Friday, December 29, 2006

In praise of the Pagan, Feminist, Vaudevillean Holiday Classic: The Year Without a Santa Claus

Od-ed on fruitcake? Reached your patience limit with your family, no matter how much you love them? The lazy hometowns bringing you down during the holidays? Fear not, deliverance from ennui is nigh. Check out Rankin and Bass's classic The Year Without a Santa Claus (TYWSC) available on DVD , sample clips of it available on You Tube (see them below).

Out of all the holiday specials, The Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and many others, it is TYWSC (1974) that I remember best and most fondly.

TYWSC is an animation masterpiece by the remarkable Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rankin/Bass had a prolific stretch of productions using stop-motion puppet animation (“Animagic"), beginning with the ever-popular Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1962.

Many of these Rankin/Bass “Animagic” productions are interesting on several levels, since they often pulled the holiday away from religious moorings (with a couple of exceptions) and contributed to the huge holiday commercial machine (music, decorations, TV, now video and DVD) but at the same time celebrated the secular-humanist qualities of Christmas, such as cheer and pleausure of giving or sharing for their own sake. TYWSC, like some of these others, is in fact a pagan, feminist and still moralizing tour de force.

The plot follows basic script-writing rules by introducing problems that must be resolved by a cast of heroes, foes, and helpers. The magic is in the details.

Santa is under the weather and is uninspired, thanks to the ingrates around the world. Christmas has lost its spirit and become reduced to a hollow, ugly "gimme gimme me" entitlement to things detached from any deeper human principles. So Santa decides to leave his red suit in moth balls this year (yes, there are moths in his North Pole chateau). Mrs. Claus is the heroine of the story. Behind the male lesser hero is a strong woman, and Rankin and Bass foreground her. In this sense, the production is a kind of unveiling of the hardly self-made cheer-giver by showing how dependent he is on his generous yet assertive wife. "Mrs. C" sees Santa is depressed by what he generalizes as a loss of Christmas spirit and cheer in the humanity he has served so generously over the years. So she sends two elves and a reindeer down to Southtown in search of evidence that will dispel Santa's suspicions and re-inspire him. But Jingle and Jangle, the charming and hapless elves, get into trouble and their tiny reindeer Vixen falls prey to a villainous dogcatcher.

The plot’s first basic problem to be resolved (Santa on strike) encounters a second plot requiring resolution: The mayor will spring Vixen from dog-jail if the elves can make it snow in Southtown, which has a kind of Southern California climate.

This new problem, getting snow to Southtown, brings viewers to what is unmistakably the most memorable parts of the show: the Broadwayesque scenes of brawling brothers Heatmiser and Snowmiser, given dominion over the northerly and southerly climes by their Mother Nature. Their song and dance routines are etched in the minds of millions of adults and even received an indirect homage in the film Batman and Robin (1997), where the villainous Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) encourages his minions to fĂȘte him with Snowmiser’s song.

Indeed, the entire show seems to owe much to Greek and other mythologies where gods are powerful, flawed, and sparring like humans and thus in need of a stronger and wiser deity to keep them in check. In the end, it is only the strong woman Mother Nature who can arrange the snowstorm in Southtown, which, importantly, is accomplished by teaching the boisterous boys the art of compromise: Heatmiser lets it snow in Southtown while his icicle-nosed sibling permits some global warming in the North. Unsurprisingly the resolution of these two subplots makes way for the central message: one should believe in Santa Claus who is a symbol of good cheer and benevolence toward humankind, which of course should be a year-long spirit annually re-charged. The latter is the real meaning of Christmas, and Santa finally finds convincing evidence of its existence. So he resumes his global sleigh ride with renewed vigor.

TYWSC is a heartwarming morality tale executed with superb animation and songs. If you’re experiencing a lull in the holiday stretch (or even if you’re not) I recommend you re-live your childhood and enrich your own children’s by watching this DVD. If you don’t remember it or believe me, take a peak at these clips of these supernatural siblings, and try to resist.
Happy holidays.

2 comments:

Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss said...

Yes, that was a great Christmas special, indeed. It had the best songs.

Voice actor trivia: Check out the Wiki-bio on Dick Shawn, who voiced Snow Miser ... interesting c.v.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Shawn

Jayson said...

Cool. Thanks for the link STDPM!
Happy New Year! I'm praying Mother Nature will smile upon me this year...