If you were a child in the 1960’s or 1970’s, you were around at the golden age of the Christmas television special. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there were a ton of holiday charms that came and went each year. But there were a handful that became classics and found their way to the airwaves every year in December. Of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas became one of these, and it is indeed among the best. It was not the only special to become beloved by generations of viewers. Now Dreamworks has brought together seven of the most memorable of these classics. This was a wonderful trip down memory lane for me, as it will be for millions of children of all ages who looked forward to these event broadcasts each and every year. Now you can watch them whenever you want. And they might not be just for Christmas anymore.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
If there is a special to rival Peanuts in popularity, it would be Rudolph. The stop-motion animated special first appeared in 1964, a full year before A Charlie Brown Christmas. It became the first and one of the best of these classics. Burl Ives starred as a snowman who told the story of the famous red-nosed reindeer who saved Christmas one foggy Christmas Eve. If you know the song, you pretty much know the story. Rudolph was born with that abnormal glowing honker and was treated rather badly by even Santa himself.
It was more than a Christmas story. It had a strong moral about people who might feel different and isolated from others. The idea was punctuated by an outcast elf who wanted to be a dentist instead of making toys. The theme would also appear on an island where misfit toys live their sad lives because no one will play with them. It’s basically the story of The Ugly Duckling, with the misfit becoming a hero instead of merely beautiful in the end.
The special is based on the Johnny Marks song, but it doesn’t restrict itself to just the title song. Rankin and Bass brought the songwriter in to add more songs to the tale, all sung by Burl Ives in his snowman persona. The likes of Silver and Gold and Have a Holly Jolly Christmas have become annual classics in their own right. Ives provides the perfect voice for both the narration and songs.
The star here is the stop-motion animation. The Rankin and Bass folks developed a unique style that became somewhat of a trademark over the years. Today it’s a rather dated technique that has been resurrected by the likes of Tim Burton. Of course, it goes back to the genius works of Willis O’Brian (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (Sinbad films). Here it’s a bit lower-budget, but it has stood the test of time for over a half century. I suspect this reindeer still has legs and will be around for generations to come.
Frosty The Snowman (1969)
Another popular Christmas song served as the inspiration for this Rankin & Bass production. This time they went with the more traditional cell animation and the shorter half-hour format. Again the story pretty much follows the song. Frosty comes alive for Karen and her friends when she uses a washed-up magician’s hat to put the finishing touches on their snowman. He jumps to life shouting “Happy Birthday”. Of course, the magician wants his discarded hat back and plots to steal it from the children even if it means “killing” Frosty.
The narration and singing is provided by yet another classic entertainer. This time it’s Jimmy Durante as the postman who tells us the story. It was another perfect choice with another very distinctive voice.
The moral here included one of redemption. The villain magician has a change of heart after a conversation with Santa himself and rushes home to earn a visit from Saint Nick on Christmas Eve, leaving the hat and Frosty heading to the North Pole until it’s safe to return the following winter.
The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Another traditional Christmas song provides the story. This one hasn’t been seen quite so consistently as the others. It tells the story of a young orphan boy who has only animals for friends. He’s been taken prisoner and forced to perform while his captor takes the gold he earns. They happen upon the Three Kings following the star to Bethlehem, where he gets to give the performance of his life for the Baby Jesus.
This is another stop-motion feature that uses a redemption theme once again. The boy has become distrustful of people. He was the only survivor of a village that was once attacked. His encounter with the Kings and Jesus changes his heart.
The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)
This was one I actually hadn’t seen before. It’s one of the oldest stories to appear in a production, going all the way back to 1909 and D.W. Griffith. There have been at least six other versions filmed between the two films. This one features standard animation and appeared more on British television than it has here in the United States.
It’s a Rankin & Bass production, but they had a little help this time out. Danny Thomas and Aaron Spelling were also in on the production, with Thomas and his real-life daughter Marlo playing a father and daughter in the voice cast. In fact, this one has a pretty much all-star cast that also included Roddy McDowall and Ed Asner.
It’s the story of a toymaker and his daughter who meet with misfortune. The daughter’s lover is missing in action during wartime. She becomes blind, and the toymaker is forced to work for a toy company owned by a greedy man who takes advantage of the toymaker and sets designs on the daughter for a wife. It’s all told from the perspective of a cricket voiced by McDowall, who adopts the family and attempts to bring them luck.
It’s all based on a classic Charles Dickens story. Of course, his most famous story has been A Christmas Carol. Dickens made it a holiday tradition to publish a Christmas story each year for many years. This was actually one of the better known of the day. The story of Scrooge and his ghostly visits has long since overshadowed any of the other stories, and it’s was a nice experience seeing this one for the first time.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1970)
For some reason this one appears to have been neglected in recent years. It happens to be one of my favorite of the Rankin & Bass stop-motion productions, and I place it up there with Rudolph. It stars the voices of such icons as Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney.
While it’s based on yet another popular Christmas tune, this one is really an origin story for Santa Claus. Astaire plays a postman who has been asked plenty of questions about Santa over the years. So he tells us the story from his birth. We learn how he got his name, how he met Mrs. Claus, where the suit comes from, and why we hang stockings and Santa comes down the chimney. Pretty much anything you wanted to know about the jolly fellow is explained here.
The context is the setting of a village where an unhappy Burgermeister bans toys. Santa works with a local teacher to find ways of getting the toys to the children. These attempts become the basis for the traditions we observe today. There’s a lot of the Rudolph charm here, and it’s my vote for the most underrated in the collection.
Each special is presented in its original broadcast full-frame aspect ratio. This high-definition image presentation isn’t going to show off your system or win any awards. The material is 50 years old for the most part, and these were intended as one-time television broadcasts. The restoration here is truly impressive. The prints are as clean as you’ll ever see them. Of course, there are going to be small issues, but you just can’t let any of that stand in your way of adding these classics to your video library. They sure as heck beat any earlier DVD release, and I intend to be watching these discs for years to come.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is there to serve the dialog and music that were the staples of these specials. Gone is the distortion on earlier DVD copies. You won’t find aggressive mixes here, and that’s exactly the way it should be. They surrounds are there for dynamic depth while still remaining true to the original broadcasts.
The specials are found on four discs. Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town each have their own disc. The final two share the last disc.
The Animagic World of Rankin and Bass: (47:00) This is a wonderful special. Many modern animation filmmakers talk about these films and how they came to be. They share the inspiration they had on their careers. It’s a great look at these classic specials. It is also featured on all three of the first discs.
Restoring the Puppets of Rudolph: (3:40) Recently the puppets of both Rudolph and Santa from the 1964 production were found and restored. You get a look at then and now with some of the process to bring them back to their glory.
Reimagining Rudolph In 4D: (10:54) Go behind the scenes of a 2016 short version of Rudolph made for amusement parks around the country as an attraction.
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer In 4D: (10:51) This is the full short that was used in amusement parks. It was called 4D because it included f/x like smells and snow for the audience.
Original Pencil Test For Frosty: (1:04) It is silent.
For children these animated features were harbingers of school vacation and the holiday season. They served as stepping stones toward those magical days. These are certainly shows that will “go down in history”.