I have often bragged that two of the strangest holiday productions were released in 1964, the year I was born. Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass’ “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” was made for television. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was a feature film understandably given scant theatrical release. I used to imagine that these were a sort of personally apt, unintentional welcoming me into the world. As I saw “Rudolph” first, we will start there.
The television show sprang from the 1939 book, written by Robert May, and the 1949 song written by Johnny Marks (sung by Gene Autry). After seeing the animated TV show, one is forced to conclude that Rankin and Bass had to be two of the most unintentionally bizarre producers who ever breathed. Of course, we didn’t notice that fully during childhood (although, I do distinctly remember raising my eyebrows more than once). Upon a later viewing, one realizes just how eccentric the narrative and characters are. I can’t speak for others, but my own personal favorite character was prospector Yukon Cornelius (my brother favored Herbie). No one actually liked or rooted for the whiny red-nosed reindeer. Yukon “even among misfits, you’re a misfit” Cornelius was something akin to a prophet, inviting identification with his outsider status. That aside, what the hell is he doing in this tale? Why is Santa Claus first represented as a bitchy, anorexic bigot? Following St. Nick is a certified WTF lineup: an Abominable Snow Monster who prefers pork to deer meet, King Moon Raiser (a winged lion, straight out of the Book of Revelations, who lords over an island of misfit toys), and a redneck reindeer coach in a baseball cap.
We all know the story, as narrated by talking snowman Burl Ives (apparently related to Frosty). Rudolph gets picked on because he has a glowing red nose. He runs away from home, finds two fellow misfit wanderers in Herbie (the dentist Elf) and Yukon (the silver and gold prospector), who are prone to argue over pea soup vs. peanut butter. The three misfits hide from the Abominable Snow monster (too many syllables for Yukon, who just refers to the beast as Bumble). Rudolph, Yukon, and Herbie find the Island of Misfit Toys, occupied by a Charlie-in-the-Box, a polka dot elephant, a bird that swims, a noseless doll, an ostrich riding cowboy, etc.
Santa bitches constantly and never eats, despite his wife’s reminder that “no one wants a skinny Santa.” Our childhood saint waxes all-consuming hatred for elves and misfits until … “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?” Oh yeah, that part. Rankin and Bass do get around to it, but only after Yukon and Bumble appear to have committed suicide by falling off a cliff. Of course, Bumbles bounce. The now toothless (courtesy of Herbie) Bumble is given a new job of topping the tree.
His worries over, Santa gets fat overnight and stops at the Island of Misfit Toys, where Doll bitches because Rudolph broke his promise (which we never heard him give). All ends well for suburbanites who only crave feelgood entertainment. Although, one questions if that demographic even made it that far. Perhaps, they just didn’t notice all the weirdness being bandied about.
Rankin and Bass inserted a degree of strangeness into everything they touched. In 1970’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (based on the famous Eddie Cantor song), the dynamic duo of stop-motion animation gave us a Winter Warlock, the incomparable Fred Astaire as a singing mail man, and a penguin named Topper who accompanies Santa (voiced by Mickey Rooney). The king of elves is a nicer guy here, but has an arch-nemesis in Sombertown’s Burgermiester Meisterburger, an antagonist who despises children and likes to burn their toys. Of course, none of that is in the song, but it gave our demographic something to relate to when we had a visiting evangelist come to my mother’s church, preaching against the Satanic evils of pop/rock music and inspiring parents to burn their kids’ records. Goodbye Jim Croce’s “Life and Times,” which had a song that contained a “gasp” cuss word; “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, baddest man in the whole damned town.” I felt like those little “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” waifs as they torched our LP records and consigned them to holy bonfire.
Rankin and Bass even paid a visit to Hell in “Year Without A Santa Claus” (1974), when they introduced us to the Heat Miser: a singing fireball who danced (top hat included) his way through the flames of Hades. Oddly, parishioners failed to take notice.
Still, Rankin and Bass’ best work is “Rudolph.” It maintains a genuine weird vibe throughout. None of their other films flow quite as well. We didn’t have VCRs in the 60s or 70s, so we couldn’t fast forward to find Mr. Heat Miser. Instead, we preoccupied ourselves until Mother Nature’s demon child appeared. In contrast, the lot of us remained glued to the set for Rudolph’s entire 47 minutes.
I stumbled across Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on late night TV, which was long before MST3K informed us that it was weird. We noticed anyway, even in our pre-teen years.
Writers Glenville Mareth and Paul Jacobson, who understandably were never hired to write anything again, concocted this mind boggling, low budget, delightful travesty. Amazingly, television director Nicholas Webster was given one additional shot at directing a feature after this with Mission Mars (1968), which, despite a bigger budget, was equally inept. Wisely, he stuck to the small screen for the remainder of his career. Pia Zadora (as the pre-pubescent Martian Girmar) is the only cast member who eventually and inexplicably attained that coveted fifteen minutes of fame (actually, it was more like five minutes) with Butterfly (1982). That film, which cast her in the sex symbol mode, was budgeted at two million with a surrounding cast of familiar faces (Orson Welles, Stacey Keach, Ed McMahon, and James Franciscus) whoring themselves out. Not surprisingly, it was financed by her husband, made about fifty dollars, and received a record-breaking ten nominations for The Golden Raspberry Awards. Zadora quickly became the butt of many late night jokes, disappeared, and had a series of thirty-second comebacks. She had a moderately successful second career as a European recording artist, actually won a Golden Globe, and appeared in several big budget sleaze fests, which inevitably paved the path for a supporting role in John Waters‘ Hairspray (Waters was a certified fan of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians).
The Martian tykes are depressed after watching those silly earth programs. Mum and Dad Martian don’t understand. “They’re having trouble sleeping. I had to use the sleep spray on them. It’s the same with all the children on the planet. Something is happening to the children of Mars! They eat not, they sleep not. Their only interest is watching meaningless Earth programs on the video.”
Mars’ ancient prophet knows what’s wrong. “What time of year is it now?” asks the ancient one.
“It is the middle of Septober.”
“Not here. I mean on Earth. It is early December on Earth, the time of Christmas.”
“What is a Christmas?”
“It is an occasion of great joy and peace on the planet, and for children it is time of anticipation as they await the arrival of Santa Claus.”
“Bah, humbug. What nonsense.”
“We have no children on Mars. They have children’s bodies, but adult minds. They did not have a childhood. I’ve seen this coming for centuries. When they are born, our electronic machines are attached to their brains. While they are in their cradles, information is constantly streamed into their brains and by the time they can walk, they are adults! They never played! The children must be allowed to be children again. They must learn what it means to have fun. We need a Santa Claus on Mars!”
In a puff of smoke, the ancient one vanishes.
“Desperate problems require desperate deeds. Earth has had Santa Claus long enough. We will bring him to Mars.”
Of course, Mars has its own constipated Burgermiester Meisterburger (there is always one to spoil the fun): “I don’t want no Santa Clause bringing them toys and games. They’ll start laughing and playing.”
“I’ve made my decision. We leave tonight. Prepare spaceship number one.”
Before you can pull out the Ed Wood rosary, the United States Air Force (cue stock footage) is responding to the reports of an unidentified object flying in the sky. No, it’s not the Soviet Union. It may be a spaceship from Mars!
Our favorite Martians stop for directions to the North Pole, but only find the earth children, Billy and Betty.
“What are those things sticking out of your head?”
“Those are antennae.”
“Are you a television set?”
“Is this what you want to do to our children? Turn them into nincompoops like these?”
After being kidnapped by the Martians, Billy and Betty escape. On the way to warn Santa at his North Pole workshop, the earth children encounter a fearsome polar bear (courtesy of a K-Mart costume) and a robot (probably a leftover from the final season of The Adventures of Superman). Alas, Billy and Betty cannot stop the inevitable. Despite protestation, Sandy Claws (John Call) is whisked away to Mars!
The United Nations (cue more stock footage) is on alert! Meanwhile, the Martians have quickly taken to St. Nick.
“You’re all Martian Melons—round, soft, and weak,” grumbles the green Meisterburger.
In a 75-cent rip-off of March of the Wooden Soldiers, the resident scrooges are defeated, Santa crowns a Martian version of himself, and all is well that ends well.
Seasons Greetings, 366 style.