, it played at theaters including the Arcade on Harford Road, the Broadway in Fells Point, Lutherville’s Cinema II (one of the area’s first two-screen theaters), the Hollywood in Arbutus, the Patterson on Eastern Avenue (now home of the Creative Alliance) and the Towson on York Road.
“There are ray-guns and robots, and I’m sure the space-minded modern child will enjoy this cheerful little fantasy,” a columnist in the Chicago Tribune, writing under the pen name Mae Tinee, predicted. In one of the few reviews that seems to have run anywhere, in the New York Times of Dec. 17, Howard Thompson took a gentle approach. Calling it “a Christmasy little movie,” he concluded, “Adults may find it obvious and as square-cut as cheese. But let’s face it. From now till you-know-when, the youngsters are all that matters.”
Fifty-three years later, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is recalled as a groaner of the first order, a perennial on worst-movie lists. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t revered.
“I just love the high kitsch value of ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,’” says actress Melissa LaMartina, who, as her alter ego Aurora Gorealis, will be hosting a 9 p.m. Tuesday screening of the movie at Hampden’s Golden West Café. “You have a gathering of some serious Broadway actors galavanting about in green body suits and Martian antennae. It’s just so wholesome…it’s delightful.”
(Among the cast is a 10-year-old Pia Zadora, who would grow up to be an actor and early-1980s sex symbol; among her onscreen appearances is a brief bit as a beatnik in John Waters’ “Hairspray.”)
Then again, maybe “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” really had the last laugh. “Tom Jones” may have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1964, but it doesn’t get revived every Christmas, or enjoy the ignominy of making all-time “Worst-of” lists. And last we checked, Aurora Gorealis won’t be hosting any screenings of “My Fair Lady.”