Monday, December 03, 2007

Ranking the music of Rankin-Bass

A whole generation of us grew up on Rankin-Bass' stop-motion animated holiday specials. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin' To Town, and the cult favorite The Year Without a Santa Claus were always required viewing growing up in my household this time of year, and I continue to find myself searching these titles on the TV schedule, to rekindle that old magic.

Early on, these holiday productions of Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass were certainly magic, but the pressure to catch lightning in a bottle over and over again made for a lot of misfires, like the long forgotten Rudolph And Frosty's Christmas In July, or The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold and the LOTR inspired The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus, which puts Claus in the fantasy drama, pitting him against characters like The Gnome King and the Commander of the Wind Demons.
You can catch a bunch of these lesser-known Rankin-Bass productions Saturday, December 7, when ABC Family runs a marathon starting at 7 am.

While most of the Rankin-Bass titles were based on existing Christmas songs, many original songs were written for these specials that quickly became part of the holiday tradition. For instance, Johnny Marks, who had written "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," was brought in to write seven more songs for the Rankin-Bass production of the same name, and much like Vince Guaraldi did for A Charlie Brown Christmas, these songs elevate the animated special to holiday classic.

I've ranked my top five favorite Rankin-Bass holiday musical memories below, and as expected, Rudolph's nabbed the majority.

5. "Silver & Gold" - Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) [video]

It's probably surprising that it's not ranked higher, as the song is undoubtedly the most recognizable of the bunch here. But having the narrator Sam the Snowman singing it separates it a bit from the Rudolph story, and even beyond that, when you hear it, a visual of Burl Ives comes to mind more than his animated character, Sam. To tell the truth, I'm creeped out by both visuals, as Sam was one ugly snowman. Apparently, he was drawn to look like scriptwriter Romeo Muller, who at least as a snowman, was certainly no Romeo.

Airs Tuesday, December 4 at 8PM/7C (CBS)

4. "We're a Couple of Misfits" - Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards) and Hermey the Elf (Paul Soles) / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) [video]

When Rudolph met Hermey: Rudolph is a tale of alienation, with the underlying message that it's okay to be different. I get the feeling if Hermey D.D.S. was introduced today, the Christian right would wrongfully target him like Tinky Winky and SpongeBob Squarepants. Thankfully, no one wants to sully our memories in political correctness. Oh, wait, I guess they do. Looking at it again, Hermey and Rudolph are kind of gay -- and by gay, I of course mean happy.

Airs Tuesday, December 4 at 8PM (CBS)

3. "Put One Foot In Front of the Other" - Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney) and Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) / Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (1972) [video]

Besides "Silver & Gold," this has to be the other most memorable song in the Rankin-Bass canon. I've always found myself singing its ridiculously catchy chorus, but it's the verses that still stand the test of time. It's no wonder some identify it with AA's 12-step process.
If you want to change your direction
If you're time of life is at hand
Well don't be the rule -- be the exception
A good way to start is to stand.
Airs Wednesday, December 5 at 8PM (ABC) -- see schedule below for more

2. "There's Always Tomorrow" - Clarice (Janet Orenstein) sings to Rudolph / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) [video]

This is probably the most underrated Johnny Marks song, and easily the best ballad from the Rankin-Bass collection. This tune really should rank up there with Disney's "When You Wish Upon a Star," but it's never truly been given its due. Red Red Meat covered it beautifully a few years back, and when I find myself singing it as a lullaby to one of my boys, it never fails to give me goosebumps.

Airs Tuesday, December 4 at 8PM (CBS)

1. "Snow Miser / Heat Miser" (Dick Shawn, George S. Irving) - The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974) [video]

Really, the only reason TYWASC was a cult classic is because of this song and the dueling half-bros Snow and Heat Miser. It's the snappy delivery from Dick Shawn (as Snow) and George S. Irving (as Heat) that make it a classic, and this song will always be the one I think of whenever Rankin-Bass comes up. Unfortunately, the remake that aired last holiday season might possibly have ruined the legacy of TYWASC. All you have to do is see what they did to the song and miser bros duel to know what I mean. Thankfully, it will probably disappear from everyone's memory quicker than The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold.

Airs Monday, December 3 at 8PM (ABCFAM) -- see schedule below for more

A schedule of Rankin-Bass Holiday Specials airing this week:
Monday, December 3
Rudolph's Shiny New Year (ABCFAM)
The Year Without Santa Claus (ABCFAM)
Rudolph and the Island of Misfit Toys @9PM (ABCFAM)
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey @10PM (ABCFAM)
Tuesday, December 4
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer @8PM (CBS)
Wednesday, December 5
Twas the Night Before Christmas @7PM (ABCFAM)
Santa Claus is Comin' To Town @8PM (ABC)
First Christmas Snow @8PM (ABCFAM)
Rudolph's Shiny New Year @10PM (ABCFAM)
Friday, December 7
Frosty the Snowman: @ 8PM (CBS)
Frosty Returns follows this, but SKIP IT. First of all it's not Rankin-Bass, second of all it sucks
Saturday, December 8
Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July @7AM (ABCFAM)
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus @9AM (ABCFAM)
Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey @10AM (ABCFAM)
Pinocchio's Christmas @10:30AM (ABCFAM)
Jack Frost @11:30AM (ABCFAM)
Frosty's Winter Wonderland @12:30PM (ABCFAM)
Twas the Night Before Christmas @1PM (ABCFAM)
Rudolph's Shiny New Year @1:30PM (ABCFAM)
The Year Without Santa Claus @2:30PM (ABCFAM)
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town @3:30PM (ABCFAM)

Bonus playlist: Here's a collection of artists who grew up with Rankin-Bass doing covers of songs from the animated specials:
Rankin-Bass Holiday Covers


Tracy said...

Actually, it would be good if they could come up with the original multi-tracks to these classics and remix them (including the underscores) into some box set compilation. I don't know how well it would commercially, but I'd think there would be some interest. If they can sell sets of ABC's Multiplication Rock (and so on)... this should be marketable too.

Camp Design said...

I wish I had read this before i had wasted almost 5 minutes on "Frosty Returns". Truly awful. It makes you wonder what we will look back on (or our children anyway) and designate a classic.

DJ Xerox said...

do you have the list of songs from that playlist? The rhapsody link no longer works...

drake lelane said...

I'm sorry it didn't work for you (it worked for me... but I generated another link just in case: )

Here's the list of tracks (this is from 2007... I'm guessing there's a few more out there now):
1. There's Always Tomorrow (Album) - Red Red Meat
2. Heat Miser - the Great Shakes - The Great Shakes
3. Blue Christmas - Saturday Looks Good To Me
4. Boot-Off (Aka Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer) - Bootsy Collins
5. Holly Jolly Christmas - Martin Sexton
6. Frosty the Snowman - Fionna Apple
7. Silver and Gold - Calla - Calla
8. Put One Foot in Front of the Other - Miami Relatives - Miami Relatives
9. We're A Couple Of Misfits - moe.
10. Snow Miser, Heat Miser - The HellBlinki Sextet
11. Holly Jolly Christmas / We Are Santa's Elves - The Kustard Kings