How Rankin/Bass Made Christmas Puppet-y
by Kyle Anderson on December 24, 2013
I don’t mean to get all Henry Hill on you, but as far back as I can remember, the Christmastime preparation has been synonymous with those old 25-45 minute TV specials made by the puppets-and-cartoons powerhouse of Rankin/Bass Productions. Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass were pioneers in a lot of stop-motion animation techniques, including “Animagic,” which used a special kind of wood-based puppetry. Their characters had a very distinctive visual style (many designed by Mad Magazine artist Paul Coker Jr.) and were voiced by some quite famous stars. But, really, who cares about any of that? I love them because they’re super weird, and now we’re going to talk about, arguably, their most famous Christmas specials, each of which I could probably recite from memory.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
When I was negative 20 years old, the very first Rankin/Bass special first aired, and it would largely set the stage for the rest of their Christmas output, in that almost all of them are based on an existing Christmas song. The special, as we all surely know, tells the story of a reindeer born to Donner (one of the big 8), who has a shiny, nay glowing, nose, which of course leads him to be the object of ridicule and shunned by everybody. He meets up with an elf named Hermey who doesn’t want to make toys and instead wants to be a dentist. They have an discussion about being independent at which time two bulbs fall off the tree and clatter in the same rhythm as the word IN-DEPEN-DENT. I’ve never known why.
After this, they come across the best character in the special, and perhaps in all of Western literature: Yukon Cornelius, the greatest prospector in the world (Wahoooooo!). He’s an insane person who can’t decide if he wants to mine for silver or gold. Yukon does, however, know all about Bumbles, or the Abominable Snow Monster, and it’s their game of cat-and-mouse that propels a lot of the action. Or, it’s just silly stuff.
They all eventually get to the Island of Misfit Toys where a bunch of rejected play things live in a perpetually-snowy wasteland ruled by a king who is a lion with wings. The toys are things like a Charlie in the Box, a spotted elephant, a cowboy who rides and ostrich, and a water pistol that shoots jelly. Why would any of these toys have been made in the first place? I mean, logistically, shouldn’t the elf in charge have seen a schematic or something before these toys went into production? “Charlie in the Box?” he’d say. “What are you thinking?” At any rate, Rudolph vows to help them all.
Really, even though the Bumble is large and terrifying (for awhile), the real villain of the piece is none other than Santa Claus, that most dastardly and huge-headed of fiends. He’s the one who makes Donner feel bad about Rudolph’s nose, he’s the one who callously discarded the misfit toys, and it was Santa who only have saw the benefit of Rudolph because there was a huge snowstorm and he needed a headlight. What message are we sending here?!?!
Also, Burl Ives is a singing snowman narrator, and that’s pretty awesome.
The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Here’s the one special I don’t actually like all that much. Not because it’s the most overtly religious (the titular character does go see Baby Jesus after all), but because it’s such a downer! It paints people in a really terrible light and is actually more of a reflection of the social climate of 1968 than I perhaps initially realized. It’s the story of Aaron, a young boy with a drum who lives in the middle of the desert with a camel, a donkey, and a lamb. Why does he live out there with no adult supervision? BECAUSE HIS PARENTS WERE MURDERED BY MARAUDERS IN THE NIGHT.
And because the world is awful, Aaron and the animals get abducted by a desert showman who wants to exploit the magic of dancing animals to make lots of money. But, Aaron hates people so they have to paint a smile on him. Eventually, the showman sells the camel to three passing kings (guess where they’re going) who lead the other good guys to Bethlehem, where you can guess what happens next.
Overall, even though this one’s about half the length, I find it much harder to sit through than any of the other ones.
Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Like this 1994 interstitial says, he’s “Way Cool Wednesday.” This was Rankin and Bass’s first hand-drawn animated special, but it keeps the same themes and general style of their puppet output. It features a snowman who is brought to life when a crappy magician’s hat lands on his head, causing him to come to life and exclaim “Happy Birthday!” The kids have fun with Frosty (though one kid wanted to call him “Oatmeal”), but he starts to melt because apparently the climate in this town fluctuates to near-apocalyptic levels. A girl named Karen decides she needs to get Frosty to the North Pole with the help of the the magician’s discarded rabbit. But, the magician wants to melt the magical snowman to get his hat back and not be such a spectacular failure at life.
I find this one funny simply because of how almost every character is played by an actor with a super thick East Coast accent, and that comes right from the narrator, in this one played by famous “Ha-Cha-Cha” comedian/singer Jimmy Durante. Frosty (played by deadpan comedian Jackie Vernon) says things like “I hate red thermometers. When thermometers get red, the temperature goes up, and when the temperature goes up, I start to melt, and when I start to melt, I get all wishy-washy.” Read that in a New York accent and you’ll know why I think this one is so much fun. Plus, every side character is voiced by the great Paul Frees, who we’ll hear from again very shortly.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970)
This is one of my favorites, simply because of the performance and design of Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle. He is so weird, and sort of threatening throughout the whole film, and I have no idea why. At one point, he begins to say the lines from the song to the dour kids of Sombertown: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout.” When the kid’s ask the very reasonable question of “Why?” He replies with a very hostile “I’m tellin’ ya why!” There’s also a very dated and now-quite-creepy musical number in which he instructs kids to sit on his lap and give him a kiss to get a toy… I guess 1970 was a simpler, less molesty time.
Fred Astaire as the narrator is really great as is the aforementioned Paul Frees as both the perpetually angry Burgermeister Meisterburger and his loyal lackey Grimsby. However, the best moment in the show is when Kringle laughingly teaches the once-evil Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) to be good. It’s especially silly.
The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
The last Christmas classic by Rankin/Bass strangely has gained a life of its own. It isn’t based on any song, and really isn’t very good, but it’s notable for the creation of two characters and their distinctive theme songs.
Part of me wonders if this special didn’t re-gain prominence when it was used in Batman & Robin, in which, no doubt, viewers were saved from the horrible garbage they were watching by the memory of a mid-’70s Christmas special, and people stopped paying attention to Arnold Schwarzenegger and started wistfully dreaming about a Snow Miser and his unlikable brother Heat Miser. That has to be it, I think.
Those are my five favorite Rankin/Bass specials, and it’s rare that I’ve gone a single Christmas without watching at least one. They made a lot more specials than that, both holiday and non-holiday. Of those, their version of The Hobbit is probably my favorite, but none of their work will ever hold a candle to the yearly yuletide whacko television tradition. And it wouldn’t be Christmas without this little parting salute.