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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s First Starring Film Role

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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.


Comments (15)

  1. Thank you for this present! Interesting to see the original ’48 titles mentions Montgomery Ward. I suppose from 1951 onward, the film was made more “standalone” in not crediting the company that gave Mr. May a chance to expand on his fabled creation, while otherwise cementing Rudolph’s story and song with the public far beyond a department store’s holiday gimmick.

    Still it is amusing noting how the original title does say “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer With” and to get the “Color by Technicolor/A Jam Handy Picture” title card following in the reissue due to the “Christmas Greetings” message being deleted.

  2. Magnificently restored print! Bravissimo!

  3. Thank you!

  4. Not sure how I missed this in 2014, but I am sharing it with the immediate planet now. Merry merry!

  5. Thank you. This is amazing.

  6. I’ve had more public domain video copies of this, and even a Super 8mm print, over the years…I never knew how incredible this animated short actually looks, as none of those come close to doing it justice. And to see it as originally intended, with the original credits and music intact, is fantastic. I am glad this original presentation exists in such pristine condition now…if only EVERYONE could finally see it like this!

  7. This was a real treat, nostalgic even. Thanks for sharing this gem.

  8. Thank you! Merry Christmas! I had no idea about this!

  9. I love Rudy!!

  10. This made me smile, so great to see something from long ago. Thanks to the Library of Congress for making it available. Saw this on your Facebook page and now I need to check out your other categories.

    Merry Christmas!

  11. I remember this thanks for the memories.

  12. I just noticed for the first time that there are toy Rudolphs in the sleigh. He was famous even before he guided Santa.

  13. Thank you for restoring this for the world!

  14. I bought this film in VCR format for my son in 1985. It was a Christmas film that was a part of our Christmas tradition every year. Today I shared this article, that includes the full clip, with my son and he said he had fond memories of us watching it every Christmas. Thanks for the memories.❤️

  15. This is great! What a beautiful memory to share.

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