Saturday, December 21, 2013

Classic Christmas Memories... Rankin/Bass Specials

From 1960 to 2001, Rankin/Bass Productions company made 66 film productions. Animated features and series for television, the Rankin/Bass productions ranged in themes from King Kong to Jackson Five but they are most famous for their Christmas specials. Originally named Videocraft International, the television production company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in the early-1960s. Starting with their first series on Pinocchio, this series and many to follow were produced using "Animagic." Made famous by Art Clokey's "GUMBY" and George Pal's "PUPPETOONS," Animagic was a special stop-motion animation process. This technology utilized an articulated metal armature inside the figures was actually pioneered by the famous Ray Harryhausen in Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack's KING KONG (1933), decades earlier. 

Several of these stop-motion animations were produced as Christmas specials based on popular songs. Here are my favorites:

Based on the premise of the song itself, we are introduced the story of Rudolph via a lovable snowman, narrated by Burl Ives who is animated in his likeness. Wearing a green plaid vest, a bowler hat and sporting a Mr. French-like beard, this snowman glides across the snow with ease as he sets the stage for the early years of this uniquely-nosed reindeer. And he does so by treating us with festive song, such as "Silver and Gold."
The song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was a popular Christmas-time tune ever since Gene Autry's recording in 1947. But Rudolph the character was actually created by a Montgomery Ward employee back in 1939 as part of an advertising campaign. The entire film's soundtrack was recorded in a studio in Toronto, Ontario with the singing and speaking cast being mostly Canadian. The animation was solely filmed in Japan.  

The cast of sweet and quirky characters make this children's feature special. Rudolph himself is the endearing reindeer who tries to mask his unique feature due to pressures to fit in, but proves he's the admirable one through his bravery. Herbie the elf (the only elf without pointed ears and the only one with hair) stands out as the misfit that possesses no toy-making skills but rather a passion for dentistry and a sunny outlook despite not being accepted by his peers. Yukon Cornelius the lovable prospector and his friendly dog sled team are on the hunt for a peppermint mine, not silver and gold as one would assume. Even an Abominable Snowman, nicknamed "Bumbles" by Cornelius, is included the cast of fun characters. I'm convinced most my childhood photos reflect my appreciation for Bumbles' toothy grin (see comparison below). And of course the entire cast of characters on the Island of Misfit Toys find acceptance and ultimately show us that even misfits have a place in society, especially at Christmastime. 
Interestingly, in the original TV launch in 1964 they reference going to the Island of Misfit Toys but there was no conclusion. So after a barrage of letters from fans worried about the fate of the misfit toys, Rankin/Bass added the ending we see today where all the toys find new homes. During first broadcast, Rudolph was released as part of the 'General Electric Fantasy Hour' on NBC and many commercials aired that featured the elves themselves pitching all the latest GE products for Christmas retail sales. You can see them here.  

When this film originally aired, I was four years old and my baby sister was just born. So I recall this one fondly as my childhood standard to watch every Christmas season with utter delight. This holiday classic enlists a celebrity again to narrate the story. None other than legendary Fred Astaire himself introduces us to Santa Claus aka Kris Kringle by answering all the questions we've always wondered about... where did he come from? .... where did he get that suit? ... where did he get that name? ... why does he give us presents in stockings? ... and so much more. Like Burl Ives as the jolly snowman in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964), Fred Astaire's likeness is wonderfully replicated in Animagic wonder as the singing (and yes, of course dancing) mailman S.D. Kluger who helps unravel all the riddles of the mysterious Santa mythology. 
And like in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964), this story takes us on a journey with interesting characters. While Rudolph took a journey with Yukon Cornelius and Herbie, here we follow the adventures of Kris Kringle as he grows up and meets characters like Tanta (voiced by Joan Gardner) and the other bearded and elven Kringles who raise him. Once he becomes a man, we are introduced to Jessica (voiced by Robie Lester and whom my husband has had a 'cartoon crush' on since childhood) aka future Mrs. Claus, Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by Paul Frees), and the Winter Warlock (voiced by one of my favorite characters, Keenan Wynn). Santa is voiced by another classic film actor, Mickey Rooney. This film with its songs, characters and stop-motion animation is simple yet charming. It's obvious why it's remained a classic for all ages.

Special Mentions:
THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (1968) is another favorite for many. It tells the story of a poor orphan boy who befriends young animals yet is challenged by hatred in his heart and deals with many struggles like poverty and abandonment. But his journey ends to intersect with the birth of Jesus Christ. His gift is pure love and playing his drum for the newborn son of God. The tone is too religious for me personally. But the voice celebrities are great- Greer Garson narrates and Jose Ferrer voices the character of Ben Haramed. It was always the favorite of my mother's and my husband's, as well. The songs are memorable, especially the title song. My favorite version of "The Little Drummer Boy" song was recorded by Bing Crosby and David Bowie in 1977. You can hear it here.
THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974) is definitely worth adding a special mention. The premise is what happens when Santa is too sick and heart-broken to make his typical Christmas sleigh trip around the world; that is until Mrs. Claus and the North Pole gang convince him otherwise. Mickey Rooney returns as Kris Kringle and Shirley Booth lends her voice talent as her last film appearance. But my favorite segment of this film by far is Mother Nature's sparring sons, Snow Miser (voiced by Dick Shawn- you can read more about another hilarious film performance by him here) and Heat Miser. These characters are uniquely fun. Frankly I wish these two had an entire film devoted just to their musical numbers. See if you agree, by checking out their bit here.
While there are many other Rankin/Bass features you may prefer to include on your list of favorites, these are my picks from my childhood memories. A consistent theme you see in these holiday specials are the positive messages of hope, kindness and friendship. As Clarence the angel wisely gifted to his new pal George Bailey in my favorite holiday film, Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)... "no man is a failure who has friends." I couldn't agree more, Clarence.

*This tribute to my top Rankin/Bass holiday specials is my contribution to the Christmas Movie Blogathon, hosted by Family Friendly Reviews. Be sure to check out the other bloggers' contributions to their favorite Christmas-themed classics, too. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!!    


  1. Ah, thanks for this trip down memory lane. The screencaps were delightful!

  2. Weren't these Rankin/Bass specials such a fun part of our childhood? So happy you enjoyed these as much as me!

  3. Isn't strange and nice how the songs written for these specials have become Christmas standards.

    When I explain the difference in the delivery of entertainment to my kids I tell them that when I was little if you missed Rudolph you had to wait until next year to see it. Spoiled kids of today can watch it any time they like. It's the TV equivalent of walking five miles uphill in the snow to get to school.

    1. Ha Ha! It's so true though- I don't think kids today can appreciate the excitement and anticipation of these specials when you waited all year to see them. I also loved watching the tv commercial of the personified electric razor sliding down the snow to indicate that one of these specials was up next!

  4. Without a doubt Rudolph is part of Christmas. Even tthough I remember the cartoon version best, I also watched this Rankin/Bass production of the story. I also loved the Fred Astaire pupet!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Thanks, Le! I will definitely check out your blog entry for this blogathon too!

  5. What a beautiful Memories on Christmas you had shared I like it.
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