Saturday, December 13, 2014

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Rankin-Bass, Videocraft International, Classic Media, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve been waiting several days to have long enough to write a journal to comment on the TV show I saw Tuesday night. The show was the 1964 stop-motion animated version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, aired on CBS and ballyhooed as the 50th anniversary showing of this ubiquitous special. Even more than Johnny Marks’ original song (which according to’s “Trivia” section on the show was actually written in 1939 as a promotional song for Montgomery Ward’s, though it didn’t become a hit until 1947 when, after both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra turned it down, Gene Autry, who by then had been virtually forgotten by just about everyone who’d aged out of the Saturday Western matinees, agreed to record it and turned it into a major comeback), the TV Rudolph is a tale celebrating individualism, nonconformity and triumphing over people who hate you for being “different.” Marks himself was hired to write eight more Christmas-themed songs and turn Rudolph into an out-and-out musical, including one, “Holly Jolly Christmas,” that while not a mega-hit on the order of “Rudolph” did do well enough it’s become a holiday standard (especially in the recording Burl Ives made for this film).

The songs get a bit cutesy-poo at times and the stop-motion animation is nothing to write home about — except for the Abominable Snowman-style “Bumble” character, who seems to have been deliberately designed as a tribute to the title character of the greatest and most famous stop-motion film ever made, King Kong. But what’s most fascinating about Rudolph is how far the writers (Robert May, story; and Romeo Muller, script) extended the song’s basic message — that something that’s looked down on by your peers and becomes an excuse for prejudice can turn out to be a special talent that can save the day in a crisis — though a series of lovably eccentric characters and situations. Rudolph himself is the son of Donner — not the German name for Thor, the Norse god of thunder, but one of the canonical eight reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh in The Night Before Christmas — but Donner and his missus don’t want people to know that their son has a glowing red nose, so they make him wear a black hood over it that makes him sound like he has a cold all the time. (Kudos to voice actor Billie Mae Richards for pulling this off and doing both of Rudolph’s voices — the one with the hooded nose and the one has au naturel — impeccably.) Once Rudolph is “outed,” Coach Comet (another of Clement Clarke Moore’s canonical reindeer) snidely announces, “We’re not going to let him play in any Reindeer Games!,” adding a sting-in-the-tail resonance to the original line from the song. Rudolph’s one friend among his species is his girlfriend Clarisse (Janis Orenstein), who’s willing to walk with him until her dad spots the two of them together and forbids her to see him again. (Donner, Comet and Clarisse’s father are all voiced by the same actor, Paul Kligman.)

Joined by Hermey, a renegade elf who doesn’t want to work in a toy factory and instead wants to be a dentist (a pretty twisted sense of humor on the part of the writers!), they set off into the wilds of the Arctic and meet up with Yukon Cornelius (Larry Mann), a comical prospector who keeps looking for silver and gold and striking out. They also have a run-in with the Bumble — the monster designed to look like a white King Kong — and to flee from them Yukon Cornelius cuts a chunk of ice into a boat and they reach land at the Island of Misfit Toys, including a Charlie-in-the-Box, a train with square wheels on the caboose, and other equally oddball items. The phrase “Island of Misfit Toys” has entered the language — I know I’ve used it pretty often as a metaphor — and the whole story, with Rudolph returning to Christmas Town in triumph and becoming indispensable to Santa on an especially stormy Christmas Eve because his nose will serve as a fog-cutting beacon to get Santa to the homes of all the good little kids to deliver their presents (including the Misfit Toys, who are given owners who will cherish them as they are), is a deliberate parable celebrating freedom, individuality and uniqueness over conformity, an odd thing indeed to have been put on children’s (and family) television in 1964 and perhaps a bit of a time bomb fueling the fancies of the 1960’s that youth could somehow stake their own territory and be free from the demands of society. The producers of Rudolph, Sid Rankin and Jules Bass, went on to make quite a few more Christmas shows, with similarly tacky stop-motion models (the animation work was done in Japan because it was already cheaper to do the labor-intensive stop-motion process there than here) but without the amazing resonances that set this show quite apart from most sappy “family” stories told at and/or about Christmastime and make it a special favorite of the Gay atheist socialist who’s writing these words!