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Rankin/Bass

Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. (formerly Videocraft International, Ltd.) is an American production company, known for its seasonal television specials.

The company origins

The company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in the early-1960s as Videocraft International. One of Videocraft's first projects was an independently produced series based on the character Pinocchio. It was done using "Animagic", a stop motion animation process using figurines (a process already pioneered by George Pal's "Puppetoons" and Art Clokey's Gumby and Davey and Goliath). This was followed by another independently produced series using more traditional cel animation and based on already established characters, Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961.

In 1964, the company produced a special for NBC and sponsor (and later owner of NBC) General Electric. It was a stop-motion animated adaptation of the Johnny Marks song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which had been made into a Max Fleischer traditional animated short almost two decades before). With narrator Burl Ives in the role of Sam the Snowman, along with an original orchestral score composed by Marks himself, Rudolph became one of the most popular and longest-running Christmas specials in television history: it remained with NBC until around 1972, and currently runs annually on CBS. The special contained seven original songs, however General Electric had one additional song, "Fame And Fortune" added in 1965.

More holiday tales

Rudolph was followed by two Thanksgiving specials, The Cricket on the Hearth (narrated by Danny Thomas), and Mouse on the Mayflower (told by Tennessee Ernie Ford). Videocraft also tackled Halloween with the cult favorite Mad Monster Party, (1969) featuring one of the last performances of Boris Karloff.

Videocraft also continued to produce programs themed for the Christmas holidays. Many of their specials, like Rudolph, were based on popular Christmas songs. In 1968, Greer Garson's dramatic narration carried through The Little Drummer Boy, set against the birth of the baby Jesus. Also in 1968, Videocraft, which carried Rankin and Bass's production credits as part of its closing logo until then (see "The company origins" section above), became Rankin/Bass Productions and adopted a new logo, although they retained a Videocraft byline in the new closing logo credit until 1971.

The following year (1969), Jimmy Durante sung and told the story of Frosty the Snowman, with Jackie Vernon voicing the title character of a snowman magically brought to life.

1970 brought another famous Christmas special, Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. Rankin/Bass was able to enlist Fred Astaire as narrator S.D. (Special Delivery) Kruger, a mailman answering the many questions about Santa Claus (and in turn, telling his origin). The story revolved around a young Kris Kringle (voiced by Mickey Rooney) and the Burgermeister Meisterburger (voiced by Paul Frees). Kringle later marries the town's schoolteacher, Miss Jessica (voiced by Robie Lester).

In 1971 Rankin/Bass produced the Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail, with the voices of narrator Danny Kaye, Vincent Price, and Casey Kasem (as the title character). It was based not on the title song, but on a 1957 novel by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich entitled The Easter Bunny That Overslept. In 1977 Fred Astaire returned as mailman narrator Kruger in The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town and tells the tale of the Easter Bunny's origins.

In 1974, Rankin/Bass produced still another popular Christmas special, The Year Without a Santa Claus, which featured Shirley Booth (voicing narrator Mrs. Claus), Mickey Rooney (returning as the voice of Santa Claus, which he had performed previously in Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, of which this special is a semi-sequel), and supporting characters Snow Miser and Heat Miser. The Miser Brothers are unusual fictional characters in the annals of television; several of their fans have devoted entire websites to them. It was remade as a live action TV movie shown on NBC in 2006 starring Delta Burke and John Goodman as Mrs. Claus and Santa.

Throughout the 1970s, Rankin/Bass continued to produce animated sequels to its classic specials, including the teaming of Rudolph and Frosty in 1979's Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, with the voice of Ethel Merman as the ringmistress of a seaside circus, and Rooney again returning as Santa. The special features cameos by characters from several other Rankin-Bass holiday specials, including Big Ben from Rudolph's Shiny New Year and Jack Frost. Jack appeared in his own special later that year; Jack Frost, narrated by Buddy Hackett, tells the story of the winter sprite's love for a mortal woman menaced by an evil Cossack.

Among Rankin/Bass's original specials was 1975's The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow, featuring the voice of Angela Lansbury as the narrating and singing nun, and the Irving Berlin Christmas classic White Christmas. Though only a half-hour long (as opposed to the standard hour time slot), it was critically acclaimed, telling the story of a blind shepherd boy who longs to experience Christmas.

Their final stop-motion style Christmas story was "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus", taken from the L. Frank Baum story of the same name and released in 1985. In this story, the Great Ak summons a council of the Immortals to bestow upon a dying Claus the Mantle of Immortality. To make his case, the Great Ak tells Claus's life story, from his discovery as a foundling in the magical forest and his raising by Immortals, through his education by the Great Ak in the harsh realities of the human world and his acceptance of his destiny to struggle to bring joy to children. To date, this special has not been released on DVD, but is shown every December on ABC Family (formerly Fox Family Channel) as part of the channel's "25 Days of Christmas," in which they feature various Christmas themed shows.

Many of these specials are still shown seasonally on American TV, and some have been released to video and DVD. Rankin/Bass stop-motion features are recognizable by their visual style of doll-like characters with spheroid body parts, and ubiquitous powdery snow. Often, traditional cel animation scenes of falling snow would be projected over top of the action to create the effect of a snowfall.

Rankin/Bass's non-holiday output

Throughout the decade of the 1960s, Videocraft produced other stop motion and traditional animation specials and films, some of which were non-holiday stories. For example, 1965 produced Rankin/Bass's first theatrical film, Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, the first of four films produced in association with Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures. 1966 brought to life The Ballad of Smokey the Bear (narrated by James Cagney), the story of the famous forest fire-fighting animal seen in numerous public service announcements.

In 1972 and 1973, Rankin/Bass produced four animated TV-movies for The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie: The Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters, Willie Mays and the Say-Hey Kid, The Red Baron, and That Girl in Wonderland.

In 1977, Rankin/Bass produced an animated version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. It was followed in 1980 by an animated version of The Return of the King, the final volume of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. (The animation rights to the first two volumes were held by Saul Zaentz, producer of Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation The Lord of the Rings.) Other books adapted include The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and Peter Dickens' "The Flight of Dragons".

In the 1970s, Rankin-Bass' Saturday-morning output included animated adventures of The Jackson 5ive (co-produced with Motown Productions) and The Osmonds).

Rankin/Bass also produced the popular cartoon series, ThunderCats (1985), a cartoon and related toy-line about battling cat-like people in a post-apocalyptic future. It was followed by two similar cartoons about animal-like people, Silverhawks (1986), and Tigersharks (as part of the series The Comic Strip in 1987) which never enjoyed the same commercial success.

Rankin/Bass also attempted live-action productions, such as 1967's sequel King Kong Escapes, the 1976 telefilm The Last Dinosaur, and the 1978 made-for-TV movie The Bermuda Depths.

Rankin/Bass's talent

In addition to the 'name' talent that provided the narration for the specials, Rankin/Bass had its own company of voice actors. For the studio's early work, this group was based in Toronto, Ontario, where recording was supervised by veteran CBC announcer Bernard Cowan. This group included actors such as Paul Soles, Larry D. Mann, and Paul Kligman.

Later, the most notable voice was Paul Frees, who provided the voices for, among many others, the three wise men (The Little Drummer Boy), Burgermeister Meisterburger (Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town), the traffic cop (Frosty The Snowman), Jack Frost (Frosty's Winter Wonderland), and even Santa Claus himself (Frosty The Snowman). Other Rankin/Bass voice actors have included Bob McFadden, Robie Lester, Linda Gary, Mickey Rooney, Morey Amsterdam, Marlo Thomas, Angela Lansbury, June Foray, Don Messick and Shelley Winters. Outside of the holiday specials, Larry Kenney had been with Rankin/Bass for years, doing characters on ThunderCats (notably as Lion-O) and SilverHawks.

Maury Laws has served as musical director for almost all of the animated films.

Romeo Muller was another consistent contributor, serving as screenwriter for many of Rankin/Bass's best-known productions including Rudolph, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman.

Rankin/Bass' "Animagic" stop-motion productions, as well as many of their animated productions, were animated in Japan. Throughout the 1960s, the Animagic productions were headed by Japanese stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga.

Many of Rankin/Bass' traditionally cel-animated works were animated by the Japanese studio Top Craft, which was formed in 1972 as an offshoot of the legendary studio Toei Animation. Many Top Craft staffers, including the studio's founder Toru Hara (who was credited in some of Rankin/Bass' specials), would go on to join Studio Ghibli and work on Hayao Miyazaki's feature films, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro.

Rankin/Bass's library

The Rankin/Bass library is now in the hands of other companies. General Electric's Tomorrow Entertainment acquired the original Videocraft International in 1971. The pre-1974 library (including the "classic four" Christmas specials) remained under the ownership of GE. In 1988, Lorne Michaels' production company Broadway Video acquired the rights to the pre-1974 Rankin/Bass television material from GE. In 1995, Broadway Video's children's division became Golden Books Family Entertainment, and in turn became Classic Media (which is where the rights stand today).

The Rankin/Bass feature film library (with the exception of Rudolph and Frosty and The Last Unicorn) is now owned by French production company StudioCanal.

In 1978, Telepictures Corporation acquired all of the post-1974 Rankin/Bass library. All Rankin/Bass material from 1974-1989 (except The Last Unicorn) are now owned by Warner Bros. (through the studio's 1988 acquisition of Lorimar-Telepictures). In terms of DVD releases, however, only Jack Frost (1979) is in the public domain.

The Last Unicorn is owned by Carlton/ITC.

Television rights to most of the Rankin/Bass library are held in the United States by ABC and ABC Family, with the exceptions of the original Rudolph and Frosty specials, which are held by CBS.

Rankin/Bass today

After its last output in 1987, Rankin/Bass became dormant, and for many years to come, no new holiday or non-holiday specials or theatrical films were produced. In the meantime, Arthur Rankin Jr. split his time between New York City, where the company still has its offices, and his summer retreat in Bermuda; similarly, Jules Bass commuted between New York and Paris.

In 1999, Rankin/Bass joined forces with James G. Robinson's Morgan Creek Productions and Nest Entertainment, creators of the animated trilogy The Swan Princess, for the first (and only) animated adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The King and I, based on a treatment conceived by Rankin. Distributed by Warner Bros., the film flopped at the U.S. boxoffice; and many U.S. film critics took it to task for its depictions of "offensive ethnic stereotyping."

After amicably dissolving the Rankin/Bass partnership, Jules Bass became a vegetarian; a decade later, he created Herb, the Vegetarian Dragon, the first children's book character developed specifically to explore moral issues related to vegetarianism. Herb's original story, along with a follow-up cookbook, became bestsellers for independent publishing house Barefoot Books.

In 2001, the Fox network aired Rankin/Bass's first new, original Christmas special in sixteen years, Santa Baby! (like many past specials, based on a popular Christmas song), featuring voices by Eartha Kitt and Gregory Hines and featuring primarily African-American characters, a change from its previous specials.

Many of Rankin/Bass' films are shown on ABC Family during their December 25 Days of Christmas themed broadcast, though several are heavily edited with scenes shortened and entire songs removed.

Filmography

Feature films

Animated TV specials

Animated series

References

External links

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