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Rabblerousing Misfits in the Rankin Bass Christmas Extraveganzas

In 1970 a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s immortal classic Scrooge featured a cantankerous Albert Finney take on the titular role as the perpetually disinterested and eternally misanthropic king of the Bah Humbug. In that film, the world of Ebenezer and company thoroughly relied on the long line of adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” to feed into the collective consciousness of its audience to embrace a variant of the story with musical numbers and elaborate set pieces, but most certainly feel the comfort of period cinema that reflects old fashioned sentiment. The same year, audiences were greeted with yet another Christmas themed musical, but this time the film was for television, and while not one human being was to be seen anywhere in sight, the ethos of the piece was incredibly contemporary and reflective of a shift in the culture, where the notion of rebellion and challenging the stoicism of authority was essential in progress and personal conquest.

Writers/producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were most definitely the go-to team to deliver festive television specials that generations of children (and adults alike) grew up loving. Their films featured some of the most enchanting stop motion animation (known as Animagic) ever put to screen and their work is legendary and iconic. Their first widely seen effort was the wonderful Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) which was simply based on the song by Johnny Marks and went on to become one of the most successful and much loved (and much screened) Christmas specials ever to air on network TV around the world. After that came more Christmas musical specials such as The Little Drummer Boy (1968) and Frosty the Snowman (1969), featuring wonderful voice talents such as Greer Garson and Zero Mostel as well as incredible songs written by Maury Laws.

Rankin-Bass’s films began to get more sophisticated in tone and in story as the years went on and by the time of the early seventies, their writing team headed by the gifted Romeo Muller dealt with informal themes and well-structured stories that fleshed out characters from folklore and festive mythology. Muller also had the distinct talent of taking a popular song like a Christmas carol and developing it into an exceptionally interesting plot that worked swiftly and with great ease, completely benefitting from some wonderful original songs that have since become lasting classics.

Their 1970 effort Santa Claus is Coming to Town is no exception. Not only is it a smart little animated feature, it is also a fresh and very adult one. Where Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer dealt with the complexities of not fitting in and celebrated the notion of being a misfit, this feature – starring the vocal talents of movie musical legend Mickey Rooney – deals with the purpose of vocation and the meaning of existence outside of social norms. These themes reflect the cultural turning point that was the late sixties and coming into the early seventies, and although these films are geared towards entertaining children, they fundamentally are painted up by progressive and optimistic idealists who want to ensure that newer generations understand and embrace individuality and freedom of expression.

The film opens with a sweet newsreel featuring a very serious newscaster explaining that children everywhere are waiting for their presents from Santa Claus. It is a great opening, but not at all as charming as the animated opening where a spindly mailman named S.D. Kluger (Fred Astaire) breaks the fourth wall and begins to tell the story of Santa Claus’s origins. For a film based on a song introduced to the world by entertainer Eddie Cantor, the animated TV gem is meaty and rich and right away as soon as we get into the story of Santa it is as intriguing and as captivating as any fairy tale.

Much like the Disney princesses of the early days such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Kris Kringle’s (Rooney) best friends and confidants are the forest dwelling animals. He strikes up a lovely friendship with a penguin he calls Topper, an easily frightened little critter who becomes a surrogate son to the handsome and proactive Kringle, soon to be known as Santa Claus. Kringle is compassionate and nurturing, and this is embodied in his relationship with this fretful penguin. As the film’s central protagonist, Kringle is the youthful bearer of gifts to children the world over, and he is a representative of new-wave masculinity as much as any other heroic seventies movie male. He is sensitive but quietly strong and this kind of enlightened but tough man will start to pop up in mainstream (and non-animated) cinema from Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) through to Beau Bridges in Norma Rae (1979). The idea of masculinity is something that the seventies playfully complicates, and in this Rankin-Bass stop motion festive treasure, this gender dissection is not ignored.

Mickey Rooney’s exuberance from yesteryear as a young musical and theatrical geniuses with his endless plight (along with the equally talented Judy Garland) of saving the farm house or music mess hall in the endless slew of terrific Arthur Freed musicals, is by 1970 a senior ex-hoofer who is set to remind us of a bygone era via the vessel of a stop motion animated puppet. Unlike many of his peers, Rooney can also deliver a contemporary fragile hero who is an extension of a youth culture that even children watching would be well aware of. Rooney will continue to present these kind of roles throughout the decade, carefully dancing between a sentimental and necessary reminiscence of a simpler and supposedly cheerier time and the fevered freshness of a complicated seventies America. His character is a young and energetic (and remarkably ambitious and seriously hard working) Santa Claus, and he even manages to reform and recruit the clear villain of the piece the Winter Warlock (voiced by Keenan Wynn).

Musically, the film is bright and includes catchy and melodic songs. The first is sung by Tanta Kringle (Joan Gardner) who leads the toy sweatshop into a “difficult responsibility” in the great number “The First Toy Makers to the King”. “One Foot in Front of the Other” is a classic Rankin-Bass number that reminds eagle eyed (an eared) audiences of the song “Stay One Step Ahead” from an earlier feature, the entertaining Mad Monster Party? (1966). These songs have a cheery joyous feel that is synonymous with Rankin-Bass, and “One Foot in Front of the Other” from Santa Claus is Coming to Town also acts as the moment that binds the hero and the newly reformed clear visceral villain. Because the Winter Warlock lives outside society, it is easy to understand why writer Muller made him an acceptable and loveable freak: in the world of Rankin-Bass, even the most hardened outsider is redeemable, and can turn into a hero. In fact, a lot of the heroes that populate the Rankin-Bass world are genuine misfits, whereas the real villains are upstanding citizens who are devoid of any childlike magic: they are shaped by the society in which they live, and in turn become stone-faced cretins.

In Santa Claus is Coming to Town the real bad guy is the Burgermeister (Paul Frees) who has banned all toys in town. He screams at the children “You will never, never play again!” This is upsetting to Kris Kringle, and with the help of school teacher Miss Jessica (Robie Lester), a beautiful creation and similar to the sexy Francesca who appeared in the aforementioned Mad Monster Party?, fights for the rights of children and expresses the importance of play. Miss Jessica, who in the beginning seems to be upholding the law of the Burgermeister is seduced by not only Kringle but also by the memory of toys and the importance of childhood. Her soliloquy “My World is Beginning Today” is the epitome of seventies musical bliss – you can almost smell the taffeta and the pastel lipstick and billowy hair! The film’s whimsical sweetness is centred around the beauty of childhood and this number reflects this from an “adult” perspective. The physical representation of childhood is toys and if they are outlawed then our heroes become rebels and are literally labelled non-conformist. The idea of the hero standing up against authority is something of the times and the sensitive and perceptive hero becomes the new cowboy. When Kringle is under attack from the authorities he must go into hiding, and it is a masterful stroke of social commentary as Kringle grows a beard to conceal his identity (the bearded youth of the sixties), retreats to the woodlands (dropping out of established society) and changes his name to Santa Claus (the rejection of formal identity). As great as Santa Claus is Coming to Town is, it will be surpassed by another Christmas themed Rankin-Bass feature film, which would be a cinematic effort and not just relegated to the small screen, a complex masterfully composed character study Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979).

Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July is a sweetly told and perfectly executed film from the much loved Rankin/Bass production team. The film is not only a successful stand-alone feature that tells the story of the world’s most famous reindeer and snowman, but it is a cleverly conceived and surprisingly complex sequel (of sorts) to three of Rankin/Bass’s previous films: Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. The film creates a community that lives through Christmas, and concocts a world where characters that were initially invented for carols have now become functioning, fully fleshed out and dynamic. Animals, elves, snowmen and the like here now have their own personal desires, nightmares and ambitions.

When Frosty’s (Jackie Vernon) children Milly and Chilly are greeted by their Uncle Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards) at the beginning of the film, we get a sense of a narrative meshing that is today now commonplace. We are also introduced to the film’s first plot development: Rudolph’s nose is fading, shifting the charming animated feature into an intricate and multi-layered melodrama. This is the most dramatic and complex of the Rankin/Bass films, and as much as misanthropy was examined in 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy and pedophobia is looked into in The Easter Bunny Is Coming to Town (1977), it is in Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July where emotional diversity and a number of themes are scrutinized.

Christmas specials are important when looking into seventies musicals and musical specials on television, and Rankin/Bass are the reigning kings of Yuletide visual candy. But beneath the stop motion wonder of their Animagic characters, there is a sophisticated story as well as a tribute to old Hollywood. This film in particular boasts an all star cast including Red Buttons, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, Alan Sues, Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees and Don Messick, complete with the music of Johnny Marks and a Romeo Muller screenplay which is layered, intelligent and avoids the overly saccharine. With Santa as a narrator, the film sets up its heroes and a clear villain, unlike other Rankin/Bass villains who can be rehabilitated. In this picture, the king of the North Pole, Winterbolt (Paul Frees) is a menacing tyrant and remains sinister throughout. In direct opposition is Lady Boreal (Nellie Bellflower), the Queen of the Northern Lights, who has an adage that is repeated throughout the film in “Alas, nothing is forever”, which plays off on the more maudlin aspects of an era obsessed with sombre children’s entertainment.

The film is a perfect sequel to two previous Rankin/Bass films – Santa Claus is Coming To Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as it takes elements from them both and does something completely different: instead of a piece dedicated to an outcome, this film is a, a shimmering example of imagination, story innovation and character driven drama. Each character is given their own distinct motive, which is sometimes riddled with many dimensions and facets. For example, the villain Winterbolt wishes to be popular with the children – bizarre in itself, and not unlike Lex Luthor’s keen interest and dedication to becoming popular with the citizens of Metropolis, wanting to be “for the people” as opposed to the genuinely saintly angel Superman, who is ultimately an alien. However, when Lady Boreal says “There is kindness and the loving warmth of the family on Christmas morn”, she is summing up the magic of the season, and the importance of the holiday in relation to the gift of familial unity.

This story could not exist without its Christmas context: the backstory of why Rudolph was born is a clear reference to him being a gift for Santa and therefore a gift for humanity. He is told never to use his “secret magic” for evil and much like Pinocchio, there is much pressure on goodness and taking the right path. Of course initially, Rudolph’s nose causes him grief, rendering him a misfit. But in his first outing in the film he meets fellow misfits and from then on throughout the decade these movies became a celebration of not being the same – sixties and seventies sensibilities danced around the general collective consciousness and the notion that difference makes up an interesting and rich fabric is something that audiences gravitated to as being a misfit became something that should be revered and not made fun of.

Rudolph remains an energetic and youthful presence in this film, and Rudolph and Frosty’s friendship lies at the heart of the story. But it is up to the secondary turning point that really gets the film moving – Milton the flying ice-cream man (Red Buttons) comes to pick up his delivery and when greeted by Frosty, Rudolph and now joined by Frosty’s wife Crystal (Shelley Winters), he explains that he is in love with Laney Lorraine (Shelby Flint) a tightrope walker of a coastal circus that is going broke. The human villain, Sam Spangles (Don Messick) (a mortal enemy and someone who is corrupt because of greed and money) wants to repossess the circus by overthrowing Laney’s mother who owns it. Milton’s love for Laney drives Rudolph’s plight and in turn it presents an opportunity for Winterbolt.

In this film, good characters are easily persuaded into believing lies and talked into doing bad things. One example of this is where Winterbolt puts a thought into Milton’s head to bring Rudolph to the coast, where his powers aren’t as strong. The film blurs the lines between who is good, who is bad, who sits in between and who is easily persuaded to do the wrong thing. This complexity is exists within the narrative, and it makes use of characters that in lesser hands would not be as striking or captivating. When Frosty and Crystal decide to go along with Rudolph (they see it as a lovely opportunity for the children to see a real life circus) there are dangers involved. “We’d be real misfits”, says Crystal as Frosty explains that “Being snow people has its drawbacks”. This sorrowful moment is then met with Crystal singing “You Are everything I’ve Always Wanted” which is a beautiful little number set to a montage to the creation of Crystal by local children for companionship for Frosty. In two minutes, we understand the couple’s devotion to each other and their family, and the song is reprised minutes later with Milton leading the group out to the coast. It is a testament to his love for Laney. Romance gently sits in the background of the film and colors it with a sweetness that is never overstated or dumb.

Another element that makes the film far more dense is that Winterbolt offers magic amulets to keep the snow folk frozen in July on the coast, which sets up a villain offering the film’s heroes Faustian-leanings. On top of this is the fact that characters like Jack Frost (who gets his own feature film the same year, which we will discuss in a moment) also makes an appearance by the end of the film, which goes to show that the Romeo Muller is not scared of introducing new characters and situations late in the piece, as well as new themes. The film establishes rules regarding how long Frosty and his family can stay frozen, and then builds drama around it.

The aesthetics of the film are also glorious. The character designs are wonderful and iconic, and most notably the new characters – humans such as Milton, Laney, Sam Spangles and Ms Lorraine – are created with finesse and dedication. Milton has a perfectly sculpted, impish look with his spindly body and oversized head, and Laney is such a delicate beauty with her tiny waist and painted on eyes that look like those lovely kitsch paintings made famous by Margaret Keane in the 1950s and 1960s. Ms Lorraine (Ethel Merman) is such a refreshingly cynical character with some inspired lines such as “Its one thing life has told me, you can’t live off banana splits”. Merman is dynamite voicing Ms Lorraine and her trumpet-like voice soars and sometimes even outdoes the animation with its grandiose execution, but it is full of heart and warmth.

This is a film that sums up Christmas, and as complicated and as multi-layered as the plot is, – and as dimensional and as well-developed the characters are – the simple message of doing the right thing, being truthful and the importance of love, family and friendship permeate the very fabric of the film. It also inverts already established set pieces from previous Rankin/Bass film, such as “the island of misfit toys” which here becomes “the cage of lost rejections”. Here is where we meet the reindeer Scratcher (Alan Sues) – a throwback to the lascivious sissy – who was supposed to be one of Santa’s reindeer until Rudolph came along. He is a cunning and sly cretin and he will be a character type that will pop up in many later Disney films, such as Scar from The Lion King (1994).

The multiple set ups in the film can seem long but the pay off is worth it and the intertwined narrative is strong. The songs are great, such as “Chicken Today and Feathers Tomorrow”, a brilliant show tune that provides insight into the contradictory aspects of the film itself. This number also harkens back to Merman’s take on “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (which she performed on The Muppet Show to a melancholy Fozzie Bear) which addresses the ups and downs of life. Moralistic but never preachy, complicated and swift but without narrative glitches, entertaining and rich, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July is an ambitious film that delivers something unique and crisp.

Another Christmas-themed feature from Rankin/Bass is Jack Frost. Here, Pardon-Me Pete (Buddy Hackett) is a groundhog who narrates the film, and is integral to the plot. He explains that the film is about that “one time when Jack Frost became human”. The film was one of the lesser known and lesser celebrated Rankin/Bass pictures of the time, and it was released the same year as Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July which eclipses it in spectacle and its experimental approach. But January Junction and the characters that live there – such as the pumpkin peasants who are perfect representations of the put-upon earnest good folk that strive and dream – are just as charming as Frosty, Crystal and the members of Ms Lorraine’s circus.

The head peasants have a daughter who is the beautiful and terminally romantic Elissa (Debra Clinger) who is “only in love with Jack Frost”. Jack Frost (Robert Morse) of course is the principal lead and he dreams of becoming human so he can experience life and what it means to be in love and loved. The concept of lonely otherworldly characters wanting to experience basic human affectations is something that pops up in classic literature and film such as Quasimodo of “The Hunchback of Notre Dam” through to comic book superhero fare like Superman. “It’s Lonely Being One of a Kind” is a poignant song, beautifully written and performed, and sums up Jack’s overwhelming isolation. A lot of socialist ideals permeate the story elements in the film and the idea of disempowering money is something that the already relatively leftist Rankin/Bass films highlights, culturally significant by 1979 as the recession was coming to an end and the stock market boom was about to influence pop culture and politics in a major way.

In Jack Frost’s life, the characters that all work together to make Winter are supportive of Jack’s dilemma. However, invisibility is a factor (something already expressed in Pete’s Dragon). “No one wants to meet Jack Frost” says Father Winter, and Jack replies “except for one”, meaning Elissa. Jack is granted the wish to become human temporarily (a Winter of humanity) and if he acquires the human essentials – a wife, house and horse – he will be human forever. At the cusp of the eighties – the decade that pop star Madonna sung about as “living in a material world” – Jack Frost is a celebration of honesty and goodness that can only come from peasantry.

The materialistic character is of course the gluttonous villain, Kubla Kraus (Paul Frees). When the peasants use “ice money” (the idea of turning snow flakes into money) they are presented as resourceful peasants, so this is certainly a whistling in the dark musical. A song that embodies this is “Its Just What I Always Wanted”, a great Broadway-style song with its beautifully prosed snippets in each verse where the characters sing about imaginary presents. There is a lesson here: children living in poverty and from broken homes can have a happy and healthy Christmas beyond the concerns of materialism. These socialist aspects coexist with both the romantic triangle involving Elissa and Jack as well as the clear villain who remains sinister and dishonest (much like Winterbolt from Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July), as well as the concept of loneliness that throws its shadow over the film. Jack Frost gives up his humanity to save his friends and Robert Morse’s voice is one of those perfectly pitched voices that evokes innocence and impishness that heightens the character’s sacrificial heart.

The plot isn’t the film’s strongest point, and for a film that sets up rules for the hero’s quest this is strange, it complicates itself for no reason. Unlike Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July – complex because the themes call for it – Jack Frost jumps about as much as its camera work. However, it is the most adult next to Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, and with lines such as “She’s just a dreamer, but she’ll always love Jack Frost”, the film is in love with an idea, with a happening, with a season and lets us know that tangible humans are not the only deserving of love: skittish imps like Jack Frost can be susceptible, too. Jack sacrifices his chance at humanity when he sees Elissa marry a brave knight, who represents security and safety:much like Raul and the Phantom of the Opera, or Jonathan and Dracula. Here, Jack recalls the Hunchback letting go of Esmerelda: he has to let go of the idea of human companionship, a pretty heavy message in a supposedly light and cheery Christmas special. However, by sacrificing his chance to be human, he rescues the town from oppression while at the same time he realizes there is no room for him in the real world. He cannot contribute and he has to live beyond it, there to inspire Winter and to capture the hearts and imaginations of people lie Elissa everywhere. These people must ultimately nd up with brave knights of their own, standing for the tangible and practical.

In Rudolph and Frotsy’s Christmas in July, Big Ben the whale ( a character not established in a previous Rankin/Bass film) also pops up and seems to be a god-like figure that saves the day. These characters can exist, because Rankin/Bass have created their own universe and had unspoken ownership on seasonal entertainment during this period. Of course The Osmond Christmas Special (1980), Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story (1978), The Sonny and Cher Christmas Specials which featured the likes of Captain Kangaroo, Bernadette Peters and more were seventies television specials that dished out the frivolous fun and warm sentiment of the season, but when it came to Christmas time (and Easter and Halloween for that matter) this kind of television extravaganza truly belonged to the legendary Rankin/Bass.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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