Television

Reindeer Games

Rudolph, bard of the can-do Christmas.

Rudolph proves a jolly time can be had by all
Rudolph proves a jolly time can be had by all

Gather round, everyone, for the happiest kind of corporate Christmas story. In the late ‘40s, a Greenwich Village songwriter named Johnny Marks was handed the kind of one-sentence pitch of which dreams are made. A red-nosed reindeer is shunned by his peers, only to discover that his bright nose allows him to lead Santa’s sleigh on a low-visibility Christmas Eve. That plotline was the invention of Marks’ brother-in-law Robert L. May, a copywriter for the late department store Montgomery Ward. He had devised it for the department store’s yearly freebie coloring book. At May’s suggestion, Marks modified the plot and set it to music. In 1949, Gene Autry recorded “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and sold 2 million copies.

A few years later Marks’ next-door neighbor, a filmmaker named Arthur Rankin, saw the elegance of Marks’ misfit-cum-hero story, as well as the breadth of the market for all things Christmas. His team needed to pad the story a bit: After all, Marks had not provided three acts or breaks for commercials. No subplot. Rudolph didn’t have a buddy ora leading lady. He didn’t even have an adversary.

Rankin’s writer added a snowman narrator and a pushy father, Donnor. He gave Rudolph a love interest: the lovely, long-suffering doe Clarice. He concocted buddies: Yukon Cornelius, the blustery prospector; and Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist. He created the Island of Misfit Toys. And he produced a full-fledged enemy: the Abominable Snow Monster, or Bumble, a big dope whom Rudolph and his buddies could ultimately tame.

Marks wrote more songs, notably “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year.” Burl Ives, the hearty marquee song man, was cast as the snowman. And “Animagic” figurines were created—strange, mobile, often adorable figurines. The reindeer were a foot high; Hermey, with his swoop of blond hair under his cap, was about 6 inches. The creatures were set into backdrops, and the laborious production process began—stop-action photography, one click per shot, no retakes. Each crew member was assigned one character; before each click, the crew manipulated his or her little creature.

The show aired on Sunday, Dec. 6th, 1964, on the General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC. Like the song that inspired it, the show was a hit. Everyone—NBC, GE, Rankin—made a lot of money. And why not? The show’s great.

And it’s surprising. Santa’s elves are overworked and unhappy, forcing jollity only to impress their overbearing boss. Santa himself is morally lazy; his wife, seemingly European, constantly urges him to eat. Rudolph’s fierce father, contemptuous of his son, is a family villain suited to Far From Heaven or The Drama of the Gifted Child. The coach to the young bucks is a whistle-chain-wearing jerk. Burl Ives’ snowman, at least, is clever and wise, ruminating progressively about Rudolph’s “non-conformity.”

The recently remastered version (CBS, Dec. 25th, 8 p.m.), which includes a few new songs and scenes, begins as usual with wartime-style newspapers warning “Foul Weather May Postpone Christmas” and then joins Sam the snowman at the North Pole. Sam tells kids to “Pull up an ice block and lend an ear,” and then proceeds to explain the class imbalances in Christmas Town. Santa and his wife own the town’s only castle, and  everyone works for them.

Rudolph’s born, nose aglow; his father’s angry. At flight practice, he meets Clarice, but he’s cruelly teased. In the meantime, Hermey quits toy-making to pursue his dentist dreams. The outcasts run away, buoyed up by their encounter with a savvier outcast, Yukon Cornelius (who carries a gun). Together, they flee Bumble by turning an ice floe into a raft. Back in Christmas Town, Rudolph’s parents and Clarice set out in search of him.

Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon wash up on the Island of Misfit Toys, where irregular toys reside. Their lion king demands that the trio prevail on Santa to find homes for the weird toys. But Rudolph soon lights out for home on his own, convinced that his red nose gives away the group’s position to the Snow Monster. At home, however, he learns that his family and his girl are gone and, as a storm picks up momentum, he heads back out to find them—in the cave of the monster!

With help from Hermey and Yukon, Rudolph frees his kin. Bumble is left harmless because he’s been defanged, thanks to Hermey. Back to Christmas Town they go, where Bumble, who is tall, is pressed into service as a Christmas-tree decorator. Hermey is embraced for his talents as a dentist. In a restored scene, Yukon discovers a peppermint mine. And Rudolph is at last asked to lead Santa’s sleigh, from which the whole gang picks up the misfit toys and distributes them to sleeping children.

Along the way are funny faces, happy songs, easy wit, neatly layered action, and even emotional seriousness. I know I sound as if I’ve drunk too much eggnog. But after too much hype about Christmas being (in Johnny Marks’ words) the year’s most wonderful day, the pendulum has swung too far the other way; we’ve now endured about 20 years of mounting mythology about how dismal Christmas in fact is—how stressful, how depressing, how traumatizing. Christmas is now often sold as something worse than merely cynical or consumerist; it is a moment of pathological insincerity to be miserably endured (or forsaken entirely).

Maybe. But Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which flawlessly dramatizes the can-do-ism of the postwar years,is a simple corrective. It recalls a time when admen and Village film people imagined that with pluck and humor, they could simultaneously make millions and have a jolly time. Merry Christmas. It’s just one day.