Though it may be hard to believe, Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass are not the gold standard in stop motion holiday animation. Sure, they’ve given us the arguable classics Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but for every Little Drummer Boy in their puppet repertoire, there’s a Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey stinking up Baby J’s manger. Indeed, the overall Yuletide oeuvre of this productive pair may seem impressive, but it can’t hold a holly-draped candle to the true icons of the annual expression of Noel.
Before the Rankin-Bass art of Animagic, before Hermey the elf wanted to be a dentist, before Yukon Cornelius licked his first pick axe or the Heat Miser battled his snow-bearing brother, the children of Chicago were gazing in pie-eyed wonderment at a couple of creative Christmas cards rendered in delicious ‘one frame at a time’ movie movement mastery. While they couldn’t be more diverse in tone and tune, these crazy clips encapsulated everything about growing up carefree and frostbitten in the terrific tundra of a midwestern winter.
Like that anticipated trip to Marshall Fields to see the sensational store window displays, a Second City holiday season just wasn’t complete without a visit from a depressing little pixie named Suzy Snowflake or those bi-polar North Polers otherwise known as ‘The Three Little Dwarfs’ (a.k.a. Hardrock, Coco and Joe). Usually viewed as part of the holiday programming on WGN’s Holy Trinity of ‘60s kid-vid variety The Ray Raynor Show, Garfield Goose and Friends and Bozo’s Circus these mesmerizing examples of archaic animation infused the holiday with as much esoteric spirit as mistletoe, figgy pudding, and hot Dr. Pepper garnished with a cinnamon stick. (Yum!)
Back in the days before color TV was prevalent, Christmas memories were almost exclusively black and white. Irving Berlin only got it partly right, at least for the boys and girls living around that great Lake Michigan. For us, the holidays were masterpieces in monochrome: barren trees pitched against gloriously overcast gray skies; drifts of dream-like snow blanketing the steel skyscrapers of downtown like a warm winter’s throw. Days playing inside the blazing whiteness of a flurry covered field; deep ebony nights where every star seemed to shine as brightly as the ballyhooed Biblical one over Bethlehem.
Such a jarring juxtaposition between shadow and light, gloom and glee was at the heart of both of these cartoon creations; no more so than in Little World Films fabulously melancholy Suzy Snowflake. The song itself, a semi-standard from the last vestiges of the big band era, was nice enough. It told the tale of a sleet-bringing sprite who had a tendency to frost your window when announcing her arrival to town. While even she acknowledged that her crystallized precipitation reign would be brief, she made it very clear that this particular Snowflake was here to help out. Need to build a snowman? It’s a snap for Suzy to form a Frosty. Even the sleigh rides are free, thanks to Suzy’s sensational shifting of nature.
As envisioned by the stop motion moodiness of the animators, Suzy was not large and in charge. Instead, she was a delicate, spindly fairy, so tiny and fragile that you feared her wings would warp her back and her titanic tiara would snap her neck like a twig. She was visualized as the last pristine primrose inside a drafty and damp hothouse, waiting for the inevitable meteorological change to destroy her outright. As she waltzed around a decidedly dark and desolate landscape, houses shuttered against her blizzard-making tendencies, a sullen Suzy tried to summon up a little seasonal friendship. Yet she’s seen as wrecking more havoc than happiness. Businessmen waiting for taxis soon find themselves frozen to death inside massive drifts of snow, while ice blazons its tire swerving glassiness across pavement and panes.
In the end, Suzy heads off to a quiet clearing in a German Expressionistic forest and does her delicate toe dance of despair as the last light of the shimmering moon catches her crinoline. The a cappella singers sigh in dour resolve, signaling that Suzy’s time is limited. The holiday hint is that she is either about to melt or rev up her special scepter for a little pissed-off pixie payback. With its design dimensions (everything is angular and exaggerated) and the menacing monochrome confines, Little World’s cartoon creation is like the animated equivalent of learning that your local storefront Santa Claus may not be the actual entity supposedly living at the North Pole. Ms. Snowflake reminds us that Nature is just as big a part of this celebration as fruitcake and eggnog and all of them can create an equally uneasy amount of Xmas malaise.
Naturally, a substantial ennui elixir is needed after spending three and a half minutes with poor old Suzy and her Christmas Carol equivalent of a Quaalude. The 3D answer? A heaping helping of the hilarious halfing hijinx of Santa’s stunted staff, a trio of excitable elves named Hardrock, Coco and Joe. Imagine the Three Stooges as even shorter simpletons with a devilish glint in their soulless, black as coal eyes, and a playful streak the size of Mrs. Kringle’s girdle and it’s Advent anarchy for each and every fictional being doing business at the top of the world.
Though we’ve often envisioned Santa as having hundreds of laugh-inducing little people working in his seasonal sweat shop . . . sorry, magical realm of holiday love, this tricky trio are apparently his favorites. The song lyrics even indicate St. Nick actually needs these endearing oddities. Hardrock does all the sleigh driving, Coco reads maps and helps his boss avoid the inevitable Christmas Eve gridlock. Joe, on the other hand, is apparently useless. The singers even state that Santa has no real need for him. But the big guy has a soft spot the size of a pork butt for the goofy little loser and drags him along for the ride as well. Little Joe is apparently the mascot of the Claus realm, the impish ideal that keeps the twinkle in the Christmas CEO’s eye and along with obesity-inspired hypertension the cherry-red ruddiness in his apple-like cheeks.
Centaur Productions peppy, perky cartoon is mostly slapstick silliness (a classic moment includes Coco, a snowball and THWAPP!! Joe) with its annual gift giving man looking more like a Mongolian warlord than a universal symbol of peace and goodwill, there is a real holiday iconography to the stop motion work. One particularly amazing shot has a pair of Santa’s overworked reindeer prancing in mid-flight, hooves and head bobbing in a beautiful luminescent gray night sky. Another features the actual North Pole locale, nondescript Northern Lights providing a silhouette-only view of the vaunted land. Along with the song itself, which uses a kind of Yuletide yodeling (“Ooo-dee-o-lay-dee Ooo-lay-dee-I-o”) to hepcat up its Percy Faith parameters, and a truly demented look on the elves faces (you’re not sure if they’re merry or about to go on a workshop killing spree), us befuddled bratlings were left with some truly weird Christmas memories to work through.
Indeed, many a Chi-town tot remembers the third part to this tannenbaum trilogy, a hyper-stylized, quasi-jazzy rave-up of Frosty the Snowman. Complete with scat chorus breaks, some truly original and oddball backing vocal runs, and those typically rendered cartoon kids from the era (who resemble a humanized combination of puppy and piglet), Frosty’s folly wasn’t all that endearing. As a flat pen and ink idea, he was acceptable. But it was Suzy and that trio of Claus-employed tricksters that really captured our imaginations with their dimensional dementia.
Maybe it was the way they moved, robotic and static. The songs sure helped sugarcoated earworms that instantaneously buried themselves in your brain. Obviously the surrounding surreality was a factor. One day, the lost signal containing Garfield’s grandiose goose goofiness or Raynor’s genial genuineness will be tapped into. But for now, just knowing that these annual holiday hallucinations are still part of the WGN’s “Superstation” elements is reason enough to rejoice. Suzy Snowflake and Hardrock, Coco and Joe are the true stop-motion pioneers of the commercialized Christmas season. They helped our days be merry and bright. And they definitely kept all our Xmas dreams black . . . and white.