You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. But do you recall that the most famous reindeer of all was the creation of a Montgomery Ward copywriter? And did you know we have that celebrity reindeer’s first appearance on film, in a version rarely seen before?
In 1939, Robert L. May was given the assignment of coming up with a Christmas-themed giveaway that would replace the coloring books the retail giant usually gave its junior customers. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Ugly Duckling, May’s story of Rudolph and his shiny red nose was a phenomenal hit with over 2.5 million booklets distributed in the first year alone.
In 1948 the Jam Handy Organization–a Detroit-based producer of some fine promotional and educational films (Master Hands, their balletic 1936 automotive assembly line short, is on the National Film Registry)–copyrighted a cartoon version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to be shown in theaters as yet more advertising for Montgomery Ward; legendary animator Max Fleischer directed. We have a beautiful Technicolor nitrate print in the AFI/Columbia Pictures Collection, and we present it here with their kind permission.
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Jam Handy Organization, 1948)
May originally created Rudolph as a work-for-hire, and thus wasn’t entitled to any royalties or licensing fees for his creation. But in 1947 he convinced Montgomery Ward to give him the rights to the book version of Rudolph, which turned out to be amazingly good timing. May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter named Johnny Marks, and in 1949 Marks wrote the song most of us know so well. That song has sold more than 25 million copies to date, thus making it one of the most popular songs (Christmas or not) of all time.
But back to the Jam Handy cartoon. You won’t have any trouble finding it online (for example, on the Internet Archive), but you’ll notice that it begins and ends with the Johnny Marks song. But if the film was released in 1948 and the song wasn’t published until a year later, how can that be? The version with the song is a 1951 re-release of the cartoon that retains the body of the story, but includes a new opening and end credit. As far as we can tell, we have the only complete version of the original 1948 release.