The Christmas Special Day 1: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Writers: Robert May, Romeo Muller
Cast: Burl Ives, Billie Mae Richards, Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, Stan Francis, Paul Kligman, Janis Orenstein, Alfie Scopp
Plot: On a cold winter’s day Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) invites us to listen to the story of the most tumultuous Christmas of all time. The reindeer Donner (Paul Kligman) is shocked when his wife gives birth to a fawn with a glowing red nose. Naming the child Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards), Donner attempts to hide the strange nose from the rest of the reindeer, afraid the boy will never be accepted enough to join Santa’s sleigh team. Rudolph joins in the reindeer games, and his attempt to impress a doe named Clarice (Janis Orenstein) goes off brilliantly… until, in his joy, he exposes his nose. The rest of the reindeer mock him and drive him away, but Clarice follows, trying to convince him his nose is something to be proud of.
In Santa’s workshop, meanwhile, an elf named Hermey (Paul Soles) is feeling trapped in his toymaking tasks… he really wants to be a dentist. He encounters Rudolph, who has just been warned off by Clarice’s father, and the two outcasts strike up a friendship, deciding to become “independent together.” They set off from the North Pole, hoping to find a place where they fit in, but find themselves tracked by the Abominable Snowman. They get stuck in ice, but are rescued by a prospector named Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann), who is determined to mine for silver and gold in the great white north. The three of them are attacked by Abominable, and Yukon breaks them off onto an ice floe to escape. Eventually they arrive at the Island of Misfit Toys, a land populated entirely by playthings that are flawed in some way: a Jack-in-the-Box named Charlie, a train with square wheels, a water pistol that only shoots jelly, and other such manufacturer’s defects. They’re taken to the island’s king, Moonracer (Stan Francis, who also voices Santa), who offers to give them shelter for a night if Rudolph agrees to ask Santa to deliver the misfit toys to children so they can finally be happy. That night, however, Rudolph realizes the Abominable Snowman is tracking them via his nose, so he leaves his friends behind.
As time passes, Rudolph grows up and returns to the North Pole two days before Christmas Eve, where he finds that his parents and Clarice are missing, having spent months searching for him. Before he can set out to look for them, an incredible snowstorm strikes. Rudolph manages to find the missing reindeer in a cave, trapped by the Abominable Snowman. He saves them as Hermey and Yukon arrive. Hermey extracts the Snowman’s teeth, but he traps them all before Yukon plunges off a cliff with the monster and is lost. The misfits return to the North Pole, where Santa agrees to deliver the Misfit Toys and Hermey is given permission to set up his dentist’s practice. As apologies are made, Yukon Cornelius appears with the bound and reformed snowman, now called “Bumble,” who cheerfully joins in the celebration by placing the star atop the Christmas tree. All may still be lost, though, because the storm isn’t letting up… until Santa realizes Rudolph’s brilliant nose is just the thing to guide his sleigh.
Thoughts: As far as beloved symbols of the holiday season go, Rudolph didn’t get the most auspicious start… and I’m not talking about the whole “Reindeer Games” thing. Rudolph began life not because someone had a vision, not because of an abiding thirst to add something to the Christmas pantheon, but because a department store wanted to save money. Montgomery Ward had been giving away coloring books to children for a few years and decided it would be cheaper if they made their own instead of just buying them from others, so in 1939 the company assigned copyrighter Robert May to come up with a story. The resulting poem, about an outcast reindeer with a red nose, became a hit. In 1944 Max Fleisher’s studio made an animated short starring the character, in 1949 songwriter Johnny Marks adapted the poem into a song made legendary by Gene Autry, and throughout the 1950s and 60s he starred in an annual comic book special published by DC. But the most enduring (and, I’d argue, most endearing) version of the character is this one, the one who raced onto NBC and 1964 and brought with him not only the hope for the Christmas season, but also the beginning of a golden age of animated specials by Rankin/Bass Productions.
Rudolph’s tale has a good, positive message even in the original poem: it’s a story about accepting who you are and finding your utmost potential. But the added dimension this special gives to a relatively simple story is a big part of what makes it so memorable. When Hermey first shows up, wanting to practice dentistry, it feels like a throwaway joke at first. And it’s a funny joke, don’t misunderstand. The notion of an elf tossing away his heritage to do something so decidedly un-elflike is silly on the face of it. But Hermey’s character arc parallel’s Rudolph’s in a very interesting way. Rudolph is separated from the other reindeer by something physical that he can’t change; Hermey is separated from the other elves by something spiritual that he wants to change. The friendship the two of them strike up is undeniably heartwarming.
Although the rest of the cast hasn’t become as famous as Rudolph himself, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius and Bumble have most definitely ascended to the level of B-list players on the Christmas scene. Yukon is goofy enough to be fun in any context, and in most company you need only say “I want to be a dentist!” in Hermey’s intonation to get across the point that you feel like a square peg being forced into a round hole. But Bumble is my favorite of the trio. Although Rankin/Bass are best known for their Christmas specials (and for their later 80s animation), they did occasionally swerve into other seasons. Bumble was their first great monster, and the sensibility that went into his design would turn up three years later, when they produced the feature film Mad Monster Party, including versions of all the great Universal monsters.
The Misfit Toys, likewise, have become classics, but I’ve always felt like the writers were stretching just a bit with this section. Some of the “defects” seem almost too silly to accept (the Charlie-in-the-Box, for example… doesn’t it occur to anybody he could just change his name?). Still, the charm of the characters is enough to deflate these more practical notions, and the idea that a toy needs the love of a child to be complete is the sort of beautiful thing that Jim Henson and the boys at Pixar would pick up on in years to come. I’m not saying that Toy Story never would have happened if it weren’t for Rudolph, but I guarantee you the people who made that movie were fans of this one.
Although the original Johnny Marks song is the hallmark of the special’s musical numbers, it would be practically criminal to ignore the rest of the music he composed to accompany it. “We’re a Couple of Misfits,” the song Rudolph and Hermey each sing solo before coming together for a brilliant duet, is almost an anthem for outcasts, and deservedly so. It’s quick, it’s catchy, and it’s infinitely adaptable. Burl Ives is at his all-time best turning out “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas,” both songs that have become perennials in their own right – and with all due respect to Gene Autry, it’s the Ives version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I hear whenever the music begins playing in my head (usually a few days before Thanksgiving, at which point I attempt to force it back until the turkey and stuffing are digested… or at least eaten).
Having Rudolph grow up during the course of this cartoon was an interesting choice. This was, if you’ll recall, Rankin/Bass’s first big Christmas hit, and they probably didn’t expect it to become the trademark of their brand. They’d bring Rudolph back for other specials over the years, when he would save the New Year and, along with Frosty, the Fourth of July, but whenever he turned up after this, he was the young Rudolph again. And that’s as it should be. That is, after all, the way he went down in history.