Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

If you are between the ages of 35 and 55, the chances are good that you remember many of the animated Christmas specials produced by the production company called Rankin/Bass. Even if you are not, the odds are probably good that you have at least seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer many times over, and perhaps Santa Claus is Comin' to Town as well. From the Sixties to the Eighties Rankin/Bass produced nearly twenty different specials pertaining to the Yuletide. When it came to animated holiday entertainment, Rankin/Bass was the leader in the field.

Rankin/Bass was not founded to produce Christmas specials. And, in fact, they produced much, much more than that, including the King Kong cartoon of the Sixties, the Eighties cartoon Thundercats, the movie Mad Monster Party, and the animated feature film version of The Hobbit. And they produced specials for other holidays as well, among them Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters and Here Comes Peter Cottontail. That having been said, I think it was safe to say that it was their Christmas specials for which they were best known.

Arthur Rankin Jr. was the son of actor Arthur Rankin and grandson of actor Harry Davenport. Starting off at ABC as graphic designer, by 1952 he had founded his own company for producing commercials. It was through his work in commercials that he met Jules Bass. In the Fifties Bass was working for Gardner Advertising, a company which often did business with Rankin. In 1955 the two of them founded the company Videocrafts Incorporated, later renamed Videocraft International and still later Rankin/Bass Productions.

Initially, Videocraft only produced television commercials, but in 1960 they moved into the production of TV series. Videocraft's first project was a series of five minutes shorts made for television called The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Like much of the work that would later come out of Rankin/Bass, The New Adventures of Pinocchio used a stop motion process called Animagic that was quite similar to the same process George Pal used on his Puppetoons shorts. They followed The New Adventures of Pinocchio with another series of shorts called Tales of the Wizard of Oz. Tales of the Wizard of Oz was loosely based on the works of L. Frank Baum, the source material which would also provide the basis for the 1965 Rankin/Bass TV special Return to Oz (in fact, some character designs made for the series would be used in the special). Unlike the vast majority of Rankin/Bass's work in the Sixties, Tales of the Wizard of Oz was created using traditional cel animation rather than stop motion.

It would be the same year that Return to Oz aired (by now Videocraft Incorporated had been renamed Videocraft International), 1964, that Rankin/Bass would enter the field that would make them famous, that of Christmas specials. As it turns out, one of Arthur Rankin Jr.'s neighbours was Johnny Marks, the man who wrote "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and a number of other Yuletide classics. Rankin approached Marks about using the song as a basis for a holiday special produced using stop motion animation. Initially Marks was apprehensive, fearing the special could harm future sales of the classic song, but eventually he agreed to the idea. In fact, he provided every other song for the special. The special followed the plot of the song very closely and even expanded on it. When it aired as part of The General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC on December 6, 1964, it was an immediate hit. It has aired during the holiday season every year ever since.

Despite the success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Videocraft International did not rush to make more Christmas specials. In the mid-Sixties their projects included the special The Ballad of Smokey the Bear, the feature film Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, and the Sixties cartoon King Kong, among others. It was a full three years after Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer aired that another Rankin/Bass Christmas special would air, in this case an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Cricket on the Hearth. The Cricket on the Hearth is notable for being another early piece of Rankin/Bass cel animation. Sadly, it was also one of their less successful products from the Sixties. Airing in 1967, it disappeared for decades before resurfacing on video.

Since around 1966 the Videocraft logo had included credits for Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. It was in 1968 that the company adopted the name by which it became best known, Rankin/Bass Productions, and adopted the logo with which most of us are familiar (see above). It was also that year the company would have its second hit Christmas special (The Cricket on the Hearth having not done particularly well). Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy was based on a hit song. Also like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, it was made using stop motion animation. That having been said, The Little Drummer Boy is different from almost every other Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass. Its tone is very Christian (Aaron, the drummer boy, plays his drum for the baby Jesus). It includes a bit of violence (Arab marauders kill Aaron's family). And its portrayal of the Arab villains is hardly what one would consider politically correct these days. While it would air for many years on network television, it would eventually leave the networks for syndication. One has to wonder if its overly religious tone, violence, and what some might consider offensive portrayals of Arabs didn't play a role in it leaving the networks.

In 1969 Rankin/Bass would follow the success of both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy up with an adaptation of yet another Christmas song. Frosty the Snowman followed the plot of the song quite closely, although expanding a bit on the song's plot in which a snowman comes to life. While this gave it something in common with both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman was shot using traditional cel animation. Reportedly, Rankin wanted the cartoon to have the look of an old time Christmas card, even hiring greeting card Paul Coker Jr. for the project. It was perhaps for this reason that it was made using cel animation. That having been said, contrary to many reports, it was not the first time Rankin/Bass used traditional cel animation. It is predated not only by Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961, but by Return to Oz in 1964 and the King Kong cartoon in 1966. It is not even their first holiday special shot using cel animation (that would be The Cricket on the Hearth, which first aired in 1967). That having been said, it is arguably the second most successful Christmas special they ever made. It first aired on CBS on December 7, 1969 and has aired on network television every year ever since.

Although many people tend to think of the Sixties when they think of Rankin/Bass, arguably their most active period with regards to Christmas specials was the Seventies. That having been said, it can also be argued that it was during this decade that the company saw some decline in quality, the Seventies specials not quite matching those made in the Sixties. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Rankin/Bass began making more and more sequels to their earlier work. Between them, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer would have two sequels apiece (although they admittedly shared one).

Regardless, Rankin/Bass would start the Seventies off on a high point. In 1970 ABC first aired Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, a special based on the hit song and basically telling the origin of Santa Claus. The special would mark the first time that Mickey Rooney did the voice for Santa Claus in a Rankin/Bass production. He would repeat the role in more specials. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town first aired on ABC on December 14, 1970. Although it would not see the success of either Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, it would air on network television for many years to come.

Rankin/Bass would go four years without producing another Christmas special. When new Rankin/Bass material debuted in 1974, it would be in the form of two different specials. Today 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is largely forgotten. A half hour special done in cel animation, the special actually owed very little the classic poem of the same name. Instead the plot centred around a small town which finds itself boycotted by Santa after a mouse writes him a nasty letter. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas would not see the repeated airings of other Rankin/Bass specials. It is available on DVD.

The other special that aired in 1974 would see a bit more success. The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley and once more featured Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus. The special's plot centred around a sick and disenchanted Santa, who considers calling off his usual Yuletide trip around the world. First airing on December 10, 1974, it would not become a holiday tradition the way that Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman has. That having been said, it would develop something of a cult following. In the movie Batman and Robin, Mr. Freeze even tries to teach his henchmen the Snow Miser song (Snow Miser being one of the characters in the special). In 2006 NBC aired a live action remake of the special that was considerably different from the original.

In 1975 another Rankin/Bass special made using Animagic aired on NBC, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was not the story of Jesus's birth, the title referring instead to a Christmas pageant put on by children in the special. Although it originally aired on NBC, it would find a home on CBS for several years.

Nineteen seventy six should perhaps be regarded as a turning point for Rankin/Bass. It was that year in which sequels to the company's classic specials were first aired. Indeed, three new Rankin/Bass specials debuted in 1976 and all three were sequels. The first to air was Frosty's Winter Wonderland, debuting on December 2, 1976. Made in cel animation like the original, the plot introduced the character of Jack Frost as well as a wife for Frosty. As the title indicates, it included the song "Winter Wonderland."

Rudolph's Shiny New Year was the second to air, on December 10, 1976. The special centred upon Rudolph seeking out the next Baby New Year before midnight on New Year's Eve. Rudolph was the only one of the characters from the original to appear in this sequel. Even more curious is the fact that, while Rudolph was portrayed as an adult reindeer at the end of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in Rudolph's Shiny New Year he is once more portrayed as a youngster. Rudolph's Shiny New Year would not become the Yuletide tradition which the original was.

The final Rankin/Bass sequel to air in 1976 was The Little Drummer Boy Book II. Although not quite highly regarded as the original, it is perhaps regarded more highly than the other sequels which Rankin/Bass made. The special included characters from the original and, furthermore, the characters looked as they did in the original. Like The Little Drummer Boy, The Little Drummer Boy Book II was based on a song, in this case "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Sadly, it would not be repeated every year for literally years as other Rankin/Bass specials have been.

The next Rankin/Bass holiday special would not be a sequel, although it has also been largely forgotten. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey was made using Animagic and centred around Nestor, a donkey who winds up in the stable in which Jesus is born. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey first aired on December 3, 1977. Although now highly regarded by many Rankin/Bass fans, it did not become an annual Yuletide tradition.

Nineteen seventy nine would see one of the strangest developments in the history of Rankin/Bass and its strong link to the holiday season. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was not only a sequel to both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, but it was also a feature film shot in Animagic. Odder still, it centred on July 4th and was released to theatres on July 1, 1979. Released in the middle of summer and featuring characters characters associated with Christmas, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July died at the box office. It would find a second life on television, airing during the holiday season. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July would be historic in that it marked the first time Frosty was portrayed using stop motion animation and the last time that Rudolph was portrayed using such.

It was also in 1979 that Rankin/Bass created a special centred around the character of Jack Frost. Jack Frost had appeared previously in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. Jack Frost gave the character centre stage. Shot in Animagic, the plot centred around Jack Frost falling in love with a mortal woman. It first aired on December 13, 1979.

The Eighties would see Rankin/Bass making fewer Christmas specials and even stop making them for a time. The reason for this is simply that throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties, the networks ceased airing as many Yuletide specials as they once did. With less demand for holiday specials, Rankin/Bass had no need to release a new special once year as they had in the Seventies.

For their first special of the Eighties, Rankin/Bass would turn to a familiar character. The first series the company had ever produced was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, so it should have been no surprise when they produced the special Pinocchio's Christmas. The special involved the puppet's efforts to earn money for present for Gepetto. Pinocchio's Christmas first aired on December 13, 1980.

In 1981 Rankin/Bass followed Pinocchio's Christmas with The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold. Also made in stop motion animation, The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold was a half hour special based in Irish folklore, complete with leprechauns and a banshee. Reaction to The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold has always been divided. There are those who feel it is one of the worst Rankin/Bass special, although those who enjoy Irish folklore seem to have a greater appreciation of it.

It would be be four years before Rankin/Bass would produce another holiday special. When they did, they would return to the works of L. Frank Baum. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was based on the Baum novel of the same name. Only an hour long, the special abbreviated much the novel's plot and made some changes to it. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is one of the few Rankin/Bass specials that actually created some controversy, as Fundamentalist Christians claimed the special was "Satanic (an accusation also thrown at Baum's Oz books)." The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is also unique among Rankin/Bass Christmas specials in that it is the only one which does not have a narrator. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus first aired on CBS on December 17, 1985. Perhaps due to the fact that the networks were airing fewer holiday specials in the Eighties and Nineties and perhaps due to anger on the part of Fundamentalists Christians, it would not see the repeat viewing of other Rankin/Bass specials. Despite the controversy, it remains one of the best regarded of Rankin/Bass's later holiday specials.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would be the last Rankin/Bass holiday special aired for some time. In fact, it would be one of the last Rankin/Bass specials for some time. An adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in cel animation, first aired in 1987, would the last Rankin/Bass production for several years. Although the company continued to exist, it entered a period of dormancy when it was simply producing nothing. After fourteen years in which Rankin/Bass produced nothing, they returned in 2001 with another holiday special based on a Christmas song. Santa Baby. Unlike the majority of classic Rankin/Bass specials, Santa Baby was made with cel animation. The special owed very little to the song, in which a woman lists the extravagant gifts she wants Santa to bring her. Instead the special focused on a songwriter seeking to write a hit song. Despite featuring the vocal talents of Eartha Kitt (originator of the hit song), Patti LaBelle, and Gregory Hines, Santa Baby proved to be something of a disappointment to Rankin/Bass fans. It first aired on Fox on December 17, 2001 and has not aired very often ever since.

Since Santa Baby, Rankin/Bass has not produced anything else, although the company continues to exist. Here I should point out that while the 2001 computer animated, direct to video sequel to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys, utilised the characters and mythos from the original special, Rankin/Bass had nothing to do with it. I have no idea if Rankin/Bass has any new projects in production (Wikipedia claims they have a new holiday special, Rudolph vs. Frosty, on the boards, but I have found nothing else about it on the web, so it might just be a joke). Regardless, they do maintain a presence on the web.

Since its beginnings as Videocraft Incorporated in 1955, Rankin/Bass became a major contributor to Anglo-American pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies. They also became the company most associated with holiday specials. Indeed, it is perhaps a mark of the influence of Rankin/Bass that many of their specials continue to air on television (on the broadcast networks and ABC Family), decades after they were made. The influence of Rankin/Bass can also be seen in many of the commercials which have aired this year. An AFLAC commercial airing this season utilises the characters from the classic special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, done in the style of Rankin/Bass. Even when adverts don't outright use characters from the Rankin/Bass, they often pay homage to the company's Animagic style, from Mac computers to Alltel to Big Lots. There's even a Missouri lottery commercial airing at the moment featuring an "Island of Messed Up Gifts," a clear parody of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, shot in a style reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass specials. As to parodies, there have been many over the years, from the shorts made by Corky Quakenbush for Mad TV to Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse takeoff on the old specials, aired on Saturday Night Live, in which Santa refuses to deliver toys to states that voted Republican. Regardless of whether Rankin/Bass ever produces another Yuletide special, the company has left a lasting legacy in Anglo-American culture with regards to holiday specials that will probably never be matched.

1 comment:

pammyg said...

Interesting history Terence! Rankin Bass productions were a part of my Christmas every year (I was born in 64) and The Little Drummer Boy was always one of my favorites. I always wondered why they stopped playing it, but I think I see the reason after reading your blog. I haven't seen it for years just relying on my memory, which apparently has failed me. It makes perfect sense that this show is no longer part of the holiday lineup.