Note: I originally wrote this a few years ago for the old site.
It’s that time of year when the Christmas specials grace our television screens, and some of the best came from the minds of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Animator Rankin met ad man Bass and the two of them begin a partnership that lasted thirty-five years. Here is a brief overview of their major works and some of their less popular gems, most of them featuring the stop-motion style called “Ani-magic.”
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer It first aired Sunday, December 6, 1964, on NBC. The special was based on the Johnny Marks song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The special follows the story of Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards) from the song, but adds to the plot by having Rudolph run away with Hermie, an elf who wants to be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, a prospector seaching for gold (or silver). The trio run into an Abominable Snowman and visit the Island of Misfit Toys, before returning in time to lead Santa’s sleigh through a blizzard.
The special is narrated by Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman. He sings the title song as well as “Silver and Gold” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” The special doesn’t always show some of the characters in the best light. Donner, Rudolph’s dad is kind of a jerk; the forman elf is just plain mean; and even Santa is a bit cranky
Frosty the Snowman
First aired on December 7, 1969 on CBS and features hand-drawn animation rather than stop motion. Narrated by Jimmy Durante, who also sings the title song, the story follows the main character, portrayed by Jackie Vernon as he is brought to life by a magician’s hat, and has to make his way to the North Pole, all the while avoiding Professor Hinkle who wants his hat back. The story also establishes that Frosty is made of Christmas snow, and can be revived by a blast of cold wind if he ever melts. He is taken up north by Santa Claus played by Paul Frees. A sequel was produced in 1976, Frosty’s Winter Wonderland where Frosty meets Crystal, a snow woman voiced by Shelly Winters, and marries her. He also contends with a jealous Jack Frost (once again, Paul Frees).
Santa Claus is Coming to Town In 1970, they returned to ani-magic for the origin story story of Santa Claus.
Fred Astaire, as S.D. Kluger the mailman, tells and sings the story of how a baby was found and raised by a family of toy making elfs. As an adult Kris Kringle, played by Mickey Rooney, decides to deliver toys to the kids of Sombertown, run by the mean Burgermeister Meisterburger, once again Paul Frees.
He meets school teacher Jessica, who gets kind of weird in the middle of the story.
He wins over the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) and heads North to build his castle
Year without a Santa Claus This one really is my favorite. Mickey Rooney returns as Santa, who feels that people don’t care anymore so he decides to quit. Mrs. Claus, played by Shirley Booth, sets out with two Christmas Elfs to prove him wrong. This is all well and good, but the show is stolen by these guys:
Snow Miser and Heat Miser, played by Dick Shawn and George S. Irving. They have probably the best musical number in the Rankin/Bass catalogue.
Rudolph’s Shiny New Year In this special, Father Time (Red Buttons) enlists Rudolph’s help in finding Happy, the baby New Year, who has run away to the Archipelago of Last Years. Aided by Big Ben, a whale with a clock in his tail, and the years One Million, 1023, and 1776, he saves Happy from the clutches of Aeon a vulture, played of course by Paul Frees. Morey Amsterdam and Frank Gorshin provide voices.
Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July This is The Avengers of Christmas specials. Jackie Vernon, Mickey Rooney, Shelly Winters, and Billie Mae Richards all reprise their characters as Rudolph and Frosty agree to perform at a seaside circus run by Lilly Lorraine (Ethel freakin’ Merman) and are menaced by an evil wizard, played by, you guessed it, Paul Frees.
The story also features Big Ben and Jack Frost, making this the centerpiece of the Rankin/Bass Cinematic Universe
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus Released in 1985. In this story, the Great Ak summons a council of the Immortals to bestow upon a dying Santa Claus the Mantle of Immortality. To make his case, the Great Ak tells Claus’s life story, from his discovery as a foundling in the magical forest and his raising by Immortals, through his education by the Great Ak in the harsh realities of the human world, and his acceptance of his destiny to struggle to bring joy to children. It’s Santa meets Lord of the Rings . Seriously, it’s weird. Look at this guy:
Rankin and Bass had many other specials, some a little more obscure:
The Little Drummer Boy is the only Christmas special I know of where someone gets hit in the face with an axe. It had a sequel where the Drummer boy has to save some bells. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow Features the voice of Angela Lansbury as the narrating and singing nun, and the Irving Berlin Christmas classic “White Christmas”. Also starring Cyril Richards, it tells the story of a blind shepherd boy who longs to experience Christmas.
Twas the Night Before Christmas Joel Grey is a clock maker who designs a clock to apologize to an uncharacteristically dickish Santa after he is offended by a letter written by a mouse. Want to bawl your eyes out? Watch Nestor, the Long-eared Donkey.
The Stingiest Man in Town Walter Matthau as Ebenezer Scrooge. The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold features a bunch of leprechauns and a banshee. I can’t even explain it. Finally, Jack Frost features Robert Morse as Jack, who becomes human, falling in love with another human. It also features Buddy Hacket as Pardon-me Pete the Groundhog. And of course, Paul Frees.
Rankin and Bass made a lot more holiday specials and features including feature length animated films like The Last Unicorn and series like Thundercats, but they will always be known for their contributions to the holiday season
And Paul Frees