Rankin/Bass Retrospective: 'Frosty the Snowman'
In 1950, musicians Walter Rollins, who the previous year wrote “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”, and Steve Nelson, who’d go on to write the theme song for Smokey Bear, joined together to write a novelty song. Using a tune similar to the 1932 song “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”, they created the song “Frosty the Snowman”, telling the tale of a snowman who, through the magic of an old silk hat, comes to life for a day and plays with the children who built him. The song itself was sung by Gene Autry, who had also sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.
Much like Rudolph, the first animated adaptation of Frosty the Snowman didn’t come from Rankin/Bass, but rather through a studio known for theatrical shorts. UPA animated a three minute Frosty short in 1954, using a jazzy a capella rendition of the song, and distributed it through syndication to add a bit of a Christmas-y touch to local networks. WGN in Chicago in particular has made this version of Frosty part of their annual Christmas rotation nearly every year since 1955, initially being shown on Bozo the Clown.
But also like Rudolph, it would be until the Rankin/Bass adaptation in the 60’s that would be the most well-known version…
Frosty the Snowman
December 7, 1969
On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, a girl named Karen and her classmates are being entertained by a magician named Professor Hinkle, though they quickly get bored as his tricks fail terribly. As the magician tosses away his hat, his rabbit Hocus Pocus hops off. Then the school bell rings, and the children all run off to play in the snow.
The children build a snowman they name “Frosty” and begin to dance around it. Professor Hinkle manages to grab Hocus Pocus, but the hat flies off and Karen catches it, placing it atop the snowman’s head. Then, by magic, Frosty briefly comes to life. But a wind blows his hat off, and the magician retrieves his hat.
But Hocus Pocus brings the hat back to the children, and they bring Frosty back to life. However, their celebrations of his newfound life are cut short as the weather begins to warm. They decide to get him to the train station, to take him to the North Pole where he’ll never melt.
On the way there, they have a parade through the village. The people in the village are a bit startled by the sight of a living snowman, no one more than the traffic cop.
Unable to afford a proper ticket to the North Pole, Frosty, Karen, and Hocus board a refrigerated boxcar on its way north. Also stowing away on the last car of the train is Professor Hinkle, prepared to reclaim his magic hat. But as it happens, the boxcar is far too frigid for Karen, and when she starts to get a cold, the three bail the train to find a warm place to take her.
They eventually come across a greenhouse growing Christmas flowers. Frosty decides to take Karen inside himself, just long enough to put her in and leave before he melts. But then, the magician catches up with them and shuts the door behind Frosty, trapping him inside.
Hocus manages to flag Santa Claus down as he flies overhead and they search for Frosty. By the time they reach the greenhouse, Frosty has melted down to a puddle.
But Frosty was made from Christmas snow, so with a breeze of cold wind, he comes back to life. Santa threatens to stop delivering presents to Professor Hinkle if he keeps going after Frosty, so the magician finally relents, and Frosty and Karen ride off in Santa’s sleigh. Arriving at Karen’s home, she says farewell to Frosty, knowing he’ll return again next year.
The animation was done by Japanese studio Mushi Production, a studio founded by the famed “father of manga” Osamu Tezuka (though he had stepped down as acting director in 1968). Early on, it was decided by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass that Frosty the Snowman should capture the look of a Christmas card. For this, they hired Paul Coker Jr., a MAD Magazine artist who had experience in designing Christmas cards. Paul Coker Jr. would go on to create the designs for many future Rankin/Bass specials.
As with several Rankin/Bass specials, the narrator was a caricature of the actor that played them, this time being singer/actor Jimmy Durante, the last film he starred in before his retirement in 1972. Frosty himself was voiced by stand-up comedian Jackie Vernon, along with character actor Billy De Wolfe as the magician Professor Hinkle. Paul Frees takes on the role of the rest of the male voices, including the traffic cop and Santa Claus. June Foray voiced Karen and the schoolteacher, as well as the rest of the children; however, in all airings after 1970, for reasons that have never been made clear, June Foray’s performance as Karen was replaced by an unknown actress. The original version with Foray has not been included on any home video release, though she can still be heard as a few of the children, and the complete audio to the original version was released on a CD soundtrack in 2002.
Romeo Muller, who wrote the script for Rudolph, also wrote Frosty. While this special was only half the length Rudolph was, he arguably had to do just as much fleshing out of the story to fit the allotted time as the original song had no explanation of where the magic hat came from. More importantly, it was not originally connected to Christmas, leading to the inclusion of Santa Claus to make it a more holiday centric special. The score was composed by Maury Laws, with Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass as directors.
Frosty the Snowman has easily become one of Rankin/Bass’s most enduring productions, almost up there with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in pop culture relevance. It’s no surprise then that Frosty would go on to have several sequels, some unofficial, and even crossover with Rudolph for a feature-length film about ten years later. But it’s the original that still has a place in the hearts of many.