Since today is Christmas, I’d thought I’d show you a very special video short titled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is an animated adaptation of the famous Christmas story from the late 1940’s that pre-dates the more famous Rankin-Bass stop-motion puppet animation version that gets shown on TV each year and has been released in various home video formats.
I grew up watching the Rankin-Bass version each year. I used to look forward to watching it on TV each year and I made an effort to finish my homework early in the evening so I could watch it when it came on. I did this until I was around 11 or 12 when I grew tired of watching it. A few years ago I purchased the special 50th anniversary DVD of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on sale at Target. I watched it for the first time as an adult and I have to say that while this animation had its moments (such as the snowman narrator that was voiced by folk singer Burl Ives), I didn’t like it as much as an adult as other Christmas specials (such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas). I ended up donating that DVD to a post-Christmas white elephant gift swap that is organized each year by my support group for people who are separated or divorced.
It turns out that the Rankin-Bass version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was not the first adaptation of that story, which originated as a Montgomery Ward ad campaign.
In 1948 a Detroit-based animation company known as the Jam Handy Organization came out with an animated short about Rudolph. The animation was done by Max Fleischer.
Max Fleischer, along with his brothers, founded Fleischer Studios which, for a time, became just as big a name in animation as its closest competitor, Walt Disney. The two studios literally competed head to head. When Disney began making sound cartoons, Fleischer did the same. When Disney created memorable cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Fleischer countered with equally memorable cartoon characters like Betty Boop and Popeye. When Disney released its first cartoon in color, Fleischer did the same soon afterwards. When Disney released its first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fleischer countered with its own full-length animated feature film, Gulliver’s Travels.
The main difference was that Disney always sought to operate as an independent studio while Fleischer Studios was a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. This fact came to a head by the early 1940’s when a prolonged family feud broke out among the Fleischer brothers, which Leslie Cabarga describes in detail in his book The Fleischer Story. That family feud prompted Paramount Pictures to intervene by taking over the studio and firing the Fleischer brothers. Paramount subsequently renamed the animation division Famous Studios, which continued to release animated shorts (such as Casper the Friendly Ghost) until the late 1960’s, when Paramount closed the studio after it decided to get out of the animation business.
After leaving the studio that he co-founded, Max Fleischer moved on to the Jam Handy Organization, where he helped with making Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Running at a little over 8 minutes, this version is definitely shorter than the Rankin-Bass version. When this short was first released in 1948, it didn’t include the famous song mainly because it wouldn’t be released until the following year. The Jam Handy Organization would re-release the short in 1951 with the song included at the beginning and the end. This is the version you can see right here.
If you’re wondering what the original 1948 version was like before the song was released, the Library of Congress has the only known surviving print of that version. You can view this one right here.