Tag Archives: Rankin/Bass

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964)

This fifty-four year old made-for-television holiday film has recently generated controversy on Twitter, proving that self-professed liberals can be just as obtuse as conservatives. The controversy was over the “bullying” in the Arthur Rankin/Jules Bass stop-animation. Its message is blatantly anti-bullying. Yes, Santa is a jerk at first and guilty of being bigoted and short-sighted, but hey, the narrator clearly states “Even Santa realized he was wrong,” and he makes amends. Gee, I thought the gospels and Charles Dickens all rather made the point that Christmas was also about admitting mistakes, learning from them, forgiveness, etc. However, happy-happy, joy-joy pseudo New-Agers seem to prefer everything whitewashed. Forget those dullards and the inherent silliness of Twitter users because this is possibly, along with Batman Returnsthe most delightfully weird holiday film of all time; and given that it’s from Rankin and Bass, that’s saying a bit. It’s doubtful that Rankin and Bass truly grasped their own weirdness, which makes it all the better.

None other than “Big Daddy” (of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Burl Ives, is our gospel narrating (pre-“Frosty”) snowman. He lets us know there’s a castle on the left here in the North Pole. Santa’s kind of like King Herod; a bit bitchy,worrying himself skinny about something, but even he’s not sure what.

Meanwhile, Rudolph is born in a cave, kind of like a reindeer Jesus, and there’s Mary and Joseph in the guise of Mr. and Mrs. Donner (I guess she doesn’t get a name). Rudolph is so smart he begins talking right after his birth, but he’s also “gifted” in having a shiny red nose, which agitates Donner to no end. How could he have fathered a misfit? Santa pays a visit to the new family and, upon seeing that blinking beak, lectures the newborn Rudolph about fitting in. 

Back at the castle, Hermey1)Ed: Originally article incorrectly read “Herbie” the elf. See comments on this post. is an elf who hates making toys and singing. But that’s what elves are supposed to do. Not Hermey; he wants to be a dentist. He’ll never fit in. “Why I am such a misfit?” is the the anthem of both Rudolph and Hermey.

At the reindeer training, the yearlings, including Rudolph, his new friend Fireball, and potential GF Clarice are all introduced to jerk redneck reindeer in a baseball cap, Comet. Naturally, things screw up when Rudolph’s shiny noise is discovered. No more reindeer games for him.

Like a savior cast out, Rudolph goes it alone… until he bumps into runaway Herbie. Cue song change from “Why am I such a misfit?” to “We’re a couple of misfits.” Together, they go out into the wilderness with the threat of Satan (in the guise of a bumble abominable) not far behind.

TStill from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1964)hings get wackier still when our heroes meet prospector Yukon Cornelius. His anthem is “even among misfits, I’m a misfit.” He’s a boisterous mess, unable to decide between silver or gold, pea soup or peanut butter, and his presence makes no sense, rendering him the coolest character in the whole film. Yukon is perfectly voiced by familiar character actor Larry D. Mann, who was part of the Canadian Air Force team that liberated the holocaust death camps (his testimony is on YouTube).

With the predator Bumble closing in, our trio of misfits make a pit stop at the island of misfit toys, lorded over by a flying lion (!) named King Moonracer. A Charlie in the Box, a train with square wheels, a spotted elephant, a water gun that squirts jelly, an ostrich-riding cowboy, a boat that can’t stay afloat, and a doll named Sue, whose deformity is a tad ambiguous, are among the inhabitants. 

Herbie gives the Bumble a root canal, Yukon  sort of dies and resurrects, Santa gets fat again, Rudolph is the savior he was born to be, everyone learns the lesson of bullying, and the misfit toys get rescued. The end. 

This is a long way from the simplistic song made popular by singing cowpoke Gene Autry, and one would be tempted to ask WTF were Rankin and Bass thinking if it weren’t such a hoot. If we included made for TV Christmas movies here, I’d have likely obsessively pushed for its inclusion on The List. Rudolph was an enormous success. Unlike twitterers, 1964 audiences didn’t give a hoot or a holler about its weirdness, taking it all in stride, and the path was paved for many more Rankin and Bass oddities/blessings to come. At least one of those will be covered this month, but next week: a
Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff combo. 

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1. Ed: Originally article incorrectly read “Herbie” the elf. See comments on this post.

A WEIRD 1964 CHRISTMAS DOUBLE FEATURE: SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS AND RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER

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.

Still from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" (1964)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 Continue reading A WEIRD 1964 CHRISTMAS DOUBLE FEATURE: SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS AND RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER

MAD MONSTER PARTY (1967)

Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass may just be the weirdest animation team in history. Most of their stop-motion Christmas toons have become perennial classics, despite such bizarre characters as a carrot-topped roly poly dancing demon in hell; a misfit-among-misfits Arctic explorer; a dentist elf; a flying lion; a bitchy, bigoted Saint Nicholas; a winter warlock; a toothless, abominable Bumble; and a Charlie-in-the-Box. One wonders if the duo realized how off-kilter their formula was. When it came to their Halloween special, Rankin and Bass used the 1940s’ studio bound monster-mashes as their blueprint. Oddly, their Mad Monster Party (1967) was considerably better than those late, fatigued Universal extravaganzas. Helping tremendously was the voice work of as Baron Frankenstein and Allen Swift as Felix Flankin, the Monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and the Invisible Man.

Harvey Kurtzman of “Mad Magazine” and Forrest J. Ackerman, the celebrated founder and editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” worked (uncredited) on the script. It shows. Mad Monster Party is a loving homage to Gothic cinema, replete with trademark campy puns, which equally inspire nostalgic smiles and pained groans. The special serves as a precursor of sorts to ‘s Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Rankin and Bass approach their theme with far less originality than Selick, but the earlier film does have a pronounced sense of adolescent charm.

Karloff’s vocal contribution, per the norm, is beautifully mellifluous. His Baron is the ringmaster of a grand guignol island, with King of Kong waiting round the corner. The various monsters do exactly what we expect them to do by this point. However, being Rankin and Bass, we also expect a few moments of head-scratching eccentricity. They do not disappoint. The Baron’s nephew is a nerdy pharmacist (!?!) who takes a can of Raid to the residential rodent vamp and falls in love with a buxom, short-skirted, flaming redhead girl (!?!) The kitsch love ballad between the two and the G-rated flirtatiousness is mind-numbingly out of place in this kindergarten-esque ogre’s bacchanal. Equally grating is Phyllis Diller’s take on the “Bride of the Monster.” A little Diller goes a loooong way and her repeated canned cackling is fingernails on a chalkboard. The coloring book plot and Stooge-like slapstick place Mad Monster Party firmly in its time. However, like most period pieces, this film (shot in 35 mm) delightfully retains its inherent naiveté.

still from Mad Monster Party (1967)Apart from the Baron and the Count (with caricatured  mannerisms and accent), the monsters are mostly decor, and not given much to do. However, amidst the lame, predictable gags (i.e.the Wolfman running off with a bone), the Mummy does get to rhumba with a skeletal band, and the Invisible Man is unexpectedly given a Sydney Greenstreet voice. Contrary to horror film mythology, Peter Lorre never played Ygor, which doesn’t stop the animation team from casting his likeness in the role of the Baron’s assistant. Gale Garnett, voicing the role of the over-sexed Francesca, imbues the character with a velvet voice. She does wonders with woefully pedestrian lyrics.

Not surprisingly, it is Karloff who keeps the lethargically paced plot moving. The veteran genre actor clearly had fun with his role, although it is unfortunate that they relied on his Baron to elevate the endeavor. Mad Monster Party stands in contrast to Karloff’s best animation work: Chuck Jones’ 1966 “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” which may have been the actor’s last great role.

The Blu-ray edition comes with a making-of featurette, trailer, sing-alongs, and a second featurette on the art of stop-animation. The transfer is good, but not exceptional.

For all its flaws, Mad Monster Party is adored by my grandkids and, as usual, they will have the last word.