This Queer film review was the special bonus review for my 2020 post, “Queer Holiday Film Reviews for 2020“.
I’m sure some of you might be wondering – how the heck is “Rudolph” a Queer story? After all, this beloved Christmas classic was released on television back in 1961, in a time when the word “gay” still meant cheery or happy, not homosexual. But that’s why you’re here – to find out why I have decided that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is, without any doubt, a queer film. Let’s break it down!
Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) welcomes us to the North Pole, the home of Santa and Mrs. Claus, and of course the most famous reindeer – Rudolph! But wait, “You don’t know Rudolph?” he asks. Sam quickly starts telling us the story about the year Christmas was almost cancelled due to a terrible blizzard, and how Rudolph saved the day. Skipping back into the memories of time, Donner (Paul Kligman), head of Santa’s reindeer team, has just had a new son – Rudolph (Billie Mae Richards). But they are all shocked to realise that he has a glowing red nose! Santa (Stan Francis) even mentions how it’s a shame because he would’ve been great on his sleigh team. Barely a day old, and Rudolph is already being shunned because he’s a tad different. They decide to cover up his nose so he’ll fit in. One year later, Rudolph is finally old enough to join the other new fawns and play reindeer games where they learn to fly and one day, possibly help pull Santa’s sleigh. Rudolph is smitten with doe named Clarice (Janis Orenstein), and when she tells Rudolph that she likes him, it gives him the happiness to take off and fly through the air! But while wrestling with another reindeer afterwards, Rudolph’s nose cover comes off and his secret is revealed. They all gasp and shun him, Coach Comet (also Paul Kligman) even tells him to go home because he’s not welcome to play in their reindeer games.
Meanwhile at Santa’s workshop, a young elf named Hermey (Paul Soles) is chided for taking too long making his toys. But when he admits to his boss, the Head Elf (Carl Banas), that he doesn’t want to make toys but instead be a dentist, Hermey is mocked and yelled at because it’s not “normal”. Hermey decides to run away. When Rudolph comes to the same decision, they end up bumping into each other. They actually bond over their differences, as they both head off to have their own adventure. Along the way, they run into Yukon Cornelius (Larry D. Mann), a human prospector searching for silver and/or gold. But they all run into trouble when attacked by the Abominable Snow Monster of the North! Escaping on an iceberg, they float along before running aground on the Island of Misfit Toys. They all hope to have found a place to call home with all the other misfits, however the island’s ruler, King Moonracer (also Stan Francis) says the island is only for toys and not humans, reindeer, nor elves. But he asks that when Rudolph returns to Santa, to ask Santa to find a home for of all of the misfit toys. Afraid to bring harm to his friends, Rudolph runs away alone.
A few months later, Rudolph is grown up and has come to realise that he must return home and face his problems. But upon arriving back in “Christmas Town”, he discovers that his father, mother, and even Clarice had gone out searching for Rudolph and haven’t returned. Santa asks Rudolph to find and bring them back safely. Turns out they were kidnapped and held captive by the Abominable Snowman. But suddenly Rudolph is knocked unconscious by a stalactite! Thankfully Yukon and Hermey come in to save the day with a brilliant plan to distract – and de-tooth – the Abominable Snow Monster. But the celebration doesn’t last long when Yukon and the Monster fall off a snow cliff. With sad faces, they all return safely home to the North Pole where everyone apologises to both Rudolph and Hermey. But suddenly Yukon and the Abominable walk in the door; he has been tamed and trained to put the star on the tree! Just then though, the blizzard arrives; they’re snowed and kept in by thick fog! When Santa finally announces they have to cancel Christmas, he’s distracted by Rudolph’s glowing red nose… his nose! Santa pleads with Rudolph to lead his sleigh team and salvage Christmas – of course, Rudolph agrees! En route to deliver the toys, they stop by the Island of Misfits before Santa yells out “Merry Christmas” and they all fly off into the night.
What can I say about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that hasn’t already been said in the decades since it first aired? Partly because of how it was released, in a time when many households only had one TV and everyone tuned in for holiday specials like this, this Christmas film has become iconic for a myriad of reasons. First off, it’s entirely filmed in a stop-motion “Animagic” technique by Rankin/Bass Productions, utilising large puppets to tell the story. By themselves, they are quite remarkable and well made. Tadahito Mochinaga, the designer behind the “Animagic” puppet work, actually traveled to a deer sanctuary in Nara to study and sketch a herd of deer to truly capture their look. While they are definitely more stylised than realistic, the felt puppets were given large, anime style eyes which many associate with Anime. This unique look and even texture was carried into all elements of the set, from the animals to the snow, to the trees. While naturally aimed towards children, the design gives the film a childish, and even timeless look. But the actual stop-motion film technique is quite astonishing itself: it takes 24 separate frames/shots just to create on second of film!
The other key aspect that makes this TV special shine is the combination of the stunning musical score by Johnny Marks, the original story, and a fantastic cast of talented voice actors. The song itself actually developed from a story for Montgomery Ward, written by Robert May. Nearly a decade later, May reached out to his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks to compose a song to accompany the children’s holiday book. When they convinced country singer Gene Autry to record it for the 1949 holiday season – it became a hit! From there, it quickly was developed into the TV special we know today, spearheaded by General Electric. After that first Christmas airing, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has become an annual traditional, airing every year since 1964!
But let’s get back to the actual cast of voices! Billy Mae Richards evokes the innocent and almost naive Rudolph. Larry D. Mann gives a deep resounding richness to Yukon Cornelius. But perhaps the best known voice among the cast belongs to Sam the Snowman: Burl Ives. Partly because of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, Burl Ives has become a household name when one thinks of Christmas songs. If even one voice were omitted, I truly believe that this film’s success would have suffered. And let’s not forget the iconic songs! “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, “Jingle Jingle Jingle”, There’s Always Tomorrow”, “We’re A Couple of Misfits”, “Silver and Gold”, “We Are Santa’s Elves”, and of course the titular song: “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Even if you aren’t a fan of the film itself, the soundtrack has become part of Christmas canon songs for decades. The mostly cheery songs are iconic staples and Christmas season would be amiss without even one.
I was recently made aware that there are many who actually have issue with the film. Wait – what?! Instead of seeing two misfitscharacters who discover that their uniqueness actually makes them special, they can only see the taunting and name-calling. Rudolph is ridiculed for having a glowing red nose; even his dad hopes he’ll grow out of it – or worse, that they can keep it a secret so as to not befoul the Donner family name. Meanwhile, the elves are working in what they feel is a sweatshop – no breaks, a boss that yells at them, and even tells Hermey that he’s an embarrassment to all elves! And let’s not forget that we have a terrifying Abominable Snowman that attacks and captures Clarice, Mr & Mrs. Donner, and even Rudolph himself. And this is supposed to be a cheery Christmas film? They feel that it actually teaches kids how to be bullies! While I can understand that those aspects are present, that’s all they can see. They seem to be missing the point that in order for Rudolph to save the day, there needed to be conflict first. If they didn’t ridicule him, Rudolph couldn’t accept that while he is different from the others, he is still a reindeer. And that courage to return home and then try to save his family is what helps Santa see Reindeer in a new light – literally too, when his glowing nose cuts through the fog!
There’s also another negative aspect I learned while digging into the story behind “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” – they did all the voiceover work in Canada to save money, but also because the laws regarding residual pay for the actors did not carry over. As such, Billy Mae Richards barely speaks about the film that helped her voice reach thousands. Despite all of this and even though some folks have issue with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, I cannot find any real reason to not score this Queer Christmas classic with top-notch scores.
Well – how’d I do? Did I make a believer out of you and prove that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a queer film? Even if I didn’t, I stand by my claim. Both Rudolph and Hermey are made fun of for being different, something that every gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person can relate to. But as Santa discovers, what makes them both unique also makes them special to save Christmas. With a message of acceptance accompanied by a cheery, classic soundtrack, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is the perfect Queer Christmas film (and the longest-running Christmas Special in history!) If you haven’t watched it already this holiday season – and even if you have – rewatch this classic TV special and find out how queer it really is!