The Christmas Special Day 15: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
Director: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Jules Bass, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum
Cast: Earl Hammond, Earle Hyman, Larry Kenney, Lynne Lipton, Bob McFadden, Lesley Miller, Peter Newman, Joey Grasso, J.D. Roth, Alfred Drake
Plot: In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak (Alfred Drake) summons a council of the immortals. As dozens of fairies, nooks, and other fantastic creatures come together, the Great Ak tells them the mortal named Santa Claus is about to be visited by the Spirit of Death. This mortal, Ak says, has earned possession of the world’s one and only Mantle of Immortality. To convince them, the Great Ak tells them his story, the tale of the life and adventures of Santa Claus.
Sixty years prior, the Great Ak found a mortal baby abandoned in the snow. He gives the child to a lioness to rear, but the fairy Necile (Lesley Miller) is curious about what a “child” is. She observes the lioness and decides she wants to care for the baby herself. She begs the Great Ak permission, which he grants, assigning the lioness to remain with the baby as its protector. Necile names the baby Claus, “little one” in her language. Claus doesn’t remain little for long, though. In the view of the immortals, he begins to grow up in the blink of an eye, and young Claus (voiced by J.D. Roth) begins his education in the ways of the forest. Ak decides Claus should see his own people, and takes him on a magical tour of the world of Man, where Claus sees terrible misery, violence, and suffering. He also begins to understand that he is mortal, unlike Necile and his friends, and one day he will die and become just a memory to his loved ones. Claus decides to live in the world of mortals, hoping to make it better, and he takes his lioness protector and teacher Tingler (Bob McFadden) with him. As he grows older, he begins to visit the nearby settlements of mankind, taking particular care in being a friend to the children. (His voice also changes, just like real life! Adult Claus is voiced by Earl Hammond.)
One winter night, as Claus carves a cat out of wood, he finds a child outside his home, nearly frozen. He brings the boy inside to warm up, and the child quickly takes a liking to Claus’s cat, Blinky. As the child sleeps, he finishes carving the cat, paints it, and gives it to the boy when he wakes up. When the other children in town learn of the wooden cat, they all want one of their own. He starts making cats, then other animals and dolls for the children… he has invented the toy. He brings his friends the Nooks to his home to help make toys in bulk, but soon receives a threat from a beast called King Awgwa (Earle Hyman), lord of the dark creatures who convince children to misbehave. King Awgwa abducts Claus, but the immortals easily rescue him. The Awgwa realize they cannot capture him easily, but they can prevent him from delivering his toys. They attack him the next day as he travels, stealing all the toys he’s made and taking them to their caves. The attacks continue, over and over. Finally, the Great Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, takes out his Silver Axe and leads the fairies and nooks into battle with the Awgwa and a mighty dragon. The Great Ak and his forces defeat the Awgwa, and Claus is free to deliver toys again. His sled is now so heavy with toys he can’t pull it, and his friend Peter Nook (Peter Newman) offers to allow Claus to use some of his reindeer to pull the sleigh, provided he can return them to their forest home by daybreak. The reindeer are impossibly fast, eventually finding the ability to fly through the air. Claus begins making regular trips to deliver toys, and is soon beloved by children everywhere, who call him “Santa Claus.” He returns home too late, though, and Peter is angry. Claus asks him to allow him to use the reindeer again, and Peter finally agrees, but only for one night a year… Christmas Eve. With just ten days, Claus won’t have enough toys to make the trip and will have to skip an entire year, unless he can find the toys stolen by the Awgwa. He goes to bed on Christmas Eve, convinced he’ll lose a year, but Peter Nook arrives with the reindeer and the sleigh full of recovered toys.
Years later, Santa Claus has won the love of all the world, and now stands on the brink of death. He decorates a tree with small toys as a symbol of his good work, and Tingler vows to decorate the tree every year. In the forest of Burzee, the Great Ak petitions the rest of the immortals to give Claus the Mantle of Immortality. In all the world there is only one, and can only be given to one mortal. Touched by his story, the immortals agree to present it to Claus. Just before he dies, Necile delivers the golden shroud to her son. Revitalized, he thanks Ak, pledging to prove himself worthy of the mantle for all time to come.
Thoughts: It had to happen sooner or later, my friends. This, I’m sorry to say, is the last Rankin and Bass special in our Reel to Reel countdown. It’s not one of the best-known specials either, but it’s one of my favorites. Based on the novel by The Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum, this is a version of Santa Claus’s origin that doesn’t quite jive with any of the others we’ve seen, doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Rankin and Bass “universe,” but stands on its own as a lovely fairy tale version of this holiday icon’s story.
The Baum touch is one of my favorite things about this special, I admit. I am an unabashed fan of all things Oz and I love to see different takes on the Oz mythos. While Baum never directly linked this book to his Oz novels, there are enough of his magical creatures common to the different books for me to accept this as a part of the Oz Universe. Which I know is something only a nerd of my particular stripe cares about, but as I can say that for roughly 87 percent of the observations I’ve made this month, I feel perfectly justified in doing so again.
Children may find parts of this special a bit odd. Although it was made in 1985, it’s a faithful adaptation of a novel written in 1902, before many of the elements now considered part of Santa Claus lore became standard. He’s still a plump, jolly man who enters through the chimney, who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But kids will ask why his toy shop is in the Laughing Valley instead of the North Pole, why his toys are made by nooks instead of elves. My nerd response will be to tell them this is the Santa Claus of Earth-2. Of course, then you’ll have to explain that, so maybe you’d better just find a way to explain it that suits your own children.
Most of the Rankin and Bass specials are more or less timeless. If there’s anything that links them to their era it is a tendency to model their narrators after the stars who voice them (Fred Astaire in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and Andy Griffith in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland being prime examples). This one is a little different, with the nook (or fairy or gnome – I’m not sure) named Tingler being clearly inspired by Chico Marx, of call people. Which would have made a lot more sense in an early Rankin and Bass special – this was made in 1985. It’s an odd choice, one that most kids watching this won’t even notice, but older viewers will see it quickly.
This special doesn’t have as much music as most Rankin and Bass specials either. The “Big Surprise” number the children sing to Claus is the centerpiece, coming almost exactly halfway through the film and helping Claus realize exactly what his mission will be. It works pretty well as far as providing the character with motivation, but it isn’t as great a musical number as we’d like from Rankin and Bass. The special also isn’t as funny as we’ve come to expect from Rankin and Bass. Except for the Biblical specials, most of their cartoons at least had an element of comedy to them. This has almost nothing. Claus is motivated by seeing true darkness in the world, and although the battle sequences aren’t gory or bloody, they’re fairly intense for a film of this nature. The violence is real, not played in a cartoonish nature.
These elements are all perfectly good, though. This isn’t another cookie-cutter Santa movie like so many of them are. (To fully understand what I’m talking about, just turn it on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime whenever you’re reading this. If it’s still December, there’s a 90 percent chance they’re showing a Christmas movie starring washed-up stars that is virtually indistinguishable from all of the other Christmas movies starring washed-up stars they show this time of year.) If you’re looking for something a little different – something that still has the charm and joy that comes with the names of Rankin and Bass but that is totally unique from every other version of the Santa Claus myth you’ve seen this year, this is the special for you.
NOTE: This story was remade as a traditionally animated direct-to-video movie in 2000 starring Robby Benson of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Don’t get the two confused. While the Benson version is… okay… the Rankin and Bass version is great.
The Christmas Special Day 12: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Roger Miller, Brenda Vaccaro, Paul Frees, Don Messnick, Linda Gary, Iris Rainer, Shelly Hines, Eric Stern
Plot: As Santa and his reindeer fly out for their Christmas Eve rounds, Santa’s donkey Speiltoe (Roger Miller) prepares for his annual rest, after a long year of pulling work carts and plows. As he observes Santa’s nativity scene, he sadly tells us the donkey doesn’t at all resemble the original, his ancestor. Breaking into song, Speiltoe begins telling us the tale of Nestor, the long-eared Christmas donkey.
Many years ago, a young donkey named Nestor (Shelly Hines) is mocked and dismissed due to his enormously long ears. On the winter solstice, the animals in the barn celebrate with gifts and goodwill, even to Nestor, who is given a pair of stockings to cover his ears. The joyful evening is ruined when a Roman soldier comes into the barn to buy donkeys for the emperor. They snag all of the donkeys except Nestor’s mother (Linda Gary), but when Nestor’s ears are uncovered they throw him into the snow and make off with the donkeys without paying. His mother breaks free and rushes into the winter night, finding her son buried in a snowbank. She covers Nestor with her own body, and perishes in the storm.
Nestor survives the winter, and as spring comes he meets a cherub named Tilly (Brenda Vaccaro), who informs him that his ears will allow him to do wondrous things some day. He is skeptical, but agrees to join Tilly on her way to Bethlehem. Eventually, Tilly has to leave him and he’s taken in by a merchant. A couple named Joseph and Mary try to bargain for him, but when the merchant realizes Mary is great with child, he gives them the donkey for nothing. Nestor, who had been sad and bone-weary, suddenly finds the strength to carry the young woman. When a sandstorm strikes, Tilly’s words ring through Nestor’s memory, and he hears his mother’s voice telling him to follow the singing of angels in the sky. He wraps his ears around Mary and leads them through the sandstorm, coming finally to Bethlehem. He finds a manger for them, and Mary bears a child. Nestor leaves them in safety, finding his way back home, where his friends celebrate him and his magnificent ears.
Thoughts: It’s back to Rankin and Bass land again, friends, for another tale of Biblical times… kind of. It’s also a return to a Gene Autry song as the inspiration, he who gave us both Rudolph and Frosty, and Nestor is the sort of character that would fit in nicely with the other two and their jolly band of misfits… although his story goes to dark places the others didn’t dream of. The threats Rudolph and Frosty face are more of the comical sort – a giant, bumbling snowman, an inept magician. Nestor’s threats are the Roman legion and nature itself. It comes upon us quickly as well, taking a shift from joy to sorrow faster than a Joss Whedon movie. Even as I was typing this paragraph, while watching the special over again, I was halfway through a sentence when I remembered what was going to happen to Nestor’s mother, and it was only through sheer force of will I managed to avoid turning it into an incoherent rant against the legionnaires and the Roman emperor and Rankin and Bass and Godfather’s Pizza. Because I was upset.
The plot itself is an odd one, bringing together elements of the Nativity story and mingling it with a character who, in many ways, apes Rudolph’s story a little too closely. Once again, we see an outcast born with some sort of deformity, driven away from home, forced into a situation where the deformity becomes his greatest advantage, and finally celebrated as special rather than dismissed as a freak. It’s certainly a positive message, but it gets repetitive after a while. If not for the last bit, these two could be X-Men. The story plays fast and loose with the Bible, of course, but not in a way that seems wrong or exploitive. Pretty much every account depicts Mary being carried on a donkey, and expanding that donkey’s story is a perfectly acceptable storytelling avenue.
Of all the Rankin and Bass specials I’ve covered, this one is probably the weakest from a musical standpoint. Roger Miller makes for a fine narrator and his voice is perfectly suited for the songs that accompany the special. The problem is that none of the songs are particularly catchy or memorable. After Rudolph and Frosty’s respective specials, you’re left singing their anthems. Nestor, not so much. If anything, it makes me want to sift through my iPod to find “Dominic the Christmas Donkey,” which I’m realizing now I haven’t actually heard yet this Christmas season, and I’d better rectify that.
My favorite bit in the special, however, comes at the end, when Santa and his reindeer return to the North Pole and join Speiltoe in celebrating the legendary Nestor. Again, the song itself is no great shakes, but the Rankin and Bass guys fill the scene with their all-stars. In the Biblical flashback scene we see the Magi and several other characters from Little Drummer Boy. When we come back to the present we see Santa, Mrs. Claus, Jingle and Jangle from Year Without a Santa Claus, and even Rudolph himself (who makes a rare appearance outside of one of his own specials). Again, this is the nerd in me, but it reminds me of when every Marvel superhero turned up for Reed and Sue Richards’ wedding in Fantastic Four, when all of the Tenth Doctor’s companions showed up together in Doctor Who, when Urkel did that guest appearance on Full House. There are certain characters you know all belong in the same family, even though you don’t usually see them together, and there’s an inexplicable sort of satisfaction that comes when you finally get them all in the same place. This is by no means a bad special, but it probably tells you something that the most memorable part is when all of the characters whose names are not in the title get together at the end.
The Christmas Special Day 8: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the poem by Clement Clarke Moore
Cast: George Gobel, Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Bob McFadden, John McGiver, Alan Swift
Plot: Two months before Christmas, in the little town of Junctionville, NY, both the human and mouse populations found themselves getting their letters from Santa Claus returned unopened. Father Mouse (George Gobel) discovers an anonymous letter in the newspaper calling Santa a myth and a lie, signed “All of us.” Father Mouse’s son, Albert (Tammy Grimes), is revealed as the author of the letter. Albert, a brainy sort, refuses to believe in things he can’t see or touch. Meanwhile, Father Mouse’s human clockmaking partner, Joshua Trundle (Joel Grey) convinces the town to construct a huge clock to play a song in praise of Santa in the hopes of getting back in his good graces. Father shows Albert around town, pointing out children heartbroken by Santa’s rejection, but Albert remarks that grown-ups don’t care about such things. Father tries to show him how wrong he is by taking him to Trundle’s clock.
On the day Trundle’s clock is unveiled, it mysteriously malfunctions, and the town gives in to despair. By Christmas Eve, the Trundle children don’t even want to hang their stockings or decorate the tree. The mice are in similar desperation, and Father stumbles upon a sobbing Albert, who confesses he broke the clock when trying to study the machinery. Albert vows to repair the clock before midnight, finally understanding that he has a lot left to learn. As the town sits up on what they’re certain will be a sad Christmas Eve, the clock strikes midnight and begins chiming Trundle’s Santa song. In the sky, a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer swoop down, and the Trundle and Mouse families watch as St. Nicholas makes his annual visit, right on schedule.
Thoughts: Like the many Rankin and Bass specials based on songs, Jerome Coopersmith had the task of expanding upon a rather thin plot. The original poem, of course, is simply about Santa popping in, getting caught by Dad, and popping back out again. No drama, no antagonist, and the mice that aren’t stirring also aren’t talking. Thank goodness the Rankin and Bass folks were here to fix that. Oddly, the result is an almost completely original story – the poem really only factors into the very beginning and very end narration, with everything in-between existing in a little world of its own.
Albert is an interesting character – someone who refuses to believe in anything abstract or esoteric. At the time, marking such a character as the misguided one in need of a lesson was standard operating procedure. Watching this cartoon today, however, I have to marvel at how different things are. In today’s culture, Albert would far too often be the one dealing out the lesson, ridiculing characters who draw upon faith. I rather prefer this version of the paradigm. The song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” is perhaps one of my favorites in all of the Rankin and Bass universe – something sweet and hopeful, but at the same time recognizing the need for good people to step up and work towards their dreams. As messages go, it’s a timeless one that more and more I feel like the modern world is forgetting.
It’s also interesting that this is one of the few Rankin and Bass cartoons – either stop-motion or traditionally-animated – that is presented as a period piece. Most of the Santa-centric cartoons that touch upon the real world – Frosty, for instance, or The Year Without a Santa Claus – all took place in the present day, with only Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town going into the past for the origin. This cartoon, though, seems to take place in a turn of the century sort of community. The story probably would have worked just well if set in 1974, but something about the more old-fashioned setting sets it apart a bit, giving it a slightly different flavor from the rest of the Rankin and Bass catalogue.
If the story has a weakness, it comes in Albert’s redemption. Like so many Rankin and Bass antagonists, we see someone who is more misguided than evil, and in his case, works frantically to fix his mistake. This is all well and good, but Albert’s actual transformation falls short. This half-hour short (25 minutes without commercials) simply doesn’t give us enough time to really watch Albert evolve as a character. Father Mouse’s song and the visit to the clock don’t seem nearly powerful enough to cause the sort of change of heart we see in Albert just in the nick of time. The ending is still very good, but it feels unearned.
What’s really odd, though, is how off-model Santa and his reindeer are in this film. The Rankin and Bass cartoons have a certain style whether they’re stop motion or cell animation, and even Frosty the Snowman sticks fairly close to style. While the human and mice characters easily look like they could pop into any other R&B production and be perfectly welcome, Santa… Santa. The “right jolly old elf” himself looks more like Alfred E. Neuman wearing a Santa suit than anything else. (Either that or he was a test model for the Hobbits in the Rankin and Bass adaptation of that novel, which came out in 1977.) Then, Santa speaks in a booming, deep (and uncredited) voice. It’s a good Santa voice, again one which would feel at home in any of these films, but feels completely alien to the Santa design in this cartoon.
These things take me out of the cartoon briefly, but only briefly. Despite being based on one of the most famous Christmas verses ever written, it’s actually one of the most original cartoon Rankin and Bass ever produced, and in and of itself, that’s enough to make it one of the better ones from any studio, ever.
The Christmas Special Day 7: The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Writer: William J. Keenan, based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley
Cast: Mickey Rooney,Shirley Booth, Dick Shawn, George S. Irving, Bob McFadden, Rhoda Mann, Bradley Bolke, Colin Duffy
Plot: One year Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) comes down with a terrible cold. His elfin doctor tells him people don’t care about Christmas anymore anyway, and the sad Santa cancels Christmas this year. With everyone distraught, Mrs. Santa Claus (Shirley Booth) sends elves Jingle and Jangle (Bob McFadden and Bradley Bolke, respectively) — with the reindeer Vixen — south to try to find some leftover Christmas spirit from the year before to convince Santa to get back on his feet. When Santa finds out they’ve left, he gets out of bed to try to fetch them, fearing they’ll run afoul of “the Miser Brothers.”
The elves, as it turn out, are heading right between the kingdoms of the warring Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving). Vixen barely escapes the Misers, and the trio land in nearby Southtown, U.S.A. They begin their search for Christmas spirit, but run into one person after another who doesn’t care… even children ambivalent about Santa Claus skipping his annual visit. They leave the children when Vixen – disguised as a dog – is taken away by the dogcatcher. One of the children, Ignatius Thistlewhite (Colin Duffy) is later approached by Santa Claus. Ignatius directs Santa to the dog pound and he leaps upon Donner to fly to the rescue. Ignatius and his parents see the flying reindeer, and he realizes his mistake. The elves and Ignatius arrive at town hall at the same time, trying to plead to the mayor for Vixen’s freedom. The mayor doesn’t believe them, and jokingly offers to free Vixen if they can make it snow in Southtown. Meeting up with Mrs. Claus, the elves visit Snow Miser who – after one of the most rousing and memorable musical numbers Rankin and Bass ever produced – they ask to bring snow to Southtown. As it turns out he’d love to do that very thing, but his brother the Heat Miser won’t allow it. When they turn to Heat Miser, he agrees to allow snow in the south, but only if Snow Miser will cede to him the North Pole for a day. Realizing the brothers will never come to terms, Mrs. Claus goes over their heads to their mother… the notoriously reclusive Mother Nature herself (Rhoda Mann). Mother forces them to cooperate.
Unbeknownst to them, Santa has taken Vixen – sick from the heat – back home to the North Pole. Santa, still feeling ill himself, sits down for a nap, unaware snow is falling in Southtown. Mrs. Claus returns with newspapers proclaiming an official holiday in celebration of Santa Claus. All over the world, children come together to visit the North Pole and give gifts to Santa for a change. On Christmas Eve however, Santa receives a letter from a child who proclaims she’ll have a blue Christmas without him. Santa, touched despite the blatant plagiarism from an Elvis Presley hit, demands his sleigh be prepared for his traditional Christmas rounds. He makes a special journey to Southtown, appearing in public (I told you guys he constantly breaks that rule in the Rankin-Bass universe) to thank the children who taught him his lesson. He leaves to perform his duty, taking off from the newly-renamed Santa Claus Lane.
Thoughts: I was almost reluctant to include this one, based on my “one-per-franchise” rule. This film is considered by some to be a sequel to Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly due to the fact that Mickey Rooney returns as Santa Claus. But then I decided screw it – it would be easy to link together most of the Rankin-Bass specials and just as easy to declare that each one exists in a totally separate reality from all the others, so I’m just going to do the ones I want to. It’s my project, after all.
If I did want to think of it as a sequel (which I don’t), this is the Superman II of the franchise. The origin stuff is out of the way, so we can tell a solid, self-contained story without worrying about wasting time placing the pieces on the board. The cast is expanded and the threat is considerably greater than in the first film. Also like Superman II, this film features the hero deciding to eschew his responsibilities and struggle with questions of his own relevance, only to learn a harsh lesson about just how needed he truly is. In both films, our hero is rendered ill, wounded, and is eventually prodded forward by the urging of an outside party (Santa’s letter to the little girl, Superman given a plea by the President of the United States). Even the villains in each film take the opportunity to screw each other, setting up circumstances that directly lead to the solution to the threat. This movie, it should be noted, has 100 percent fewer Super Roofie Kisses than Superman II, so the metaphor isn’t a perfect one.
I honestly like this much more than Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, mostly because – although it suffers from an unforgivable lack of Topper the Penguin (something else it has in common with Superman II) — it more than makes up for it with the introduction of the Miser Brothers. These are characters that have really become cultural hallmarks, at least for my generation. Their respective Heat Miser and Snow Miser songs have been covered by pop groups and rock bands, and even the most ardent Scrooge will find themselves singing along if that particular tune starts piping in through the mall sound system. Of all the characters created by the Rankin-Bass people from whole cloth (as opposed to being based on a preexisting tune or legend), these are the two that have most fully acclimated into American pop culture. They are the perfect example of a Rankin and Bass creep-to-be-redeemed. They aren’t evil, they’re just childish, and the ire they’ve directed at one another for such a long time has contributed directly to the lack of Christmas spirit in the world around them. It’s not a question of turning them away from being bad, it’s just a case of making them realize it will be better for everyone if they would simply cooperate with one another, a lesson similar to that learned by General Zod and Lex Luthor, and I swear to Krampus himself that’s the last Superman II reference. Today.
On a more personal note, the notion of snow in the south being the hallmark of real magic is something else that helps this special resonate with me. I’m from Louisiana, friends. White Christmases aren’t exactly common here. Neither are white New Years, white Valentine’s Days, or white Mardi Gras. It doesn’t snow down here much, is the point I’m making. So the idea of a little snow hitting specifically on Christmas really does carry magic in the south that those of you in colder climes may not realize. I offer the following evidence: a few years ago, against all odds, it actually got cold enough to snow in New Orleans on Christmas Day. It wasn’t much snow, just a dusting really, and my Yankee now-fiancé Erin just laughed when she saw how excited we were… but on that day, people flooded the streets. Everybody in the neighborhood was outside, kids who hadn’t taken their eyes off their X-Boxes in years were playing in the sun, throwing snowballs at each other and embracing the sudden burst of joy that was falling down as surely as the ice. My sister, who was 23 at the time, actually pulled the doorknob out of the door in her rush to get outside. It doesn’t happen here, friends. So I know how the folks of Southtown feel.
Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, this special proves that the fear of waning Christmas spirit isn’t a new problem at all. It’s actually kind of encouraging to realize people were afraid of these same problems forty and fifty years ago – if we’ve made it this far, maybe it’s just one of those things that never really goes away. But that’s okay, because there are people like Mrs. Claus, people of goodwill like you and me (admit it, you love Christmas, you wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t), and through our own small efforts and acts of kindness and acts of will, we’ll help the holiday persevere.
The Christmas Special Day 6: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)
Directors: Jules Rankin & Arthur Bass
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Robie Lester, the Westminster Children’s Choir
Plot: Friendly mailman S.D. Kluger (Fred Astaire) has once again rounded up a cart full of letters about Santa Claus. To answer all the questions at once, he decides to share with us the story of Santa’s life. Years ago, in a vaguely Eastern European land called Sombertown, a baby is found. He’s brought to the town’s mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), who immediately sends the baby to the local orphanage. On the way, though, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) sends up a terrific snowstorm that snatches the child away. The forest animals find him and hide him from the Warlock, taking him to a safe place – the home of an elf family named Kringle. The elves name him Kris, raising him as their own. As he grows up he learns all of their skills, including making toys. Sadly, the elves have mountains of toys that go undelivered thanks to the Burgermeister, even though they were once the royal toymakers to the king. Kris eventually grows into a strapping young man with the voice of Mickey Rooney. He vows to set out and begin delivering the toys, with an official red-and-white Kringle suit and a penguin named Topper. In Sombertown, though, the Burgermeister has outlawed toys entirely. Ignoring the decree, Kris hands out toys to children, and a schoolteacher named Jessica chastises him for breaking the law. The Burgermeister declares Kris a rebel and orders him arrested, but Kris distracts him with a yo-yo and escapes. Kris and Topper turn up in the lands of the Winter Warlock and are captured. Before he can destroy them, Kris gives him a wooden train, and Winter’s frozen heart melts away, restoring his humanity. Winter offers to use his magic to help Kris in exchange for toys once in a while, and he demonstrates his power by showing him a vision of Jessica, who is wandering the woods looking for him. She’s got a handful of letters from the children asking for toys to replace the ones the Burgermeister destroyed, and Kris begins using the Warlock’s tricks to watch over them, to be sure they’re being good, for goodness sake.
The next night Kris returns to Sombertown with a sleigh full of toys and a list of the good children (which, naturally, he checks twice), and the next morning the Burgermeister is again outraged at the proliferation of toys. He orders the doors and windows locked all over town, but Jessica and the animals continue to deliver letters to Kris. Refusing to disappoint a child with a special request, Topper suggests Kris try entering homes through the chimney, a task which quickly becomes standard operating procedure. The Burgermeister turns over all the houses looking for toys, so Kris starts hiding them in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace. The Burgermeister finally uses Jessica to track down the Kringles’ home, and Kris, the Kringles, and Winter are all captured and arrested. Jessica tries to break Winter out of prison, but the only remnants of his power are some magic kernels of corn. She feeds them to eight of Kris’s reindeer friends, who gain the ability to fly. They sweep into the prison and break out the inmates, taking them away. With the Kringle home destroyed by the Burgermeister, Kris and his family are now outlaws. Kris grows a beard to help disguise himself (doesn’t bother to change his bright red clothes, but, y’know, a beard… that should do the trick) and decides to use an alias. The eldest Kringle shows him a medal with his birth name on it: Claus. Taking back his real name, he asks Jessica to share it and the two are married in the woods on Christmas Eve while the Kringles decorate the pine trees and place their wedding gifts beneath the boughs. With his last burst of magic, Winter fills the trees with brilliant lights.
Kris and the Kringles march further north and build a home, where they continue to make toys for years. Eventually, the Meisterburgers die out, and Kris is able to make his journeys more freely. The letters from the children grow more and more frequent, though, and he decides to restrict his deliveries to one night a year, the holiest night, Christmas Eve.
Thoughts: Although, as we’ve seen, Rankin and Bass made a cottage industry out of turning Christmas songs into Christmas specials, this may be their crowning achievement of adaptation. The song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has even less of a plot than Rudolph or Frosty’s titular claims to fame. It’s basically a reminder to kids not to act like jerks because Santa won’t give them any loot on Christmas morning, and as this is a one-hour special, they’re going to need a lot more to go on. Romeo Muller, who has earned a permanent spot in Christmas Heaven for writing so many of these, does an absolutely heroic job weaving the tale of Santa’s life. This is without a doubt the longest synopsis I’ve written yet in the Christmas project, and that’s due entirely to the complexity of the story and the number of important touchstones along the way.
Muller manages to work in most of the major points of the Santa legend – the elves, the toymaking, the reason Christmas Eve is so sacred to him. For the most part, he does it very organically, almost seamlessly. The only thing that breaks the spell, that reminds you that he’s going through a checklist of Santa Facts, is that every so often Fred Astaire and the children break in with some narration to point out that you just learned something important: “So that’s why he makes such wonderful toys!” Yeah kid, we got that. No need to call attention to it. Muller also gives Santa a Mrs. Claus, elves, flying reindeer and the charming voyeuristic powers that probably weren’t nearly as creepy in the pre-Internet days.
There are a few interesting trends in here that would later reach out and lay branches in future Rankin and Bass productions. We’ve got multiple antagonists, at least at first, in the Warlock and the Burgermeister. The Warlock’s menace ends quickly, though, and he reforms, becoming a friend to our heroes. We’d see this later in other cartoons, including Jack Frost in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, the Miser Brothers in Year Without a Santa Claus. It’s a good way to work in themes of redemption into these cartoons without actually making an icon like Santa or Rudolph a jerk at any point in their respective careers. Not every villain can be redeemed, of course, but the way we see the Burgermeister waste away in self-imposed loneliness and misery says a lot for the power of having a winning personality.
The story is a tad anticlimactic – the Burgermeister never really gets his comeuppance, he just loses his prisoner, and it’s implied that he dies a pathetic wretch. But Fred Astaire comes in at the end of the special and delivers a speech of pure sincerity to rival “Yes Virginia.” It’s a beautiful moment and it leads right into the musical finale.
This isn’t my favorite of the Rankin and Bass specials, and none of the elements created for this show specifically have ever really caught on with the public at large the way some of the other Rankin and Bass creations have. (Not even Topper. What’s up with that? Topper is awesome.) But on the whole, it’s a fine origin for Santa Claus, one that is perfectly satisfying for any child who wants to know all of the things kids tend to ask about Santa. Even after all these years, it’s still a joy to watch.
The Christmas Special Day 5: Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Directors: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Jimmy Durante, Billy DeWolfe, Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees, June Foray
Plot: Children’s entertainer Professor Hinkle (Billy DeWolfe) is perhaps the world’s worst performer, with tricks that won’t work and a rabbit named Hocus Pocus who won’t cooperate. After a failed show at an elementary school, the children race outside to build a snowman, whom they christen Frosty (Jackie Vernon). Hocus and Hinkle rush outside, where Hinkle throws his hat at the rabbit. It’s retrieved by one of the children, Karen (June Foray, again, proving that if there is a goddess of voice animation it’s her), who places it on Frosty’s head. The snowman snaps to life and bids everyone a happy birthday, but Hinkle snatches his hat back and leaves. Hocus steals the hat again and returns it to the children, who use it to bring Frosty to life again. He plays and dances with the children until he notices the temperature is rising, and he’s beginning to melt. Karen and the children promise to send him to the one place he’ll never melt: the North Pole. They parade through town to the train station to send him off (startling a traffic cop along the way) but are stumped when they realize they can’t possibly afford the ticket. At Hocus’s suggestion, Frosty and Karen hop into a refrigerated boxcar on a north-bound train. Hinkle, who realizes the hat has genuine magic power, hops on the same train, determined to steal it back.
When Frosty realizes the frozen car is making Karen sick, he and Hocus get off with her at the next stop. Hinkle jumps from the train so as not to lose them, crashing in the process. Karen is still in danger of freezing, so Hocus tries to rouse the local forest animals to build her a fire. Although Karen is safe for the moment, Frosty knows they need to find help soon, and Hocus suggests Santa Claus, who is scheduled to make his Christmas Eve rounds in mere hours. To keep her warm in the meantime, Frosty finds a greenhouse, but Hinkle manages to trap them both inside. When Santa arrives, Hocus brings him to the greenhouse, where Karen is safe, but in tears: Frosty has been reduced to a puddle with a corncob pipe and an old silk hat. Santa tells her that Frosty is made of magical Christmas snow, which can never go away forever. He uses his magic to rebuild Frosty, but before he places the hat upon his head, Hinkle shows up to demand its return. When Santa warns him he’ll never give him another Christmas present again if he hurts Frosty, Hinkle backs down and is sent away to write a massive apology. Santa places the hat back on Frosty’s head, restoring him to life. He takes Karen home and promises her that Frosty will return every year with the Christmas snow.
Thoughts: Frosty the Snowman gives us yet another case of Rankin and Bass magic, but this time, we’re going for traditional animation. This studio is much better known for their stop motion work, but they did several specials in this format, and later applied it to their version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and 80s TV shows like Thundercats.
Like Rudolph and Little Drummer Boy, this film takes a classic song and gives us an expanded storyline to fill out its half-hour running time. The song even shares DNA with Rudolph – Gene Autry commissioned the piece from Walter Rollins as a follow-up to his earlier Christmas hit. And a hit it was, but like Rudolph, it needs some work to succeed as a narrative. The original song, let’s be honest here, doesn’t exactly have a riveting plot: Snowman gets magic hat, snowman comes to life, snowman starts to melt, snowman leaves. Hard to get a full-length special, and what’s more, there’s no antagonist.
That, in fact, is what really makes this special: Professor Hinkle. He’s a really entertaining bad guy, very different from the usual Rankin/Bass assortment of monsters, evil wizards, and misers. Hinkle is kind of a pathetic figure, but in a funny way. He’s utterly failed at life, he’s a disaster as a magician, but he seems to have more greed than genuine evil in him (despite his own protests to the contrary). Even as he’s trailing Frosty and Karen he has to keep reminding himself to “think nasty… think nasty…”
Looking back on this as an adult, you start to realize that Hocus Pocus, the rabbit, is actually a pretty lousy influence on the children. His refusal to work with his partner in the first place is what costs Professor Hinkle his hat. Hocus steals the hat later (for a good cause, perhaps, but it’s still theft). He convinces an underage girl to illegally board a train with a man she’s known for all of seventeen minutes, without so much as a phone call home to tell her parents not to worry. Yes, he technically helps to save her life multiple times, but seeing as how she would never have been in danger if not for him, it’s hard to give him too much credit for that.
Christmas is almost an afterthought in this special. It’s not really mentioned at all in the original song, and you’ve only got a quarter of the special left when it’s even mentioned that this is all taking place on Christmas Eve. (What school is in session on Christmas Eve? Did they used to do it that way?) It works out for Karen, of course, because otherwise Santa Claus wouldn’t be around to save her and…
Wait a minute, this all happened on Christmas Eve? What did they even need the train ticket for? Why didn’t Frosty just wait around for Santa in town in the first place? They could have saved themselves all kinds of trouble! And don’t tell me it’s because Santa wouldn’t show up while the kids were awake, because this is a Rankin and Bass special and he breaks that rule all the time. He even breaks this rule in this very cartoon, because if he was waiting for all of the animals to be asleep before he shows up Hocus couldn’t even have flagged him down in the first place! Good grief, Romeo Muller, were you even trying?
Yet, this is a classic.
You see, out of all the great characters in the Rankin and Bass catalogue, there may be none as ridiculously endearing as Frosty. His sweetness, his heart that remains warm despite being encased in snow, the fact that he even apologizes to Hocus for some truly ridiculous suggestions for getting help… well, he’s a better snowman than I. This cartoon is the reason I can’t put on a top hat without getting the urge to wish everyone a happy birthday. It’s ludicrous! It’s incomprehensible!
And it’s a valued part of our collective childhood, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.
Frosty returned twice more in the annals of Rankin and Bass – in 1976’s Frosty’s Winter Wonderland he’s given a snowwife, Crystal. In 1979, the Frosty family teamed up with Rudolph for the stop-motion feature length film Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Both of these are worthy sequels. Less so is 1992’s Frosty Returns, a terrible, painfully preachy cartoon produced by CBS and unforgivably directed by Bill Melendez (of A Charlie Brown Christmas), and in 2005 there was the CGI Legend of Frosty the Snowman, which is more faithful to the original, but still merely okay. As usual with these characters, Rankin and Bass did it best. All others need not apply.
The Christmas Special Day 4: The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray, Ted Eccles, Greer Garson, music by the Vienna Boys Choir
Plot: Aaron, an orphaned drummer boy (Ted Eccles), has grown up with a disdain for all humanity after his family was killed by bandits. His hatred grows even more intense when he and his few animal friends are abducted by a travelling salesman, Ben Haramed (Jose Ferrer). Ben Haramed paints Aaron’s face and forces him to perform at the marketplace for donations. He grows angry and lashes out at the people around him, and Ben Haramed’s troupe is driven from town. As they cross the desert, they encounter a group of three kings (all voiced by the great Paul Frees, who also voices Aaron’s father) who are breaking camp on a long journey to follow a star in the heavens. One of their camels has collapsed under the weight of his pack, and Ben Haramed sells them Aaron’s camel Joshua to replace it. Enraged, Aaron takes his remaining animals and sets out to find his missing friend.
He follows the same star as the Magi, finally arriving at the town of Bethlehem. Dozens of shepherds arrive as well, all following the same star. He tracks them to a stable, where they are bowing before a manger. Aaron and his animals rush to their missing friend, but his sheep Baba is struck by a Roman chariot in the streets. Aaron takes the dying sheep to the Magi, where he finds them presenting a baby in the manger with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. When one of the Magi tells him he cannot save Baba, he suggests Aaron take Baba to the newborn king in the manger. With no gift to present the baby, Aaron begins to play his drum. As he finishes, Baba comes back to him, miraculously healed. Aaron’s angry heart melts, as the star shines brilliantly over the little town of Bethlehem.
Thoughts: I don’t typically get religious in my writing, but it would be somewhat negligent to do a project like this one, examining the all-time great Christmas specials, without touching upon a few of them that actually deal with the true meaning of Christmas. Take this 1968 special by our friends at Rankin and Bass (oh, we’re just getting started with them, folks), which dramatizes the old favorite of the Little Drummer Boy.
Rankin and Bass took the classic song and greatly expanded upon it, giving the little drummer boy a backstory, a reason for being in Bethlehem, and a name. For the most part, the additions to the song work very well. The add-ons make Aaron a very different kind of character than the cipher who arrives in the song to humbly play his drum for Jesus. Instead, we’re introduced to a child who has shut himself off from the world, keeping his affection only for his animals. Aaron turns to Jesus to save his friend, but viewed through a spiritual prism, it’s clear that Aaron himself is the one who truly needs salvation. In a very real way, this special makes the Little Drummer Boy the first soul to be saved by the Son of God. It’s a very clever angle to take, rooting the story very strongly with the Bible tales and making Aaron a far more significant character than he was described as previously. It doesn’t change anybody’s religion, of course, but taken from a narrative standpoint, writer Romeo Muller came up with a really good way to make this cartoon matter in a way the original song really didn’t.
The music here is strong, if not quite as iconic as many of the other Rankin and Bass specials. The original “Little Drummer Boy” is the only one that really stays with you after the show is over, and that’s mostly because it’s a piece that virtually everybody who watches this will know already.
More so than some of the other films we’ve looked at (or will look at) this short does express some of the limitations of early stop motion animation, especially in terms of precision. As Aaron plays his drum, the beat doesn’t match the movement of his hands. When we get to the line where “the ox and lamb kept time,” the camera pans across them nodding rhythmically, but not in the same rhythm as the song. You feel a little bad for chuckling at this, as it is supposed to be a wonderfully somber moment, but fortunately the emotion of Baba’s rejuvenation sweeps in as the song ends to save the day.
This isn’t the greatest religious-themed Christmas special, but it’s one of the earliest greats. Other films would later tread over some of the same ground, and one imagines director Don Bluth was drawing on this ten years later when he created his last short for Disney before striking out on his own, The Small One. Were this a project about Christmas films in general and not just television specials, you can rest assured, Small One would have a place of honor. As far as the TV spots goes, if you’re looking for one that actually features the nativity, this is as good as it gets.