Ghosts of Christmas Past: Unwrapping the Creepy Rankin/Bass Holiday Specials

Singing elves. Dancing snowmen. The awkward beauties of stop-motion animation. Yuletides threatened by mad professors, insane dictators, giant buzzards and Arab stereotypes. Welcome to the world of Rankin/Bass, a company that took the shiny, pop-culture Christmas ball and ran with it, creating a demented body of video work that will live forever...for better or worse.

We can measure our faithfulness to the sentiments of the season through our dedication to the ritual of watching holiday TV specials. The best are just can’t-miss, hands-down good: A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, for example. Then there are eerie moments, like that 1977 Bing Crosby/David Bowie Christmas TV duet, and the depthless horror that is The Star Wars Holiday Special.

But no one could crank out Xmas kitsch quite like the minions of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Over more than two decades, their studio produced more than a dozen animated Christmas specials, most of them filmed with puppets in painstaking stop-motion technique. Only Sid and Marty Krofft of H.R. Pufnstuf fame can claim a similar dominance over the injection of absolute weirdness into American children’s minds. Here are some highlights:
1) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The first and the best. The attention to detail, the anything-goes leaps of logic, the weird mix of cultural references: This set the pattern, both in form and tone, for all Rankin/Bass holiday specials to come.

Celebrity narrator: Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives). So memorable, he made it into Elf!

Song you can’t get out of your head: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”

Villains: The Abominable Snowman, and the worst blizzard in a century.

High points: a) Hermey the elf confesses his obsessive desire to become a dentist. B) Rudolph calling out, “Ready, Santa!” Gulp. Sob.

Huh?: Still wondering about strong yet sensitive Yukon Cornelius and King Moonracer, the flying lion that rules over the Island of Misfit Toys.

Lesson: Diversity. We must love and accept all our differently-abled reindeer.

Quote: “Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-Box!”

After the relatively turgid and uncomfortably Christ-centered The Little Drummer Boy (1968), we move on to...
2) Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Celebrity narrator: Jimmy Durante

Song you can’t get out of your head: The title song, silly!

Villain: Professor Hinkle, memorably portrayed by the inimitable and now forgotten Billy De Wolfe, a professional sissy of the type played by Charles Nelson Reilly and Franklin Pangborn.

High points: Frosty saves his friend Karen at the cost of his own conversion from a solid to a liquid state.

Huh?: Santa threatening to cut Professor Hinkle off from the present list if he doesn’t give Frosty his life-producing magic hat, then makes him write 100 zillion apologies. This does not follow the precepts of Love and Logic.

Lesson: Don’t be a hater.

Quote: “Happy birthday!”
3) Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970)

Celebrity narrator: Fred Astaire

Song you can’t get out of your head: “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” (later recycled for the Here Comes Peter Cottontail Easter special a year later)

Villain: Burgomeister Meisterburger! Ooo, he hatez dose toyzzz!

High points: Kris Kringle is a defiant, elf-raised orphan who brings toys to children despite being ground down by The Man. He works under cover of darkness, an outlaw advocate of materialism, and winds up a political prisoner, Yuletide’s own Vaclav Havel. Plus, Jessica Claus is hot.

Huh?: The insane lengths to which the story in order to explain every aspect of the Santa mythos are beyond compare. Red suit, beard, flying reindeer, magic feed corn – the scrotal fortitude of the writers is impressive.

Lesson: Nobody can mess with the inalienable right of children to have toys, especially with an omnipotent, omniscient Santa on their side. Dammit.

Quote: “Behave yourselves, because Santa can still look into his magic snowball and see just what you're up to.”
4) The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

Celebrity narrator: Shirley Booth

Songs you can’t get out of your head: “The Snow Miser Song” and “The Heat Miser Song”

Villain: Isn’t it Santa this time? He catches a cold, decides to take a break, and basically bails on the whole holiday.

High points: Snow Miser and Heat Miser, of course

Huh?: It’s kind of like Measure for Measure – a leader leaves, creating a power vacuum that’s filled with bad bargains. Elves are making deals with Southern mayors, element-controlling spirits, and the like.

Lesson: Santa is too big to fail.

Quote: “Nobody cares a hoot and a holler for you or Christmas.”

And it starts to go steeply downhill from there. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976) still has a rap that it contains anti-Arab stereotyping. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977), Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980), The Leprechaun’s Christmas Gold (1981) all dredge up scraps of the old Animagic. A few years later, the entire holiday-magic machine ground to a halt.

The Rankin/Bass oeuvre definitely had its influences. The innovative Tadahito Mochinaga of Japan did the actual stop-motion and cel animation dirty work, creating a cadre of animators who would move on and create animation studios such as Topcraft and Ghibli. The animators of Rudolph ended up making the groundbreaking films of Miyazaki.

Rankin/Bass is in the DNA of more ambitious, complex and conscientious animators since, such as Will Vinton (Closed Mondays, the California Raisins), Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep), even the brothers Quay – if only in unconscious ripostes to its technical and aesthetic shortcomings. Would no Rudolph have translated to no Fantastic Mr. Fox?

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