Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special would have been a lot different if the screenwriter had had access to the original Rudolph picture book.
Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the popular animated special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is the longest running Christmas special in television history (just a year ahead of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas).
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer made his debut as a Montgomery Ward picture book giveaway written by Robert May. As I’ve featured in a past legend, Montgomery Ward remarkably just gave May the copyright to the book. That proved to be particularly significant when May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story into a song that became one of the most popular Christmas songs of all-time upon its release in 1949. In 1964, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (at the time their company was called Videocraft International – they soon became known as their more familiar name, Rankin/Bass Productions) turned the story into an animated TV special that remains a hit program to this day. They enlisted screenwriter Romeo Muller to write the story for the special (and Johnny Marks contributed a bunch of new songs). The special introduced a pile of brand new characters, including Sam the Snowman, Yukon Cornelius, Hermey the Elf (who wants to be a dentis), the Abominable Snowmonster, Clarice (Rudolph’s reindeer love interest) and, of course, the Island of Misfit Toys (who proved so popular that the special had to be re-written a year later to change the ending because viewers were outraged that the Misfit Toys didn’t find new homes at the end of the original special). All of these new characters have led to a popular legend out there about how Muller wrote the show. From Mental Floss (among many other places, who all seem to be repeating the same story, so it is anyone’s guess who shared the story first):
Muller, the screenwriter for the TV special, stated in an interview that the reason his script deviated so much from the original story is that he was unable to find a copy of May’s book at the time. Several of the characters, including Hermey the wannabe dentist, were named after Muller’s real-life friends.
Is that true? Is that why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so different from the original book?
First off, I tend to doubt the veracity of the legend period. I have never found this supposed interview that Muller gave (and I’ve tracked down a number of Muller interviews) and never is the story told with an actual legitimate citation. It’s always just “he said so in an interview.” No mention of what interview and never any actual quotes from the interview. I asked Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt about it, and he told me:
I doubt it. I am sure Arthur and Jules and Johnny Marks gave him a copy day one.
Rick added that perhaps Muller made the statement jokingly. But again, he hadn’t heard of the interview either, which is either unusual, as he is, after all, the Rankin/Bass historian and he literally wrote the book on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Making Of The Rankin/Bass Holiday Classic) or not unusual at all if the interview doesn’t actually exist.
Going further, the statement on its own just seems a bit absurd. By 1964, the Robert May book was very popular, and Johnny Marks, who worked on the special with Muller, was May’s brother-in-law. The idea that Muller was unable to find a copy of an extremely popular book book seems highly doubtful.
However, I think even if you somehow believe that he could not get access to a popular book written by the brother-in-law of the guy who he is working on the show with, the story still falls apart for me because the lack of access to the book can’t be the reason for the deviation of the plotline of the special, because you didn’t really need to have access to the book to know the plotline of the book, as it was literally the same plot of the song!
Robert May’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer opens with Rudolph’s fellow reindeer not letting him play games with them because of his big red-nose, which caused them to laugh at him and call him names. Then, on a particularly foggy Christmas Eve, Santa Claus asked Rudolph for his help in guiding his sleigh. Rudolph does so and everyone cheers him when they get back.
In 1944, Max Fleischer did a short animated adaptation of the story. It is an extremely faithful adaptation of the book. As you can tell from watching the animated short, it is the same story we all know by heart by now. Reindeer laugh at Rudolph, Santa asks for his help, everyone cheers for Rudolph.
(As an aside – the original version of the cartoon was done in 1944. It was later edited to add the 1949 song to the short. I’ve only seen the later edited version and that’s the one I have linked here).
Romeo Muller is an underrated part of what made the Rankin/Bass cartoons just so compelling. He wrote Rudolph, Frosty the Showman, The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town plus a variety of Frosty and Rudolph sequels. He was a large man who looked a lot like Santa Claus himself. He passed away in 1992.
Muller spoke of his writing process to the Morning-Record in 1973:
So far, all of my TV shows have been based on something else, even though in many cases it’s been little more than a few plotless lines of a lyric. I like that because it gives me a chance to develop the characters completely.”
It is very likely that it was Marks’ song that was the driving force behind Muller’s adaptation and so therefore I suppose I can possibly believe that he never bothered to read the original book that the song was based on, since the song was enough for him. But either way, the end result was that he was going to have to come up with a new plot for the one-hour special no matter what. There just wasn’t enough plot in either the book or the song to wring an hour of television out of it.
Because of that, I don’t think it is feasible to believe that the plot for the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special would have been any different, whether Muller had consulted with the original text or not – he added the new characters not because he didn’t know what the original book said, he added the new characters because he needed to fill out the plot of the special and the easiest way for him to do that was to introduce new characters and new subplots.
Therefore, with this legend I’m going to go with a…
Thanks so much to Rick Goldschmidt for taking the time to answer my question. He’s certainly a busy man this time of the year! Check out his website here.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.