Monday, December 3, 2012

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) - Burl Ives Rules!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: Absolutely the Top Christmas Special

Original magazine as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
GE was so happy, it bought the entire network
Few hour-long television specials have had such an enduring impact as Rankin/Bass Productions' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), directed by Larry Roemer. Telecast every year since, it is the longest-running Christmas TV special and one of only four of the classic 1960s Christmas specials still regularly shown (the others are "Frosty the Snowman," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas"). The show was based on the holiday song, which in turn was based on a poem written by composer Johnny Marks' brother-in-law, . Marks himself did the music for this special, and  adapted the song as a screenplay. Burl Ives, famous as both a singer and actor, plays Sam the Snowman, who narrates and sings.
Young Rudolph and his mother in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Young Rudolph showing that his nose glows when he gets excited
The story closely follows the song. Donner (Paul Kligman) and his wife (Peg Dixon) have a fawn named Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards).  The playful little reindeer displays an unusual glowing red nose. Santa Claus (Stan Francis) stops by their cave to pay his respects, but warns them that the nose will cause problems if Rudolph wants to pull his sleigh. Donner, ashamed, conceals the nose with dirt.
The Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The misfit toys chatting with Rudolph
When Rudolph is old enough, Donner again conceals his son's nose and takes him to the Reindeer Games, where Rudolph can learn how to pull Santa's sleigh.  There, Rudolph meets Fireball, who becomes his friend. They run into cute young Clarice (Janis Orenstein), who Rudolph decides to chat up at Fireball's urging. Unfortunately, while jumping around in joy when she proves receptive, the cover pops off his nose, revealing his shameful secret. All the other reindeer except Clarice immediately abandon him, and he is prohibited by Coach Comet (Kligman) from learning how to pull Santa's sleigh. Furthermore, Clarice's father (Kligman again) forbids her from seeing Rudolph.
Rudolph in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Rudolph is crafted in innocent, boyish fashion
Devastated, Rudolph runs away with an elf, Hermey (Paul Soles), who also is ostracized by his peers. They run into a colorful prospector named Yukon Cornelius (Larry Mann), and the three wind up on the Island of Misfit Toys. There, King Moonracer (Francis) helps unwanted toys find new homes, and he makes Rudolph promise to have Santa distribute his toys on Christmas.
Yukon Cornelius in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Yukon Cornelius waving his pike
After much wandering, Rudolph finally decides to go home. He learns to his horror that the Abominable Snowman kidnapped his parents and plans to eat them. Rudolph tries to save them but gets knocked unconscious in the attempt. Fortunately, Hermey and Cornelius intervene and, after some problems, chase the snowman over a cliff, Cornelius falling with him. This turns the whole group into heroes. It also is almost time to distribute presents to the children of the world, but a terrible blizzard will prevent it unless someone special steps forward to help out....
The Abominable Snowman showing his teeth in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The Abominable Snowman showing his toothy grin
The show is memorable for any number of reasons, but the stop-motion animation is what makes it truly distinctive. Even after all these years, and despite some self-conscious "showing off" of the then-revolutionary technique, "Rudolph" retains a contemporary look that almost all cartoons of the time lack. As one example of its cultural impact, Norelco crafted a famous homage showing Santa riding one of its electric razors like the Santa in this film that ran for many years during the 1970s. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" by West Anderson is a recent homage to this special, using similar stop-motion animation and featuring several songs by Ives. The costumes in "Elf" are almost identical to those in "Rudolph."
The Abominable Snowman tamed in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The Abominable Snowman putting the star on the Christmas Tree
Academy-Award winner Burl Ives sings his signature "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" not once, but twice. He does so in a simple, unadorned way that is practically a capella. After the success of the show, he re-recorded the tune the following year with a much fuller backing sound, and that is the version that has become the holiday standard heard on the radio every year.
The elves laughing in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
The elves in this special inspired their descendants in "Elf"
The show is dated in some of its attitudes despite repeated tweaking, and one can quibble that several of the characters act poorly. Santa is somewhat amusing with his grumbling about the elves singing, and Donner is a bit quick to claim he knew all along that Rudolph would be a hero. However, that also is how people act in real life, and Santa and the others come to understand their own errors in judgment about Rudolph. "Maybe misfits have a place, too," Sam the Snowman observes. It really is the people around Rudolph who grow, not Rudolph himself, which makes this a fascinating inverted coming-of-age tale. The theme of personal redemption is uplifting, and Rudolph going from outcast to hero is an exhilarating transformation and example for everyone.
Rudolph leading the way in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Rudolph in mid-flight
"Rudolph" is told simply, with clearly delineated good and evil characters who are easy for children to understand. There is little subtlety, it is just a simple tale, told in blunt fashion. The character of the Abominable Snowman appears to have given some inspiration to the creation of later animated characters in films such as "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc."
Santa's sleigh gliding throught he sky in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 1964
Santa and his sleigh riding above the clouds
The show's popularity speaks for itself. The original book helped inspire the Disney film "Dumbo," which has the same uplifting themes and is also worth a look. Any fan of the genre should see "Rudolph" at least once to appreciate a giant step forward in animation. The complete current version can be viewed below.



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