Every year for, oh, 51 years running, the nation has sat down to watch Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. It never fails to pull respectable numbers, even in these days of Netflix and Youtube. Some grumble that Rudolph has worn out its welcome, but the less hollow of us can’t imagine a year without it. It has existed so long that everyone feels like it was always just there, with the holly and mistletoe and all those other Christmas traditions.
But have you ever stopped to think about how weird it is? This is a little story about a mutant reindeer, a individualistic elf, and a gun-toting prospector battling a giant yeti and trying to make their mark on the world, as told by a folk-singing snowman. No normal group of Hollywood producers can make that story into a firm American tradition. The story behind the production of Rudolph is so worth telling that I’m breaking my habits of looking at theatrical films and diving into this television classic.
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were a couple of well-connected commercial producers who traveled frequently to capitalize on the growing global market post-WWII. While in Japan, they happened to see some animated films by Tadahito “Tad” Mochinaga. Tad animated in stop-motion, with a simple and charming style that enchanted viewers even though the actual animation was often choppy. Rankin/Bass (as the pair’s company was known) recruited Tad every so often to animate for them, and as their ads grew more popular, the company struck a deal with NBC to produce television specials.
While working with NBC, Rankin/Bass connected with Romeo Muller, and asked if he would write a Christmas special based on the song “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Muller accepted, but didn’t really know what to do with a song of just a few lines, and decided to seek inspiration through open-ended conversations with friends and family. His brother teased him about his youthful fascination and romance with a girlfriend named Clarice. Arthur Rankin spoke about how much he admired King Kong and how Tad’s animation reminded him of the giant gorilla.
Using these conversations to imagine characters and situations, Muller built them around the theme of Rudolph’s feelings of loneliness and sense of being a misfit. Through his sheer desperation, Muller wrote a remarkably inventive tale that charmed Rankin and Bass. After the script was edited and songs were written by Johnny Marks, who had written the original Rudolph song 15 years prior, voices were recorded in Canada. Tad then took the script and recordings, and with the help of his team, began animating the special.
At this point, there was no Sam the Snowman character; Yukon Cornelius was supposed to be singing the songs and a more generic narrator filling in gaps where necessary. Rankin thought that a celebrity storyteller would have appeal, though, and settled on the gentle folk singer and actor Burl Ives. The story was hastily re-edited and Tad’s team designed a snowman after Ives’s likeness. It was something of an accidental masterstroke, with Ives’s kindly nature providing a sweet counterbalance to the oddball story.
On its initial airing, Rudolph found love in the hearts of Americans and NBC received tens of thousands of fan letters begging for a re-airing. Many letters also rightfully wondered why Santa did not keep his promise to save the Misfit Toys, who actually went unrescued in the original 1964 broadcast. For less clear reasons, an NBC exec also wanted the “We’re a Couple of Misfits” song replaced (although there’s some evidence he was worried that the message of it was “too socialist”). Rankin/Bass complied on both accounts, creating a significantly different show in 1965 that ends with Santa visiting the Island of Misfit Toys.
Over the years, longer commercial breaks and fan campaigns have moved bits and pieces of the special in and out of the TV and video versions, creating more variations than you would ever expect. One particular scene from the original broadcast rarely makes it in, though, which is a shame because it answers the eternal question: why does Yukon keep licking his ice pick every time he drops it? The special’s original climax shows Yukon finding a peppermint mine with his random pick-tossing, which turns out to have been his goal all along (or so he claims)!
Whatever version you’re familiar with, it’s almost certain that you’re familiar with the show on some level. Rudolph has attained a level of cultural immersion that most television can only dream of, and that’s thanks to it aging remarkably well. Romeo Muller’s hodgepodge of ideas come together in a sharp and funny script. You have a groanworthy moment where Donner insists that searching for Rudolph is “man’s work”, but then his wife and Clarice go looking for him anyway. Yukon Cornelius is as inspired and as absurd as Rick from Rick and Morty, making up groundless facts about the Abominable Snowman and quietly shifting his prospecting goals from scene to scene.
That it’s so funny and weird is easy to forget because everyone remembers Rudolph for being genuine and sweet as sugar. And it’s no mystery why. Its message of celebrating the differences between people and creating a world where we can all contribute remains as important and as touching as it was in 1964. And on a personal level, I know that I am so attached to this special that I can’t really be objective about it. I would feel worse about that if I wasn’t sure that millions and millions of people feel the same way. Rudolph, whatever else it is, is so magical that it is synonymous with the childhoods of Christmas. I don’t know that there’s a higher art than that.
“Through The Projector Lens” is a feature celebrating classic, unforgettable movies that have stood the test of time. If you would like to see a film featured, let us know in the comments! Tell us about all your Rudolph memories too!
All images credit of: Classic Media