The first insult occurs less than five minutes into the film when Rudolph is born. His mother and father are both instantly disgusted by Rudolph’s initial nose-reveal, responding in such a way that suggests his uniqueness is nothing less than a revolting birth defect. The mother deer’s response—“Well, we’ll simply have to overlook it”—is only slightly less wounding than Donner’s shocked retort, “Now how can you overlook that?!” Immediately following this conversation, Santa arrives at Donner’s cave to meet the new reindeer recruit, openly acknowledging that his intention is to involve Rudolph on his team in the future. Then, after Santa sees the glowing red nose, he exclaims, “Great bouncing icebergs!” to which Donner quickly and nervously answers with desperate reassurance: “I’m sure it’ll stop as soon as he grows up, Santa!” The next words out of Santa’s mouth wouldn’t last five seconds in today’s politically and socially correct programming: “Well! Let’s hope so if he wants to make the sleigh team someday!”[i]
Imagine that… A perceived physical flaw renders a young one’s value in the magical kingdom of Christmastown completely hopeless, unless he outgrows this flaw. This precedent is setup for failure, given that no other reindeer has ever been born with a lightbulb on his face, nobody would therefore know what steps to take to cure him, so he probably will grow up automatically eliminated from Santa’s team before he’s ever had a chance to try out, and that conclusion uttered from children’s greatest, jolly hero of the holidays. Technically, though, a reindeer’s nose is completely irrelevant to his ability to fly. Unless there’s some underlying medical concern that Santa hasn’t shared (and of which would probably be too complicated to wrap a plot around in a film of this nature), a nose of a different color should not hinder this particular animal from doing that particular job, assuming he is capable of the “flying” part. This leads one to think that the only reasoning behind Santa’s potential refusal of Rudolph for the team someday is cosmetic.
It would have to be. What other explanation is there? A young deer has just been brought into the world only minutes ago, and he’s already been deemed too deformed, too unpleasant to look at, to participate in a one-night-per-year event where he would never be seen doing what he’s doing anyway since remaining hidden is part of Santa’s annual schtick. Who would Rudolph’s nose be offending or threatening, anyway? At this point in the story, it appears that the offense truly is cosmetic, and the rejection has come from his parents and, of all characters, Santa Claus.
But if Santa doesn’t love the unlovable, who does? The motherly and fatherly acceptance and nurturing nature were already missing from the scene, so love looks pretty far away by the time Santa voices his disinterest. Also, remember that Rudolph, though depicted to be just a newborn in this moment, is already talking and fully communicating with the adults in his surroundings, so it’s not like these conversations about his uselessness are happening when he’s too young to understand the rejection. These words about his defect are happening right in front of him.
If only it had been limited to the beginning of the film… But alas, it gets worse.
So, anyway, Santa sings his happy “Jingle, Jingle, Jingle” number, identifying himself as king, and leaves the cave without a word. Donner, clearly embarrassed and ashamed of Rudolph’s abnormality, faces his new son directly and says, “Oh, Santa’s right! You’ll never make the sleigh team!” Donner’s spirits, however, are quickly lifted when he gets struck with the bright idea to cover Rudolph’s nose in mud to trick everyone into thinking he’s normal: a “chip off the old antlers” like the rest of them, he says. Now, only after Rudolph’s defect is hidden out of sight, Donner shows his boy some paternal affection. The scene cuts to narrator Sam the Snowman, who has the audacity to call Rudolph’s nose a “nonconformity,” as if the little deer purposefully set out to oppose the acceptable ways of his community by being born with a peculiar body part.[ii]
A few minutes later, because the first muddy nose-covering didn’t last, the audience rejoins Donner, his wife, and Rudolph in the privacy of their cave as Donner produces a newer, more improved model of the fake nose because he is “determined to keep Rudolph’s nose a secret,” Sam says:
DONNER: Alright, Son, try it on.
RUDOLPH: I don’t wanna. Daddy, I don’t like it.
DONNER: [harshly:] You’ll like it and wear it!
RUDOLPH: Awe, but Daddy… [Midsentence, a hoof flies in from the right side of the screen, forcefully shoving the fake nose onto Rudolph’s face, despite his protestations. Rudolph’s voice becomes nasally—much like when the nose is pinched shut and one has to breathe through the mouth only—and the awkward, cumbersome fit of the prosthetic instantly impedes Rudolph’s ability to speak clearly as his next words can only barely be made out:] It’s not very comfortable.
DONNER: There are more important things than comfort: self-respect![iii]
Let’s look at the implications that we’ve accumulated so far from this warmhearted classic: a) perceived birth defects equal shame on the parents, shame on the community leader, and shame on the unfortunate soul who was born different; b) the victim will be blamed for this blemish when prominent spokespeople in his environment openly identify it as a “nonconformity” (as if it’s something he could control); c) the victim will be taught to hide his imperfection from the world around him—up to and including inhumane concealment tactics that restrict his breathing and cause speech impediments—lest he risk losing his “self-respect.”
Hide it under a bushel? Uh, no…
How, as children, did we never see that all these support characters around Rudolph were such bullies? It’s quite a trip.
After leaving his cave alone and lonely, Rudolph sings the first round of the intermittently woven theme “Misfit,” and shortly after, the reindeer games are off to a swell beginning, thanks to the cruel prosthetic nose Donner fashioned to keep the wool over everyone’s eyes. Meanwhile, the cutscene of the elves dedicating their latest act of affection for their leader—a song called “We Are Santa’s Elves”—is met with an angry, inconvenienced Santa who is ticked that he has to sit through their ditty while the new deer are waiting for him…
Seriously. Watch it again if you don’t remember this scene. Santa is a total jerk. When the chief elf foreman over the toy factory announces that they have worked tirelessly on a performance for him, he literally slumps down in his throne and says, “Let’s get this over with,” and then pouts, jeers, sighs, wriggles about, and taps his fingers impatiently on his armrest until the end of the song. Then, he unbelievably responds to their demonstration of love and devotion with a curt, “Hmm, well, it needs work. I have to go.”[iv]
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
DO YOU FEEL LIKE A MISFIT? PERFECT! GOD HAS BIG PLANS FOR YOU!
When I brought this to the attention of my brother (Joe Horn) a few years ago, he wouldn’t believe it at first, and when I pulled up the scene on YouTube so he could see it for himself, he couldn’t stop laughing. “Wow! The things you don’t see as a kid!” he said. “Why in the world is he all grumbly? What’s his problem?”
After a few more comments from Joe about how Santa needed to take “an enormous dose of chill,” I directed his attention to a much more surprisingly insensitive display later in the film:
Back at the games, Rudolph meets Clarice, who tells him right away that he talks funny, but then makes the redeeming comment that she thinks he’s cute. This leads to the adorable and iconic “I’m cuuuuuute!” outburst that shows, for the first time to the audience, Rudolph’s high proficiency as a potential sleigh-reindeer when he leaps into the air and nails an expert landing. Based on the reindeer that had gone just before him, and Coach Comet’s acknowledgment that the deer’s clumsy faceplant was an excellent performance for a first try, it’s clear that nobody has seen anything like Rudolph. He jumps again several times and wows everyone on the scene. Unfortunately, Rudolph’s excitement over the pretty doe also leads to wrestling with another little buck and his prosthetic comes unhinged, revealing his shameful “nonconformity,” and sending all the reindeer around him into mocking hysterics. He stands in the center of the circle while the rest of them take turns humiliating and ridiculing him for his glowing nose, calling him mean names and ganging up on him as a group.
It’s at this nightmare-moment that my adult mind is, once again, completely blown, when Santa displays the worst reaction conceivable. Instead of coming to the victim’s defense and focusing on Rudolph’s brilliant launch-and-landing demonstration, Santa publicly berates Rudolph’s father: “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself! What a pity. He had a nice takeoff, too.” As if that’s not shockingly bad enough by itself, when Coach Comet blows his whistle to settle the bucks-in-training for the next round of practice, Rudolph turns to join his peers and Comet stops him in his tracks. He proceeds to announce to the entire assembly that, from then on, Rudolph would be forbidden to participate in any reindeer games. “Right?” Comet says to everyone present, calling for their unanimous approval. “Right!” they all say, banding together against Rudolph, corporately banishing him from having any place within the community.[v]
“Good point. I have no idea why Donner should be ashamed in this scene.” I looked down at the screen and laughed. “Maybe we just have to chalk it up to ‘times were different then’? There appears to be no other explanation for why a father should be publicly humiliated by the ‘king’ of the land because his son was born different, or that Rudolph wouldn’t be allowed to fly because of a nose issue, or for that matter, why anyone assumes that a flashlight-nose is a negative thing to begin with. That could be handy, right?”
“So…but if Donner…” Joe blinked. “Wait, banishment though? Permanent exclusion from the community outdoor recreation center and all of its games? For the glowy-nose thing? That’s a bit extreme.” Joe tried for a moment to piece the unreasonable characters’ reactions together, and then shook his head in resignation with a laugh. “Whatever. Santa’s a blockhead.”
As readers are aware, the rest of the story involves Rudolph’s choice to run away, followed up with his meeting Hermey—the elf who would rather be a dentist than make toys, and is therefore, himself, a fellow misfit within his own toy-factory community. Together, and eventually alongside the semi-creepy pickaxe-licker Cornelius, Rudolph and Hermey stumble upon the Island of Misfit Toys, and the rest is history: Rudolph eventually returns home to face his fears, Santa cancels Christmas because of the fog, and Rudolph-with-his-nose-so-bright makes gift-delivery possible again. With Christmas back on, the movie ends with Rudolph as a hero.
Despite what everyone told him he’d amount to.
Regardless of what vicious voices attempted to tear him down and trample him under.
All in the face of a perceived “ugly” mark, and heedless of the “birth defect” or supposed “disability.”
Rudolph saved Christmas with the very feature everyone thought would disgrace it.
Consider that the next time your own “broken part,” whatever that is in your life, stares you down and tells you you’re worthless. It just might be the feature that brings the greatest glory when least expected.
A Hero for Grace, Not a Nose
But let’s not allow the superficial “nose” element to be the last word on this story. That is, by far, not the bottom line. Look at how this whole thing goes down…
After Rudolph is inaugurated into Santa’s elite, in an ironically familiar steering of events, all the other characters jump on the suddenly supportive bandwagon, instantly and conveniently befriending yesterday’s outcast, clapping and cheering for the miracle of the red nose. Nobody ever apologizes or stands corrected. Those responsible for participating in the ostracization of, and injury to, an innocent soul for the most superficial and egocentric reasons are now allowed to join in on the celebration of the miracle-nose they once hated without any social awkwardness or consequence of any kind.
How could they possibly have the right? Where’s the justice?
In all fairness, as stated prior, this was 1964, and storytelling was a completely different animal at that time. You could have the Santa of the story praise the Rudolph once at the end and it “fixed” everything. The “I was wrong, please forgive me” scene wasn’t necessary because it was assumed in the triumphant observance of the outcast-turned-hero. Americans weren’t so quick to get offended about any little thing, so Rankin and Bass got away with depicting various increasing levels of public shame, harassment, oppression, and outright discrimination upon a character whose only offense was to be born.
If done correctly—if these tormenters were to be shown from the beginning of the show to be detestable bad-guy characters of the story—a modern production company might be culturally permitted to involve them in a film today, but it would have to be obvious that these aggressors are the “unlikeables” from the beginning credits instead of the endearing mothers, fathers, peers, and holiday leaders who swoop in at the end and pretend they were never jerks. They would have to, at some point in the movie, face correction and show remorse, or face exile themselves. Anything less, if this movie were made today, would make our current political climate blow up, likely resulting in some kind of archetypal #Red-NosedLivesMatter viral fallout.
I (Donna Howell) personally wouldn’t change a thing, however. There have been a lot of box office duds in the last fifteen years because a simple kid’s movie was overcomplicated with “deep-emotional-scar” psychological analyses that goes above a child’s head anyway. In these cases, who was the movie made for? At the end, kids are bored and parents are depressed. So, although I can, as an adult in this current world, pick up on moments of abandonment, neglect, and community-wide victimization of an undeserving soul in Rudolph that flew over my head as a child, I can also be realistic about the cultural shift and see that the folks over at the Rankin/Bass studio were motivated only to raise Rudolph up. If we allow a reasonable perspective, we can all remember that this endearing classic ultimately empowered the underdogs, and never endorsed the cold-shouldering of them.
That said, there is a reason that people connect with Rudolph, and it’s about so much more than a nose. A schnozzle-that-saves-Christmas tale isn’t something any person can claim as their own story, and high fives all around a toy factory just before Santa’s flight wouldn’t reverse the psychological damage of a lifetime’s worth of bullying and neglect.
No, the reason people feel they have something in common with Rudolph is because they see themselves with a broken feature. Something that hasn’t been right for as long as they can remember. A “flaw” that makes them undesirable, ostracized, or rejected. They relate to the moment his family wants to love him but can’t; to the moment his peers embrace him, then see his blemish, and kick him to the curb; to the moment that even the greatest hero in their local history refuses to let him amount to anything so long as his “shortcoming” can’t be hidden away.
“Hide what you are, or go it alone.” That’s the message the people feel, and why they relate to the one unlovable misfit that rose above the odds.
Then, there’s his response to all the drama. That is a high-bar standard that each of us innately (even if it’s deep, deep down) want to match. We may act tough, have trust issues, fear the repeat offense, or put up protective walls, but at the core of every soul, God instilled the desire to be good, kind, amiable, and gracious.
Let’s put a real-life spin on this: If Rudolph were a real character, and if his story were true, you would likely be looking at some major commotion in Christmastown in the days following his climb to the top of the social ladder. Eventually, he would probably develop mommy and daddy issues requiring family counseling in a neutral environment where Rudolph could ask, point blank, “Why didn’t you love me from birth? Why was something as trivial as my nose a reason for you to reject me? Why did I have to be pronounced the deliverer from Christmas fog for you to look at me without disdain and shame?” More likely than not, the same reindeer fellows who teased him and made him feel worthless before would return to their superficial and backstabbing nature after a while, jealously spewing that Rudolph “wasn’t any better than the rest” of them, and “if it weren’t for his ridiculous red nose” they could be “at the front of the reins,” etc. Would a doe with Clarice’s personality stay with Rudolph under the pressure of all that attention? Or would she stray from him for a quieter life with another reindeer? A Santa like this one—who doesn’t have the time of day for his most devoted staff and who will only work his charity when he’s surrounded by cosmetic perfection—can’t be relied on for any real integrity. Being his top-tiered, prized employee would most certainly result in a nightmarish clash of personalities if Rudolph miraculously managed to stay the humble, sweet, honest buck that he was when the movie ended.
And what of Rudolph, himself? Could he ever be happy in the limelight, since his entire existence was in the darkness of solitude and shame? Could he even adjust to something like that, realistically, without losing his mind? Would he, like real people in the world who have lived the from-zero-to-hero role, feel that all the “love” he is receiving on the other side of the nose debacle is paper-thin and artificial since it wasn’t there before he was put in the hall-of-fame as a result of a glowing nose he didn’t ask for or earn?
Because we are fallen in our humanity, the gracious and humble way that Rudolph handles himself at the film’s close appears anticlimactic. It only works because it’s TV. If this story was true (obviously involving humans and not talking animals), we would crave more justice for him than this, and we might even desire the story to end with his revenge against oppressors. But, if you entertain that thought for a moment, you can see why the “human” ending ruins the whole…
And, within this thread of thought, we can identify the true source of Rudolph’s heroism!
Go there in your thoughts for a quick minute. If the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie concluded with Rudolph having a meltdown, making demands, becoming cynical, displaying an attitude problem, using his celebrity status to make everyone pay, or graduating from misfit to manipulator—if this happened even on a tiny scale—it would contaminate the beauty of the story. The whole tale would become another “retaliation and payback” epic, if not just a terrible ending. Sure, people might feel a corporate, “Haha, you had it comin’” shout rise within their spirits, and I admit that might even bring them temporary joy, but only as it feeds their internal, fallen hunger for vengeance. No lesson could be learned from an ending like that, and Rudolph would most definitely not be hailed a hero. In fact, at best, he’d remain a perpetual victim.
In the end, it was never about the nose, the glowing, the fog, the oppression, or even the misfit. None of these were the “save-the-day” factors, because all of these fail to mean a thing if Rudolph doesn’t conduct himself with grace. Rudolph is not the savior of anything because he came into the world with a bizarre nose. It’s his character that makes the story. He saves the day with integrity, humility, forgiveness, and confidence moving forward, letting the past go in trade for a bright future involving anyone who wants to tag along.
It’s by his mercy toward others that Rudolph becomes the redeemer: All the other characters are granted a second chance in their Christmastown calling because one adorable little reindeer said resentment and justice weren’t as important as family uniting together for the common goal of charity. Children all over the world were waiting for that blessing under the tree, that reason to smile on Christmas morning, and Rudolph didn’t even blink when it was time for him to soar past the bitterness of previous offense and into the great commission of his season: “Go ye into all the world, through the fog, and distribute gifts to every creature.”
See, Rudolph couldn’t bicker or delay Christmas with his drama or past hurt. He couldn’t bring himself to, because he had people to bless and minister to. Children were depending on him to play his important part in completing a work far grander than himself, for a purpose far grander than himself, and he was gracious and faithful in making them the priority over his own finite circumstances.
Poetry in motion.
But see, here’s something you probably didn’t know: Not everyone in the original 1964 audience was happy with the first Rankin/Bass ending…
This was expressed by an army of angry viewers who organized an official, public, letter-writing campaign in the weeks following that very first 1964 airing. So many complaints and protestations poured in demanding that the writers fix the ending of the film that the producers felt they had no choice but to concede to the petition, giving the audience what they wanted. The entire crew had to be reassembled, including the stop-animation puppeteers from Tokyo, who would have to fly back out and fire up all the cameras for a tedious recreation of the last several minutes of the movie. What an ordeal it was!
(As an interesting and hilarious side note: When the ending was tweaked, we lost a scene wherein Yukon Cornelius finally struck it rich by throwing his ice pick into the snow below and uncovering a “peppermint mine,” which was secretly his heart’s desire throughout the film up to that point, as opposed to silver and gold [although the audience had no way of knowing it yet]. This “peppermint mine” scene was the only explanation for why this character repeatedly and aggressively licks his ice pick every time he strikes any surface throughout the movie. However, when this scene was stricken to make runtime room for the second, alternate ending, Cornelius’ constant tonguing of his mining tool was, for generations…well, weird and creepy. It’s only been the last few major releases of the film that this scene was resurrected, bringing back the prospector’s sanity.)
Was this public backlash because the ending was unrealistic? No, because people never have (and for the most part still don’t) require an ending to be realistic, or even to tie up all loose ends. Was it due to the fact that Rudolph never received closure or an apology from those who hurt him? No, because again, it was 1964 and that closure was coupled together with Santa’s hailing Rudolph a hero. Was it because Rudolph didn’t stand up for himself or get revenge? No, because such behavior would have ruined his kind, gracious, and forgiving character.
So, what was the problem?
Glad you asked…
UP NEXT: No Misfit Left Behind
[i] Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, written by Romeo Muller, directed by Larry Roemer and Kizo Nagashima, narrated by Burl Ives, composed by Johnny Marks, produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, originally aired December 6th, 1964 on NBC Television’s The General Electric Fantasy Hour, 4:36–5:19.
[ii] Ibid., 6:20–7:00.
[iii] Ibid., 9:48–10:13.
[iv] Ibid., 11:40–13:36.
[v] Ibid., 17:17–18:38.