Last night, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) was on TV. As a child, I looked forward to this show every year. It was my favorite show. So last night I let Judah stay up and watch it with me. Maybe a 3-year old shouldn't watch such a show - especially the parts (which were a lot more than I remember) with the formidable Abominable Snowman wreaking havoc on everyone. Judah tried to be tough, but he was clearly nervous. He was thrilled that the mean snowman turned good at the end.
Inspired by a critique I read of Thomas and Friends (one of Judah's favorite shows), I noticed a bunch of odd themes and hidden messages (again, this is kidding and joking) in the show last night. Let me share.
The film first aired in 1964. This is hardly a surprise. There is absolutely no racial/ethnic diversity at all. Contrast this with a newer Christmas show, "Elf on a Shelf", where the diversity is very apparent. There are elves with all sorts of backgrounds and in prominent roles of the movie. Not so much in Rudolph.
Not only is there not racial diversity represented in the show, but not even minor differences in personality or appearance are appreciated. Rudolph's dad, Donner, upon finding out that his son has a bright nose unlike other reindeer decides he wants to "hide" the problem because Rudolph's nose is not "normal". How progressive of you, Donner. I have heard of kids trying to change their appearance to please their peers, but a parent...cmon! Even the show commentator, Sam Snowman, got in on the action saying the parents did a "good job" of "hiding the non-conformity", actually stumbling over the words "non-conformity" with the implicit message that he wanted to use a harsher word, but thought the better of it. How noble, Sam.
This theme is of course solidified in the treatment of Hermy the Misfit Elf (dentist). He is the only male elf that has long, flowing blond hair, cherry lips, and a soft, small mouth. He wears his elf hat pushed back to show off his hair. This is a far cry from the other male elves that all look the same, sound the same, and act the same. Hermy laments that he doesn't like his job of building toys and would rather be a dentist. His boss (never named throughout the show...just "the boss") ridicules him for his aspirations. In an emotional exchange between the two of them, Hermy says, "I am not happy in my work." The boss responds, "What???" and begins undressing him (so to speak) in front of the other elves which in turn leads to a gossip session and mocking. The boss concludes, "you are an elf, and an elf makes toys." So much for innovation and creativity in the North Pole. Hermy concludes, "I am such a misfit", which becomes the inevitable conclusion for Rudolph as well. In standard fashion, Sam Snowman is unsympathetic of Hermy's plight and dismisses him quickly saying, "Such is the life of an elf."
Nevertheless, Hermy continues his quest to be a dentist and misses elf singing practice in order to fix the teeth of a doll. When Santa is less than pleased with the singing performance of the elves, it takes The Boss very little time to shift the blame to Hermy who was missing from the practice. The Boss storms into the room and yells at Hermy, "Santa knows what is good, you should do as you should." In other words, fall in line. You begin to sense the frustration of The Boss (middle management) who is caught between a demanding CEO (Santa) and his less than stellar line crew. In fact, Mrs. Clause was ok with the singing performance. But more on this later.
Back to Rudolph. As I mentioned, he comes to the same conclusion as Hermy that he is a "misfit" (of course they sing about it). But how exactly did he get there? Well, all the young reindeer were playing "reindeer games" and learning to fly (so they could be useful of course. Their only aspiration in life was to pull the CEO's sleigh). Rudolph is flirting with Clarice the doe and finally being affirmed by someone. This leads him to fly higher and better than all the other reindeer, earning the praise of the coach and Santa himself. Of course this was short lived because his nose covering popped off. Back to reality for Rudolph. Santa rebuked Donner (the dad!!), "you should be ashamed of yourself!" No more reindeer games for Rudolph. Of course his lovely doe comes to his side and tries to console, but then chooses the odd song of "there is always tomorrow." Tomorrow? Good job, Clarice. The scene has the inevitable ending of Clarice's dad coming over and pulling Clarice away, saying, "No doe of mine is going to be seen with a red-nosed reindeer."
This is when Rudolph and Hermy meet up as the "misfits". In a laughable moment, Hermy declares that they are both "independent" and exclaims, "let's be independent together." Independent together? Score one for Hermy. Maybe his boss was right.
Which brings us to my favorite part, the introduction of Yukon Cornelius. He arrives on the scene in heroic fashion, whipping and yelling at his dogs to "mush faster". He declares himself the "greatest prospector" (did he mean, "speculator") and goes on to reveal to the misfits that "this is my land" and its "rich with gold and silver." Naturally, Cornelius has two deadly weapons attached to his waist and is wearing plaid. At this point, Cornelius shows his true colors and throws his ax into the snow and brings it up to taste..."nothing", he concludes. He was clearly disappointed. The natural takeaway is that he wanted to do the least amount of work for the most amount of profit. I was shocked by this. Once again Sam Snowman chimes in with his take and breaks out into song, "Everyone exists for silver and gold...how do you measure its worth...just by the pleasure it gives on earth." Great message for kids. The scene ends with Cornelius saying he needs to get more "gun powder, guitar strings" and other items. He yells "mush!" to his exasperated dogs who are fed up with getting beaten and yelled at. Because of this, they don't move an inch for him. Cornelius, the tough guy that he is, puts the dogs on his sleigh and pulls them all himself. He gives these two words of wisdom to the misfits as they move on, stay with me and you will "be rich." I wonder if Cornelius is red or blue??
They make it to the land of misfit toys where Cornelius affirms Rudolph and Hermy's worst fears, "even among misfits, you are misfits." Great friend, huh? As they spend the night on the island, Cornelius in a moment of epiphany decides they are all in this together and exclaims, "Its all for one...and ah, ah, ah...never mind." Brilliant, Cornelius! You have heard the saying, "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But this shows us that perhaps there are certain people shouldn't have guns after all.
Rudolph finally comes to grips with who he is and comes back to Santa's home as a secure individual. Of course, Santa the CEO, is only thinking about himself and is distraught because Donner has went to look for Rudolph and Christmas Eve is only days away and he needs Donner to be successful for his one day of work a year. How about being thankful that Rudolph is back, Santa? Well, we find out that the Abominable Snowman has captured Donner and others, which brings us to another evident theme in this show: women on the margins. If you go back to the reindeer game scene, you notice that no women reindeer are allowed to partake or join Santa's sleigh. Furthermore, they are relegated to the sidelines where they stand in awe of the males and cheer them on. North pole cheerleaders, basically. When Donner wants to go look for Rudolph, Mrs. Donner (never named, just, mrs. donner) demands to go with Donner. Donner snaps back in an angry tone, "this is a man's job." Point taken, writers.
Back to the scene...Cornelius has a great idea to free the captured reindeer. He contends that the Snowman will have more interest in "pork than reindeer" (who would have thought...Cornelius of course!) and comes up with a plan to take him out. Included in this plan is mobilizing Hermy to extract his teeth. In other words, capture the bad guy and torture him. Very commendable, Cornelius. Of course, misfit Hermy doesn't question Cornelius's authority.
The reindeer are all freed and come back to Santa! Yay! Upon arrival back, it is noted that "maybe misfits have a place after all." Then Santa confesses," 'maybe' he was wrong." The inflection on the word "maybe" in both sentences is clear. The "maybe" for misfits having a place is contrite and confessional. Santa's "maybe" was less than sincere. To further highlight this difference, at the very end of the show Santa is once again complaining about Rudolph's nose, as if he had forgotten that he was "maybe wrong" just a few minutes ago. That is, right up until he figures out that Rudolph will be useful to him after all because his obnoxious nose can help Santa work his one day a year. Even Donner, unrepentant it seems, chimes in out of nowhere, "I knew that nose would be worth something someday." Thanks, dad.
The final scene is filled with subliminal messages as Santa is up in the air delivering toys. He has a bunch of misfit toys from the island. But dont we know a Santa who delivers toys to each house, coming through a chimney, and filling stockings. Why, yes, we do. In a radical departure from contemporary knowledge of Santa, an elf is throwing out misfit toys from 35,000 feet in the air. Thankfully, they are at least given umbrellas for a soft landing.