Rankin/Bass Retrospective: 'Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July'
If one were to look at the history of Rankin/Bass, it could be said that it can be divided into three eras, almost neatly by the passing of each decade: The golden age from 1960 to 1970, the silver age from 1971 to 1979, and the bronze age from 1980 to 1987. Their golden age had brought forth many of the specials that made them household names, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, arguably a lofty standard to which all their later specials were subsequently measured by. The silver age of Rankin/Bass had started with a brief hiatus from Christmas specials, but came back in force with 1974’s “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, which jumpstarted an eight year run of annual Christmas specials until 1981, an era which included sequels to most of their 60s hits.
While their bronze age still hadn’t started at this point, the pantheon of Rankin/Bass has one film from 1979 that some view as a “grand finale” to the Christmas specials. It was not the last (the studio still had four more after this before folding) and wasn’t intended as a finale, but it serves as the culmination of the studio’s history at this point; One last hoorah for the studio’s silver age and a celebration of their golden age. Bringing back two of their biggest stars for one final appearance, Rankin/Bass decided to make a 90 minute Christmas special, only this time with a twist: It would be set in July.
Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July
November 25, 1979
(July 1979 internationally)
The film opens at the North Pole as we see Rudolph visiting Frosty next to a frozen lake. Unlike many crossovers, there isn’t a big deal made out of their first on-screen encounter, as the two are portrayed as having already been friends for a while and greeting each other with a simple hand (hoof?) shake. A moment later, the audience is given an update on Frosty’s life since he was last seen; Being set after “Frosty’s Winter Wonderland” when Frosty married his snow wife Crystal, they now have two children: Chilly and Milly. The snow kids ask Rudolph if he can light up his nose for them, but when he tries, to his shock, his nose is having trouble staying lit.
After the opening credits, Santa Claus appears and gives the audience some new lore related to the North Pole and Rudolph’s origin. Long ago, before Santa was even born, an evil wizard named Winterbolt ruled the land and drove all people and animals out, until Lady Boreal (the physical manifestation of the Northern Lights) fought back and cast a spell on him that would entrap him in a deep slumber, so long as her light continued to shine. With Winterbolt gone, the animals and elves returned to the north, and eventually Santa set up his workshop. However, in sealing away Winterbolt, Lady Boreal weakened her own power, and eventually her light dimmed enough for Winterbolt to awaken once more.
Determined to get his domain back, the evil wizard began planning to create a giant snowstorm to stop Santa’s annual toy delivery, during which Winterbolt would step in and deliver his own toys to make the people of the world love him instead. Lady Boreal learned of this and, with the last of her magic, she granted her light to a newborn reindeer named Rudolph, to use so long as he is never tempted to use it for selfish purposes. Thanks to this, Rudolph grew up to become the one to light the way through the snowstorm and save Christmas. But Winterbolt vowed he would try again the following Christmas.
Back in the present, Winterbolt attempted to cast a spell to dim Rudolph’s nose, and briefly did, until Frosty encouraged Rudolph to not give up hope, which helped him to relight his nose. Shortly after, they received a visit from an ice cream man named Milton, who keeps his stock up at the North Pole until the Fourth of July weekend. However, he arrives with a heavy heart, telling a story about the Circus by the Sea, owned by the mother of his fiancee Loraine. With the circus on the verge of bankruptcy, it’s about to fall into the possession of a greedy man named Sam Spangle, unless they can make enough money by the end of the holiday weekend.
It is then that Winterbolt, determined to draw Rudolph away from the North Pole, uses his magic to plant an idea in Milton’s head to ask Rudolph to go with him and save the circus. To further encourage Rudolph to go along, Winterbolt himself appears (claiming to be a nice wizard) and gives Frosty and his family magic amulets which will prevent them from melting “until the final firework fades on the Fourth”, allowing them to make the journey as well. He even goes as far as to plant a suggestion in Santa’s head to have him offer to pick up Frosty and family before the fireworks fade.
As Rudolph and Frosty arrive at the circus, Winterbolt continues setting his plan into motion by finding a reindeer “as mean as Rudolph is kind”. His search leads him to an evil reindeer named Scratcher, who was once in the running to be one of Santa’s reindeer until he was kicked out. Winterbolt recruits Scratcher and encourages him to lead Rudolph astray, which would cause the magic in his nose to disappear. Afterwards, he unleashes a large storm just as Santa and Mrs. Claus leave the North Pole to see the circus, sweeping them up in the vortex.
Scratcher arrives at the circus and begs Rudolph to help him get a job with them. That night, during the big show, he tricks Rudolph into going into the trailer belonging to the owner of the circus, Lily, and retrieving a suitcase under her desk. In it is the money and receipts from that night’s performance, which they take and hand off to a police officer outside (who is really Sam Spangle in disguise), and he runs off with it. No one else suspects anything, as the show comes to a close and the fireworks begin going off, with Santa still nowhere to be seen.
Winterbolt arrives on a sleigh pulled by flying snakes, and reveals that due to Rudolph helping Scratcher to steal the money, the magic in his nose has been extinguished. With the fireworks nearly finished, Winterbolt offers to extend the power of the magic amulets, on the condition that Rudolph take the blame for stealing the money, ensuring the magic of Lady Boreal never return. Rudolph does so, ensuring Frosty and his family survive, but at the cost of the trust of everyone (except Frosty, who learned the truth). Without the money, and Rudolph’s lack of a glowing nose causing the following night’s audience to demand refunds, the circus was now guaranteed to fall into Sam Spangle’s hands.
Frosty began to think about what he could offer Winterbolt in exchange for restoring Rudolph’s nose, which caused Winterbolt, watching via a magic orb, to wonder the same. The genie who lives in Winterbolt’s ice scepter suggests (accompanied by a flashback to Frosty’s origin story, animated this time in stop-motion Animagic) he take Frosty’s hat, which has vast magical potential.
Meanwhile, wandering the coastline, Rudolph is given some words of encouragement by the voice of Lady Boreal, who tells him to “be very brave”. He also reunites with Big Ben the Whale (from “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”); He tells the story to Big Ben, who decides something must be done and takes off for South America, leaving Rudolph behind. Rudolph returns just in time to find Winterbolt stealing Frosty’s hat; Taking on Winterbolt, Rudolph defeats him and his snakes, retrieves the hat and, with that act of bravery, the magic of the Aurora Borealis returns to him.
Rudolph then returns to the circus, carrying a police officer who helps clear everything up; The money is returned to Lily, Sam Spangle is arrested, and Frosty is brought back to life. Rudolph and Frosty celebrate by singing “We’re a Couple of Misfits”, but their victory seems short lived, as Winterbolt returns, threatening to use his scepter on them. Lily throws her iron pistols at the scepter, shattering it, which causes Winterbolt to lose all of his power. As a result, he dies and becomes a tree. The loss of his power finally frees Santa and Mrs. Claus from the storm, but at the same time removes the protection on Frosty and his family, causing them to melt.
Just in the nick of time, Big Ben returns, carrying Jack Frost (who is normally in the southern hemisphere at this time of year). Jack uses his frigid breath to revive Frosty and family, with Santa arriving shortly after. Rudolph offers to stay behind at the circus until they work off their debt, and thanks to Santa giving the circus some of his magic corn feed, the animals begin to fly. As Santa and the snow family leave, Rudolph waves them off, leading the parade of the flying circus.
As mentioned before, the special is a bit of a “grand finale”, being the final appearances for the Rankin/Bass incarnations of Rudolph and Frosty, reprised one last time by Billie Mae Richards and Jackie Vernon respectively. This would also be the third and final time that Mickey Rooney voiced Santa Claus for Rankin/Bass, though he would voice Santa again in the 2008 special “A Miser Brothers’ Christmas” (an official spin-off of “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, but not produced by Rankin/Bass). Among the other reprised roles included Shelley Winters as Crystal, Hal Peary as Big Ben (his final role before retiring), and Paul Frees (who also voiced Winterbolt) as Jack Frost.
At a whopping 97 minutes, “Rudolph & Frosty” is easily the longest special Rankin/Bass produced, and at times it certainly feels that way, with the runtime padded out with over a dozen musical sequences. The runtime, in fact, is evidence of how it was actually intended for a theatrical release at one point. It actually did run in theaters overseas, where it made its world premiere in July 1979, but it wouldn’t make its US debut until ABC ran it on November 25th of that year. Compared to most of their other “Animagic” specials, this film has been seen much less frequently, perhaps owing to its long length or the subject being a Christmas special set in July. Nevertheless, it still holds a special place as being the finale to the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials up to this point.
The approaching bronze age of Rankin/Bass would be a rough time for the studio, with most of their 80s output generally being forgotten about. But before that, their silver age would produce one more special, arguably the last well remembered Rankin/Bass special, just two and a half weeks after “Rudolph & Frosty”. As it turned out, Jack Frost’s appearance in this special wasn’t just as a convenient plot device, but in fact acted as a teaser for his very own special...