Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Absolutely the Top Christmas Special

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The most famous reindeer of all!

Rankin/Bass Productions' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), directed by Larry Roemer, is the classic holiday treat. Telecast every year since its premiere, it is the longest-running Christmas TV special. It also is one of only four of the classic 1960s Christmas specials still regularly shown on broadcast television (the others are "Frosty the Snowman," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas"). These are all classics, and Rudolph tops even that list of lists.

Arthur Rankin Jr. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Arthur Rankin Jr., producer of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"Rudolph" was based on the holiday song of the same name, first popularized by country crooner Gene Autry. The song, in turn, was based on a poem written by composer Johnny Marks' brother-in-law, . Marks himself did the fantastic music for this special, and  adapted the song as a screenplay. Burl Ives, famous as both a singer and actor, plays Sam the Snowman, who narrates and sings both old and new songs that also have become classics ("Silver and Gold").

Young Rudolph and his mother in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Young Rudolph showing that his nose glows when he gets excited.

The story closely follows the song. Donner (Paul Kligman) and his wife (Peg Dixon) have a fawn named Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards).  The playful little reindeer displays an unusual glowing red nose. He is playful but has issues.

Burl Ives Sam the Snowman Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Burl Ives with his character Sam the Snowman.

Santa Claus (Stan Francis) stops by Donner's cave upon Rudolph's birth to pay his respects but warns them that the nose will cause problems if Rudolph wants to pull his sleigh. Donner, horrified, conceals the nose with dirt.

The Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The misfit toys chatting with Rudolph.

When Rudolph is old enough, Donner again conceals his son's nose and takes him to the Reindeer Games, where Rudolph can learn how to pull Santa's sleigh.  There, Rudolph meets Fireball, who becomes his friend. They run into cute young Clarice (Janis Orenstein), who Rudolph decides to chat up at Fireball's urging.

Original magazine as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
GE was so happy, it wound up buying the entire network.

Unfortunately, while jumping around in joy when she proves receptive, the cover pops off his nose, revealing his shameful secret. All the other reindeer except Clarice immediately abandon him, and he is prohibited by Coach Comet (Kligman) from learning how to pull Santa's sleigh. Furthermore, Clarice's father (Kligman again) forbids her from seeing Rudolph.

Rudolph in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Rudolph is crafted in innocent, boyish fashion.

Devastated, Rudolph runs away with an elf, Hermey (Paul Soles), who also is ostracized by his peers. They run into a colorful prospector named Yukon Cornelius (Larry Mann), and the three wind up on the Island of Misfit Toys. There, King Moonracer (Francis) helps unwanted toys find new homes, and he makes Rudolph promise to have Santa distribute his toys on Christmas.

Yukon Cornelius in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Yukon Cornelius waving his pike.

After much wandering, Rudolph finally decides to go home. He learns to his horror that the Abominable Snowman kidnapped his parents and plans to eat them. Rudolph tries to save them but gets knocked unconscious in the attempt.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964

Fortunately, Hermey and Cornelius intervene and, after some problems, chase the snowman over a cliff, Cornelius falling with him. This turns the whole group into heroes. It also is almost time to distribute presents to the children of the world, but a terrible blizzard will prevent it unless someone special steps forward to help out....

The Abominable Snowman showing his teeth in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The Abominable Snowman showing his toothy grin.

The show is memorable for any number of reasons, but the stop-motion animation is what makes it truly distinctive. Even after all these years, and despite some self-conscious "showing off" of the then-revolutionary technique, "Rudolph" retains a contemporary look that almost all other animated productions of the time lack.

Kyoko Kita Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Animator Kyoko Kita with the Animagic reindeer Rudolph.

As one example of its cultural impact, Norelco crafted a famous homage showing Santa riding one of its electric razors like the Santa in this film that ran for many years during the 1970s. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" by West Anderson is a recent homage to this special, using similar stop-motion animation and featuring several songs by Ives. The costumes in "Elf" are almost identical to those in "Rudolph." Everybody, my friend, respects the wonder that is "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

The Abominable Snowman tamed in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The Abominable Snowman putting the star on the Christmas Tree.

Academy-Award winner Burl Ives sings his signature "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" not once, but twice. He does so in a simple, unadorned way that is practically a capella. It works wonderfully.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Burl Ives Have a Holly Jolly Christmas 1964
The single from Decca Records.

After the success of the show, Burl re-recorded the tune the following year with a much fuller backing sound, and that is the version that has become the holiday standard heard on the radio every year. Part of the magic of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is that it is a true multi-media success, creating an enduring image on the screen and an everlasting sound on the radio, each of the two out-of-the-ballpark hits in their completely different realms. That two-pronged attack has settled "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" firmly into the Zeitgest of our lives.

The elves laughing in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The elves in this special inspired their descendants in "Elf."

The show is dated in some of its attitudes despite repeated tweaking, and one can quibble that several of the characters act poorly. Santa is somewhat amusing with his grumbling about the elves singing, and Donner is a bit quick to claim he knew all along that Rudolph would be a hero. However, that also is how people act in real life, and Santa and the others come to understand their own errors in judgment about Rudolph. "Maybe misfits have a place, too," Sam the Snowman wistfully observes.

Santa's Sled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
A Japanese animator working on the Animagic sled.

It really is the people around Rudolph who grow, not Rudolph himself, which makes this a fascinating inverted coming-of-age tale. The theme of personal redemption is uplifting, and Rudolph going from outcast to hero is an exhilarating transformation and example for everyone.

Rudolph leading the way in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Rudolph in mid-flight.

"Rudolph" is told simply, with clearly delineated good and evil characters who are easy for children to understand. There is little subtlety, it is just a simple tale, told in blunt fashion. The character of the Abominable Snowman appears to have given some inspiration to the creation of later animated characters in films such as "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc."

Santa's sleigh gliding throught sky in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Santa and his sleigh riding above the clouds.

The show's popularity speaks for itself. The original 1930s book helped inspire the classic Disney film "Dumbo," which has the same uplifting themes and is also worth a look for anyone who likes "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Any fan of the genre should see "Rudolph" at least once to appreciate its giant step forward for animation.

Below is the original classic film. It takes a minute to load, but it is a good copy, and complete (last checked 23 August 2018). "Call me Sam!"

Below, Burl Ives sings "Holly Jolly Christmas" in the single version recorded the year after the Christmas special. Ives owns this song to this day.

Below is the song "A Couple of Misfits" from the 1964 Christmas special, with a bit of dialog:

Here is Gene Autry's version of the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," perhaps still considered "the" classic version despite Burl Ives' best effort to wrest that crown from him in the television special.

In addition, below is a copy of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie" starring Eric Idle, Bob Newhart, and Debbie Reynolds.

rudolph the red nosed reindeer dvd cover 1964