TV URBAN LEGEND: The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special would have been a lot different if the screenwriter had access to the original Rudolph picture book.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 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 simply gave May the copyright to the book, which proved to be particularly significant when his brother-in-law Johnny Marks adapted the story as 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; it soon became known by the more familiar name, Rankin/Bass Productions) turned the story into an animated TV special that remains a hit to this day. They enlisted screenwriter Romeo Muller to write the story (Marks contributed a bunch of new songs). The special introduced a pile of new characters, including Sam the Snowman, Yukon Cornelius, Hermey the Elf (who wants to be a dentist), the Abominable Snowmonster, Clarice (Rudolph's love interest) and, of course, the Island of Misfit Toys (which proved so popular that the special had to be rewritten a year later to change the ending because viewers were outraged the Misfit Toys didn't find new homes). All of these new characters have led to a popular legend about how Muller wrote the show. From Mental Floss (among many other places, which seem to repeat the same story, so it’s 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 why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so different from the original book?
I tend to doubt the veracity of the legend, as I’ve never found this supposed interview with Muller (and I've tracked down a number of them), and never is the story told with an actual legitimate citation. It's always just "he said so in an interview." No mention of which interview and never any actual quotes. I asked Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt about it, and he said, “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 then again, he hadn't heard of the interview either, which is either unusual, as he’s a Rankin/Bass historian who literally wrote the book on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), or not unusual at all if the interview doesn't actually exist.
Going further, the statement on its own seems a bit absurd. By 1964, the Robert May book was very popular, and Marks, who worked on the special with Muller, was May's brother-in-law. The idea that Muller was unable to find a copy is very doubtful.
However, I think even if you somehow believe he couldn’t get access to a popular book written by the brother-in-law of the guy he’s working with on the show, the story still falls apart for me because the lack of access can't be the reason for the plot deviation. He didn't need to have access to the book to know the plot, as it was literally the same as 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 red nose, which caused them to laugh 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.
In 1944, Max Fleischer faithfully adapted the book as an animated short. As you can see, it’s the same story we all know by heart: Reindeer laugh at Rudolph, Santa asks for his help, everyone cheers for Rudolph.
(As an aside: The original version of the cartoon was produced in 1944, but it was edited in 1949 to add the song. I've only seen the edited version, which is what’s embedded 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. 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’s likely it was Marks' song that was the driving force behind Muller's adaptation, and therefore I can possibly believe he never bothered to read the book on which the song was based, as the song was enough for him. But either way, the 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 fill an hour of television.
Because of that, I don't think it’s feasible to believe 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 but rather because he needed to fill out the plot of the special -- and the easiest way 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.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!