Wednesday 8 December 2021

The Rankin/Bass Holiday Special Cinematic Universe

Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a billion dollar franchise, there have been many attempts at replicating its success with every available intellectual property lying around. Marvel did not invent the concept of an interlinked series of films and television shows, however. Between 1923 and 1959, Universal Studios produced 72 horror films that eventually wove together in the ongoing battles between Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Frankenstein Monster. Toho Studios in the 50's, 60's, and 70's eventually linked all of their giant monster movies together into a single "Showa Era" continuity headlined by Godzilla. Another studio to try their hand was Rankin/Bass, who produced the preeminent series of holiday specials beginning with 1964's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  

That holiday classic set the tone and tropes of Rankin/Bass' output for decades to follow. It opens with a celebrity narrator - folk singer Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman - presenting our story as an extended flashback. That story takes a still-new Christmas song, mixes it with well-known holiday iconography including the ubiquitous Victorian Christmas aesthetic, and spices it with some pretty wildly idiosyncratic characters. Rudolph is born to Donner, but suffers mockery for his physiological non-conformity. After finally being denied participation in the reindeer games, he meets up with Hermey, an elf on the lam. Hermey has ambitions to be a dentist, which goes unappreciated in Santa's workshop. They meet up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and eventually make their way to the Island of Misfit Toys, ruled over by a griffin named King Moonracer. However, their steps are constantly dogged by the Abominable Snow Monster (or "Bumble" for short). Eventually Rudolph must confront both the Bumble and his childhood trauma in order to save his friends and Christmas. 

The complete Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The vast majority of it makes no rational sense, but it is a lot of fun. Why an elf who wants to be a dentist? Why a griffin? Who cares? Burl Ives regales us with his classics "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Silver and Gold," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas." There's also some snappy humour in it, including my favourite joke in any TV show: "This fog is as thick as peanut butter!" "Don't you mean pea soup?" "YOU EAT WHAT YOU LIKE AND I'LL EAT WHAT I LIKE!" It proved to be a huge success that has aired on television every Christmas since. And that success inspired more holiday specials to come.

Rankin/Bass was also in the business of traditional 2-dimensional animation, most notably Tales of the Wizard of Oz (1961) and The King Kong Show (1966-69). In stop-motion they had been producing The New Adventures of Pinocchio (1960-61), The Ballad of Smokey the Bear TV special (1966), and the feature films Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965) and The Daydreamer (1966), based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen. Their third and final stop-motion feature film was Mad Monster Party? (1967), as weirdly groovy attempt to capitalize on the renewed interest in monster kitsch.

The complete Willy McBean and His Magic Machine.

The Little Mermaid's song from The Daydreamer.

By the end of the 60's, Universal's cinematic universe of monsters was well and truly over. Its last Gothic horror films had been released in the late 40's, and the franchise eked out with the Creature from the Black Lagoon and other science fiction films through the 50's. However, even as the first-run films had expired, they took on new life in drive-in theatres, revivals, and TV horror hosts. Universal had started packing its films for television as early as 1957, and horror hosts like Vampira (whose show ran from 1954-55) and Zacherley set the stage for many to follow in the 60's and 70's. Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine began publishing in 1958. The Addams Family and The Munsters both aired from 1964-66. Count Chocula and Franken Berry cereal were first released in 1971, to be joined by Boo Berry in 1973. Mad Monster Party? taps into this era of monster movie kitsch by gathering off-model versions of the classic monsters together on Boris Karloff's island to a James Bond-inspired soundtrack. The production was intimately tied to MAD Magazine, having been scripted by Harvey Kurtzman with character designs by Jack Davis. It is full of puns and caricatures of James Stewart, Peter Lorre, and Karloff himself. Unfortunately, the film's pacing problems betray that this was clearly conceived as a TV special that was padded out into a feature.  

Trailer for Mad Monster Party?

The next Christmas specials were The Cricket on the Hearth (1967), a 2-D adaptation of the Charles Dickens story, and The Little Drummer Boy (1968), a stop-motion special based on the Nativity story and the song. These were followed in 1969 by Rankin/Bass' next most beloved special, Frosty the Snowman. This 2-D special featured Jimmy Durante as the narrator and provided an explanation for the existence of the magic hat. Because songs like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are an indelible part of Christmas today, it's easy to forget how new they are. Both songs were first recorded by Western singer Gene Autry, the former in 1950 and the latter in 1949. "Rudolph" was based on a poem written in 1939.

The Complete Frosty the Snowman.

Santa Claus was given a makeover and an origin story in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970). This story, based on the 1934 song, is narrated by Fred Astaire as a postman answering children's questions about where Santa came from and why he does what he does. Mickey Rooney voices a more innocuous and goodnatured Santa than the cartoonish figure of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Abandoned as an infant, he ends up in the care of a family of toymaking elves called the Kringles. When he's old enough, he brings the Kringles' toys over the mountains of the Winter Warlock (voiced by Keenan Wynn) to the children of Sombertown. Unfortunately, the town is under the rule of the meanspirited Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by the incomparable Paul Frees), who has outlawed toys. Santa is forced to take ever more desperate measures, including dropping down chimneys and stuffing toys into stockings. Everything from the red suit to the flying reindeer is covered.

The complete Santa Claus is Comin' to Town.

Having put their mark on Christmas and Halloween, Rankin/Bass expanded to Easter with Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971), the rather dull and forgettable 2-D animated The First Easter Rabbit (1976) starring Burl Ives, and again with The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town (1977), narrated once more by Fred Astaire reprising his postman role to answer questions about the Easter Bunny's origins. The latter is a shameless copy of Santa Claus is Comin' to Town's formula. It begins on the far side of Big Rock Mountain with a town of orphaned children tormented by the garrulous bear Gadzooks. One Easter morning, the children find an orphan bunny and name him Sunny. When he comes of age, Sunny takes his position as head of the town council and recognizes the economic necessity of free trade. Now the main trade good the town produces are eggs, which are coloured to sneak them past Gadzooks. Unfortunately, the nearest town with which to trade is a carbon copy of Sombertown, ruled over by the joyless Dowager Duchess Lily Longtooth, regent for the seven year old King Bruce the Frail. 

The complete Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town.

Far superior and original is Here Comes Peter Cottontail. The framing device for this (cotton)tale is the recollections of Seymour S. Sassafrass (Danny Kaye), the man who makes the colours for the Easter eggs. His tale is how Peter Cottontail (Casey Kasem) nearly lost the role as head Easter Bunny to the vile January Q. Irontail (Vincent Price in peak form). Thanks to the shenanigans of Irontail, Peter loses the Easter egg competition and must leave April Valley in disgrace. Luckily for him, Sassafrass has a time machine with a French caterpillar pilot. But before he gets back to Easter to right the wrong, he crashes in Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and St. Patrick's.   

The complete Here Comes Peter Cottontail.

But Christmas is always the more popular holiday, and Rankin/Bass returned to it in The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). Mickey Rooney comes back as the voice of a disillusioned Santa Claus, ill and overworked and demoralized by the fact that nobody believes in him anymore. Two elves, Jingle and Jangle, fly down to 19th century Southtown on Vixen the Reindeer to find someone who still believes in Santa. But things don't go according to plan and Santa must go undercover in a dapper suit to rescue them. Standing in their way is a convoluted farce involving the warring Miser Brothers: the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser.  

Meeting the Misers in The Year Without a Santa Claus.

Then comes New Years Eve's turn with Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976). Rudolph, voiced once again by Billie Richards, must travel across the Archipelago of Last Years to find Happy, aka. Baby New Year. Without the timid little fellow, the entire calendar will be upset. On the Island of 1,000,000 BC, Rudolph meets up with cavemen and dinosaurs. The beloved characters of fairy tales live on 1023 Island. On 1776 Island, American Independence is celebrated every day. 

The 4th of July parade from Rudolph's Shiny New Year.

Frosty returned the same year in the traditionally animated Frosty's Winter Wonderland, which takes its story cues from the song "Winter Wonderland." Frosty meets Crystal, his future wife, and runs afoul of Jack Frost. The latter returns in Jack Frost (1979), which is set to Groundhog Day. In his own movie, Jack is a more sympathetic figure who asks Father Winter to become human so he can win the heart of a human woman. 

Modern trailer for Jack Frost.

The Little Drummer Boy was given a sequel in The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976). The Nativity story was also revisited in Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977), based on the 1975 Gene Autry song.

The Avengers: Endgame of the Rankin/Bass Holiday Special cinematic universe came in Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979). Frosty and his wife Crystal debut in stop-motion form, with their original voice actors Jackie Vernon and Shelly Winters. Rudolph is there, voiced by Billie Richards, and Santa voiced by Mickey Rooney. The story also brought in Jack Frost (voiced by Paul Frees) and Big Ben the Whale from Rudolph's Shiny New Year. The crisis uniting them is the evil wizard Winterbolt, who seeks the magical power enclosed in Rudolph's nose. The secret is finally revealed: he had a very shiny nose because it was infused with the remaining magic of Winterbolt's nemesis, the noble Lady Boreal. But there is a catch... If Rudolph ever uses his powers for evil, his nose will stop glowing. And it is on this catch that Winterbolt's nefarious plot hangs. 

The introduction to Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July.

Rankin/Bass' holiday specials peter out after this high point. In 1980, Pinocchio's Christmas aired in continuity with their 1960's Pinocchio show, and The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold aired in 1981. In 2-D animation, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas aired in 1974, and The Stingiest Man in Town aired in 1978. The final holiday special to speak of was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985), adapting the story by L. Frank Baum. 

The studio did carry on its 2-D animated offerings with such shows as The Smokey Bear Show (1969-71), The Reluctant Dragon & Mr. Toad Show (1970), Mad Mad Mad Monsters (1972), and Festival of Family Classics (1972-73), an anthology of literary adaptations that included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. Though 20,000 Leagues was rendered in the common style of low-budget animation of the time, Around the World was in Rankin/Bass' signature style. That style was largely due to the Paul Coker, an artist for MAD Magazine who did the lion's share of the character design work for the studio.  The company's most famous final productions included The Last Unicorn (1982) and ThunderCats (1985-89) before they more-or-less folded in 1987. The rights to Rankin/Bass' films are currently split between NBCUniversal/DreamWorks and Warner Bros.  

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