For today’s subject, we’re going all the way back to 1937 to talk about the Columbia Pictures Gifts from the Air. This particular cartoon comes from an era dominated by Disney, Warner Bros, and MGM with a tip of the cap to Noveltoons. The Color Rhapsody Theatrical Cartoon Series is not particularly well-remembered outside of animation circles and it seems a lot of these shorts (if not all) have found their way into the public domain. Gifts from the Air would appear to be one such toon as I can recall finding it on VHS sets of Christmas cartoons back in the 80s and 90s which were filled with public domain cartoons and produced on the cheap. A particularly common and popular 1991 release was Christmas Comes but Once a Year which featured this cartoon as well as Bedtime for Sniffles, Madelaine’s Christmas, and the cartoon the VHS took it’s name from, among others. The cover artwork for this release is so engrained in my brain that it leads me to believe this was produced in substantial numbers, so much so that it would surprise me if one were to go to a flea market and sift through boxes of VHS tapes and not find that release among them.
Gifts from the Air is a Charles Mintz produced theatrical short animated by Manny Gould and directed by Ben Harrison. The internet seems to agree that this short was released in 1937, but no one seems certain about when in ’37 it was released. One would assume around Christmas, but I’ve seen enough of these released pretty far removed from the holiday that I’m not willing to make that assumption. This particular short reminds me a lot of the 1933 Looney Tunes The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives as both start out pretty much the same and feature Santa in a similar role. The only difference is the scamp in that short gets to go on a ride with Santa while the kid in this one will never lay eyes on the big man. Both though feature a downtrodden, poor, kid who gets rewarded with a great Christmas. It’s not a surprising plot point considering the Great Depression was having an impact on a lot of people’s lives at the time and it was reflected in the art produced.
A big difference with this short compared with the Looney Tunes one is that this was done in Technicolor. Disney’s iron grip on the technology had loosened and more studios were able to take advantage come 1937, something the Warner short from ’33 was unable to benefit from. It helps to give this one a more contemporary presentation, but one viewing will probably do enough to remind people why some outputs from that era are quite memorable, and some are not.
The short begins with some carolers singing “Silent Night.” They’re outside in the snow and nearby a warmly lit building features a massive Christmas tree with children dancing around it. Our protagonist, an obviously poor kid judging by the rags he’s wearing, watches from outside in the snow before turning his attention to a nearby toy store. The music picks up in tempo from the more somber “Silent Night” as the boy peers through a window to look at the toy display. A pair of wind-up soldiers seem to notice his teary-eyed stares and start dancing for his amusement. He seems pretty delighted at the display (sentient toys should probably warrant some excitement) and one of the soldiers really gets into it and seemingly falls apart. The boy looks shocked and a bit sad at the sight, but the soldier picks himself back up and turns the crank on his back to literally pull himself back together. He resumes the dance, but his spring-loaded head keeps popping up and eventually he falls apart again.
The shop owner takes note of the defective toy and with a scowl on his face removes it from the display. He then pops out of the store to discard it in a trash can and the little boy runs over to check on it. He picks the toy up by its head which soon separates from its body. The soldier even cries and the tears freeze on the end of its nose as it regards its shattered form. The boy returns the head to the body and it seems no worse for ware. With a smile on his face, he tucks it into his coat and heads across the street to his home, a dilapidated little shack that at least appears to have working electricity.
Inside the shack, the boy places the toy on a crate and informs it they’re going to have a real Christmas! There’s a wood stove in one corner of the room and a small bed in the foreground. In the corner by the door is a battered looking wooden barrel. The kid pulls a ragged umbrella out from behind it and opens it up. It’s tattered, green, form kind of resembles a Christmas tree and the kid shoves the handle into the top of the barrel. He then grabs a wash bowl and uses it to blow bubbles. The multi-colored globes hang in the air before settling on the “tree” while one comes to rest on the point and explodes into a yellow star – is this kid a wizard? After hanging his “ornaments,” a black and white cat comes out from behind the barrel and rubs up against the kid. He scoops it up and then runs his hands vigorously over the feline’s fur and charges the cat with static electricity. He sticks its tail into a hole on the barrel and the electricity shoots it’s way up the barrel and illuminates the umbrella tree.
Satisfied with his makeshift and impossible Christmas tree, the kid sits on his bed and removes his shoe. His sock barely qualifies as a sock for it’s missing a heel and a toe. He regards it sadly for only a moment, before improvising a stocking by removing the exhaust pipe from his stove and shoving it into the sock and hangs it on the wall. He closes the flue at the bottom so whatever gets placed into the pipe-stocking actually stays in the pipe-stocking, and then he jumps into bed and pulls his meager blankets over himself.
Once the kid is asleep, the toy soldier turns on his radio and speaks into it and says “Calling all stars,” over and over. The camera zooms into the radio which basically turns into a portal of some kind. We see the snow and three reindeer bound through it pulling a sleigh behind them. From it emerges Santa who grabs his sack of toys and steps through the portal and into the shack. With a big smile on his face, he empties the contents of his sack into the kid’s makeshift stocking before departing back through the apparent portal. It’s a nice gesture on the part of Santa orchestrated by the toy soldier, though it’s unfortunate the kid won’t wake up to enjoy it since carbon monoxide poisoning has made sure that he’ll never wake up. He really shouldn’t have removed that pipe.
Of course, that’s not where the cartoon goes and when the kid wakes in the morning he’s shocked to see a stuffed stocking. He opens the flue and toys come pouring out and cover his small area. There are cars that drive, toys that sing and dance, and even a full band. A bunch of the toys are clearly references to celebrities from the era, the only one I recognize is Bing Crosby who is portrayed by a goat that pokes the kid in the butt and then gets hit by a toy truck. Others alleged to be included are Eddie Cantor, Joe Penner, and Kate Smith. Everyone is having a rather swell time though, and best of all, no racist toys! At least none that I noticed. The song “Auld Lang Syne” breaks out as the kid returns to his stocking to find a large, wrapped, box. When he opens it, he finds a small dinner table complete with a turkey, cake, and a quart of milk. He rips off a drumstick and hands it to his drooling toy soldier buddy and takes one for himself. The kitty comes over to get his attention by holding a bowl in its mouth and the kid fills it with milk. Everyone preens for the camera for a moment and the short comes to an end.
Gifts from the Air is a totally fine little Christmas special. It wasn’t exactly what I would picture based on the title. For me, gifts from the air suggests presents from Santa who flies around in a sleigh pulled by eight, tiny, reindeer. Instead, I’m pretty sure the word air is a reference to air waves as the soldier uses the radio to call Santa and a bunch of radio personalities are then featured amongst the gifts the kid receives in return. This is essentially a poor kid getting rewarded with a nice Christmas. I’m left to assume he’s a good kid, we don’t really know anything about him, and I was happy to see Santa just didn’t drown him in toys, but also provided a feast as well. The short isn’t concerned with setting this kid up for a good Boxing Day to follow. I suppose he could sell some toys since he probably doesn’t need all of them, but at least for one day he likely won’t feel so poor.
The short is definitely dated, but it’s held up reasonably well over the decades. The visuals are fine, though not particularly impressive when weighted against some of its contemporaries. There’s a lot of characters just trying to show off with dancing, but few do anything clever or impressive. The one shot that stood out to me was the toy soldier’s tears freezing on its nose, but even that is hardly profound. There’s very little spoken dialogue, but plenty of music, which is lively and appropriate. The presentation, like the story, just come across as perfectly acceptable cartoon fair for 1937.
Gifts From the Air is barely 7 minutes in length so it doesn’t require much of an investment this holiday season. If you like watching old holiday cartoons or really enjoyed The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives then you’ll probably like this too. Most will probably find it a tad forgettable, which is fine since there is certainly no shortage of holiday cartoons to indulge in. As a public domain cartoon, it’s not something you have to pay money in order to view, but since it’s rather obscure it’s not as easy to come across as others. Still, a search engine can probably point you in the right direction simply by typing the title of the short into it. And like I’ve said before, at such a short running time, why not give it a look?