I love Rudolph. I love Frosty. I like Santa, and Mrs. Claus, and elves, and nativity scenes, and even scary wintry villains. All these things exist in the Christmas specials of Rankin/Bass. Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass teamed up and eventually created some of the most enduring holiday specials of the twentieth century, and they did more than that.
It wouldn’t be right to cram everything Rankin/Bass into one blog post. As many times as I’ve seen their work, I’m finding that there’s always more research to do on this duo and all their famous stop-motion animations.
Let’s start with the most well-known traditions of the bunch. Those would be Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970). These movies are only the tip of the iceberg, but they’re three of the most popular specials in the book, and they’re the first ones I remember seeing from Rankin/Bass.
Sidebar: I’m continually amazed at the fact that us 90s kids had so many wonderful original programs created just for us, but we still got to experience the second-hand goodness of the shows and movies our parents grew up cherishing.
Here’s my visceral memory of “the big three” for Rankin/Bass. I believe my Rudolph and Frosty were packaged together in one VHS case, and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was in a case of its own. I remember a commercial for a random movie about Jesus (it looks like it was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth mini-series). I’ll always have the “logo music” for Rankin/Bass burned in my brain, too, so it’s a good thing that the sound comforts me.
Not only were the three main holiday films the first Rankin/Bass movies I remember–these are honestly the first Christmas movies I remember watching at all! I was a small toddler when I viewed those over and over again. We even had a stuffed Santa that looked like the one from Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. That movie kept me engaged by attempting to tell me where Santa came from. Rudolph grabbed my attention with a reindeer and a singing snowman. Frosty moved me with yet another snowman and a memorable magician villain. Oh, and did I mention that ALL these movies feature a theme song in which the movie title is half of the chorus? (Think about it; it’s true).
I’ll be covering the music of these films on ScreenRant this season, but it’s helpful to remember that those three “theme songs” all pre-dated their movies. At this point, the songs are synonymous with the striking visuals of the sets, the lifelike feeling of the characters, the enduring details of the stories.
You probably don’t need me to summarize any of these movies for you, but again, the titles do all the talking. Frosty is a snowman, and snowmen inevitably melt when it gets warmer outside, but they can be built again. Rudolph is a reindeer with a red nose, and boy does he have a story about acceptance and calling. Santa is coming to town, but he had to get there somehow. In fact, his movie is coming up on its fiftieth anniversary (December 14, 2020). Its thirtieth was twenty years ago! (Don’t feel obligated to watch this entire video, courtesy of Analog Memories, but you can if you want.)
I feel happy at the thought of typing all this out and remembering those commercials, those songs, those little decorations around the house that I associated with the characters on screen. Call it clever marketing or packaging if you want, but it feels like so much more. This act of remembering a child’s view of Christmas is so comforting, and I realize that it’s different for everyone. But if you had those videos, or if you watched the 25 Days of Christmas on Fox Family/ABC Family (now Freeform), you might have a soft spot for the Rankin/Bass movies, too. That’s why I’ll be featuring them in a couple more blog posts for December. If those storied characters aren’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. Plenty of other topics will be here as we finish 2020 strong. Thanks for reading. 🙂