Friday, January 31, 2014

The Late Great Arthur Rankin Jr.

Animator, director, and producer Arthur Rankin Jr., who co-founded  Rankin/Bass Productions with Jules Bass, died yesterday at the age of 89.

Arthur Rankin Jr. was born on 19 July 1924 in New York City. His parents were actors  Arthur Rankin and Marian Masnfield. Actor Harry Davenport (perhaps best known as Dr, Meade in Gone with the Wind) was his paternal grandfather. During World War II Mr. Rankin served in the United States Navy. Following the war he went to work for RKO Pictures' international division before taking a job as a graphic designer at the television network the American Broadcasting Company. While at ABC he served as part of the art department on the science fiction anthology programme Tales of Tomorrow. Arthur Rankin Jr. left ABC in 1952 and founded his own graphic design firm. Mr. Rankin's company did a good deal of graphic design work for the Gardner advertising agency. It was a fellow named Jules Bass who would deliver materials from the Gardner agency to Arthur Rankin Jr.'s graphics design firm. Messrs. Rankin and Bass soon became friends and eventually decided to found a company that would utilise Mr. Rankin's knowledge of television and Mr. Bass's knowledge of advertising. It was then on 14 September 1960 that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International. By 1967 it would be renamed Rankin/Bass Productions.

Videocraft International's first production would be a television series called The New Adventures of  Pinocchio in 1960. It was produced using the stop motion technique called Animagic that would become forever associated with Rankin/Bass Productions. It was on The New Adventures of Pinocchio that Arthur Rankin Jr. gained his first experience directing. In 1961 Videocraft International produced the TV series , Tales of the Wizard of Oz using cel animation.

The year 1964 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Videocraft International. The company produced the television special Return to Oz for  NBC's General Electric Colour Fantasy Hour. Like Tales of the Wizard of Oz, it was done with cel animation. It was also in 1964 that Videocraft International produced the perennial Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was done using Rankin/Bass's Animagic stop motion technique. The special proved to be a huge hit on its debut and has been aired every year since. The past many years it has been aired at least twice every holiday season.

With the success of Ruldoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Videocraft International produced their first feature length film. Willy McBean and his Magic Machine was directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and used the studio's Animagic stop motion technique. Unfortunately, Willy McBean and his Magic Machine did not prove to be a huge success at the box office. It would be followed by two more feature films produced by Rankin/Bass in the Sixties: The Daydreamer in 1966 (directed by Jules Bass) and Mad Monster Party in 1967. While neither did well at the box office, Mad Monster Party would become popular on television, usually aired by TV stations around Halloween. Besides Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, Mad Monster Party  could well be the most popular work of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass.

While Rankin/Bass saw little success in cinemas, they saw a good deal of success on television. The 1966 Saturday animated cartoon King Kong was co-produced by Toei Animation and ran for three years on ABC. While the 1967 Christmas special Cricket on the Hearth and the 1968 Thanksgiving special Mouse on the Mayflower (both directed by Arthur Rankin Jr.) would not see the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town would see a great deal of success. In fact, Frosty the Snowman is still aired to this day. Rankin/Bass would also see success with the syndicated The Smokey the Bear Show (which shot using Animagic).

In the Seventies Rankin/Bass produced more Saturday morning cartoons, including Jackson Five, The Osmonds, and Kid Power. Of course, by then the company's niche had become holiday specials. Rankin/Bass produced Here Comes Peter Cottontail, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Frosty's Winter Wonderland, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and several others throughout the decade. Rankin/Bass also produced adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Return of the King for television.

By the Eighties the heyday of Rankin/Bass was over. The company produced the feature films The Last Unicorn and Flight of Dragons (both from 1982), as well as the television specials The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold and The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus. Rankin/Bass' last significant production would be the animated series Thundercats in 1985. After Thundercats they would only produce one more thing, the holiday special Santa Baby in 2001.

There are only a very few television producers and directors who would have the impact on popular culture that Arthur Rankin Jr. did. If all he had done was produce Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer he would have had a significant impact, but he did so much more. If one were to ask Americans of a certain age what their favourite holiday specials were as children, chances are the majority of the responses would be Rankin/Bass productions. Many of their holiday specials would run for years. Indeed, since their debut there has never been a year that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman have not aired. Beyond their holiday specials Rankin/Bass produced an array of television shows still remembered by many to this day: King Kong, Jackson Five, and Thundercats still have their fans.

Of course, while Arthur Rankin is remembered as a producer of some of the best loved holiday specials, it must also be pointed out that he was a fine director as well. Particularly when considering he was usually working within the limitations of television animation, Arthur Rankin Jr. (and Jules Bass as well) was capable of direction that was often as good as might be seen in animated feature films with much larger budgets. Both as a producer and a director Arthur Rankin Jr. left behind a legacy of work that will long be remembered.

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