With two Christmas specials previously under their belt, Rankin/Bass decided to try their hand at another holiday, this time for the slightly earlier Thanksgiving.
The Mouse on the Mayflower
November 23, 1968
“The Mouse on the Mayflower” was the first special produced by Rankin/Bass after their name change away from Videocraft (though the Videocraft name would continue to be used for copyright purposes until the early 70’s). The film is narrated by a churchmouse named William, a descendant of mice who were aboard the Mayflower. He tells the audience of his ancestor (also named William) who lived 350 years earlier, sneaking aboard the Mayflower just as it departs from England. As one would expect from a Thanksgiving special, it follows the journey of the pilgrims to the new world, with appearances from several historical figures such as Myles Standish and William Bradford.
During the journey, two treasure seekers named Quizzler and Scurve catch wind that the pilgrims have gold aboard their ship, and stash aboard the Mayflower in hopes of snagging it. Their first attempt comes when, by chance, the main beam of the Mayflower becomes cracked during the middle of a storm. With no way to repair it at sea, the crew nearly has to abandon ship, which would leave their gold unattended and ripe for the picking. That is, until, William gets the Captain’s attention, leading him towards the printing press that the Pilgrims had brought with them. With the printing press used as a jack to keep the beam in place, the ship is able to continue onwards.
However, the storm has blown the ship off-course from their intended destination of Virginia, leading them to the wilderness known as New England. Landing in Plymouth, the pilgrims soon establish their colony. William meets a native mouse named Thunder who belongs to the Wampanoag tribe (presumably, as they’re just called “indians” here), and William offers to introduce the tribe to his pilgrims.
But, among the otherwise peaceful tribe is Smiling Buzzard, an outcast who wants to make war with the pilgrims. He, along with his Canadian bear Big Wheeze (a bear so clumsy that he managed to get lost all the way to Cape Cod), team up with Quizzler and Scurve to cause chaos between the two groups by staging a fake invasion. However, thanks to the two mice showing the pilgrims that they could be friends with the tribe, this conflict is averted and the four villains run off, never to be heard from again.
The tribe assists the pilgrims in the building of their village, finishing just as the first snowfall of winter hits. The winter is harsh, killing many of the pilgrims, but they manage to hold on until spring. The following year is much more prosperous for the pilgrims, and with enough food to last the next winter accumulated by fall, the pilgrims sit with the natives for the feast of the first Thanksgiving.
Cooking a Festive Feast
The voice of the narrator (and the two Williams) was Tennessee Ernie Ford, a singer and entertainer who also sang the intro and outro songs. Actor Eddie Albert, best known for starring in the sitcom “Green Acres”, voiced Captain Myles Standish, while singer John Gary and Joanie Sommers provided the voices of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins respectively (Sommers also sang the love songs during their scenes). Additional voices were done by Rankin/Bass regular Paul Frees as well as June Foray.
The regular Rankin/Bass crew were also at the helm of this special. The script was written by Romeo Muller (writer for many of Rankin/Bass’s most beloved specials), music was composed by Maury Laws, with lyrics written by Jules Bass. Animation was, like a fair amount of outsourced animation of the time, handled by Toei Animation in Japan.
A Cornucopia of Problems
Mouse on the Mayflower is a bit of an oddity in the Rankin/Bass library, in that it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to do. Most of the time it does follow the traditional romanticized Thanksgiving legend, but then there’s the additions of the villains which never pans out to be much more than one brief misunderstanding that is cleared up within two minutes. William (the past one) feels more like an accessory to the plot rather than a fleshed out character, only really being involved twice, while the present William is an unnecessary framing device that’s dropped as soon as the story begins (the pretense is that William is telling a story about his ancestor, but all the narration is in first-person as if he is the same William as his ancestor). There is also an attempt to include a love story between John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, which simply amounts to padding out the film with musical numbers as there’s no real conflict in this subplot. If the film had stuck to a straight-forward retelling of the journey of the Mayflower crew, focused solely on the titular mouse, or even had John and Priscilla as the main characters, this special may have worked out better.
The Mouse on the Mayflower was (unless one counts the earlier “Ballad of Smokey the Bear”) the only Thanksgiving special produced by Rankin/Bass. It was their attempt at seeing if specials for holidays other than Christmas would be feasible, but unfortunately it didn’t work out (whether by the quality of the production being lower than normal Rankin/Bass standards, or by the complete lack of international marketability for a Thanksgiving special). Other than a few Easter specials down the road, the studio would end up sticking solely to Christmas specials.