Is there anyone who has never heard of these guys? Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass created some of the most legendary animated holiday specials of all time. They did a ton of Christmas shows, but some people don’t realize they did other holidays too. There are specials for Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Easter which never air on TV anymore. I never saw the Halloween one in fact. Most of their specials used what was called “Animagic” which was a stop motion animation process. Others had the typical cartoon style cel animation. Many famous celebrities lent their voices to these specials, and I should really do an article one day on the amazing Paul Frees. He voiced dozens of characters in these shows, not to mention hundreds of other productions. He was a true talent.

Today I wanted to talk about their Christmas specials. I will focus on their most famous ones, but we’ll get into the lesser known specials too. The reason for the question mark in the title is because this is going to be a little different than just a review. I think most everyone has seen these and knows the stories. However, some of these specials have twisted morals, and I want to do a little nitpicking. Why do we watch these every single year? Because there timeless classics, of course!

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Let’s start with the grandfather of all Christmas specials. You could fill a book on the behind the scenes story of this thing (in fact, there is a book out on it!). Billie Mae Richard as Rudolph and of course Burl Ives was the snowman narrator. We know the story, persecuted for being different Rudolph runs away. It’s easy to pick on this special because of all the prejudice in it. Donner is ashamed of his son instantly, and the way Santa and the others react is appalling. He’s different? No!!!! Hermie doesn’t get treated any better. This is one time when Santa’s workshop is portrayed more like a sweat shop. I hate to say that because it bothers me when others say it, but it’s true. Hermie has to work here whether he wants to or not. There is even a horn to indicate break times. I guess there is no freedom of movement here; you do what you’re told.

However, to be fair it has to remembered that this special had to be true to the song. The song is full of hate and at least this movie has an ending showing everyone apologizing for being such jerks. People have made fun of how they “use” Rudolph after Santa discovers a use for him. But they forget, he was asked not ordered. Also, what’s wrong with Rudolph using his gift for the benefit of others? Hundreds of children will be happy on Christmas morning, because of Rudolph. Was he supposed to be selfish and say “screw that Santa, I ain’t hauling your fat ass anywhere!” Maybe I am being too easy on this film, but I think it does more right than it does wrong. One thing it totally does wrong is Santa Claus. Why he is such a grouch in this movie? In the scene where the elves are singing their song, Santa is clearly bored and then he just leaves rudely. Nice attitude!
This special will be around forever. The songs are all really good, and how could you not love Burl Ives as the snowman?
Frosty the Snowman (1969).

This was done in the traditional cel animation style, with Jimmy Durante as the narrator and Jackie Vernon as Frosty. We all know the story, after the magician Professor Hinkle (wait, he was a professor and a magician? Ok) throws his hat away some kids retrieve it and put in on a snowman. The snowman comes to life, and we know the way the song goes. The first part of this is pretty basic, following the story in the song. Then Frosty realizes it is to warm, so his friend Karen decides to help him get to the North Pole so he won’t melt. They board a refrigerator train, where Karen figures her parent won’t mind if she goes as long as she is home for supper, and this is where the story gets weird.

Because Karen is about to freeze to death, they get off the train. Hinkle is after them, and Frosty and Karen end up at a greenhouse. Hinkle traps them in there, and what I have always felt is one of the most traumatic moments in children’s animation occurs. Off camera, Karen has to watch Frosty melt right before her eyes. Santa finds Karen, sobbing over a puddle of water. Are you serious??? Maybe it’s because I am a Psych major, but I can only imagine the trauma on this poor kid as she had to watch Frosty melt right in front of her! Anyway, Santa restores Frosty and takes care of Hinkle. The story ends with Santa and Frosty dropping Karen off on her roof, we never see what happened with her parents who were probably getting ready to call the cops to report the girl was missing.

This is not a bad special, but I always felt bad for Karen. I wonder how many years of therapy she needed to get over what happened in this special, and the fact she was nowhere to be seen in that forgettable sequel, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, always made me laugh. (as for Frosty Returns, let’s not talk about that)

 

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

I always liked this as a kid, and was upset when it disappeared from TV years ago. Thank heavens for ABC Family, not to mention DVD’s. Even though it is totally made up, I always liked this version of the Santa Claus story. While it’s hard to believe a town could ban toys, it’s clear that this is not America and the Burgermeister is actually a believable villain. Believe it or not, I buy it and I hated him like I would hate any good villain.

Fred Astaire is the narrator and Mickey Rooney stars as Kris, which he will do several more times. The story explains how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus. He started out as an outlaw delivering toys to somber town even though it was illegal. He meets Miss Jessica who would become Mrs. Claus. They do a great job explaining everything, ok the magical flying reindeer is a bit of a stretch but then so is the magic snow ball. The only weakness may be the winter warlock, who totally fails as a character. He is defeated so easily then just becomes the whiny magic assistant for the rest of the film. We never see Burgermeister really get defeated either, we are just told he died and when he did the town realized how foolish his laws were so they stopped following them.

Clever special, and very well done. I think I almost liked this better than Rudolph. My favorite is the last speech by the narrator about what Santa really means. He says how it might be a better world if people followed his example, and gave of themselves with no expectations. He says that as bad as things can be, doesn’t Santa take some of that away? I am not doing the speech justice, if you don’t know it check it out below. I love it, and totally agree with it. That last scene is still relevant today, maybe more so, as it was when the special first came out.

 

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

 

I gotta own up, for years I heard of this but had never seen it. It wasn’t until one day I stumbled onto it on the Disney channel, and thought it was really lame. It didn’t help I came in more than half-way thru. However, I have watched it since and I have grown too really like this one. The story is very well told, from an actual book I would love to find someday, and the animation is really good.

Basically, one year Santa is depressed so Mrs.Claus (played by Shirley Booth) sends a couple elves to Earth to find some Christmas spirit. They land in Atlanta (they call it south town, but it’s Atlanta) and get into trouble. It’s hard to do a brief synopsis of this story, let’s just say that Santa rescues Vixen while Mrs.Claus helps the two elves on their task. They meet with the Miser Bros, Heat Miser and Cold Miser, both of who have two of the infamous songs ever.

When word gets out that Santa wants a break, the children of the world rally to bring Christmas to him. Santa is so moved it breaks his depression, he suits up and is off down Santa Claus Lane (literally). I love a good story, and this is a good story. Yeah, it’s a bit corny at times but aren’t they all? There really isn’t a single thing I can complain about with this one. The songs are very good too. Oh and how did I feel about that live action remake a few years ago? Let’s not talk about that.

Well, I was easy on that one. I won’t be so kind to the next.

 

Twas The Night Before Christmas (1974)


Joel Grey stars in this which is a perfect example of how something which was charming as a child seems just wrong as an adult. An entire town gets their letters back from Santa, turns out that he is pissed off with them because of an article which doubted the existence of Santa. Where do I begin? So first Santa can’t accept any criticism, and actually sends the letters back? Turns out a mouse wrote the article and stands by it, until his father shows all the problems his opinions caused. I mean, how dare someone have an opinion that is different than the status quo! The nerve, doesn’t this mouse know you have to think and feel like everyone and if you do have another opinion you never, ever tell it to anyone! Yeah, this special sucks.

When I was a kid I never realized how twisted the message in this thing is. In order to apologize a clockmaker makes a huge clock which is supposed to sing a pretty song which will make Santa like them again. I always hate when Santa holds grudges! Problem is the same mouse who wrote the letter accidentally damages the clock, and the town turns their back on the clockmaker. That is until the mouse fixed the clock, just in the nick of time!

Ok, to be fair I like the song the clock plays. I admit it. And of course it’s always nice to hear the old Clement Moore poem, but my god what is up with that plot? I realize turning a poem into a half hour cartoon is a bit of a challenge, but did they read this before they filmed it? Then again, maybe I am being too hard on this; I do still watch it every year.

 

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Red Skelton narrates and does some of the voices for this special. This was a curiosity as a kid because I only saw it a handful of times. In fact I used to have it confused with Rudolph & Frosty: Christmas in July. The plot is simple, Rudolph is sent to find and bring back the baby New Year named Happy, and If he doesn’t there will be no new year at all. Putting aside how ridiculous that is for a second, the thing that ruins this for me is the plot point about Happy. The reason he runs away is because he has very big, floppy ears. Every time someone sees them, they can’t help but laugh which upsets the kid (as it should) and he runs off.

I don’t know, there is just something about that plot. What adult would laugh at someone who is different, much less a child? I don’t care what the difference is. I guess they wanted to make it different than the Rudolph story where people were scared of him, but laughing isn’t exactly nice either. They do try to make the characters apologetic for laughing, but who is stupid enough to laugh in the first place? That would be like me staring at a person with a disability and then saying well, how could I not stare? At the end Rudolph finds Happy and teaches him that we have to accept the way we are, differences and all. That’s fine but then he says that Happy’s ears make people feel so wonderful they have to laugh. Hmmm, wonderful or superior? Not sure.

This special is filled with characters as Rudolph searches for Happy on all kinds of islands. So many characters it’s hard to figure out who is who. Of course there is a villain, an evil bird named Aeon who does not want to see Happy rescued because he will be destroyed when the New Year begins. He convinces Happy that he is his only friend. How does Aeon get defeated? He sees Happy’s ears which make him laugh so hard that he is so full of warmth and happiness he is saved. What? Do they feel happy and warm or a feeling of superiority? Is that what you want to teach in a children’s special? Seriously, someone tell me I am wrong!

Well, those are the main specials that I always watch. Let’s very briefly talk about the others. Thanks to ABC Family I have had a chance to watch these lesser known shows, and also understand why they vanished from network TV

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)-YAAAWWWWNN !!!
The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975) with Angela Lansbury is a nice story but there is really no substance to it.
Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976) with Andy Griffith is just awful. The story is about Frosty getting wife except Jack Frost gets in the way.
Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977,) with Roger Miller is actually a really good story. However, it is overly religious and I can kind of see why it has disappeared,
Jack Frost (1979­) with Buddy Hackett is more of a Groundhog Day special. It is only ok, actually quite forgettable. I think I liked some of the songs in it, but I would have to watch it again. This special also carried the message that in order to be happy you have to be married. Nice to know if you’re single you’re a failure.
Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980) I have never, to this day, sat through this thing. The very concept just sounds stupid.

Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)-This is based on the L.Frank Baum book and does not contain any of the charm of the past R&B specials. It is the story of Santa Claus again as a council tries to decide if he should be granted immortality. It is a nice story with some cute songs, but it’s so different that it is a little hard to watch.
And finally there was Rudolph & Frosty’s Christmas in July. This was a theatrical release believe it or not, but oddly enough no one wanted to see a Christmas movie in the summer so it bombed. It has such a complicated plot that it’s a turn off. However, the original voice actors reprise their roles which are cool and the references to other R&B specials also bring a smile to my face.

That concludes my look at Rankin/Bass. They gave us some very nice memories, even if they also gave us some mixed messages. However, it wouldn’t be Christmas without these shows and I will be watching them yet again this year. Maybe someday I will talk about the non-Christmas stuff they did (including Thundercats in the 80’s. It’s true!)

By richb

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