For today’s Christmas post, we’re going to take a look at A Christmas Story. No, not that Christmas Story, the first one. Way before Ralphie started obsessing over a BB gun, the duo of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera brought us a story about a mouse and a dog trying to get a last-minute letter to Santa Claus. Not familiar with this one? That’s not surprising as it didn’t have much staying power. Sure, it was still shown on television from time to time as late as the 1990s, but it feels like even Hanna-Barbera wrote this one off as a bunch of the original music created for it would be repurposed just fives years later for the more popular Christmas special A Flintstone Christmas.
Hanna-Barbera produced numerous Christmas specials over the years. The company is often a punching bag in the animation community because of the low quality that became representative of television animation, which is unfortunate as the duo from which the company gets its name were hugely important contributors to animation in general. It just so happens their greatest contribution to the world of animation occurred before the founding of their company when the team created Tom and Jerry. For television, yeah, it’s true the output wasn’t great. Some stuff is better than others, but little is truly celebrated.
I do give the company credit though for being big on Christmas. I need a lot of material to do this year in and year out and I can usually count on Hanna-Barbera to fill a day or two each year. A Christmas Story might be our deepest pull yet though when it comes to the company. It was directed by the duo of Hanna and Barbera and was written by the pair Ken Spears and Joe Ruby, who would follow in their boss’ footsteps and found their own studio, Ruby-Spears, in 1977. They were big contributors at Hanna-Barbera for creating Scooby Doo and their company would handle the likes of Thundarr the Barbarian as well as Alvin and the Chipmunks. The company was eventually acquired by Hanna-Barbera through its parent company, Taft Entertainment, and was part of the sale to Turner Broadcasting in 1991 so both Ruby and Spears weren’t really away from Hanna-Barbera for very long.
A Christmas Story is about as simple as its title implies. We’re going to be introduced to little Timmy (Walter Tetley) and his family at the start. It’s an idyllic Christmas setting as mom (Janet Waldo) decorates the tree while dad (Don Messick) sits on his ass reading a newspaper. It’s hard to say what time period this story is set in, possibly the 30s or maybe even 40s, but certainly not present day for 1972. Timmy needs to get to bed, but he reminds his father that he owes him a Christmas story so he breaks out A Visit from St. Nicholas and even refers to it by the correct title, though he does botch the end by saying “Merry Christmas,” as opposed to “Happy Christmas.”
Once Timmy is in bed, we’re properly introduced to the real stars of the short, a basset hound named Goober (Paul Winchell basically doing his Tigger voice) and a mouse named Gumdrop (Daws Butler, basically doing his Elroy Jetson voice, which he used on many characters). Goober and Gumdrop obey the standard animation rule that animals can converse with one another, but not humans. Goober helps Gumdrop hang his stocking beside the stockings for the rest of the family before retiring for the evening. As he heads to his mouse hole, he notices something under a table: Timmy’s letter to Santa. Gumdrop panics and informs Goober it’s up to them to save Christmas for Timmy by making sure Santa gets his letter.
How do a mouse and dog get a letter to Santa on Christmas Eve? Well, they simply head outside and start looking. At first, Goober (who is sporting a cute, little, green, hat) has some trouble with a slippery walk and does the Charlie Brown-sliding-into-a-tree gag complete with snow falling from the tree to cover him. It’s not particularly well animated, which is true for the special as a whole. Get ready to see a lot of repeating images as Goober and Gumdrop journey through the night.
As the search for Santa begins, the first of three musical montages begin. The song for this one, “Where Do You Look for Santa?” is unique in that it won’t be repurposed down the road for a new Hanna-Barbera Christmas special. The song is utilitarian in nature, and strongly resembles a song we’ll hear later. As it plays, Goober and Gumdrop look all over town, ride a sleigh, and try to be cute as animation is recycled quite liberally throughout.
As the two search for Santa, Gumdrop runs afoul of a gang of cats. They’re apparently lead by a cat named Sleezer (Winchell) who is accompanied by the likes of Polecat (John Stephenson) and Fatcat (Hal Smith), among others. Cats obviously don’t take too kindly to mice out on their own and they give him some trouble. It’s basically the show’s only section of comedic violence as Gumdrop avoids catastrophe while the cats do not. The only worthwhile gag is Fatcat deploying a claw like a switchblade before getting it caught in a fence panel.
Eventually, Gumdrop wisens up and simply hollars for Goober to come save him (I’m not really sure what he was doing this whole time). Goober, being a dog, basically just has to run into the alley where this is all going down to scare the cats away. He’s a bit of an oaf though as he falls over and takes on the form of a snowball and crashes into some garbage cans, along with the cat gang which soon scatters. As Gumdrop asks him if he’s all right, he replies he’s fine save for the bells ringing in his ears. Gumdrop can hear the bells too, and the two turn their gaze towards the heavens where Santa (Hal Smith again who was apparently charged with only voicing fat characters) can be seen flying overhead with a mere six reindeer. He even starts to call them out by name, but stops after listing only four so as to avoid shouting the names of two reindeer clearly not present.
Gumdrop and Goober then basically chase after Santa hoping to catch him as he enters a house. There, they hope to simply give him Timmy’s letter. How he will provide toys without the aid of his workshop is not something this special appears concerned with. As the two run from house to house they have little luck, as they keep missing him.
Gumdrop decides they’re going about this all wrong and need to think like Santa, whatever that means. They decide to go to a house with a bunch of kids and settle on the home of the Andersons. When they arrive, they see Santa has yet to visit and there’s a ladder conveniently left out in the snow. Gumdrop and Goober head up to the roof, with Goober demonstrating a fear of heights. When he goes to hand Gumdrop Timmy’s letter, it gets blown away. As Goober reaches for it, the ladder splits forcing him to use the remaining pieces like stilts as he chases after the letter eventually securing it in his jaws, before falling into the snow.
It’s there a postman, who for some reason is out delivering mail on Christmas Eve, finds Goober. Not seeing this as a solution to their problem (who better to deliver Santa a letter than a mail carrier), the postman actually becomes a hindrance when he assumes Goober got locked out of his house. He puts the dog in his old timey mail truck and locks the doors before heading off to deliver more mail.
Gumdrop sees Goober’s plight and hops onto the truck. He instructs Goober how to open the door, but the dog accidentally knocks the car into gear and they start rolling along. Gumdrop tries to direct the dog, but in a surprising bit of realism Goober has no idea which way is left or right. The two eventually crash into a tree which frees Goober from the truck and the two have improbably escaped the crash injury-free.
It’s at this point Goober starts to have doubts, but Gumdrop reminds him to have hope, which ushers in a musical number of the same name. If you’ve seen A Flintstone Christmas, then you’ve heard this song as it’s the same one used after Wilma tells Pebbles to do the same. It’s actually a sweet little number capped off with the line “Hope believes in Santa Claus.” I don’t know who sings it though as it’s absent from the credits. Hoyt Curtin handled the musical direction of the program and presumably wrote the song. Susie McCune and Judi Richards are both credited as part of the voice cast without a corresponding character so I’m left to assume one of them sang on this one.
The montage, which features a goofy visual of Gumdrop riding atop Goober as he flies through the air via flapping his ears, ends with Goober now feeling full of hope. Unfortunately though, their little ride in the car took them away from Santa so now they need to find him. Gumdrop urges Goober to use the animal relay, which is basically the same as The Twilight Bark from One-Hundred and One Dalmatians. Goober barks out that they’re looking for Santa, and some other dogs (two males sharing a dog house, animation’s first gay canines?) pick up on it and spring into action. Surprisingly, this sequence isn’t utilized to bring in some more famous Hanna-Barbera canines for a cameo, but we do see a dog bossing the gang of cats from earlier around.
This then ushers in another familiar musical montage, “Which One is the Real Santa Claus?” The sequence will be remade for A Flintstone Christmas as Gumdrop and Goober look for the real Santa amongst a sea of fake ones. It’s a cute song, but at this point feels like padding (which it is). It also doesn’t help that it sounds an awful lot like “Where Do You Look for Santa?” They eventually spot the real Santa as he’s heading into another house. Gumdrop then folds Timmy’s letter into a paper airplane and fires away. As the two prematurely celebrate, the paper airplane misses the mark and comes to rest in the cold snow. Santa is leaving, our heroes have failed, and Timmy is surely doomed.
Gumdrop and Goober mope their way back home upset they couldn’t get the letter to Santa. As they head inside, Gumdrop reasons that maybe there’s still a chance and they can give Santa the letter when he visits their house. Goober though immediately falls asleep despite Gumdrop’s urging against doing such a thing, and he too falls asleep. As they sleep together by the fire, a hand reaches down to snatch Timmy’s letter!
The next morning, the two are woken up by the cries of Timmy. They are not sad cries though, for Timmy finds the underside of the family tree full of toys and presents. The little racist even got the Native American headdress he wanted! Goober and Gumdrop are shocked to see that Timmy got what he wanted, and Gumdrop then notices Timmy’s letter on the floor. It’s been opened, and the only explanation is that Santa did come and found the letter. They then take note of their own stockings, which Gumdrop’s has grown in size considerably, which are overflowing with goodies.
Timmy takes time out from his revelry to ask his parents if they got what they asked for. Timmy’s mom then informs him they asked for peace on Earth (so they get extra presents). Timmy then runs to the window and tells his parents that’s what Santa wants too! As the family looks out the window, Santa has written “Peace on Earth” in pixie dust or whatever in the sky. His “ho ho ho” signals that this is the end for A Christmas Story.
A Christmas Story is a pretty safe, conventional, little tale. The animal protagonists give it a cutesy quality as the two just want to make a little boy’s Christmas wish come true. There are no real stakes though, had they failed Timmy just doesn’t get any presents. He’s not ill or anything, just a kid who wants some toys. Goober and Gumdrop are just good-hearted characters with no real personality to speak of. Goober, I suppose, is a bit clumsy, but that’s basically it as far as character traits go. The cat gang was also full of very generic characters all basically characterized by their appearance. There must have been some desire by the studio to keep its usual cast away from this one, but it’s fair to wonder if it would have been better suited to just use Augie Doggy or make it a Mr. Jinks cartoon with the mouse duo of Pixie and Dixie.
Easily the best part of this special is the music. “Sounds of Christmas Day” opens the cartoon and it’s a nice little tune. It’s perfectly cast as a song created for a Christmas special; it’s nice to hear in the short, but probably not a song one would request on the radio. I do think “Hope” is a bit better, though it’s definitely more melancholly. It’s sweet though, and the other songs are fine as well. I think a special should be commended for not simply relying on public domain songs. There is a bit of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” but it’s being sung by carolers so that makes perfect sense given the use. Considering these original songs are the most memorable aspect of the short, it’s no surprise it fell into obscurity since they were all recycled for A Flintstone Christmas. If you’re a network executive choosing between two Hanna-Barbera Christmas specials to air, you’re going to side with The Flintstones nine times out ten given the choice. And that special, despite featuring an unnecessary amount of padding as well, is superior to this one and one I unironically enjoy.
Considering it’s hard to find even The Flintstones in this day and age on television, the chances of any network airing A Christmas Story in 2020 are nil. The special was released on VHS in 1989 and reissued in the 90s after the Turner acquisition. It’s currently available as part of the Warner Home Video burn-on-demand service under the title Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics. Buying it there also gets you the specials The Town Santa Forgot and Casper’s First Christmas. And since seemingly no one gives a shit about it, it’s also pretty easy to find streaming online for free. Watch it if you’re sick of A Flintstone Christmas or just plain never liked that one, but enjoyed the songs.