Directors: Jules Rankin & Arthur Bass
Writer: Romeo Muller
Cast: Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Robie Lester, the Westminster Children’s Choir
Plot: Friendly mailman S.D. Kluger (Fred Astaire) has once again rounded up a cart full of letters about Santa Claus. To answer all the questions at once, he decides to share with us the story of Santa’s life. Years ago, in a vaguely Eastern European land called Sombertown, a baby is found. He’s brought to the town’s mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), who immediately sends the baby to the local orphanage. On the way, though, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) sends up a terrific snowstorm that snatches the child away. The forest animals find him and hide him from the Warlock, taking him to a safe place – the home of an elf family named Kringle. The elves name him Kris, raising him as their own. As he grows up he learns all of their skills, including making toys. Sadly, the elves have mountains of toys that go undelivered thanks to the Burgermeister, even though they were once the royal toymakers to the king. Kris eventually grows into a strapping young man with the voice of Mickey Rooney. He vows to set out and begin delivering the toys, with an official red-and-white Kringle suit and a penguin named Topper. In Sombertown, though, the Burgermeister has outlawed toys entirely. Ignoring the decree Kris hands out toys to children, but a schoolteacher named Jessica chastises him for breaking the law. The Burgermeister declares Kris a rebel and orders him arrested, but Kris distracts him with a yo-yo and escapes. Kris and Topper turn up in the lands of the Winter Warlock and are captured. Before he can destroy them, Kris gives him a wooden train, and Winter’s frozen heart melts away, restoring his humanity. Winter offers to use his magic to help Kris in exchange for toys once in a while, and he demonstrates his power by showing him a vision of Jessica, who is wandering the woods looking for him. She’s got a handful of letters from the children asking for toys to replace the ones the Burgermeister destroyed, and Kris begins using the Warlock’s tricks to watch over them, to be sure they’re being good, for goodness sake.
The next night Kris returns to Sombertown with a sleigh full of toys and a list of the good children (which, naturally, he checks twice), and the next morning the Burgermeister is again outraged at the proliferation of toys. He orders the doors and windows locked all over town, but Jessica and the animals continue to deliver letters to Kris. Refusing to disappoint a child with a special request, Topper suggests Kris try entering homes through the chimney, a task which quickly becomes standard operating procedure. The Burgermeister turns over all the houses looking for toys, so Kris starts hiding them in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace. The Burgermeister finally uses Jessica to track down the Kringles’s home, and Kris, the Kringles and Winter are all captured and arrested. Jessica tries to break Winter out of prison, but the only remnant of his power are some magic kernels of corn. She feeds them to eight of Kris’s reindeer friends, who gain the ability to fly. They sweep into the prison and break out the inmates, taking them away. With the Kringle home destroyed by the Burgermeister, Kris and his family are now outlaws. Kris grows a beard to help disguise himself (doesn’t bother to change his bright red clothes, but, y’know, a beard… that should do the trick) and decides to use an alias. The eldest Kringle shows him a medal with his birth name on it: Claus. Taking back his real name, he asks Jessica to share it and the two are married in the woods on Christmas Eve while the Kringles decorate the pine trees and place their wedding gifts beneath the boughs. With his last burst of magic, Winter fills the trees with brilliant lights.
Kris and the Kringles march further north and build a home, where they continue to make toys for years. Eventually, the Meisterburgers die out, and Kris is able to make his journeys more freely. The letters from the children grow more and more frequent, though, and he decides to restrict his deliveries to one night a year, the holiest night, Christmas Eve.
Thoughts: Although, as we’ve seen, Rankin and Bass made a cottage industry out of turning Christmas songs into Christmas specials, this may be their crowning achievement of adaptation. The song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has even less of a plot than Rudolph or Frosty’s titular claims to fame. It’s basically a reminder to kids not to act like jerks because Santa won’t give them any loot on Christmas morning, and as this is a one-hour special, they’re going to need a lot more to go on. Romeo Muller, who has earned a permanent spot in Christmas Heaven for writing so many of these, does an absolutely heroic job weaving the tale of Santa’s life. This is without a doubt the longest synopsis I’ve written yet in the Christmas project, and that’s due entirely to the complexity of the story and the number of important touchstones along the way.
Muller manages to work in most of the major points of the Santa legend – the elves, the toymaking, the reason Christmas Eve is so sacred to him. For the most part, he does it very organically, almost seamlessly. The only thing that breaks the spell, that reminds you that he’s going through a checklist of Santa Facts, is that every so often Fred Astaire and the children break in with some narration to point out that you just learned something important: “So that’s why he makes such wonderful toys!” Yeah kid, we got that. No need to call attention to it. Muller also gives Santa a Mrs. Claus, elves, flying reindeer and the charming voyeuristic powers that probably weren’t nearly as creepy in the pre-Internet days.
There are a few interesting trends in here that would later reach out and lay branches in future Rankin and Bass productions. We’ve got multiple antagonists, at least at first, in the Warlock and the Burgermeister. The Warlock’s menace ends quickly, though, and he reforms, becoming a friend to our heroes. We’d see this later in other cartoons, including Jack Frost in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, the Miser Brothers in Year Without a Santa Claus. It’s a good way to work in themes of redemption into these cartoons without actually making an icon like Santa or Rudolph a jerk at any point in their respective careers. Not every villain can be redeemed, of course, but the way we see the Burgermeister waste away in self-imposed loneliness and misery says a lot for the power of having a winning personality.
The story is a tad anticlimactic – the Burgermeister never really gets his comeuppance, he just loses his prisoner and it’s implied that he dies a pathetic wretch. But Fred Astaire comes in at the end of the special and delivers a speech of pure sincerity to rival “Yes Virginia.” It’s a beautiful moment and it leads right into the musical finale.
This isn’t my favorite of the Rankin and Bass specials, and none of the elements created for this show specifically have ever really caught on with the public at large the way some of the other Rankin and Bass creations have. (Not even Topper. What’s up with that? Topper is awesome.) But on the whole, it’s a fine origin for Santa Claus, one that is perfectly satisfying for any child who wants to know all of the things kids tend to ask about Santa. Even after all these years, it’s still a joy to watch.
Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!