Tonight CBS airs Rankin/Bass’  iconic stop-action animation Christmas special Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. While many think this special was the genesis of the titular holiday caribou, by this time the original rangifer volans was already 25 years old. In 1939, Robert L. May, a Jewish New York native advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward (and future great-uncle of Freakonomics author Steven Levitt), finished the Night Before Christmas-type poem he had been asked to write by the department store to help sell in-house Christmas coloring books. The initial edition proved popular, and after a WWII-enforced break (due to paper shortage), a second run proved even more popular. In the meantime, Max Fleisher had produced an animated short for the Jam Handy Corporation (otherwise known for pioneering industrial and advertising films) in 1944 based on the story.

The plot of Fleisher’s Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer plays up elements of the original poem that were popular in his Popeye shorts, with a protagonist being tormented by bullying comrades, but turning out to be a true hero in the end. Of course this also reflects the times, as the nation was perhaps deepest into it’s war footing in late 1944. This is also reflected in Santa having to take evasive maneuvers around what looks like transport planes and search out gift deliveries in bad weather exacerbated by blackout conditions. One thing it was missing was a song; however, by the time the short was re-released theatrically in 1948, a titular theme had been provided, due to May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks. Within two years the song would be at #1, with singing cowboy Gene Autry’s 1949 holiday release, and well on it’s way to becoming the second most popular Christmas song of  all-time (behind “White Christmas”), as well as the primary source of the ‘Rudolf’ media image until messr’s Rankin and Bass amplified it further with their 1964 production (actually filmed in Japan), introducing miniature characters such as Cornelius Klondike and Burl Ives’ Snowman, as well as further classic holiday tunes from Marks such as “Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.”
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For those that would further enjoy a Fleisher short that predates the concept of Rudolf, as well as incorporating a touch of intricate stop-action animation, I also recommendChristmas Comes But Once A Year (1936). This short is at once more retro than the director’s later Rudolf and more futuristic at the same time. Reflecting the Depression Era from which it came, the plot involves children in an orphanage whose Christmas presents fall apart, but their day is saved by a local ‘Professor of Inventions.’
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Non-stop vintage cartoons are streaming now on Kartoon Klassics via FilmOn:

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