Dr. Bob's minions tire away endlessly to help the good Doctor in the name of science,
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Though I normally discuss classic horror actors, with the holiday season just passing, I would like to do something slightly different. I would like to talk about the team of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr.- better known as Rankin/Bass Productions. This company makes up a very large portion of my mandatory Christmas viewing and probably most people’s as well. Rankin/Bass was famous mostly for their stop-motion Christmas specials (though they worked on such classic movies as Mad Monster Party, The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn) using a style they called “Animagic.” They also had an amazing set of actors and actresses that worked on these specials.
The beginning of the Rankin/Bass “Animagic” specials was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was destined to be a true classic. This is one of the most popular holiday specials of all time for a reason, after all. It has catchy music, likeable characters and a fairly simple story for children to follow. I don’t need to tell you this one is good; everyone already knows that and everyone out there can sing the story.
This was followed up with 2 other specials with Billie Mae Richards reprising his role as Rudolph. Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. Both of these specials contain a very young Rudolph so somehow he de-aged after the events of the first movie. This one fact has bothered me since childhood. As everyone remembers at the end of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rudolph grew up but, years later, he is back to being a kid. Besides that fact, I am a big fan of Rudolph's Shiny New Year but not because of the story; its story is crazy! Father Time, played by Red Skelton (who also plays Baby Bear based of his 'Junior' character), has lost the Baby New Year so Rudolph and the craziest group ever assembled has to go bring him back or the year won’t end. I hope that doesn’t happen in 2016. Along the way, they meet O.M., a caveman played by the hilarious Morey Amsterdam, and Big Ben, a huge whale with a clock in his tail, played by Harold Peary who was also known as The Great Gildersleeve and was probably the most recognizable voice of this special. They also meet a knight named Sir 1023 played by Frank Gorshin, one of my favorite actors and my favorite Batman villain of all time. In his first of many appearances on this list, this special also has Paul Frees playing multiple roles and the unmistakable Don Messick (the one and only voice of Scooby-Doo), my favorite voice actor of all time.
Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July finds the original voices of Rudolph and Frosty together. This is supposed to be a 4th of July special and it is complicated to say the least. The story involves finding out Rudolph’s nose is a magical gift given to him by the Queen of the Northern Lights, the Queen's enemy waking up and starting trouble, a love story, a circus and a crazy complicated plan by the villains. There is a reason this one doesn’t get as much airtime as the others; it’s not great. It has a great voice cast with Paul Frees back as well as Harold Peary (again playing Big Ben) and Don Messick. Ethel Merman and Red Buttons play the love interests in this story with Mickey Rooney playing Santa Claus (which he did 3 times for Rankin/Bass) and an out-of-control Alan Sues as Scratcher, a young reindeer who hates Rudolph. It also features Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as Tony the Tiger or the singing voice in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as the Genie of the Ice Scepter. This was one of the few Rankin-Bass specials that were movie-length, being an hour and a half long. I will watch it in July if I find my copy but the story is so much of a mess, I will often skip it.
The first Rankin/Bass Santa Claus-specific special was Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. The story focuses around Kris and his adopted family, the Kringles. Kris wants to deliver his family's toys to the nearby town but the Burgermeister Meisterburger has outlawed them. The story tries to give an origin to all of the classic Christmas traditions such as why he comes down the chimney, how he got flying reindeer and why he puts toys in stockings ... and it make some sense. As long as you can believe one man can outlaw toys, you could believe the rest. As a whole, it is one of the best specials made by Rankin/Bass, in my opinion. There are a few specials I like more but I will get to those in a bit. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town features the voice talents of Mickey Rooney as Kris Kringle (alias Santa Claus), Keenan Wynn as the Winter Warlock, Fred Astaire as the narrator, S.D. Kluger, and Paul Frees as Burgermeister Meisterburger and Grimsley, among other roles. There’s one scene of this special where all 3 characters on-screen are played by Paul Frees and they are distinctly different! It’s amazing how talented a great voice performer can be.
The Year Without a Santa Claus also had a great cast: Mickey Rooney returns as Santa Claus, Shirley Booth plays Mrs. Santa, Dick Shawn as Snow Miser and George S. Irving as Heat Miser, Snow Miser's brother. After I decided to write this article, I found out about Mr. Irving’s passing. He was well known for his Broadway work but will likely be remembered most fondly as the hot-headed Heat Miser. He is another tragic loss in a year that saw us lose some of the most talented performers of our time. This is one of the most popular Rankin/Bass specials, thanks to the inclusion of the Miser Brothers. They were so popular, they got their own special year later, A Miser Brothers' Christmas, which I saw when it aired but wasn’t overly fond of. Thankfully, they did bring Irving and Rooney back to reprise their roles. When I was in high school, it seemed like everyone was obsessed with Heat Miser. I don’t know if it was just my school but, for some reason, it seemed there was one year where he was the most popular holiday character. In case you have not seen the special, it is about how Santa, believing no one really cared anymore and being sick, decides he won’t deliver presents one year. Two elves are sent to prove Santa wrong and that people still care. In the end, of course, Santa realizes that the children of the world still love him and it makes him feel better so he decides he can’t let down the children of the world. This is another solid story and is supposed to be a sequel to Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town ... with a few odd changes.
The last “Animagic” special Rankin/Bass made may be the weirdest one (as several people have told me) with the oddest retelling of Santa's origins but this is probably my favorite Rankin/Bass special: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. It is a very mythical retelling of Santa Claus with immortal beings and fantastic beasts. The story starts with the Great Ak trying to convince other ruling powers to allow Santa to become immortal. It takes place from the moment Claus is found until he is dying and it is wonderful. If this was to be the last film made by Rankin/Bass with “Animagic,” this may have been the one to go out on. It is nothing like any of the other specials they made. I found out this year that this was based on a book that is part of the Oz stories! This explains some of the beings and how their world has never been found but leaves so many other questions out there. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus had Earle Hyman as King Awgwa, who was, by far, the most interestingly voiced villain in any Rankin/Bass special. That is what a villain should sound like! It also features, what feels like, the entire cast of Thundercats (another Rankin/Bass production)! Every actor in this special apparently was in the series at some time. It may be a bit of an odd special but, if you want something a little different than the same basic retelling of Santa Claus that is normally found, I cannot recommend this special more. Just make sure you find the original Rankin/Bass special as there are several other adaptations.
Let’s turn to their more religious specials now. The Little Drummer Boy was my grandma’s all-time favorite special. She would stop whatever she was doing to come watch it with me when I was little, which makes it harder to watch now that she is gone. I have actually only watched it once in the 7 years since. In The Little Drummer Boy, Aaron, the titular drummer boy, has to learn to unhardened his heart after his parents (played by June Foray and Paul Frees, the best acting combo they could have!) are killed. The Little Drummer Boy: Book II is Aaron spreading the word of Jesus’ birth and saving bells. This one, thankfully, has Zero Mostel in it to play Brutus. That helps this special a lot as Zero Mostel makes every movie better. These specials are heartwarming, especially the first one. So if you want a more religious special for the holiday, I would recommend this.
They also had another story about the birth of Jesus: Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. Nestor is a donkey that is ridiculed for his long ears (it’s Rudolph all over again except sadder) but ends up being the only one that can carry Mary to Bethlehem. Roger Miller narrates the story as Santa’s donkey, Speiltoe. The special also has Frees, Messick and Linda Gary, who was quite a pleasant surprise to see listed as playing Nestor’s mother. The story is okay but the many animals are beautiful. I may not love this special but whoever designed Nestor did an amazing job.
The last of the religious ones I want to mention is The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow and it was odd. This one does have Don Messick back but the star is Angela Lansbury as Sister Theresa. Sister Theresa finds a young shepherd who has been blinded and she begins helping him. I guess the best way to explain why this is such an odd Rankin/Bass special is that it really feels like it should have been remade into a Hallmark original movie (Hallmark, please don’t do this). It’s about trust, faith and miracles. When I saw it for the first time a few years ago, I was really confused by it. Though it looked like a Rankin/Bass special, it felt very different than the others I had grown up with.
The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold is another unusual special. In this story, an Irish sailor accidently releases an evil banshee and must help the Leprechauns protect the Christmas gold. It’s cute because it’s Rankin/Bass and it has Art Carney but not much else going on. The thing that bothers me is (*skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler*) that the banshee only wants the gold in order to live. In any other Christmas special from Rankin/Bass, there would have been a solution for the banshee. Eon from Rudolph's Shiny New Year warmed his heart so he wouldn’t die; the Bumble is given a job and joins the workshop; the Winter Warlock turns good in Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. I can watch the special but, often, I will skip it.
The last “Animagic” Christmas special I want to bring to your attention is Pinocchio's Christmas. If you are a fan of Pinocchio, watch this one; I think you will enjoy it! Pinocchio isn’t one of my favorites, really. It’s like all other Pinocchio stories: he does bad things, he is punished, he tries to do a good deed (in this one, he steals another marionette to protect her but this causes trouble) and, by the end, he’s rewarded. The biggest name in the cast for this special would be George S. Irvin as Geppetto.
They also made a few specials for different holidays besides Christmas other than Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. Jack Frost was kind of a Christmas special but actually was a Groundhog Day special. This is not the Jack Frost you will get in Frosty's Winter Wonderland. This Jack Frost is much kinder and becomes human, falls in love and even saves a town. The story is told by Pardon-Me-Pete, a groundhog played by Buddy Hackett. The voice cast includes Don Messick as Snip (one of Jack’s friends), Paul Frees as both Father Winter and Kubla Kraus, the story's villain, who has the oddest habit of playing with a robotic ventriloquist dummy named Dummy. They also have Larry Storch playing Papa! I’m a huge fan of his from his years in F-Troop and actually saw him in a play when I went to New York in middle school. Though this is an odd special, I really enjoyed it; Jack was likeable, which doesn’t happen too often (I’m looking at you The Santa Clause 3).
Here Comes Peter Cottontail is an Easter special with an unforgettable cast. The special revolves around a competition for the position of Chief Easter Bunny ... which involves the need for Peter Cottontail to time travel. Really. Explaining this story any other way would take way too long. As I try to write about the plots for these specials I’ve noticed that explaining them really doesn’t help. The stories have a tendency to make some unusual twists and turns. However, the stop motion is good and the voices are top notch. As the villainous January Q. Irontail, we have Vincent Price (who everyone knows I love so)! Rounding out the cast is Casey Kasem as Peter Cottontail, Paul Frees playing several roles including Santa, Danny Kaye as the narrator, Seymour S. Sassafras, among other voices. For voice cast alone, this is a must-watch and there aren’t really that many Easter specials to enjoy so give it a watch next year.
Of the work from Rankin/Bass that was not “Animagic” and just conventional animation, we get both of the Frosty specials: Frosty the Snowman and Frosty's Winter Wonderland, which featured Jimmy Durante and Andy Griffith as their narrators respectively. Of course, June Foray appears as all the female roles in the original special and Paul Frees appears as Santa and (a less likeable) Jack Frost in these specials. Frosty was not one of my favorites, possibly because I find the traditional animated films don't have the same quality as the “Animagic” specials, but they are sweet stories and have mostly straight forward plots that some of the other specials are missing.
They also had their own version of A Christmas Carol called The Stingiest Man in Town. Scrooge is voiced by Walter Matthau (who seemed the perfect choice considering he is best remembered for Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple), along with Tom Bosley as B.A.H. Humbug, who I honestly think is hilarious in this role. Again, this film has Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. I am fond of this special due to it being a short retelling of Scrooge. I may not watch it every year but it is nice and some of the songs are actually rather catchy.
I do have to also mention briefly The Cricket on the Hearth where Roddy McDowall (who I have spoken of my love of before but forgot to mention about this special) voiced Cricket Crochet. This is a sweet special that rarely gets played but not a great story. The biggest reason to watch this special is McDowall.
I may not be a big fan of their traditionally animated specials but I do have to exclude the next special from the list because I am a huge fan of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The wonderfully talented Joel Grey plays Joshua Trundle, the clock maker, and one of the leads in this story. The story revolves around a town that upset Santa because of a letter published there stating they don’t believe in him. Trundle tries to make things better by making a city clock that will sing a song to welcome Santa. This is a must-see for me each year though I rarely watch it on broadcast television anymore due to the amount of edits. They often cut a full song or more out to make room for commercials and, in the last ten years, they always cut the line “or just about anything that makes a holiday gay.”
I love Rankin/Bass specials. They are a slice of my childhood I can’t do without each year. I try to see all of them; they really help me feel like I am a kid at Christmas and that is really nice. Are they perfect stories? Not really but they make me happy and feel like there is something wonderful in Christmas, most definitely. I love the stop-motion ones the best but I love all the specials in their own way (even Pinocchio's Christmas has its moments). Watch a few next year! I know I will.
Previously on Minion Musings...