Holiday Horrors: Deep Cuts from Rankin/Bass

Continuing the fabled tradition begun all the way back in 2009, Scratchbomb presents Holiday Horrors and Holiday Triumphs: an advent calendar of some of the more hideous aspects of this most stressful time of year–with a few bits of awesomeness sprinkled in.

There are many artists known for one thing and one thing only. And that’s fine–how many people are known for nothing at all? If you can make one transcendent work that touches millions, that’s one more than most of us manage. If I had a choice, I’d pick one burst of brilliance over sustained mediocrity. (Last time I checked, I don’t get a choice.)

In the case of Rankin/Bass, the one thing they are known for is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the triumph of stop-motion animation still beloved almost 50 years after its debut. They did many other holiday specials, but Rudolph is their crowning achievement.

Unfortunately, Rudolph was one of Rankin/Bass’s first productions. When you have such critical and financial success so early, the desire to innovate and expand is often drained. Over the years, Rankin/Bass made more stop-motion holiday specials, each of which looked like a copy of the previous production, until they were as strange and indecipherable as a seventh generation Xerox.

Truth be told, there’s some odd things in Rudolph, like Hermey the Elf’s desire to be a dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, and The Island of Misfit Toys. For the most part, this weirdness is offset by enough charm and goofiness and quality tunes to make the weirdness simply part of a larger quilt.

But in each subsequent special, the weirdness was pushed to the forefront, until the weirdness was the canvas on which the characters were painted, not the other way around. It’s fitting that many of these specials were animated in Japan, because there is a bizarre, foreign feel to the plots and humor of many of the latter-day specials not unlike the kind you see in many Japanese TV shows. Whoever wrote these shows attempted to marry the complicated plots of screwball comedy to the psychedelic-tinged nightmares of Sid and Marty Krofft, with predictable results.

I remember hearing about these other shows as a kid, but by that point they’d mostly been taken out of the annual Christmas special rotation. It’s probably best I didn’t see most of these when I was young, because I have a distinct memory of the one time I did. I was staying at my aunt’s house in Queens while my parents had to go see lawyers about my recently deceased grandparents’ estate (such as it was). There wasn’t much kid-stuff in the house, so I just watched TV, and this afternoon they showed Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, a weird tale about Kris Kringle’s origins that crosses into some bizarre territory. For instance, there’s a scene Santa and Mrs. Claus marry each other in the woods without benefit of a justice of the peace like a bunch of damn hippies. The weirdness of the show, combined with being away from my mom and in a house I didn’t know well with no fun Kid Stuff in it on a cold, gray, wintery day, gave me a kind of lonesomeness that only children know.

Last year, I wrote a bit about the fever dream that is Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. The campy/bizarre A Year Without Santa Claus has reentered the Christmas canon in the last few years, to the point where I’ve heard swing cover versions of the Heat Miser/Snow Miser song (seriously). As strange as these specials are, I saw a few obscure Rankin-Bass specials this weekend that make their kookadookery pale in comparison.

The first one was Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, a feature-length special from 1979. Admittedly, I only saw the last 15 minutes or so, but I can’t imagine it would have made much more sense if I’d seen the whole thing. It apparently involved some sort of traveling carnival headed by Ethel Mirman, so right away…yeah.

treewizard.jpgWhen I tuned in, Rudolph was in the process of rescuing Frosty’s magic hat so he could thwart the machinations of an evil winter wizard. Said wizard tries to exact revenge on Rudolph, but Ethel Mirman smashes his crystal ball, which makes him transform into a tree, in a scene that’s a little too disturbing for a kids’ show.

Not as disturbing, however, as what would follow. Because the wizard had been vanquished, all the spells he cast were undone, including one that allowed Frosty and his family to be outside in the summer and not melt.
So the very next thing you see are Frosty, his wife, and TWO SNOW-KIDS TURNED INTO PUDDLES. Merry Christmas! Sure, they are soon rescued by Jack Frost (more on him shortly), but good lord. That was upsetting to me as an adult; I can’t imagine how Kid Me would have handled it.

Now, onto Jack Frost, also from 1979. I watched this entire thing, and I still have no idea what I saw. I didn’t view it so much as allow it to pass over me like a marauding army, hoping I could just wait out the carnage.

Jack Frost employs a weird framing device that revolves around a famous groundhog (Pardon-Me-Pete) voiced by Buddy Hackett, who narrates the special because he’s best buds with Jack. This puts the special behind the 8-ball immediately, because Hackett is not an ideal choice to narrate anything. He sounds like a more butch Truman Capote after getting stung in the mouth by a swarm of wasps.

jackfrost.jpgIn Jack Frost, the titular character is a mystical sprite who makes winter happen for a poor, benighted town of presumed Eastern European location (as implied by the proliferation of Boris and Natasha accents). They are ruled with an iron fist by a tyrannical Cossack (because Cossacks are hilarious) named King Kubla Kraus and his army of ironclad assistants. Jack falls in love with one of town’s comely young lasses and is allowed turn into a human in an attempt to woo her. He can remain human as long as he maintains certain arbitrary benchmarks of wealth and wooing success by the time spring rolls around.

This is all fairly standard by Christmas special standards, but I’m sanding down a lot of really sharp edges. Because these details are sprinkled amongst a sea of exposition, stiff song stylings, and Buddy Hackett’s insufferable narration. There’s a lot of details about Jack Frost’s celestial home, which contains other sprites who make snowflakes and “snow gypsies” who distribute them. There’s Jack’s curious decision, once he becomes a human, to pretend to be a tailor, which has almost no relevance to anything. And then there’s Kubla Kraus’s clanking minions, who stumble around at great length but to little effect.

And this is only what I can remember. Following Jack Frost was like trying to keep up with a conversation as your cell phone service drops in and out, and you can only catch every third word. Every time some other detail of the plot was “explained,” I’d turn to my my wife and saying something to the effect of “…the hell?” And then I’d miss the next detail, leaving me even further behind than before. I don’t think Jack Frost made me any dumber, but it certainly made me feel like I was.

But Jack Frost gets the girl and lives happily ever after, right? Actually, while he’s away saving this vaguely Slavic village from something or other, his special lady friend falls in love with a knight and they get married. So Jack Frost becomes a sprite again and returns to his snowy home in the clouds. Hooray?

The producers try to tie a nice little bow on it by bringing back Pardon-Me-Pete for a jokey ending. But unless you have a Memento-like inability to make new memories, or can find Buddy Hackett comprehensible in any way, you’re left with the feeling that what little bit of the show you could understand was intensely depressing.

The crazy thing is, Rankin/Bass went on to make more stop-motion holiday specials well into the 1980s, the last one 1985’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. If what Wikipedia has to say about this show is any indication, it was far darker than anything Jack Frost could conjure up.

In this story, the Great Ak summons a council of the Immortals to bestow upon a dying Claus the Mantle of Immortality. To make his case, the Great Ak tells Claus’s life story, from his discovery as a foundling in the magical forest and his raising by Immortals, through his education by the Great Ak in the harsh realities of the human world and his acceptance of his destiny to struggle to bring joy to children.

Hey kids, let’s watch this show where Santa’s gets really old and dies! I hear it’s narrated by Art Linkletter!