Many classic theatrical cartoons feature a Christmas theme. However for most animation fans of my generation, Christmas was the time for holiday specials on television. It all began with “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” in 1962, Rankin-Bass’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1964 and, of course, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965.
The financial and critical success of those specials (along with “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1966) opened the floodgates for dozens and dozens of holiday television specials.
To celebrate this most wonderful time of the year, here are a handful of Animation Anecdotes devoted to cartoons that dance in our memories like visions of sugar plums.
The Voices of Disney Christmas. Disney’s animated short Santa’s Workshop was released December 10, 1932.
The voice of Santa Claus in the short was done by actor Allan Watson, who would also provide the voices in other Silly Symphonies, including Old King Cole in Mother Goose Melodies (1931) and Old King Cole (1933), King Neptune in King Neptune (1932), and Papa Noah in Father Noah’s Ark (1933). His deep, robust yet friendly voice helped make the characters seem less intimidating.
Watson was an early radio and film session singer who was often uncredited in the films he appeared in like The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Interestingly, he also provided the baritone voice for the knife in the Disney animated segment included in the live-action film Servant’s Entrance (1934).
The voice of Santa’s grumpy elf male secretary was supplied by Pinto Colvig. It has been rumored that this elf’s strict attitude was one of the inspirations for the dwarf Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Of course, Grumpy was voiced by Colvig as well.
As Santa reviews letters from children, the name of “Billy Brown” comes up who hasn’t washed behind his ears for seven years. So, Santa tells a nearby elf to include a cake of soap with Billy’s present of a Noah’s Ark. The elf responds “OK, a cake of soap!” That voice was supplied by Walt Disney himself doing his famous falsetto.
Peace on Earth. MGM’s “Peace on Earth” (1939) directed by Hugh Harman uses the Christmas season as the framework for the story of the destruction of mankind. Several of the animators were veterans of World War I. The cartoon was never nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize but did receive a 1940 citation of recognition from the Nobel Prize jury which may have sparked the confusion.
The L.A. Times mentioned on March 12, 1945 that Harman was thinking of doing a feature version combining live action and animation, and “Harman is trying to interest Orson Welles in portraying the last man on earth before the animals take over”.
Sniffling. Warner Brothers’ Bedtime for Sniffles (1940) directed by Chuck Jones shows the misadventures of Sniffles the mouse as he struggles to stay awake for approximately 1 hour, 33 minutes and 47 seconds to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.
At one point Sniffles waltzes to the classical song: Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life), Op. 316 playing on the radio. (The iconic NBC chimes sound twice from the radio during the cartoon.) Phil Monroe was responsible for the sequence.
In a 1987 interview with Michael Barrier, Monroe remembered: “I only worked for Chuck (Jones) for seven years at the most, and during that seven years, the Sniffles dance was one that he liked, and it was a waltz that I had to choreograph myself, because he couldn’t even dance. He could not dance; he didn’t have a sense of timing. It sounds funny, doesn’t it, because he made so many musicals?”
Tiny Tim Speaks Out. Many prestigious actors lent their voices to the Richard Williams animated half hour production of A Christmas Carol including Alastair Sim reprising his role of Scrooge from the 1951 live action film. Michael Hordern also repeated his 1951 role as Marley’s Ghost in the Williams’ film.
The voice for the pivotal role of Tiny Tim was uncredited but was provided by Alexander Williams, the four year old son of director Richard Williams.
Alex wrote in 2012, “I don’t remember much about the experience at all, not even recording the lines. The only part I actually do remember (dimly) is the ice cream cone which was the reward for my labours. Years later, as an annoying teenager, much to my discredit, I demanded further payment – which my father (to his much greater credit) indulgingly provided, giving me £100 to stop complaining.”
Here is a short clip of Williams talking about the making of the film:
Bakshi’s Christmas. Ralph Bakshi worked with Nickelodeon to create Tattertown, a 39-episode TV cartoon series during 1988. A pilot episode, set during Christmas, was produced, but Nickelodeon decided not to proceed with the actual series.
The pilot was turned into a half-hour TV special, Christmas in Tattertown, originally broadcast on Nick on December 21, 1988.
Tom Minton recalled, “(The special) “Christmas in Tattertown” was indeed written as per Ralph by Jim Reardon and me, as a 90 minute feature script of around 120 pages. Once it sold a few months later as a half hour television special, Ralph did the entire storyboard himself and he cut the feature length script ‘on the board,’ as he put it.
“There’s some good animation in the five minutes of Christmas in Tattertown that were animated in America, some of it by Golden Age greats Virgil Ross and Irv Spence. Later Disney voice Keith David (so prominent vocally in The Princess and the Frog as Dr. Facilier) cut his teeth in animation as the narrator of Christmas in Tattertown, years before the mainstream animation industry knew who the heck he was. Ralph always had an eye and an ear for new talent.”
Bleeping Chanukah. Yogi Bear’s All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper, a prime-time special produced in 1982 for CBS, was written by Mark Evanier in just two and a half days. Hanna-Barbera had signed to produce a half hour Christmas special featuring Yogi Bear and other classic H-B characters for Christmas 1981. However, several attempts at scripts were vetoed and so it was postponed for another year.
Evanier was called in the first week of July 1982 and told the script had to be approved and completely storyboarded by July 31st because of fear of an upcoming strike.
Evanier accomplished the impossible task thanks to his experience with the characters but a couple of scenes were never finished for the special and some animation errors stayed in because there literally wasn’t time to redo them.
At the last minute before the special aired, despite multiple approvals of the script including by CBS itself, CBS insisted on bleeping one word that remains bleeped on all copies to this day. At one point, Snagglepuss says, “Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings! Happy Chanukah even!”
CBS demanded that the word “Chanukah” be removed. No explanation was given in the memo. There was no time to re-record the line so instead the word was bleeped making it sound like an audio glitch.
A Garfield Christmas. The 1987 television special A Garfield Christmas worried some executives at CBS who felt that the special “didn’t do anything” according to a network memo. However, that was creator’s Jim Davis’ point.
He stated at the time that he “didn’t want to do another special where someone learns the meaning of Christmas or has to ‘save’ the holiday. I wanted to create a ‘typical’ Christmas where a family gets together, has a little fun, eats a lot of food and exchanges gifts. There’s a magic to such simplicity.” Whether CBS’s fears were justified or not, the special went on to be the highest rated animated special of the year.
When this special first aired in 1987, the piano gathering scene was not featured in its entirety (like it was in the book version). When it was re-aired in 1989, those extra seconds were added to the special and to the DVD release. The special was nominated for the 1988 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program but lost to A Claymation Christmas Celebration.