December 16, 2014

What are we to make of Rudolph? (and other foibles of adults watching cartoons)

We've been having a lot of fun at the expense of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer lately.  Now, we all love Rudolph, but let's face it - the script isn't going to win any kind of award.  In fact, for adults, the whole thing can be kind of, well, stupid.  Last week at the Facebook site I linked to a couple of articles pointing out the inconsistencies, if you will, of the story, not unlike the piece I wrote here last year.

And yet we watch it each year, and we're not about to give it up.  So what about people like the Hadleys - with no children to appreciate the simple treasures, as well as the fears that all kids have about being part of the "right" group, watching Rudolph is pretty much an act of nostalgia.  We marvel at the animation, hum along with the now-familiar tunes, but suffer in trying to make sense of it all.  Because it doesn't make any sense!

Some years ago I posted this piece, based on my friend Peter's ruminations about Frosty the Snowman, another cartoon that, shall we say, would fit in well at MST3K.  And yet Peter wasn't satirizing Frosty, but looking at it from another, more serious angle.  And it's true that stories can often have meanings beyond those intended by the storyteller.  So while watching Rudolph last Sunday afternoon (at 4:30pm CT, its original air time), I let my mind speculate on how one might choose to look at the story in a way that not only adds meaning to it, but puts it squarely in the context of its time.  After all, this is why It's About TV! exists in the first place.

Gentleman's Agreement, the 1947 Oscar winner for Best Picture, told the story of a journalist (Gregory Peck) who went undercover, posing as a Jew, to expose anti-Semitism in New York.  At the time, and for years afterward, discrimination against Jews was fairly widespread in certain quarters; the stories about Jews being unable to join country clubs are all the more powerful because they were true.  It didn't matter that many of these Jews were successful businessmen, pillars of the community, good and decent people - there were still landlords that wouldn't rent to a Jew, hotels that wouldn't book rooms for Jews, doctors that wouldn't treat Jews.  Oftentimes, the best evidence that someone was a Jew was simply the sound of their name.

That discrimination still existed thirteen years later, in 1964 - the year that Rudolph was first broadcast. At the same time, and even less subtly, was the discrimination suffered by many American blacks.  Based solely on an external - the color of their skin - they were forced to drink at separate water fountains, eat at separate restaurants, stay at separate hotels.  They too faced neighborhoods in which they couldn't buy homes, employers that wouldn't hire them, colleges in which they couldn't enroll, laws that were applied differently to them.  Although there's nothing to suggest that Romeo Muller, the writer of the animated Rudolph, had any of this in mind, it's inconceivable that he would have been unaware of it.  Did any of it influence what he wrote, even indirectly?

To go back to Rudolph, we know that there's no reason Rudolph should be prevented from being on Santa's sleigh team just because he has a red nose, and Santa was a jerk for going along with it.  He was like many people throughout history, basically good and decent men who were afraid to buck the majority (no pun intended).  Rudolph's father Donner was more interested in prestige and influence than he was in justice.  The other reindeer picked on him because he looked different from them, and it's always easy to hate those who are different.  Only Clarice and Rudolph's mother were able to look behind the externals and see Rudolph for who he really was.  The color of his nose was no different from the color of a man's skin, or the kind of religion he practiced.  That didn't stop people from discriminating against him, though.

To really make sense of Rudolph, therefore, it seems that one has to really understand the era from which it comes, and the cultural pressures that existed.  And indeed, it's not too hard to imagine that at least one child somewhere might have looked at Rudolph being ostracized by the reindeer community and wondered to himself why, if that was wrong, it was okay that the family of one of his classmates had such a hard time finding a place to live because of their religion or the color of their skin.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but this societal context can be seen in more than just Rudolph, of course.  Take Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, another Rankin-Bass animated special from 1970.  The story features an orphan baby named Claus being taken in by a family of elves, headed by the matriarch Tanta Kringle, who were formerly official toy makers to the king of the country in which they live, which is now under the rule of the Burgermeister Meisterburger, who lives in the capital city of Sombertown.  Now, I've often thought that this actually represented an allegory on Communism or some other totalitarian form of government, and over the weekend I deepened this thought.

Life was apparently once good in this country, until the Burgermeister came to power, so it's unlikely that the capital was always called "Sombertown."  More likely that it was renamed, in the same way that St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad.  Also, note the atmosphere of Sombertown, all drab and gray, much as our perception of the Eastern bloc - East Germany, for example, or Czechsolvakia.  Remember, this was just two years after the Soviet army crushed the uprising in Prague.  As for the toys being thrown in a bonfire and burned, I don't know how anyone could not think of the Nazi book-burnings, or similar Soviet-era purges.  The Kringles themselves, in exile following the overthrow of the Czar - er, King - would have been outcasts in Siberia, much like other enemies of the state.

The Burgermeister and his predecessor, Stalin
You might think that I'm reading too much into these animated specials, which are merely meant to entertain kids (and sell toys), and I'm not suggesting that the makers had these allegorical messages in mind at all.  What I am saying is that you can never pull any piece of art out of its era without also looking at the context in which it was created, and the forces at work in the culture of the times.  Just as Rudolph was made in a time were people would have been well-aware of discrimination against blacks and Jews, viewers of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town were living during the Cold War, and many of the traits of the Burgermeisters would have been instantly recognizable to them as sharing aspects of Communist- or Nazi-era totalitarianism.

In other words, these shows, and many like them, are products of their times.  Look at when they were made, and you see a window into another time, another culture.  And we can often speak a truth unknowingly.  Caiaphas the High Priest, for instance, tried to justify Jesus' death by telling the Jews it was "better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish." Christians clearly see the fulfillment of this prophesy in the Resurrection of Christ as the Savior, yet this is certainly not what Caiaphas meant - he denied that Jesus was the Christ.  His words, therefore, carried a truth that even he was not aware of.

So it is then, and also today.  If we're inclined to watch Rudolph and Santa Claus and Frosty and the rest, by all means.  And next time you do so, think about watching them while keeping in mind what I've written about here.  The main lesson to take from this is that we're all part of history and it will always inform whatever we read or watch, whether we know it or not.


  1. This is a fine essay, one of the best I've ever seen at this site (which is really sayin' something). It's not an original thought of mine, but I believe that the purpose of art is to tell us things about ourselves that we don't necessarily know, or aren't capable of seeing. It's not always the creator who tells those who view the work; as you observe, sometimes the work itself does it, apart from whatever intention the creator had for it.

    It's said that after Bruce Springsteen wrote "Born to Run," he walked around for days worrying that he'd stolen it from someone. In my own career as a writer, I've found myself looking at something I've finished and wondering where it came from---when it comes from a place I didn't know I had access to, or it says something completely different from what I intended. Clearly, the same thing can happen to people producing animated shows for the kids---or it did, 50 years ago.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, jb, and for your insight as well. Like you, I've sometimes read something that I wrote in the past, and it's almost as if I'm reading something someone else did. It does indicate that, as in so much of life, there is a mystery essential to the heart of the artistic process - one that neither the artist nor those who view it can ever completely comprehend, and will often see in different ways.

  2. Interesting I always thought Santa is coming to town was a comment on the war on drugs and how Santa started as a smuggler leading the youth of somber town to a life of ruin. :)


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