"He’s Nothin’ Without His Chompers!"

On 50 years of Rankin and Bass' Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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As David Brent put it in the original version of The Office, life is a series of peaks and troughs, but I think most of us, really, expect the Christmas season to grade out on the higher side of things, a spirit bumper even if the year that has just passed has not been a banner one. We tend to think that way if and until something occurs that we couldn’t foresee, that puts a sort of permanent crack in us that we’re forever trying to solder over, especially at the holidays.

I knew I wasn’t having one of those times, even if I was having some low ones, during this year where I started hanging out a lot at this Irish bar in Boston. No one really went there, as it was at some remove from the Freedom Trail and all of your regular hotspots, and there was this inept bouncer who’d wave through anyone who bothered to come out, never mind if you looked like you were in high school. Of course, he had more pressing concerns, as around ten o’clock every night he’d abandon his post to go upstairs — where there were never more than five people, plus an ad hoc soul cover band — and belt out Otis Redding tunes.

No one really spoke, you just drank, but there was one individual who offered the closest thing that bar had to a rallying cry, something to bond over. This guy would come in every few weeks, and say exactly one thing, before getting soused out of his mind, or, weirdly, drinking coffee and reading a J.P. Donleavy novel. And that thing, when he first came through the door, was, “He’s nothing without his chompers,” a line this dude would half yell/half growl. Everyone would smile, some nods would be exchanged, and everyone knew, no doubt, what he was referencing.

There’s a good chance you do, too, if you’ve ever seen Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. That watering hole line in question comes from Yukon Cornelius, saving friend to the seemingly doomed Rudolph, in reference to the Abominable Snowman who has just had his teeth ripped out by Hermey, Rudolph’s comrade in “nonconformity,” to borrow a word from Burl Ives’ Sam Snowman narrator.

My drinking buddy said his line at all times of the year. April, October, the day after Christmas, he just said it. I liked that, because for most of my life you could lean in next to me and whisper, even if it was the early spring, “you know, it’s not that far off,” and no matter what you were talking about, I’d hope you’d be talking about Christmas, because I have loved Christmas deeply, and I have loved it both pre- and post-soldering, with Rudolph being the main Christmas constant for me, a TV special that has taken on different hues of meaning at different times.

You don’t want to know how many times I’ve seen Rudolph. Hell, it is six in the freakin’ morning a few days into December and I just watched the thing again. On Blu-ray, where you can see some strings and straying bits of felt, and this rough texture to Rudolph’s back that makes him look kind of like a goat at farm. But you want to watch Rudolph live. Rudolph is best live. I don’t know why, but something alchemical happens when you’re watching Rudolph that way. There was this tag line for the Beatles’ ultimately-shelved Get Back album that ran something like “hear the group as nature intended,” and watching Rudolph on the TV while millions of other people are doing so is the way to go, as much a Christmas no-brainer as leaving out cookies instead of veggie sticks.

I’ve failed to do this, presumably, three times in my life. The first time I was in a foster home, and I can’t imagine we were pulling some type of Mrs. Garrett-helmed Facts of Life deal and all huddling around the TV to see what was going to become of those forlorn creatures on the Island of Misfit Toys, with that frightening demigod, King Moonracer (flying lion with a Burger King crown and cod Orson Welles voice) presiding over everything. Another time I had a hockey practice, and you don’t miss high school hockey practice because you have a weird obsession with what Rankin/Bass dubbed “Animagic.” Wasn’t Claymation, wasn’t animation, but it was — oh baby — magic. Like a Christmas-y Merlin had a hand in the graphic blandishment.

And then there was the time I got my crack that ran straight through me, one that was Christmas-centric — anniversaries, and all — and I begged off Rudolph for a year, thinking enough of these cursed reindeer games, to the woods, fie, as Rudolph took to them himself after what some of you adults, watching now that you’re no longer children, might find as some pretty shocking abuse. Because here’s the thing: there’s this real Roald Dahl element in the Rankin/Bass specials, of which Rudolph was the first. And subtext that’s not buried that deeply at all. Note how all of the dismissals of Rudolph, at the beginning, when his father is ashamed of him, and Santa rips him a new one (this Santa is a class obsessed prick), and his would-be girlfriend doe’s father has at him could easily replace “reindeer” with “black.”

This was the Civil Right era, and I think Rankin and Bass were doing their bit in a TV special ostensibly for children. And while no one would confuse any elf for Lyle Alzado, Rudolph’s pal Hermey, the wannabe dentist, is meant to be nebbish to the point of being effeminate in a teleplay where words like “menfolk” are bandied about, and the women need to be rescued, and there’s a hardass gym teacher in the form of Comet the reindeer. I’m not saying that Hermey is meant to be gay, but he’s certainly intended as not male in the traditional sense, and he, along with Yukon Cornelius, the Paul Bunyan variant with the large heart, saves everyone’s proverbial deer jerky. And yeah, I’m not going to lie: that part when Clarice, the female reindeer Rudolph hits on, tells our boy he’s cute and he explodes into the air? I knew exactly what that meant when I was twelve, which is when I first started thinking, wait, they can do that?

They could, especially because there hadn’t been anything like this. Prior to that first airing of Rudolph, holiday viewing fare consisted of your favorite TV show, be it The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, what have you, doing a Christmas-themed episode, or variety shows with seasonal elements, or the latest late night showing of It’s a Wonderful Life or Christmas in Connecticut or the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, never mind that the 1951 iteration with Alastair Sim beats the bag out of it. And then, boom: the Rudolph character, who had cartoons and less punchy versions of his signature tune, got his Animagic special, and the next year Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus were in on the act, with everybody’s favorite blanket-lover delivering a monologue that remains the Golden-Ruled soul of one of the beautiful sequences ever to air on television in this country.


Without his chompers

Rankin/Bass then started cranking out their own stuff: Frosty the Snowman, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, the charming and underrated  ‘Twas the Night Before ChristmasThe Year without a Santa Claus freaked me out when that most onanistic of Animagic characters, the Snow Miser, starts doing that song about himself and these little versions of him in straw (snow straw?) hats and canes pop out and sing harmony vocals. But then his brother, the Heat Miser, is like, “I see you one insanely onanistic gesture and raise you another,” and then does his own routine with little strutting demon minions cloned from his fiery self. I had heard some things on the playground by the time I was seven or so, and if my father hadn’t let out a “what the…” — stopping himself just in time — I might have beat him too it. Mouthful of soap time. Not what you want at Christmas.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, doubtless, changed what the holiday meant in England, but I’d venture that Rudolph did its mini-version of the same thing here. It snowed uncommonly often in Dickens’ formative years, and if it is true that it’s always raining in the mind of film director Terence Davies, it was snowing an awful lot in Dickens’, often with ghosts lurking about. The trappings of the great day come in large part from that great writer, but here, in the States, if you were a kid, you weren’t sitting in front of the TV come eight o’clock to watch a holiday special until Rudolph debuted. From there, you saw the commercials, all those toys, you got your un-mittened hand on the Sears catalog, and, to Linus’ horror, the commercialization of Christmas really ramped up.

That’s one way to look at it. A true way, I’d say, but hardly the only way. Rudolph, for me, and no doubt for scores of other people, long ago became a totem of what is right about this season, and it’s the special’s darker underpinnings that’ll give you some traction as an adult viewer, especially if you’re one who has been kicked in the proverbial chompers, as Rudolph himself is.

It gets a little biblical — I mean, he wanders in the sodding woods for what comes off as years — and then, with nothing really changed, same rubbish situation to go back to, he does just that, for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do. The adult thing. The hard thing. It’s a metaphor, and Sam Snowman has already told you it’s going to be all right, and it’s not like any Christmas special, even the first one, when you could get, shall we say, exploratory, was going to do in the deer in some Animagic gore-fest. (Intended scenes for which are included on the Blu-ray as a special feature. No no no. That’s wrong. Don’t go looking for that. Made it up. I’ve seen this sucker enough that I’ve inherited some of Yukon Cornelius’ rascalliness.)

But after watching Rudolph every year since 1976, and being only ten years younger than it, I know why I like it so much, and why, after my one-year hiatus, even as I still felt like ass, and the soldering wasn’t doing what we all hope such soldering will do, viewing it again pointed as much forwards as back. It’s the TV special as living memory, all of your three main Christmas ghosts packed into one, your recollections of all of the other times you’ve seen it, the times you picked up on some of the cheekier aspects, your musing on what, maybe, your kids will think of it seeing for the first time this year, and what your life is going to be like ten years out when you know you’re still going to be watching it. Unless, I suppose, you de-Christmas yourself, which my drunken/Donleavy reading friend would, I imagine, consider akin to being perpetually without chompers, something you’re going to want to mitigate against. Which is less about a time of the year and more about a better way of being throughout the year. That is to say, what Christmas is really about, and Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph, too.

A memory carried forward: one year we had a breezeway put on our house. It sort of jutted out towards the woods, and had a Snow Miser’s lair feel in terms of temperature. I was probably five and had just had my annual viewing of Rudolph when I decided to venture into this breezeway, which was as North Pole-ish as our house got, to make like I was Santa and sing that tuneful ditty he does at the beginning about being the king of jingling and all of that. I was hopping about pretty good when my dad stuck his head in and sang a bit of harmony, which made me think, all 3000 days of me, ha, he so gets Rudolph, even though he’s old.

My father’s gone now, and I’m a few years older than he was then, and while I don’t view myself as old, I recall imploring myself to get Rudolph again, the year — it was only last year — I returned to it. It’s funny how certain things knit up the past, the present, and point you on to the future. There is a reasonable chance that some portion of my mine, for one moment of one December 2014 evening, at least, will include me picking up a volume of not Donleavy — I’ll go with Sygne — and turning up at a bar to do the old chompers line, caring not a fig about the looks I get, while resuming thinking about how things might look the next year when Rudolph comes around again. Because he always does. • 5 December 2014

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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