Welcome back, lovers of Christmas, to the 7th edition of The Christmas Spot! If you missed the introduction a few days ago, we’re doing things a little differently this year. Yes, you’re still getting a dedicated write-up each day through Christmas about a beloved or not-so-beloved holiday special, but this year we’re also going retro by this blog’s standards. In order to shine a brighter light on the best of the best in the field of televised Christmas specials, we’re revisiting some of the 25 best as laid out in 2015 and reaffirmed just a year ago on this blog. When the subject was first discussed, the format for The Christmas Spot was to do a mini review of each special as opposed to the full-on walkthrough it has turned into. It didn’t make sense that so few words were reserved for the best the holiday had to offer, so we’re going to start rectifying that this year. Not every one of those inaugural 25 are being rehashed this year, just a select few of my choosing. Maybe next year we’ll look at some more, maybe we won’t, it’s all rather fluid.
Today, we’re kicking things off with a lookback to one of those 25: Frosty the Snowman. The Rankin/Bass classic was originally ranked at number 15, but was dropped down to 19 last year. Being in the top 20 is still nothing to sneeze at as Frosty is here to stay.
The 1969 classic is now one of the longest running Christmas specials on television today. For the past several years it has been the unofficial start of the holiday special season as CBS has chosen to air it the day after Thanksgiving for quite awhile now. As streaming services continue to take over, the days of the event special may be coming to an end. Last year saw Charlie Brown and the gang get axed from a network timeslot all because Amazon scooped the property up and intended to put an end to the tradition. What happened was people were so pissed about missing out on annual viewings of the Peanuts holiday specials that Amazon rethought its position and made the Thanksgiving and Christmas special available for one night only each on PBS. They aired at 7 EST and were barely in prime time, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. ABC also seemed to reduce their holiday output since it now has Disney+ to stash its specials on. It’s likely we’ll continue to see massive corporations hoard these valuable pieces of television history and what was once a shared, viewing, experience each year is just another thing to binge at your leisure.
For now, we still have Frosty. The special, which is obviously adapted from the song written by Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson, was written by Romeo Muller and directed by the tandem of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. It’s narrated by comedian Jimmy Durante and features voice work from Jackie Vernon, Paul Frees, Billy De Wolfe, and June Foray. It’s a special that always stood out to me as a kid because, unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it was a cel-animated production from Rankin/Bass instead of stop-motion. I feel like everyone associates Rankin/Bass with stop-motion, but their more traditional animated works are pretty noteworthy as well. When it came time to animate the special, Rankin/Bass turned to Mushi Productions, the animation studio based in Japan founded by the legendary Osamu Tezuka. Yes, Frosty the Snowman is basically anime. It would be more obvious if Rankin/Bass had not hired Paul Coker Jr. to first design the characters for the special, but you can certainly see the Japanese influence in several places.
Frosty the Snowman opens in idyllic fashion. Snow is falling and the people of this small community are busying themselves getting ready for Christmas. Our narrator, Jimmy Durante who is animated to resemble himself, explains that this is the first snow of the season and that it’s actually a Christmas snow. Why is that important? Apparently, when the first snow of the season happens to fall on Christmas Eve, something wonderful is bound to happen!
Our attention then shifts to a small school house. The kids are restless as they want to go play in the snow and their teacher (voiced by June Foray) has organized a Christmas party. Yeah, those days were always long even if they weren’t filled with education as no one wants to be in school so close to the holiday (and basically no one goes to school on Christmas Eve these days). The teacher informs the students that she’s hired a magician to entertain them. Considering the teacher had to pay out of pocket to bring this guy in, you can probably guess just what kind of magician a teacher’s salary can afford.
Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe) is introduced by the narrator as probably the worst magician in the world. He begins his routine by tossing some eggs into his “magic” hat, says some traditional magic words, and then turns the hat upside down only for the eggs to fall out and smash on the floor. The kids are disappointed, which is perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of this special about a snowman coming to life as any group of kids I know would have laughed at a trick going so poorly. Hinkle then tries to retrieve a rabbit out of the same hat, which is going about as well as the egg trick. Declaring the hat is only fit for the trash can, he chucks it towards the waste basket only for the rabbit to finally pop out. Before the kids can react to the reveal of Hocus Pocus, the bell rings and they storm out of there basically trampling the magician in the process.
Once outside, the kids race through the snow. Most apparently did not consult a weather report earlier in the day as several are wearing shorts. One girl is sporting short sleeves and a pink skirt with suspenders which really can’t be comfortable. Some of the boys immediately start building a snowman, and it’s during this process we really get to meet Karen (who was voiced by Foray in the original, now lost, airing and re-dubbed by Suzanne Davidson) as she volunteers to build the head for the snowman. She declares it’s the most difficult part of snowman construction, and even challenges the boys to ask anyone on the subject for confirmation. Well Karen, I’ve built a few snowmen in my day and I have to strongly disagree. The head is quite possibly the easiest part, especially if you’re building a snowman like Frosty who has actual legs! Seriously, that’s damn near impossible.
Once the snowman is assembled, the kids gather around to choose a name. After some truly wretched suggestions, including an unintelligible suggestion from one kid who apparently just speaks in sound effects, Karen proposes Frosty and the kids all seem to agree this is a fine name. They then clasp hands and spontaneously break-out into song. Either they’re all amazing at improv, or they’re just as unoriginal as most kids and they named their snowman after a song that already exists in their world. While they’re singing, the rabbit Hocus Pocus comes bounding out of the school house in the discarded hat which Karen tosses on Frosty’s head to complete his ensemble. Much to everyone’s shock, the hat brings Frosty to life as his lifeless, coal, eyes become whole and he greets everyone with a “Happy birthday!” Considering it is essentially his birth day, it’s an appropriate greeting, if a bit unexpected.
Professor Hinkle is there to witness the whole thing as he had been chasing Hocus. When Karen declares the hat must be magic, Hinkle decides he wants it back as a fortuitous wind blows it off Frosty’s head and into his waiting arms. When the children protest, Hinkle plays dumb and claims he didn’t witness any such nonsense. He admonishes the children informing them that when they’re grown up they’ll understand snowmen can’t come to life. As he takes off with his hat and rabbit, the kids turn forlornly towards Frosty and reassure the snowman that they did see him come to life. Durante then comes back in to sing a jolly rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” as we’re finally shown the opening credits for the special and the major network gets to toss some commercials our way.
When we return from the festivities, our informative narrator makes it clear that Professor Hinkle was wrong to take Frosty’s hat. He doesn’t elaborate, but I guess we’re to hold him to his momentary anger at the hat when he tossed it at the garbage. That seems a bit extreme, but it’s important the viewer hates this guy (and denying life to a snowman is a pretty shitty thing to do) as Hocus Pocus is about to take action. As the magician walks past people on the street greeting them happily, Hocus quickly swaps the hat with a wreath and bounds off.
When Hocus returns to the site of Frosty’s awakening, the kids are still just standing around accepting defeat. Karen notes the hat is back, seemingly oblivious that it was the rabbit who returned it, and she places it back on Frosty’s head. He once again greets the children with a “Happy Birthday!” and then begins to question his existence. Rather than be burdened by some truly out of this world thoughts on who he is and why he’s here, he just humbly accepts that life has been granted to him and then begins to test out his bodily functions. No, nothing weird or gross, mainly just juggling and checking if he’s ticklish. Okay, that does sound a little odd. His right hand also sprouts an extra finger so he can count to five (like most cartoon characters, Frosty only has four digits normally), but that’s just one of many odd animation quirks we’ll endure.
Once Frosty is satisfied that he’s alive, the dancing can commence! We get a little more of the song as sung by Jimmy Durante as we’re basically just going to hear a verse here and there until the special is over and the song concluded. Once they seem to get over the thrill of life, Frosty wipes some “sweat” off of his head and takes note of a nearby thermometer. I question its accuracy, as it appears to be pushing past 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but the point is made and that’s snow is destined to melt, which means Frosty is destined to melt. This is where the special takes a hard pivot from the song. The lyrics make it sound like Frosty accepts his fate as all snowmen must melt and resigns himself to have a good time until the moist, dripping, splash of death consumes him. In the special, he immediately decides death is quite a bummer and a thing to be avoided. Where can a snowman cheat death? Why, the North Pole of course! When Frosty shares this bit of info the children decide they have to help him get to the North Pole, so they have a parade! All right, that part is a little weird, but I guess if you need to head to a train depot you might as well make a parade of it.
As Durante sings more of the song, we see Frosty lead the children through town (with Hocus in tow) which contains some visual gags of people reacting with shock at the sight of a walking, talking, snowman. The parade comes to a halt when they encounter the traffic cop the song makes mention of. He’s directing pedestrian and automobile traffic and has to scream at Frosty in order to get him to stop. This begins a 1920s-esque bit of shtick as the cop questions Frosty on the various signs and signals all around him, never once seeming to realize he’s speaking with a snowman. Frosty is ignorant of basically all things, and Karen has to explain he just came to life and the cop then backs off. After instructing the gang to move along, he remarks to himself that snowmen are so stupid when they first come to life. Only then does he realize how absurd the whole situation was as he exclaims to himself “Come to life?!” and swallows his own whistle.
The parade finally reaches its destination, a train depot. The clerk (Paul Frees) working the ticket counter is fast asleep when the kids approach requesting a ticket to the North Pole. He then springs into action as he stamps a whole sleeve of tickets remarking how their journey will take them through the Klondike and for some reason mentions aurora borealis. He’s clearly lost in his work. He returns with a stack of tickets, as this journey is going to require quite a few trains, and then requests payment: three-thousand dollars and four cents (including tax). When Karen sheepishly responds that they don’t have any money, the enraged clerk slams his fist on the table causing the whole pile of tickets to spring up and wrap around him. He then utters perhaps the most quotable line in the entire special, “No money, no ticket!”
Well, if you can’t buy a ticket to the North Pole, just do like the old hobos do – stow away! One of the kids takes note of a refrigerated box car on a train apparently heading north. That’s good enough for Frosty as they inspect the car. It’s full of ice cream and frozen Christmas cakes, which we’ll find out is a splendid way to travel for a snowman. Frosty climbs aboard, and so does Karen. All of the other kids have sense enough not to attempt to travel to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and Frosty is too dumb himself to point out that Karen climbing aboard is a bad idea. She seems to think she can get there and back before supper which begs the question how old is Karen supposed to be? Hocus Pocus also climbs into the car as I guess he would prefer the North Pole to whatever town they’re currently in. As the train speeds off, we see there’s another stow away on board – Hinkle!
After the break, we take a look inside the box car to find a contented snowman and relaxed rabbit, but a freezing girl. It takes Frosty a few seconds to realize that this is a bad situation for a little girl. Proving he’s not some selfish jerk, he elects to scoop Karen up in his arms and leave the frozen confines when the train has to stop at a crossing (the animation makes no sense as the train goes past the junction, then stops, and an express train goes past behind it). Hinkle, still clinging to the caboose, sees the trio hop off as the train starts to leave and thinks they’re trying to ditch him. As he shouts at them “No fair!” it’s hard to tell if Frosty actually takes note of him or not. Hinkle is then forced to jump from a moving train if he has any hope of getting his hat back. He hits the ground and stats flopping down a snow-covered embankment before finally crashing into a tree. As he falls, the person doing the sound effects just goes nuts as there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the sounds we’re hearing, but it certainly sounds painful for Hinkle!
Frosty, Karen, and Hocus wander through the cold, darkening, woods as Frosty frets about finding warmth for Karen. Hocus, through pantomime, suggests he build her a fire, but that’s not something a snowman can do. They press on and eventually come across a bunch of animals. They’re slightly personified, sort of like Hocus, and they’re decorating the forest for Santa’s arrival that night. It’s a bit preposterous, but I suppose not out of character for a Christmas special. Frosty asks Hocus to communicate with the animals about building Karen a fire. He does as he’s told, and soon the deer, squirrels, and such get a roaring fire going for Karen to get warm by. It’s pretty damn goofy to behold.
As Karen warms herself by the fire, Frosty stays far away. With Hocus by his side, he contemplates how he can get Karen home and himself to the North Pole. Hocus acts out some suggestions including the marines and President of the United States. Hocus then covers his face in snow like a beard and struts suggesting Frosty seek the aide of Santa Claus. Frosty thinks that’s a great idea and smiles at the camera apparently happy with himself. Hocus is ordered to be a Santa look-out, and once the guy flies overhead, he’s expected to somehow get his attention even though he’s a fluffy white rabbit standing amongst a bunch of snow.
Unfortunately though, a roaring fire in a dark forest is quite visible and Hinkle soon stumbles upon Karen. He taunts her before laughing then demonstrates he has some amazing lungs as he literally blows the fire out. Frosty comes running over and Hinkle demands he hand over the hat. He makes an empty threat, which Frosty calls him on, and Hinkle just stamps his feet like a toddler screaming to get his hat back! When he makes a lunge for it, Frosty deftly sidesteps him and drops down onto all fours. Frosty tells Karen to jump on his shoulders and our narrator interjects that Frosty, being made of snow, is the fastest belly-whopper in the world! He basically shoots off like a rocket across the snow, down a small hill, up another, and down again leaving Hinkle far off in the distance.
The ride comes to an end at a random green house in the middle of no where filled with poinsettia. Karen is pretty cold from the ride, and also likely because she’s currently being cradled in the arms of living snow, so Frosty decides to bring her inside. She reminds him he’ll melt in there, but he suggests he’ll only stay in to melt a little and makes a joke about losing weight. Hinkle then arrives, suggesting he not only has tremendous lung capacity, but he’s also really damn fast. Honestly, I feel a little betrayed by the narrator who said he was left far off in the distance just seconds ago. Anyway, Hinkle sees the snowman in the green house and promptly slams the door shot. It must lock from the outside, or Frosty just isn’t very confrontational, because they’re trapped. Hinkle laughs devilishly proclaiming the hat will soon be his as Frosty looks on with horror.
Up in the sky, Santa passes by! Maybe he’s just out for a quick preflight check or something, because he only has four reindeer and no sack of presents. He comes across the woodland critter celebration where he is informed by Hocus what’s going on with Frosty, Karen, and the magician. Hocus leads the big guy to the green house, but when they arrive they’re met with a terrible sight. Karen, on her knees sobbing, is beside a puddle and Frosty’s “parts” are floating in it. I feel like there’s a darker cut of Frosty the Snowman where we watch the poor snowman melt and Karen is forced to look-on helplessly. That girl has seen some shit and Hinkle, who presumably watched it all unfold too, is quite an evil soul.
The narrator tells us that Santa is too late, but he breaks the fourth wall to correct him. With a big, booming, voice, Santa (Paul Frees) shouts “Nonsense,” at the suggestion of being too late and then sets to comforting Karen. He tells her that Frosty, being made of Christmas snow, can never disappear completely. This does little to cheer up Karen since her friend is still a puddle, but Santa just chuckles and opens the green house door. He commands Frosty to basically pull himself together as a cold wind enters the green house, scoops up Frosty’s parts, and recreates the snowman outside the green house. The only thing left to do is return the hat to Frosty, but now Hinkle makes his presence known demanding the hat be returned to him.
Santa, who almost looks ready to throw-down, instructs Hinkle not to lay a finger on the hat. Rather than threaten him with the violence he so richly deserves, Santa just tells him he’ll never bring him another Christmas present so long as he lives. Earlier, Hinkle seemed to think a magic hat would make him a millionaire magician so I don’t know why he places any value on future Christmas presents, but he’s not the sharpest guy. He immediately begins to pout and kicks a can that mysteriously appeared in the snow before remarking, “We evil magicians deserve to make a living too.” Santa then tells him that if he goes home right now and writes one-hundred-zillion times that he’s sorry for what he did to Frosty, then maybe he’ll get a new hat for Christmas. Despite being handed an impossible task, Hinkle seems pretty happy with this arrangement as he starts hopping up and down with excitement. In probably my other favorite quote from this special, he hollers “Sorry to lose and run, but I’ve got to get busy writing! Busy! Busy! Busy!”
Santa slips in a little chuckle as Hinkle disappears into the night, then turns his attention back to Frosty. He returns the hat, and once again Frosty greets everyone with a “Happy birthday!” I guess it still is his birthday, after all. We then slip into a bit of a montage as the song returns. The group celebrates a bit before getting back to business. Santa, after all, has a long night ahead of him, but he still finds time to return Karen home. Maybe he’s a little ticked off though about the extra work on Christmas Eve since he leaves her stranded on her roof before taking off with Frosty. The narrator then pops in to let us know that Frosty would return every year after that and the whole town would have a big celebration in his honor. The song gets into full swing now and we basically see everyone from the special in Frosty’s parade, including Professor Hinkle in a new hat. Jimmy breaks from the song again to wish us all a very, merry, Christmas as Santa swoops down in his sleigh (again, only four reindeer) to retrieve Frosty as the song ends. Frosty gets the last word in as he alters the closing line of the song, “I’ll be back on Christmas Day!”
Frosty the Snowman is sort of like the Christmas special baseline. It’s cheerful, charming, magical and it has some memorable characters. It helps that it’s anchored by the classic song, which is catchy enough and isn’t as overplayed (or annoying) as other Christmas songs. It might not be anyone’s favorite Christmas special, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hated it. There’s definitely some goofy logic at times, and the animation is merely adequate. This is from the 60s so I think most of the animation warts are only really apparent with modern eyes. I don’t think it’s as good looking as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but it’s definitely better looking than A Charlie Brown Christmas. And it has character with the design of Frosty being simple, but pleasant, and Hinkle looking quite memorable. About the only thing I don’t like when it comes to the visuals are the deer. They just look stupid, but not offensively so.
Rankin/Bass seemed intent on transforming Frosty from a character that was just a wintertime creation to a Christmas icon. As much as the old song is associated with the holidays, it doesn’t make mention of Christmas at all. Maybe that’s why when Rankin/Bass did return to the character with Frosty’s Winter Wonderland they left Christmas out. They did produce Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, one of the lesser stop-motion efforts from the studio, but otherwise Frosty has mostly left Christmas behind. Today this special is almost always joined by the non-Rankin/Bass production Frosty Returns every year, even though that special has nothing to do with Christmas. In 2005, Classic Media produced another pseudo-sequel titled The Legend of Frosty the Snowman. That one features a Frosty that looks identical to the one presented here (and that’s because Classic Media bought up the Rankin/Bass library), but otherwise tells a new story and also has nothing to do with Christmas.
This Frosty the Snowman is truly the only worthwhile one. I don’t particularly care for the other animated specials, and the feature with Rudolph is a tremendous slog that shouldn’t be viewed by anyone. This one though is an annual tradition and no Christmas season goes by without at least a viewing of Frosty the Snowman in my house. It’s become a favorite of my kids, so I actually am subjected to it a lot each year and I’m totally fine with that. If you’re hoping to catch it on television this year, check cable and keep an eye on CBS. They already did the first airing, but often will re-air it later in the month. It’s one of the harder ones to miss.