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Rankin-Bass

From Academic Kids

Rankin-Bass (aka Videocraft International) is an American production company, known for its seasonal television specials.

Contents

The company origins

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

Along came Rudolph

But it was in 1964 that the corporation really took off with a special produced for NBC and sponsor General Electric. It was a stop-motion animated adaptation of the Johnny Marks song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (it had been previously made as a Max Fleischer traditional animated short almost two decades before). Propelled by the talent of narrator Burl Ives and an original orchestral score 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 GE had one additional song, "Fame And Fortune" added in 1965.

More holiday tales

Throughout the decade of the 1960s, R/B produced other stop motion and traditional animation specials and films, some of which were non-holiday stories. For example, 1965 produced R/B'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.

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

In 1971, R/B did its own 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 Rabbit That Overslept.

But R/B never forgot 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.

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 the last of the "classic four" R/B Christmas specials with Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town. R/B was able to enlist the talents of Fred Astaire as narrator S.D. Kruger, a mailman answering the many questions about Santa Claus (and in turn, telling his origin).

Throughout the 1970s, R/B, in addition to its Saturday-morning output (which included animated adventures of The Jackson 5 and The Osmonds), created animated sequels to its classic specials, including a historic teaming of Rudolph and Frosty in 1979. One of the most popular R/B sequels is The Year Without a Santa Claus, which featured supporting characters Snow Miser and Heat Miser.

Among R/B's original specials was 1975's The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. 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.

Many of these classic specials are still shown on American TV stations in the present day (2004) around Easter and Christmas, and some have even 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.

R/B's non-holiday output

In 1977, R/B 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 book of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. (The animation rights to the first two books in the series were held by Saul Zaentz, producer of Ralph Bakshi's cartoon adaptation of the first half of the trilogy. See The Lord of the Rings on film.)

R/B also produced the popular cartoon series, ThunderCats (1985), a cartoon and related toy-line about battling cat-like people in a high-tech future. It was followed by two similar cartoons about animal-like people, Silverhawks (1986), and Tigersharks (as part of the series The Comic Strip (http://www.bcdb.com/bcdb/cartoon.cgi?film=18108&cartoon=The%20Comic%20Strip) in 1987) which never enjoyed the same commercial success.

R/B also attempted live-action productions, such as 1968's sequel King Kong Escapes, and the 1976 telefilm The Last Dinosaur.

R/B's talent

In addition to the all-star talent that provided the narration for the specials, R/B had its own company of voice actors, the most notable being Paul Frees, who provided the voices for, among others, the three wise men and the singing voice of Ben Haramad (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 (Here Comes Peter Cottontail). Other R/B voice actors have included Linda Gary, Mickey Rooney, Marlo Thomas, Angela Lansbury, June Foray, and Shelley Winters.

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

R/B's library

The R/B library is now at the hands of other companies. In 1978, Telepictures Corporation acquired all of the R/B library up to the time of the sale. In 1988, Lorne Michaels' production company Broadway Video acquired the rights to the R/B television material prior to 1974 (including the "classic four" Christmas specials). 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 R/B feature film library (with the exception of Rudolph and Frosty and The Last Unicorn) is now owned by French production company StudioCanal.

All R/B material from 1974-1989 (except The Last Unicorn) are now owned by Warner Bros. (through the studio's eventual acquisition of Telepictures).

The Last Unicorn is owned by Carlton/ITC.

R/B today

After its last output in 1987, the R/B corporation lay dormant, and for many years to come, no new holiday or non-holiday specials or theatrical films were produced. Then, in 1999, Rankin-Bass was resurrected for an animated adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The King and I.

In 2001, the Fox Network aired R/B's first new, original Christmas special in sixteen years, Santa Baby! (like so many of its past specials, based on a popular Christmas song), featuring voices by Eartha Kitt and Gregory Hines, and primarily aimed at a African-American audience. Sadly, this has become the last R/B material to date.

However, the spirit of Rankin-Bass is kept alive by a popular Internet website run by R/B historian Rick Goldschmidt, who has served as consultant for many of R/B's restorations and video releases.

Filmography

Feature films

Animated TV specials

Animated series

External links

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