It's Christmas Eve and by now, most of us have probably seen the traditional animated holiday specials that families have shared for generations, classics like Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special. If you're looking for something a little different, Netflix is offering Christmas Classics Vol. 1, a collection of animated shorts from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s that begins with the first screen appearance of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Pre-dating the beloved Rankin/Bass stop-motion adaptation by 14 years, the eight-minute short was directed by Max Fleischer—best known for cartoons featuring iconic characters such as Superman, Popeye, and Betty Boop—and offers an alternate take on the Rudolph tale. In this world, it seems as if reindeer have inherited the Earth from its previous human masters, leaving Santa Claus as the last remaining person. We know this because Santa lives in a castle with only his reindeer for company, and they have developed the ability to talk, walk on two legs, and eat at a table. When Santa and his sleigh are ejected from his home via a mechanical drawbridge ramp to deliver gifts, no human children are to be found; instead, Santa visits a variety of anthropomorphic woodland creatures. However, it's a dark and foggy Christmas Eve, so when Santa arrives at the reindeer house and discovers Rudolph's nose glowing while he's sleeping, his first thought is to immediately wake the youngster and put him to work without even consulting his parents. Sure, Rudolph leaves a note for his mother and father explaining where he has gone, but would it make you feel any better as a parent if your kid left a note before he was kidnapped and forced into child labor? Another odd habit this Santa displays is when he peeks under the blankets at Rudolph's siblngs before leaving them a present. That seems unnecessary and slightly off-putting. In the end, Rudolph is hailed as a hero in the center of a huge coliseum filled with reindeer, the envy of all he surveys, but the abduction angle puts a disturbing spin on the timeless tale of the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
The real gem of this collection is a "Noveltoon" entitled Santa's Surprise, a charming little story about kids from around the world who stow away in Santa's sleigh while he is delivering gifts. Once they arrive at the North Pole, the kids sneak out and put together a Christmas surprise for Santa while he's sleeping, including a somewhat intimidating note reminding Old St. Nick not to forget them next year. Apparently, this story also takes place before Santa met Mrs. Claus, because he lives alone in a shabby, unkempt house. Since this was made in 1947, all of the children represent charmingly offensive stereotypes, most offensive being the little black kid who looks like he just stepped out of a minstrel show. A close runner-up is the devious-looking Japanese boy, complete with exaggerated speech and shifty slanted eyes. This short marks the debut of Little Audrey, a popular character who starred in Paramount Pictures' Famous Studios cartoons until 1958 and also appeared in comic books for years after. I tried not to notice, but I found it unusual that she was always drawn with her underwear exposed, like her parents couldn't find a skirt that was a few inches longer. Then again, her parents seemingly didn't notice her missing after she took off in Santa's sleigh, so maybe that isn't so surprising.
Next up is a short from 1936 called Christmas Comes But Once A Year, which introduces the theme of abject poverty that will be revisited throughout the collection. After the apocalypse, the only inhabitants of the Earth are anthropomorphic animals, wretched street urchins, and Santa himself, although not even Santa appears in this one. On Christmas morning, an orphanage full of unwanted children awakens to find a variety of toys and gifts under the tree, but their glee is only momentary as their presents fall apart, a scene that the Fleischer brothers seem to take great delight in depicting. Returning to their usual state of unfathomable sorrow, the unsupervised orphans scream and cry, attracting the attention of Professor Grampy, a character from the Betty Boop cartoons. Hearing their cries of torment and despair, Grampy decides to sneak in the kitchen window and furiously creates his own toys out of household items, laughing maniacally like Kris Kringle on cocaine. Despite the bizarre circumstances, the poor little orphans are delighted when Grampy, dressed like Santa, presents them with their new gifts and even fashions a Christmas tree out of green umbrellas. Proving that he shouldn't be trusted with the stewardship of children, Grampy allows the kids to go skiing and tobogganing in their pajamas. It's a heartwarming scene, but life must have been pretty harrowing in 1936 if this was considered an uplifting holiday special.
From orphans back to hominoid animals, 1949's Snow Foolin' portrays the first day of winter as celebrated by a variety of creatures, woodland and otherwise, including an elephant that shoots snowballs out of his trunk when a mouse paddles his rear end. Okay. Many of the animals also possess the ability to ice-skate, such as a penguin in a top hat smoking a cigarette. A mother hen is skating with a dozen eggs, all of which hatch except one. Rather than lament the loss, the unhatched egg turns into a bouncing ball as a "Jingle Bells" singalong overtakes the proceedings. In the final disturbing scene, a turtle opens his shell to serve up hot coffee, revealing his lack of a body. Nothing horrifying about that.
Hector's Hectic Life, from 1948, combines the collection's two main themes by having a person-like dog trying to keep unwanted puppies a secret from his owner, fearing that they would be tossed out in the cold. The less said about Hector and his Hectic Life the better, so we can skip straight ahead to a 1934 short about Jack Frost. Actually, this one has more to do with Halloween than Christmas, as it features a scatting scarecrow and singing Jack-o-Lanterns. Following that, it's back to despondent poverty with a monochromatic 1933 offering from Merrie Melodies entitled The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives, featuring an orphan being abducted by Santa and taken back to the North Pole, where he plays with all the toys. My favorite is the wind-up Sambo Jazz Band, which leads to a white doll falling in a pail of soot. When the doll emerges, it's a black child and identifies a black lady doll as its mother. The toy hijinks continue until the Christmas tree catches fire and the orphan saves the day by extinguishing the flames with a bagpipe hooked up to a water hose. The casual racism displayed in these animated shorts is both revolting yet charming at the same time.
Rounding out the animated portion of Christmas Classics Vol. 1 is the 1936 Fleischer classic Somewhere In Dreamland, a story about a destitute mother and kids living in a run-down shack. At this point, it's hard to say if you were better off being an orphan or not; both situations seem equally hopeless. After a long day of collecting firewood, the children are treated to half a piece of stale bread each while their mother tells them about a magical place called Dreamland. When the children fall asleep, they are transported to Dreamland, which is filled with food, candy, and other sweets. Presumably this represents their slow deaths as they suffer from starvation, a sweet release from their tortured existence, but in a cruel twist they wake up in their miserable beds still alive. Fortunately, all the people in town that saw the kids pulling their firewood wagon banded together and lavished them with a large-scale Christmas dinner, bringing an uncommon happiness to the kids and their mother. Until they wake up the next day, just as hungry and impoverished as every other day. An interesting note: the mother bears more than a passing resemblance to Olive Oyl, leading me to believe that Popeye fathered these children and then abandoned his family when times got tough. Who knew Popeye was a deadbeat dad?
The collection ends with a reading of "The Night Before Christmas," but the real treasures are these animated shorts. While they are definitely not typical holiday fare, they recall a much more dire era when the best you could hope for was to not die on Christmas. Influenced by the Great Depression, these tales remind us that we don't have it so bad. Unless you're planning a depressing and suicidal holiday, I'm not sure if I can recommend Christmas Classics Vol. 1 for the whole family, but it's definitely worth taking a look if you're interested in vintage animation. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night... unless you're a poor wretched street urchin. In that case, you better hope Professor Grampy hears your anguished cries or Santa Claus abducts you.