Holiday Classics: “On the Twelfth Day” (1955)

If it wasn’t for Mark Cousins’ extensive 2019 documentary series “Women Make Film,” I would likely have never become aware of “On the Twelfth Day,” a delightful short film that serves as a farcical interpretation of the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” In the documentary, “On the Twelfth Day” is brought up at the very start of the first chapter, narrator Tilda Swinton using it as an example of a film that ought to be an enduring classic like so many of the male-directed holiday specials of the time, but that has remained largely forgotten by time—even though it was nominated for a Best Short Subject Oscar in 1955. It’s a shame, because “On the Twelfth Day” is a delightful 20 minutes of sheer artistry.

The film is directed by Wendy Toye, a British dancer and creator who worked both in front of and behind the scenes in both theater and film. Toye also wrote, choreographed, and starred in the Victorian-set film as the prim woman who is wooed by her lover (played by David O’Brien) with a series of extravagant gifts. Or at least, he attempts to woo her—as in the song on which it is based, every day his gifts increase in size and absurdity, until the woman’s home is bursting with all sorts of animals, musicians, dancers, and more that prevent her from maintaining control over her household.

Wendy Toye and David O’Brien in “On the Twelfth Day”

There’s no dialogue in “On the Twelfth Day,” which works not unlike a silent movie. The film uses the instrumentals of the song in the score, and Toye and O’Brien’s expressive gestures help sell the characters’ relationship, which transitions quite quickly from sweet to strained. “On the Twelfth Day” is very funny, especially in the way in which the man remains oblivious to how much he is stressing out his lover with what he thinks are sweeping romantic gestures, but its most impressive element is its visuals. “On the Twelfth Day” looks like a Christmas card come to life: colorful exteriors are nestled among the snowy streets, and the interior of the woman’s home is an overly saturated, candy-coated dream. The bright costumes complement their surroundings well. They feel like a precursor to the visual style that Wes Anderson has become so known for. Much of the film’s aesthetic can be attributed to Toye’s frequent collaborator, designer Ronald Searle, but as impressive as his work is, it’s telling that, despite this being unquestionably Toye’s film, she received billing in the credits under Searle’s name.

Unfortunately, “On the Twelfth Day” is hard to find—or at least, hard to find a watchable print of. If you’re located in the U.K., you can rent it on the BFI’s online player. Otherwise, you’ll likely only be able to watch it on YouTube, via some prints ripped from old VHS copies of the movie (here and here; it has never received a proper physical release). These prints look awful, but they at least give you can idea of just how impressive “On the Twelfth Day” would look with a proper restoration. And the film is delightful regardless; no matter how fuzzy the print is, its sense of humor and festive mood still shines through. I hope with some time and word of mouth “On the Twelfth Day” will start to be rediscovered and become part of more people’s annual holiday viewing traditions.

Runtime: 23 minutes.

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