Every year when we put up the Christmas tree, we watch the Rankin-Bass Classics.
Since it was an only once a year viewing, we never bothered to upgrade from the old VHS tapes of the shows. There was a period where we had burned the tapes onto a DVD and used that.
Then the disc stopped working, plus we lost it.
Over the past year, our trusty old Plasma TV finally died. We moved up to a 65 inch, 4K beast on the wall.
Whether its connection issues, or the old player finally has died too, we learned the tapes would output no sound.
Therefore we broke down and upgraded to blu-ray.
Aside- Rosa fixed it, it was a connection issue. But after replacing them, we're never going back.
Anabelle was shocked, "OH MY GOD, IT'S SO CLEAR!!!"
Also, the subtitles cleared up confusions we had about some of the lines for years.
The large amount of interviews and commentaries taught me a great deal about these family favorites.
Since no one else watches those, I decided to share.
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were very hands on, and the "director" and "producer" credits really could have went to both of them for everything they worked on.
The very first TV Christmas Special was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. I believe I am a member of the only generation who would find this a "didn't know that." Older folks saw them all get released one by one over the years. Younger folks pull them up on streaming long after they were created, with creation dates stamped on them. But the big hitters all came out just before, or just after I was born, and then were all broadcast every year with nothing but a tiny Roman numeral at the end to let us know the date.
This may explain why Rankin-Bass did not immediately follow up their hit Rudolph with another Santa, or song based Christmas special, but rather another story by the author of A Christmas Carol, the Dickensian, depression fest, animated acid trip that was Cricket on the Hearth. Then again, their capstone, major cross over feature film, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was a totally secular call back to their previous stories and a depression fueled nightmare. Rudolph has an existential crisis, Santa and Jessica are lost with no hope of rescue, and Frosty dies...TWICE- once in view of his kids, and once along with his whole family. Maybe they just hated children.
I didn't learn this from the discs, but I do know and am very grateful that Year Without a Santa Claus came out after I was born. This is because my Mother pointed out that if it came out before, there would have been a very real chance of my name being "Ignatius Thistlewhite McGinley."
Rankin-Bass were astonishing. Once Disney stopped doing it in the sixties, and didn't start again until the Little Mermaid in 1989, Rankin-Bass was the ONLY group doing Broadway style musicals in animation for decades.
The scripts were almost all written by one guy- Romeo Muller, and the songs were composed by Murry Laws with lyrics by Jules Bass.
This meant there was an insane amount of original songs that came out of these shows. I had no idea "Holly Jolly Christmas" was written for Rudolph. I always figured it was a Burl Ives song before that and they worked it in.
Most kids know Burl Ives from Rudolph, or Jimmy Durante from Frosty, but they were big stars back in the day, which was weird. Unlike now, no one else was getting stars to do animation voices. Rankin-Bass's professionalism and reputation brought them all in. Fred Astaire was not going around voicing cartoons for anyone else, yet there he is in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. (and the later, weirder Easter Rabbit one.) Even the lesser know works pulled in star power. (Vincent Price on Here Comes Peter Cottontail, Greer Garson and Jose Ferrer on The Little Drummer Boy.)
I knew Paul "Your GHOST Host" Frees was good, but he was INSANELY good. In Santa Claus is Coming to Town besides that he was talking to himself frequently, he had the outstanding range to be...
ALL the KRINGLE Guys,
Several side characters,
Topper the Penguin,
Santa as a baby,
And he looped Santa's lines when Mickey Rooney wasn't available and the network inexplicably changed Topper's name to "Waddles" for a couple of years.
(Plus he's at least half the cast of Frosty, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, Nestor, Jack Frost and many others.)
All of the puppets used were made of hand carved wood.
The Year Without a Santa Claus disc had a short special that the box said was hosted by the Chiodo brothers, with no explanation. I only knew them from Killer Clowns from Outer Space. They were there because they did the stop motion for Elf. John Favreau, because he's excellent at understanding things like that, insisted they do the animation shooting two frames at a time. Even though they had the budget to do it, "correctly" one frame at a time, he knew it wouldn't look right compared to the old specials.
Also, the short about stop motion had an equal amount of interview footage with Ray Harryhausen. Personally, I would have led with that.
The puppets are smaller than I imagined. Rudolf could fit in the palm of your hand. After watching all the Lucasfilm making of, I always assumed the Reindeer were the size of AT-ATs.
The specials have a set format, which is obvious once you know it. Shows named after existing songs, would tease it at the beginning and go into the overture. Then there would be snippets of dialogue referencing the song here an there, with the show ending with a triumphant play through of the entire song at the end.
Robie Lester, voice of Jessica- singer of acid trip animation songs by fountains and the eventual Mrs. Claus- was a prolific voice artist in commercials and narrated Disney story records. She also sang for several stars in other productions including Eva Gabor in Aristocats and The Rescuers.
Anabelle maintains the greatest moment in Rudolph is when they yeet the bird that can't fly, but swims out of the sleigh, deliberately without giving him an umbrella parachute. A close second is during the "Santa's Elves" song when one elf brains his compatriot with a dolly, cold cocking him.
Some things are much easier to see in high def. Hermie bears no resemblance to any other elf. He's the only male elf with hair, and his ears aren't pointed. The creators said, he wasn't human, but they did make him look like a kid to be identifiable to the audience. I noticed that even the other humans don't have whites of their eyes like he does. Only the reindeer and the Bumble do. I will speculate no further.
Rankin-Bass were adamant that the villains didn't die at the end of the stories. There is almost always redemption.
The closest they came was the Burgermeisters "dying off" off camera. I believe that's a fair exception as the tale is "Santa Claus Vs. Nazis."
Yeah, I know they were shooting for Victorian looking, but it had:
Germanic military based authoritarianism.
Locking up people for manufactured crimes.
Burning toys in the middle of the street.
Those are Victorian Nazis.
I always believed the Winter Warlock lost his magic when he turned from being evil, which is a heck of a message to give kids. Anabelle pointed out a much better interpretation. She feels he can't do magic once Chris is captured because he's depressed. The evidence that my theory is wrong is the fact that he shows Chris the magic snowball after he turns good, and once he's happy again, he can make the trees light up for the "wedding."
Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Claus are never "officially married." Also, he goes out all night every year on their anniversary.
In the weird animated storybook on the Rudolph disc, the back story indicates Donner and Blitzen are brothers. This makes sense given their reference to Thor's Goat Drawn Chariot origins. (Their names are englishifications of German for Thunder and Lightning.) This connection makes me far happier than it should.
From the same source, Fireball is Blitzen's son. After Fireball is terrified by Rudolph's nose, he does calm down. When Coach Comet, one of a long line of authority figures in this story that act like complete jerks (looking at you Santa...) says Rudolph can't join in the reindeer games, everyone gladly leaves him behind. Everyone, that is, except his cousin. You can see Fireball hanging back next to Rudolph until Comet physically pushes him away.
Another that long line of jerky authority (which Santa sits firmly atop of) is the Foreman Elf, voiced by Carl Banas, who also voiced the spotted elephant. Later he worked with Jim Henson, and before Richard Hunt took on that role, voiced and sang for Sweetums in The Frog Prince.
On the Island of Misfit toys is a water gun that squirts jelly. Since it would be obvious to empty the jelly, and replace it with water, that must not be an option. Therefore, what we have is a pistol that magically generates an infinite amount of jelly. How cool is that?
It was an impressive feat of writing to turn these short songs into full on stories, especially in the case of Frosty, where he dies at the end. The tweak to add Santa's magic (Paul Frees, yet again!) and Christmas Snow at the end was nothing short of brilliant.
June Foray was the original voice of Karen in Frosty, She can still be heard in some crowd scenes. For reasons no one is sure of, but possibly due to the popularity of Peanuts cartoons doing it, the show was re-recorded with real kids doing the voices after the initial years of screening and has been that way ever since.
Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey, is an insane work of art. Roger Miller gives the combination Norse/ Holy Land saga a country twang. It combined the most depressing parts of Rudolph and Bambi, yet somehow has a hopeful message. My favorite part is when the Virgin Mary uses a Jedi Mind trick on the livestock salesman to get him to give her a free donkey. The puppets use truly illustrate Mary at fourteen, and Joseph in his thirties, which was fairly close to life expectancy in those days. Oddly, the holy couple are shown following the Star of Bethlehem to get there...which means it ran ahead. You think it could have gotten reservations for them. Anabelle was so taken aback by the sheer lunacy of this one, in inspired her Christmas cake.