Rankin/Bass Retrospective - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Updated on February 27, 2019
Robert L. May created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939 for Montgomery Ward
Robert L. May created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939 for Montgomery Ward

The origins of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer can be traced back to the Montgomery Ward company that, in 1939, were looking to create a new holiday character for a promotional campaign. Every year their stores would give away two coloring books around Christmas, but this year they decided to produce the book in-house. Copywriter Robert L. May, who worked at Montgomery Ward, was asked by his boss to create the character, who would be used in a book to be given to shoppers, with the suggestion that the character be an animal.

A copy of the 1939 book that started it all
A copy of the 1939 book that started it all

May settled on a reindeer due to his daughter’s love of the deer at the Chicago zoo, and initially considered calling the character “Rollo” or “Reginald” before settling on “Rudolph”. Due to his own experience with being picked on as a kid, May went with a reindeer who is outcasted from his peers, eventually using the trait that made him an outcast to do good and change the minds of those that ridiculed him. The trait he decided upon was the idea of giving Rudolph a glowing red nose, but due to how red noses were traditionally used to represent an alcoholic, Montgomery Ward initially rejected the design. A co-worker of May’s, illustrator Denver Gillen, helped May by making a drawing of Rudolph that was so cute (while keeping the red nose) that their bosses gave in and approved of it. Robert May completed the book in August 1939, with a successful print run of 2.4 million copies.

However, World War II would begin soon after, and due to printing restrictions, Rudolph would be put on the shelf for several years. Five years later, in 1944, the first animated adaptation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was produced by Max Fleischer for the Jam Handy Organization (a Detroit-based film studio). A second run of the book was finally printed in 1946, consisting of 3.6 million copies that were distributed for free like the first run.

In 1947, Robert L. May was, at no cost, given the rights to his character and poem by the Montgomery Ward president of the time Sewell Avery. While publishers believed the 6 million free copies distributed by the store had ruined any chance at future profit on the poem, small publisher Maxton Publishers took up the offer to republish the book for that holiday season; Despite the warnings otherwise, this run was a huge hit.

Johnny Marks greatly contributed to Rudolph's popularity with his musical adaptation.
Johnny Marks greatly contributed to Rudolph's popularity with his musical adaptation.

But it was the following year, 1948, that the poem was finally developed into the well-known song. Robert May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks, who would go on to write many Christmas hits, wrote the song, and in 1949 was able to get singer Gene Autry to record it on June 27, 1949. Going on sale in September, the song sold 2 million copies, hitting Number 1 on the charts during the week of Christmas. It was thanks to this song that Rudolph’s popularity exploded, and over the course of the 50’s, numerous covers from other singers, annual comics published by National Periodical Publications (later known as DC Comics), a Golden Book illustrated by Richard Scarry, and various other merchandise (including a sequel book in 1954) was produced featuring the character , enough that May was able to quit his job and solely live off of the income from Rudolph.

In the early 1960’s, May would be approached about the prospect of a television adaptation by a young stop-motion animation studio, Videocraft International.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

December 6, 1964
Videocraft International
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, as well as recording supervisor Bernard Cowan, at a recording session for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, as well as recording supervisor Bernard Cowan, at a recording session for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Videocraft International, who would later come to be known as Rankin/Bass, had been established in 1960 by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. While they would eventually come to be known for their stop-motion works, which they referred to as “Animagic”, in 1964 they were struggling to get television executives enthusiastic about this animation style. Only their first Animagic project, “The New Adventure of Pinocchio”, had been picked up for a syndicated run in 1960, and their concept for a TV series about a time-travelling boy was going nowhere (this idea would eventually be used for their first feature film “Willie McBean and His Magic Machine” in 1965). Networks much preferred the relative safety of traditional animation, such as their 1961 series “Tales of the Wizard of Oz”. Not to mention, animated holiday specials in 1964 were a distinct rarity; The only successful attempt up to then was UPA’s “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” in 1962. Producing not only a stop-motion special, but a holiday special at that, was a risk that could have backfired on them.

In 1963, Videocraft established a partnership with General Electric to bring hour-long animated specials to NBC as part of the “General Electric Fantasy Hour”. The first of these was a continuation of their earlier Wizard of Oz cartoon, “Return to Oz”, which aired in February of 1964. On Sunday, December 6, 1964, the second of these made its debut: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

The Most Famous Reindeer of All

In a cave at the North Pole, Santa’s reindeer Donner and his wife have a small child reindeer they name “Rudolph”. However, to their shock and Santa’s (who comes by to see the newborn), his nose is red and can glow. Donner hides his son’s nose by masking it with some clay, and for the first year, they’re able to keep it hidden to the rest of the reindeer. However, after a test of their flight skills, his nose is found out and he is ridiculed by the other reindeer. The only one who stands by him is the young doe Clarice.

Meanwhile, an elf named Hermey starts to question why elves have to only make toys, dreaming instead of becoming a dentist. He is ridiculed by his boss and the other elves for this, especially after he skips out on singing for Santa.

Hermey decides to run away, and soon enough, he crosses paths with Rudolph. They team up and set out to find a new life for misfits such as themselves.

The first person they run into is Yukon Cornelius, an explorer on the hunt for silver and gold. He offers to give them a lift, but they almost immediately run into the feared “Bumble”, an abominable snow-monster who starts chasing them until they escape on a floating ice sheet.

The ice sheet drifts them off to the Island of Misfit Toys, an island of toys meant to be delivered by Santa, but were discarded due to various faults (like a “Charlie-in-the-Box” instead of a Jack-in-the-Box, a train with square wheels, and a spotted elephant). They go to see their leader, King Moonracer, for permission to live on the island. He declines their request, but offers them temporary shelter and asks that they tell Santa about the island’s existence.

That night, Rudolph decides to set out on his own, worried that the Bumble will eventually find them because of his glowing nose. After several months on his own, Rudolph grows up and, with maturity, realizes he can’t run forever and decides to return home. However, his parents and Clarice had been gone almost as long as he had, looking for him. Fearing the worst, he goes to confront the Bumble himself, and sure enough his parents and friend are all there, in the Bumble’s clutches.

Rudolph attacks the Bumble, but is beaten to the ground. By luck, Hermey and Cornelius, who had also been searching for Rudolph, pass by the Bumble’s cave in time to rescue Rudolph by dropping clumps of snow on the creature’s head. Hermey removes the Bumble’s jagged teeth, making the snow-monster mostly harmless. Cornelius tackles the Bumble off a cliff, and the two plummet several hundred feet.

After grieving for a short time, Hermey and the four reindeer head back to Christmas Town. Santa and the citizens of Christmas Town apologize to Rudolph and Hermey, realizing they were too hard on them for being different. Cornellius then arrives, alive and well, having domesticated the Bumble.

However, the storm that started up when Rudolph arrived home has only gotten worse, and Santa comes to the decision that Christmas will need to be canceled due to poor visibility. That is, until he remembers Rudolph’s nose, and offers him a spot at the head of his reindeer team. At the same time, Hermey is given permission to open a dentistry office, Cornelius discovers a treasure trove of valuable peppermint buried under the North Pole, and even the Misfit Toys are taken by Santa and given homes. A happy ending for all.

The special was written by Romeo Muller, the first of many invaluable contributions he'd make to Rankin/Bass
The special was written by Romeo Muller, the first of many invaluable contributions he'd make to Rankin/Bass

Going Down in History

The special marked the first script written for Rankin/Bass by Romeo Muller, who would eventually go on to write the majority of their major holiday specials. Many changes were made to the original story; for example, in Robert L. Mays’s poem, Rudolph was an ordinary reindeer from a village nowhere near the North Pole, his parents weren’t related to any of Santa’s reindeer, and they weren’t ashamed of his nose. For some of the names, Muller drew from his personal life, such as Hermey’s original name “Herbie” being based on a childhood friend, and Clarice’s name coming from the wife of another friend.

Even Rankin/Bass forgot about the Misfit Toys initially, until a letter writing campaign gave them a happy ending in later airings.
Even Rankin/Bass forgot about the Misfit Toys initially, until a letter writing campaign gave them a happy ending in later airings.

One change that was made to the story was, in fact, a change made to the special itself in later airings. In the initial 1964 broadcast, there was no mention of the Misfit Toys after Rudolph left the island, leaving their fate unresolved. However, after receiving numerous letters from upset children asking for the Misfit Toys to be given a happy ending, Rankin/Bass went back and made the extended ending that has been seen ever since.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, like most Rankin/Bass productions, was animated in Japan by MOM Productions.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, like most Rankin/Bass productions, was animated in Japan by MOM Productions.

As with many Rankin/Bass productions, animation was done by MOM Productions in Japan, headed by stop-motion artist Tadahito Mochinaga. Two major difficulties that Rudolph ran into, especially with having a higher abundance of light-colored (or even outright white) characters was a difficulty with the props and sets collecting dust and reflecting an image of the camera back. To deal with these issues, the animators had to wear gloves at all times, and the characters were all sprayed with magnetic flock that made them less reflective. In all, with 22 sets and 200 puppets, the special took 18 months to animate.

The cast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The cast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The voices are primarily voices from the Toronto area. Billie Mae Richards voices Rudolph, Paul Soles voices Hermey the Elf, and Larry D. Mann voices Yukon Cornelius. With about a dozen voice actors on-board, Rudolph was easily the most expansive cast for a Rankin/Bass production thus far.

Burl Ives voiced the special's narrator, Sam the Snowman
Burl Ives voiced the special's narrator, Sam the Snowman

Initially the film was not supposed to have any narrator, then the decision was made to have Larry D. Mann do narration in a Brooklyn accent. However, it was thanks to a suggestion by General Electric that the narrator seen in the special, Sam the Snowman voiced by folk singer Burl Ives, was inserted.

This would begin a tradition in future Rankin/Bass specials of having a narrator, detached from the plot, voiced by a well-known celebrity.

For the musical numbers, Rankin/Bass hired Johnny Marks, who as previously mentioned wrote the song adaptation of the original book. Marks wrote a number of new songs, some becoming Christmas classics in their own right like “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”. One song, entitled “Fame and Fortune”, was inserted in 1965 replacing the Hermey and Rudolph duet of “We’re a Couple of Misfits”; this was used until 1993, when the original song was reinserted for all later airings.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is, by far, the most popular and influential special that Rankin/Bass ever made. It not only set the stage for their company to become the top producer of holiday specials for the next 20 years, it also paved the way for countless holiday specials to follow. Rudolph and the various specials that came from it still air on television every year (switching from NBC to CBS beginning in 1972), introducing generations to come to the story. As the song goes, he’s gone down in history.


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    • profile image

      Moral Man 

      2 months ago

      Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is one of the best holiday specials. Yukon Cornelius, Bumbles the Abominable Snow Monster, Hermey the Elf, Sam the Snowman, Clarice the Reindeer, and the Misfit Toys are all unforgettable characters. Vintage nostalgia at its best.

    • profile image


      7 months ago

      Great article. Really well detailed. When did Marks write the music? 1963 or 1964?

    • Kevin Measimer profile image

      Kevin Measimer 

      4 years ago

      My mistake in the past for confusing Mr. May having written the story for the May Department Stores rather than Mongomery Ward. Fond memories of watching the special every year in the late 60s and the 70s when we only had that one chance a year.


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