Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Rankin-Bass Holiday Specials

Today is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and I can’t think of a better time to celebrate the long friendship between the U.S. and Japan that’s existed since that horrible war ended. And here’s an unexpected example of how quickly the two nations (who’d worked hard to annihilate each other) mended fences. In 1960, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass founded Videocraft, which quickly thereafter became known as Rankin-Bass Productions, best known (and loved) for their many animated holiday television specials. What is not widely known (in America, anyway) is that almost all of the company’s animation work was outsourced to Japanese firms, making it among the first Japanese animation to become popular with American audiences. Those big eyes which the characters have, especially in their cel animation productions, certainly seem to point the way toward anime, don’t they? Of the remaining work, most of it was outsourced to Canadian companies. Canada has long been America’s best friend. The present administration has been gratuitously stirring up tension with them, a situation which has not existed since the 19th century. What better time than the holidays to reinforce this message: Antagonism BAD; Friendship and Cooperation GOOD. So we’re going to celebrate Rankin-Bass’s holiday specials today. And by “holiday”, we mean December holidays. For the time being we’ll leave out the other holidays shows (Easter, Thanksgiving etc) as well as Rankin-Bass’s non-holiday productions.

When watching these little shows, I am always amazed at how much was achieved with so little. There is enormous economy both in the storytelling and the visuals, and yet it filled my head when I was a kid, and I still “go there” as an adult. Entire worlds are created. Most of the shows were done with stop motion animation using little doll-like figurines; some were done with more traditional cel animation. The great Romeo Muller wrote the scripts for most of the classic ones. As for the music? I often think of the Rankin-Bass specials as far better musicals than Broadway was turning out during the same years. Maury Laws was the musical director for Rankin-Bass.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The first of the Rankin-Bass specials was formative in so many ways. First, it set the template for all its own productions going forward. For example, the use of a pre-existing popular song as a peg to hang the show on, in this case the 1949 Johnny Marks tune, first popularized by Gene Autry. Secondly, it instituted the tradition of celebrity voice-over talent, especially as narrator, in this case Burl Ives, as a talking snowman. But this show was also formative on US, the kiddie audience. Its message is really rather subversive for its era and seems a real bellwether for changing times, the pivot from the conformist and oppressive 1950s, to the ’60s and ’70s when freedom and individuality were celebrated and encouraged. When I think of how it affected me in my childhood, I realize it was a huge influence on how I look at the world. It’s about a bunch of misfits who rebel against authority figures who try to make them conform. The heavies include Comet, the reindeer games coach (played as a Jack Warden style jerk); the Head Elf, a cruel sarcastic overseer; and even Santa Claus himself. The heroes include Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards) rejected for his strange glowing nose; Hermie, an elf who wants to be a dentist; a bunch of rejected toys; and the Abominable Snowman, who is just badly misunderstood. Others who join them on their quest (mostly because they are nice), are Rudolph’s girlfriend Clarice, and Yukon Cornelius, a failed “silver and gold” prospector. When they all band together they save Christmas, putting all of the more conventional minded people to shame. At least Santa Claus apologizes in the end. But it took some doing!

The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

An adaptation of the Charles Dickens story, about a Bob Cratchet-like family (with a blind daughter instead of a Tiny Tim) whose guardian angel is a fireside cricket (Roddy McDowall). Disney’s Jiminy Cricket obviously owes its origin to this story. Disney’s plundering of the concept for Pinocchio has the odd effect of making the talking cricket in this tale seem derivative, despite being an 1845 creation of Dickens, predating the Disney film by nearly a century. Other voices in this special include father and daughter Danny Thomas, and Marlo Thomas, as well as Abbe Lane, Paul Frees, and Hans Conreid.

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Like RudolphThe Little Drummer Boy one fleshes out a story told in a popular song, this one written by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. The networks showed this one a lot when I was a kid, then it seemed to go away for awhile (I’m assuming because of its heavily Christian content), but now it seems to be back. I loved this special when I was a kid. It seemed a lot like a traditional nativity scene, or crèche, come to life. That plus that beautiful title song, performed by the Vienna Boys Choir. I was a very religious kid, so this production really captured my heart. On TOP of that, there’s a lot of tragedy in it. The drummer boy is cruelly orphaned, and then exploited by cold-hearted adults (in a manner not unlike Disney’s Pinocchio) before he meets the Three Wise Men at the birth of Jesus. Greer Garson provides narration, with other voices by Jose Ferrer, June Foray (best known as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and Paul Frees.

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

The song which this show was based on was first popularized by Gene Autry in 1950 as his follow-up to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, although Jimmy Durante also had a hit with it that same year, making his participation in this special as the narrator especially magical. Frosty the Snowman was one Durante’s last gasps prior to a stroke that took him out of show business for good a couple of years later, so it makes this performance especially poignant. When I watch this show nowadays I am astounded by two things. One is how quickly it moves, yet still has an impact. When Frosty (Jackie Vernon) melts, I was always just devastated. Yet we had only met him minutes before! The whole damn show is less than a half hour long, and had commercial interruptions, to boot! The other thing, I note, somewhat perversely: I nowadays find myself on the side of the magician (Billy De Wolfe), whose magic top hat Frosty appropriates. The show teaches a terrible lesson in that way. You don’t just get to steal something because it belongs to a nasty person! But I guess that is a can of worms: socialism vs. capitalism in a nutshell. I still love the show. June Foray and Paul Frees also provide voices in this one

Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970)

The last of the specials based on a pre-existing Christmas song, and frankly, the last of Rankin-Bass’s REAL classics, to my mind. The song dates to 1934; it premiered on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and had been covered many times over the years. It’s so well done, it ranks with Rudolph as Rankin-Bass’s two big tent pole productions. Like the earlier show, it has an epic scope despite a less than epic length, and purports to accomplish no less than the Santa Claus origin story, which it gloriously, definitively does. Fred Astaire is the narrator, the mailman who delivers your letters to Santa. Mickey Rooney is Santa. Keenan Wynn, Ed Wynn’s son and a great character actor in his own right, is the Winter Warlock (who, like the Abominable Snowman, is initially a villain, but one who redeems himself and becomes a friend). Paul Frees is the hilarious Burgermeister Meisterburger, whose one mission in life is to destroy all fun. Thankfully, he doesn’t succeed!

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

This is the first Rankin-Bass special I was old enough to watch (or to remember watching) at its television premiere! As you can imagine, the excitement in my fourth grade class was through the roof. Unlike the previous specials, the concept for the show itself does not revolve around a classic song, although a couple of classics (“Blue Christmas” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”) are included in the show. The title song for the special is hackwork. The new tune (and the set pieces that go with it) which made a HUGE and lasting hit were the “Heat Miser” and “Snow Miser” numbers, which carried a bit of old time vaudeville with them. Still, with this special, the Rankin-Bass franchise seemed to have jumped the shark. As I blogged here earlier, the show is oddly dark and a bit of a downer, and way too high concept. Santa (Mickey Rooney again) is depressed and feels unloved so he “cancels Christmas”, forcing Mrs. Santa Shirley Booth, in her last role, to pick up the slack, with very little thanks, I must say. Dick Shawn is Snow Miser; George S. Irving is Heat Miser. Bob McFadden, who did many of these specials, plays a hapless elf assistant.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

I recall watching this one when it premiered as well. It’s a perfectly nice fleshing out of the famous Clement C. Moore poem, with a family of mice influencing the human family they live with (a concept seemingly borrowed from Disney’s Cinderella). Joel GreyGeorge Gobel, Tammy Grimes, and Bob McFadden provide voices.

The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)

This is the first Rankin-Bass Christmas special of which I have no recollection whatsoever. It’s very Catholic in orientation, with Angela Lansbury as a nun helping a blind shepherd boy. It contains a performance of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

This special is what allows me to say (as I did at the top) that this post is about holiday specials, as opposed to Christmas specials, for this one takes the risk of being about New Year’s Eve! I watched this one when it premiered as well. Billie Mae Richards returns as Rudolph, who has to help Father Time (Red Skelton), find the missing Baby New Year, or else there won’t BE a New Year! It’s heady stuff, with time travel and a celebrity cast that includes Morey Amsterdam, Hal Peary, Frank Gorshin, and Paul Frees

The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)

Greer Garson returns to narrate this sequel, in which the Little Drummer Boy is enlisted to help one of the Magi to help find some missing silver bells so they can announce the birth of Jesus. Zero Mostel plays the villain, a Roman soldier named Brutus! A little loaded, don’t you think? With Tom Bosley and Bob McFadden.

Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976)

Frosty (Jackie Vernon) makes good on his promise to “be back again some day” and returns to do battle with Jack Frost (Paul Frees) over who gets to take credit for the invention of snow. Naturally the song “Winter Wonderland” is sung. Sadly, Jimmy Durante, though alive, had been felled by a stroke, so Andy Griffith is the narrator. Shelley Winters plays Mrs. Frost (a.k.a. Crystal) and Dennis Day is Parson Brown.

Nestor, the Long–Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

This one seems to channel Dumbo, as well as Rudolph as well as the Christmas song “Dominick the Donkey” all at the same time. A cute donkey is ridiculed for his long ears but then redeems himself. Roger Miller is a narrator named Speiltoe. It also features the breathy voice of Brenda Vaccaro (!), and Paul Frees.

The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

As we blogged here, this is a re-make of a 1956 musical version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring Tom Bosley, Walter Matthau, Dennis Day, Robert Morse, Theodore Bikel, and Paul Frees

Jack Frost (1979)

The origin story of Jack Frost (Robert Morse), narrated by Pardon-Me-Pete (Buddy Hackett), with Larry Storch  and Paul Frees.

Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979)

An all-star production with revisitations by the stars of most of the the previous specials: Billie Mae Richards, Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, Paul Frees, Hal Peary and Bob McFadden, plus Ethel MermanRed Buttons, and Alan Sues.

Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980)

Not the first time Rankin-Bass has borrowed from Disney films, nor even from Pinocchio specifically! This one is narrated by Alan King, and has Paul Frees,George S. Irving, and Bob McFadden.

The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold (1981)

Okay, we already had a Christmas/ New Year’s Eve crossover episode and that kind of worked…St. Patricks’ Day though is kind of a stretch. Darby O’Gill anyone? By way of a Lucky Charms commercial. This one features the voices of Art Carney and Peggy Cass. 

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

This one truly is a latter day classic. I was 20 years when it came out so it entirely escaped my notice until a couple of years ago when our friend Pam Grossman sang its praises. It’s an adaptation of the L. Frank Baum story, which has an entirely different Santa Claus mythos from the one we know from Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It is extremely pagan and nature-based, and just generally trippy in a new and highly idiosyncratic way. Kind of like celebrating the winter solstice without Christian associations, for those who aren’t Christians (and even for those who ARE)! A new annual classic in our house. It features the voices of Earl Hyman (Cliff’s dad on The Cosby Show), and Bob McFadden.

Rankin-Bass hung up their stockings for good in 1987, so here is where we end our post. We may do additional posts on some of their other productions on future occasions.

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