Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Still Glowing After All These Years

Tomorrow, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will be broadcast for the 45th consecutive year. Ten days later, CBS will broadcast it again. One would think that this evergreen Christmas special would be used to such exalted treatment, but I can remember when CBS treated Rudolph with shocking disdain. Back in the early 80s, Rudolph was routinely trimmed for time, often with amazing sloppiness. Not until 1998 was the show restored to its original 1964 form. Included in the restoration was "We're a Couple of Misfits," the Rudolph-Herbie (or Rudolph-Hermey; that debate's been going on for a while) bonding song that was replaced by "Fame and Fortune" beginning in 1965:

This definitely fits the "outcasts" mood of the special much better than the generic song about finding glory as companions on the road. Considering the obstacles that Rudolph and Herbie had to face before taking down the Abominable Snowmonster -- a truculent elf-foreman, peer teasing, an ashamed father, a grumpy Santa Claus -- it's a wonder that they were able to muster up this amount of optimism about their status in North Pole society. Today, with scads of Rudolph merchandise available on the Web and catchphrases from the show having become cultural touchstones, this song has acquired an extra-thick lacquer of irony.

Ten particularly neat things about Rudolph:

(1) Billie Mae Richards' voice performance as Rudolph. She's sort of the Canadian version of Billie Lou Watt, a woman who made her voice-acting bones doing male children's voices. Amazingly, Richards got paid only a couple hundred dollars for the Rudolph gig.

(2) Many of the voice actors who appeared in Rudolph later provided voices for the Bakhshi-Krantz Spiderman (it was spelled that way, Stan; don't sue me) series. As a kid, I always wondered where I'd heard the voices of Herbie, Donner, etc. before.

(3) The grumpy Santa. Has Santa ever been depicted in so unflattering a light? He grumbles about being henpecked, blows off the elves' singing performance, immediately disses Rudolph because of his nose, and is ready to "cancel Christmas" before Rudolph selflessly agrees to light the way. Those who grouse about Rudolph's lacking the "deeper meaning" of A Charlie Brown Christmas or the wit of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas should keep this characterization in mind.

(4) The odd blend of modernity and old-fashioned low-tech at Santa's workshop. The elves make toys by hand, but Santa gets up-to-date weather reports.

(5) Herbie's choice of profession. A dentist just sounds so completely off-the-wall under the circumstances. Why, most of the characters don't even have visible teeth.

(6) Yukon Cornelius' pick-flinging, head-licking (eww!) routine.

(7) The fact that Yukon, Herbie, and Rudolph are all sleeping in the same bed when they bunk out at the Island of Misfit Toys. I think that the term "strange bedfellows" may apply here.

(8) The script's "pulling a Disney" by making the audience think that Yukon has been killed during his fight with the Abominable Snowman.

(9) Santa's "dropping off" the Misfit Toys by literally dropping them off his sleigh, armed only with an umbrella. I mean, what if the wind currents aren't exactly right -- then there will be a lot of missed chimneys as a result.

(10) The "convenient fact" that everyone meets at the Snowmonster's cave at exactly the right moment. The family had presumably been seeking Rudolph for a while, Rudolph had had enough time to grow into young buckhood, Herbie and Yukon had just been sent back out into the wild by Sam the Snowman... how many unlikely coincidences is that?!

Happy 45th, Rudolph. May your "beak" continue to blink like a beacon for many more blinkin' years.

1 comment:

Mark Arnold said...

Hey Chris, It's Hermey, not Herbie. Easy mistake. Anyway, did you see the recent Verizon commercial with the misfit toy characters???