December 09, 2003

The past is a (vaguely familiar but basically) foreign country

One's own past, that is. Or at least, that part of one's past that included the annual, eagerly awaited ritual of please-mum-can-we-stay-up-past-our-bedtime-to-watch-Rudolph?

What happens when your cherished memories of a yearly Christmas treat come face to face with the actual item of which you cherish the memories? I'm referring, of course, to the 1964 production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with Burl Ives as the singing snowman. Which I hadn't watched in years and years, though of course I could have had I wanted to, because it's been on the air every December since its initial broadcast.

What happens is that, when your husband says, ten minutes into the show, "wow, what a banal piece of crap," you are forced (however reluctantly, because you're still game, and you still cherish the memories) to concede that he may have a point. What happens is that, when, twenty minutes into the program, you begin to allow yourself to think, 'This dross really is embarrassingly unwatchable,' you begin to wonder about your six-, seven-, eight-year old self: 'What was I thinking?! And am I still the I who once thought so differently, who once found this not only entertaining but even wonderful and magical? What other, achingly familiar yet never to be recovered past world did I inhabit? And can I really be so old that I now have such a keen, which is to say painful, sense of then and now?' To amuse yourself, because you've committed to watching it and you're not yet willing to follow your impulse to simply walk away, you begin to speculate: is there a homoerotic subtext to this story about the misfit elf who wants to be a dentist? have the queer theory people done anything in this line? But it's no use. It just won't do. The show is altogether too flimsy, and simply not interesting enough, to bear the weight of any such speculation.

Meanwhile, the toddler on whose behalf you are watching the show (because this show was once something of a holiday "tradition" that you think you might want to reinvent -- good god! am I really saying that the watching of a television show might constitute a tradition? yes, I am. O brave new world, that has such people in it!)...meanwhile, said toddler has long since abandoned the screen in favour of his favourite dump truck. 'We're watching Rudolph,' you coax, but half-heartedly at best, because by now you can only admit that the child has a point. 'Wrong trousers?' he replies, in an English accent. These days this kid is all about Wallace and Gromit. With Finding Nemo as a close second. And let's face it: Rudolph in 1964 "animagic" is not exactly Pixar. Though it could have its own "vintage" charm, except that it doesn't.

Ah well. We will try again with the Grinch (no, not that abomination of a remake, but the original and genuine article). I remain optimistic. I'm thinking Boris Karloff must have aged better. But if this one falls through, I think I might well be devastated.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 9, 2003 11:15 PM

Basil Rathbone's Scrooge might work. Whatever problems it has come from Dickens himself, I think. We just had the record though, don't know if there's a visual.

Posted by: zizka at December 9, 2003 11:23 PM

My nearly 2-y.o. was not at all interested (it seemed like a good idea at the time), and I turned off when Rudolph's father suggested they "get they women home" after being rescued...

New traditions are not necessarily a bad thing. "Cheese, Gromit?"

Posted by: Rosanne at December 9, 2003 11:33 PM

Wallace ("A Close Shave"): "Not even Wensleydale?"

I'm a sucker for Scrooge.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 9, 2003 11:41 PM

The Island of Misfit Toys will never grow old, or so I hope. :)

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 9, 2003 11:54 PM

""It came with out ribbons! It came with out tags!"
"It came with out packages, boxes or bags!"
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!""

The [Boris Karloff] Grinch is the real thing, just like the Charlie Brown Christmas!

Posted by: oliviacw at December 10, 2003 01:52 AM

If 'Bumbles bounce!' or something equally pathetic helps to revive, by association, fond memories of better things -- of times when the family came together, when older relatives were still living, when we had few responsibilities or worries, when we surprised one another with shiny nothings, when we ate and drank together and talked about even older times -- then here's to Bumbles! (My Christmas movie is old Alastair Sim as Scrooge. My Christmas cartoon is Boris Karloff in a Chuck Jones suit.)

Posted by: Eeksy-Peeksy at December 10, 2003 03:05 AM

Stick with the original "Grinch" and with "Charlie Brown Christmas" as holiday TV traditions for your toddler. You can't go wrong. Does anyone remember other animatronic holiday garbage from the 60s? There was the one where Rudolph rescues the Baby New Year, and the one about the orphaned donkey that carried the pregnant Virgin Mary into Bethlehem. I haven't seen either of these shows in years. I wonder why?

Posted by: CWD at December 10, 2003 09:39 AM

I missed Charlie Brown Christmas this year, but will be playing the soundtrack around Yule. Seuss never goes out of style, for certain. (It's telling that the one discussion I've gotten involved with here (after lurking for months) is about holiday programs. Does it make my 2+ year break from academia look fat?)

Posted by: Rosanne at December 10, 2003 09:47 AM

the one about the orphaned donkey that carried the pregnant Virgin Mary into Bethlehem.

I don't think that's "The Little Drummer Boy," but it sounds awfully close.

Wasn't there also a Claymation special about the "real" St. Nicholas?

Posted by: Miriam at December 10, 2003 09:52 AM

My 2 1/2-year old nephew was introduced to "the Ginch!" this year and loves it. He was excited to tell me about his favorite part, when Max the dog slips under the sleigh and the Grinch turns around and Max waves at him sheepishly. (My nephew didn't use the word "sheepishly," although he is very smart.) Also, my sister was lying on the couch as they were watching it for the fifth time, and when the Whos started singing without any Christmas at all, he said, "Get up! The Whos are singing!" So she had to get up and hold hands and dance.

Posted by: alwaysfortunate at December 10, 2003 10:27 AM

CWD, you're thinking of "Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey," another Rankin-Bass stop-motion type thing. I haven't seen that one in years, but I believe one of the basic-cable stations aired it recently.

I remember being troubled by the tone of the thing as a child, but I can't recall why. Odd what we remember and what we don't.

IA, your child may enjoy some aspects of "Rudolph" when he's a little bit older. Despite the show's flaws, for my money you won't find a better depiction anywhere of Santa Claus embarking upon the fulfillment of his appointed rounds. Have more plausible, even iconic, flying reindeer ever been seen on film than in those final scenes?

Dear God, I'm glad this is an anonymous forum.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 10, 2003 10:35 AM

"Dear God, I'm glad this is an anonymous forum."

You and me both!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 10, 2003 10:46 AM

I've been making of lists of holiday favorites that have, in my view, stood the test of time, and posting them on my blog. I've done music and stories; haven't gotten around to movies or videos yet. (Next week.) But by way of a very brief preview:

Yes to the original "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (though it terrified my oldest daughter when she first saw it at age three).
Yes to "The Charlie Brown Christmas."
Alastair Sim's Scrooge is fine; but I think the definitive "A Christmas Carol" is clearly the George C. Scott version.
"Arthur's Perfect Christmas" is too old for toddlers, but honestly, it really is an excellent Christmas special for kids in the 5-10 year range.
As for the Rankin/Bass "Rudolph" production, I agree: it's crap. Burl Ives's snowman is charming (the nod to such in Will Farrell's "Elf" is the highlight of that movie), but as a whole the story just fails. But some of those stop-motion productions were excellent. The Fred Astaire narrated "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is delightful (and the weird bit of romance and religion thrown into the story is an added bonus).

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at December 10, 2003 11:24 AM

How about one of those most-hated Xmas song threads? For me it's a medley of "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You See What I See". For I long time I thought they were verse and chorus of the same song. If the CIA ever wants to break me, that's what they should use.

My favorites are the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" and the Pogues' "Christmas in New York" (not the real title.) But then, I'm a Scrooge.

Posted by: zizka at December 10, 2003 11:55 AM

Grinch, of course. You'll see it holds up.

Scrooge, but not for a 3-year old, not any of the good versions (or even the bad Mr. Magoo-level ones).

Nightmare Before Christmas if you're in an odd mood.

Charlie Brown Christmas.

I agree that "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" holds up better than "Rudolph" in the Rankin-Bass category--more charm, more whimsy. "Rudolph" doesn't seem quite as awful to me as it does to you, but that's partly because we're doing the steady work of subversive (self) mockery as we watch it, e.g., musing once again on Herbie's sexuality, the Island of Misfit Toys, and the composite revelation of Santa's cruelty and cluelessness that the show paints (*this* guy is in charge of judging the morality of children, when he allows the abuse of children in his own domain and fobs off defective toys on kids, with horrible consequences for the toys?).

All of that kind of talk-back does sort of pale when you're sitting next to an almost-3-year old who listens carefully to what adults say and asks appallingly sophisticated questions about the meaning of adult-talk. None of that ironic fun is much fun if you didn't spend 10 years of your childhood watching Rudolph because, well, that was what was on. Emma just sort of stared at us when we were trying to sing the Heat Miser-Cold Miser songs from that truly wretched one with Mrs. Claus and the two elves and Mother Nature and all that stuff. I think she just cut to the chase and ignored the show entirely.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 12:21 PM

ah heck, just give up and put on Seven Samurai or something. Of course, my favorite childhood holiday movie was rewatching my copy of "Miami Vice" season 1, so I might not be the best source of advice.

Posted by: alex at December 10, 2003 12:29 PM

Thank you for the "donkey show" title (Nestor)! Otherwise, that was going to bother me the rest of the day (which is bad enough grading exams).
I'm surprised no one here has yet mentioned "Frosty the Snowman" (that one just occurred to me).
Yes, I am also glad this forum is anonymous!

Posted by: CWD at December 10, 2003 12:52 PM

I'm surprised no one has mentioned "A Christmas Story." What, the politically incorrect, but oh-so-funny ending puts people off? C'mon, admit it, you laughed at the waiters in the Chinese restuarant singing 'we wish yow a merry chwismas, we wish yow a merry chwismas ...' God, I love that movie.

Count me among the Grinch devotees -- I even have Grinch PJ's that I was given for Christmas one year. And of course, "It's a Wonderful Life" -- though that one does hold up under some criticl scrutiny.

Yes, indeed, glad this is all anaonymous.

Posted by: Chris at December 10, 2003 01:08 PM

CWD: Which "Frosty the Snowman"? There's been several. I remember one where Jimmy Durante sang the title song; is that the one you're remembering?

Timothy: Oh man, don't remind me of that Heat Miser-Cold Miser bit. I actually memorized that song when I was kid, went around singing it. Ye gods.

Chris: Never been a big fan of "The Christmas Story." But it has it's charms. ("He had yellow eyes!")

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at December 10, 2003 01:36 PM

Well -- this certainly tells me that, anonymous or not, most of us are of a similar age group! Maybe not Miriam, if she's who I think she is (ain't list servs wonderful?) -- she's like the smarter older sibling.

But I have to say, I don't think Rudolph is *that* bad. But that could be because I now watch it as Professor Burke does, and hey, it's still got dumb but fun songs. The Cold and Heat Miser songs are now stuck in my head, thanks -- I think I'll have to play the Pogues (Fairytale of New York, BTW) to drive them out.

Still -- the Grinch and Charlie Brown are the best. Always will be. I vote for the Alaister Sim version of "A Christmas Carol" but have fond memories of Carol Kane in "Scrooged." I tried to get my husband to watch "A Christmas Story" last weekend -- I told him it was great, but he wasn't buying. I think I'll tell him it's great because it's really subversive, and that'll convince him. I also try to do the "It's a Wonderful Life" ritual because, well, Frank Capra and Gene Roddenberry had an awful lot to do with the formation of my entire individual-society value system. Yes, I am a child of the TV era.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at December 10, 2003 01:37 PM

The Heat Miser and Cold Miser songs are from "The Year Without a Santa Claus." They alone make it a classic. But does anyone broadcast it anymore? My disappointment with "Rudolph" is that none of the songs are close to "Miser" quality.

Posted by: Adjunct to the IA at December 10, 2003 02:06 PM


Although I don't normally indulge in gender-based readings, you may find a springboard for musings about the sexuality of that little dentist-wannabe elf in "Rudolph" in the fact that his name is not "Herbie" but..."Hermey"!

Naturally, I mention this curious detail purely in the interest of thorough and sincere scholarly inquiry.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 10, 2003 02:18 PM

I was referring to the animated version of Frosty.

Posted by: CWD at December 10, 2003 02:21 PM

When I was a wee better left nameless, just learning how to spell anonymous, I would watch Rudolf faithfully each holiday season. One year, my mother went into a tirade of rage aimed at...Burl Ives. "He's nothing but a racist!" I kid you not. I still have no idea what evidence she had for this.

Posted by: better left nameless at December 10, 2003 03:17 PM

Hermey, right.

My almost 3-year old daughter saw "Frosty" the other night and burst into insolable sobbing at the end. I had forgotten how much it used to make me sad, too.

A lot of these old specials are showing up on ABC's secondary Family channel, btw.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 03:33 PM

Sheesh. We were singing juvenile and dirty alternalyrics to all those little ditties. And of course we thought RRR was dumb as hell, but parodying it as it went along was fun back then. Still don't know the real lyrics to any of them except the ones we learned in French class. (didn't know enough dirty French at the time to do anything with them.)

Posted by: scrooge at December 10, 2003 05:29 PM

There's nothing like the rousing New Orleans brass stylings of Heat-Cold Miser to let me know the holidays are here.
Here's my top 5 Christmas shows:
1. Charlie Brown Christmas
2. Scrooge (the musical, but it never comes on!)
3. Christmas Carol (George C. Scott)
4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
5. Any Rankin-Bass show except that wierd pagan-esque one that took place in a forest

Posted by: Cat at December 10, 2003 06:21 PM

The Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol is probably the only bearable chestnut that is trotted out at what some of the British bloggers have taken to calling The Festering Season.

Bah. Humbug. Humbug, I say.

Posted by: jam at December 10, 2003 07:22 PM

Maybe not Miriam, if she's who I think she is (ain't list servs wonderful?) -- she's like the smarter older sibling.

Only if you're younger than 32... :)

I've yet to find an enjoyable Christmas Carol (which reminds me that I need to get a copy of Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy), but I did like A Charlie Brown Christmas. Primarily for the cool soundtrack, I think. And Grinch.

Perhaps a youth spent watching Christmas specials explains why this Jew now specializes in Victorian evangelicals...

Posted by: Miriam at December 10, 2003 07:50 PM

Yes, Rudolph becomes difficult for a halfway conscious feminist to swallow after a certain age -- but Burl Ives is great, and I still like to watch the opening and closing scenes if at all possible (and of course the kids cherished their Misfit Toys -- that's, uh, Santa's magic).

In addition to the Charlie Brown Special, which is where most nice Jewish girls learn the Gospel of Luke, I will admit to a shameful fondness for... um... the one with the invention of Santa Clause, and the fairies, and so forth. It's even funnier if you know most of the actual vita of St. Nicholas of Myra and are imagining the whole special narrated in deeply questionable Church Latin. Or is that just me?

Posted by: Naomi Chana at December 10, 2003 09:06 PM

"In addition to the Charlie Brown Special, which is where most nice Jewish girls learn the Gospel of Luke,"

Nice Catholic girls, too, because we don't go in for Bible study (sola scriptura is just another term for anarchy...).

"Or is that just me?"
Uh, Naomi, I think it's just you. But that's okay, because that's what makes you you and you are a "hot tamale."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 10, 2003 09:18 PM

Burl Ives, IIRC, snitched during McCarthy period. Quick, someone ring up Lillian Hellman!

Posted by: zizka at December 11, 2003 12:46 AM

Christmas Carol -- George C. Scott version.
The Grinch -- classic animated version, NOT the Jim Carey horrible, horrible version.
Charlie Brown Christmas.

These are the traditional ones for me; I don't have a good memory of the bad things. Sometimes I'll watch Christmas on 42nd Street, the original version, if it's on. It's a Wonderful Life is annoying, as are any things with cutesy lisping children.

Posted by: Rana at December 11, 2003 01:55 AM

I can't believe you dissed the Mr. Magoo Christmas Carol. Although the animation is horrible, it is actually one of the most faithful adaptations and provides lots of backstory to explain how Scrooge became Scrooge so his conversion is not just random as it is in some versions. Plus, I was always haunted by the little kid abandoned in the school house.

Re: A Christmas Story: Chinese food and a movie is Christmas (or was Christmas till I married a Lutheran.) I think that movie might be a little too midwestern to translate widely. On the other hand, nobody has mentioned the Dennis Leary movie where the family is having Christmas dinner with lit candles in wreaths on their heads. Absolutely hilarious.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 11, 2003 10:29 AM

Ah -- then not the Miriam who lives in New Orleans and does philology stuff. But who also loves cats.

I think it's Miracle on 34th Street, by the way ... Not Christmas on 42nd. Oh -- the semi-Panto that BBC America shows every year with Lenny Henry and Alan Cummings, although it's not great, has started to worm its way into family tradition.

Posted by: ADM at December 11, 2003 11:54 AM

I think it's Miracle on 34th Street, by the way ... Not Christmas on 42nd.

*sound of hand slapping forehead* Of course it is. Thanks for the correction.

Posted by: Rana at December 11, 2003 12:17 PM

I don't know about Christmas dreck, but from time to time I recall the wonder of watching Tom Terrific and Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog. I wonder how wonderful I would find it now?

Posted by: fp at December 11, 2003 04:05 PM

Mother Nature and her boys, Heat Miser and Cold Miser, make "The Year Without A Santa Claus" an absolute classic. Their signature songs and the scene with Mother, Mrs. C, and the Misers just get better with age. It is also nice to see, especially in a children's story, supernaturally powerful characters who are neither simply good or evil. They're just petty, bickering brothers who introduce themselves with style.

The rest of the program, unfortunately, is intolerable regardless of one's age.

Posted by: gwc at December 12, 2003 01:44 AM

A friend of mine pointed out that Frosty is most kids first encounter with death. Weird huh.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 12, 2003 10:57 AM

It's not Bambi?

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at December 12, 2003 03:08 PM

Well, the Disney folks keep a pretty tight rein on their catalog. I can't remember the last time Bambi was in theaters or put into limited release on video. And my toots isn't old enough to start trolling that aisle in the video store yet.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 13, 2003 12:06 AM

Man, I loved the Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol, in fact that is where I first heard the story. I loved the music too.

I agree about Rudolph though, last year my husband (from Australia) and I watched it...he had never seen it...and pronounced it rubbish.



Posted by: Michelle at December 13, 2003 10:58 PM

Part of me is sure that Rudolph is a plea for racial harmony (think 1964, Civil Rights Act), with Comet ans Santa representing the Old Guard who enforce the strictures of racial segregation. But the rest of me is sure that Hermie and Rudolph are both Friends of Dorothy. It's 1964, so none of today's symbolism really works--no Barbara Streisand collection, no Liza Minnelli fetish. instead, Rankin-Bass go for what amounts to subtlety.

Hermie is the only blond male elf, and boy, does he stick out like a sore thumb: all of the female elves are blonde! Hermie doesn't fit into the male dominion of making toys. When he meets Rudolph, he shows his ability as an artist (sculpting a caricature of his boss), and he manages to show his lack of physicality, almost falling off a log. He is only missing a scene is which he asks Rudolph if he prefers oysters!

For Rudolph, the symbolism is sometimes obvious and sometimes quite subtle. The most obvious piece of symbolism is his nose itself: the red glow fully proclaims to the world that Rudolph is on fire, a flaming reindeer. Further, his red nose proclaims his femininity: all of the young female reineer have reddish bows on their heads, but none of the other young male reindeer have a speck of red on them. Only when Rudolph has hidden his true self (by putting a fake black nose on) does he butt heads with the other male reindeers, and only then does he pretend that he has romantic feelings for Clarisse. Once his red nsoe has appeared, Clarisse lets him know that he finds his red nose "grand"--not beautiful, but "grand"--a clear code word for "gay". Indeed, Clarisse's father, finding Rudolph and Clarisse walking together, forbids her to see him again, lest Rudolph let Clarisse know that her gender role can be more than just bearng children.

But my gut tells me that the show is just crap.

Posted by: GreenMonster at December 16, 2003 02:28 AM

Rudolph has a good monster. It's even a little Maurice Sendaky. We came into the show late, where the abominable snowman was first peering over the icehills, and my three-year old was hooked. To be sure, he spent the next 40 minutes tugging at me through all the interminable songs: "Where is he? Where's the monster?" He was ambivalently happy and frightened when the monster appeared again, he wimpered when the monster was about to eat the protagonists right there on camera (!!), and then declared after the show was over that he wanted to be a monster.

So, credit where credit is due.

Posted by: T. V. at December 18, 2003 04:25 PM