Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)
Director: Max Fleischer
Prod.: Jam Handy Organization
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

It's not Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's fault that he isn't Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Well, what I mean is it's not this innocent, Max Fleischer-directed, animated short from 1948's fault that it isn't the stop-motion television special created by Rankin-Bass in 1964. Barring the occasional heckling from someone who is just sooooooo post-post-post-post-everything they have to kick such universally beloved things to the wall, the 1964 special is justifiably considered to be a Christmas classic. I would be lying if I said that simple hour of holiday silliness wasn't one of the most formative ingredients in the way that I have approached all art and entertainment since I first laid eyes upon it.

And yet, fun as the stop-motion version is, it's really a dramatic expansion (and often outright reconfiguration) of the original story written by Robert May for Montgomery Ward in 1939. For a closer look at the real story, look no further than the 1948 version, where Rudolph is just some punk kid reindeer abused by the neighbor kids who gets accidentally discovered by Santa one exceedingly foggy Christmas Eve night. Since headlights aren't in Santa's magical bag of tricks (and yet, he and his elven slaves can create electric train sets, racing cars and robotic toys), it's lucky he wanders into Rudolph's home to fill the little whippersnapper's stocking and gets blinded by the glow from Rudolph's abnormal -- nay! -- mutated schnoz.

Since Jam Handy released oodles of promotional films for Chevrolet and other big companies [click here and here for my reviews of their pair of Cinderella car commercials], I half expected Santa's sleigh to actually start shifting about and have panels slide and wheels maneuver into place, and then suddenly the right jolly old elf would be riding about in some sort of coach car. Instead, the film is merely there to entertain, and seemingly to promote the newly written -- but not yet famous at the time -- song version of Rudolph by Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law. The next year, Gene Autry would reluctantly record it, and as these things go, the rest is history: one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. [The Autry version would later be edited into the credits of this already released cartoon; the version I am reviewing does not include Autry's voice, but rather a choral arrangement of the tune.]

The animation is decent enough -- comparable to what was passing for quality at Famous Studios or Terrytoons at that time -- but the sound quality for the voices is abysmal, with the taunting reindeer sounding like they were recorded down the hall from Rudolph, their voices echoing harsher than their empty threats. I doubt the effect is stylistic, because such things just were not done. I should state here and now that the sight of reindeer walking about on their hind legs is just a tad creepy in my mind, and furthermore, even the male deer seems feminine within this aspect. In fact, they almost seem nude, like they lost their pants. Rudolph's mother, on the other hand, seems to be the only deer that dresses in actual human clothes, greeting her downtrodden son at the door in a smart housedress. (Is it just me, or is Rudolph's mom kind of a RILF? I think it is just me...) Unlike the cave in the Rankin-Bass version, Rudolph actually lives in a home with furniture, and he hangs a stocking on the end of his bed, imaging a boatload of toys and goodies that will be left overnight by Santa, the way in which all human children dream too. But then his conflict over the teasing he receives from his constantly shining nose gets the better of him, and he cries himself to sleep.

The next section introduces Santa, and he is a magnificent rotund figure indeed (if not a bit flouncy in his gestures). Sadly, whoever is doing the voice for the great man seems to not be aware of just how jolly Santa is supposed to be, and comes off sounding completely blasé about the whole project. Any exclamation points in his lines seem to have been replaced by stifled yawns. (He does a much better job with his speech at the end, but it's no excuse for an overall lackluster performance, especially for someone who should as loud and boisterous as Santa.) Claus encounters endless interruptions of his route -- crashing into trees and roofs, and almost getting done away with by a plane, which he and his reindeer negotiate by prancing across the wings. Santa finds Rudolph just in time, and the scarlet-schnozzed one leaves a note behind, beginning it "Deer Mommy and Daddy..."

Rudolph, naturally, saves the day, taking Santa all the way to Bunnyville (who knew all the rabbits in the world lived in one town?) and then the film concludes with Rudolph being honored before the entire population of his reindeer hometown with an elaborate ceremony in the town's stadium. His former taunters have been turned to admirers (though I like to believe that most of them are actually evil deer bullies who are jealous of his newfound fame and are plotting to spoil his reputation). Rudolph is named "Commander-in-Chief" of all the reindeer, and he blushes, causing his fur to equal his nose in intensity. He wishes us "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night", as the final lines of the song run out, and the film closes.

It's so hard to imagine a time when this wasn't an already established part of the culture. We accept holiday folklore as having always been around, and it is surprising to learn that these traditions, in the form we know them, aren't really all that ancient. We just accept Santa's antiquity as a child, and as far as we can surmise, Rudolph has always been there with him. I saw this film long after the Rankin-Bass, and I was offended by how boring it seemed against a film filled with a singing snowman, misfit toys of a dozen varieties, a flying lion king, and an abominable snowman who gets his teeth yanked by an amateur elf dentist and places stars on top of Christmas trees. Even though it was first aired just after my birth, I accepted the '64 film as gospel from the time that I first saw it when I could understand it. That was, and still is, tradition to me (in fact, I am watching it right after I conclude writing this).

But I then think of those that preceded the arrival of both myself and that film, and how perhaps they looked to this simple animation as its own sort of tradition, and even perhaps as new and hip as the later one must have seemed at first glance. It bore a popular song of that day (by the same songwriter as the later film), and animated to the standard of its time. If I had grown up seeing this one instead every year of my childhood, perhaps I would hold far more nostalgia for it.

As it stands though, I don't. It's cute, but this Rudolph's nose simply doesn't shine bright enough for me.

In case you haven't seen it,
this about the highest quality version that you will find on the internet: