“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1944 or 1948?) is the first cartoon to depict the flying reindeer, with narration in simple rhyming couplets and colorful and typically exaggerated 1940s animation. A far cry from the pastel stop animation gloss of the Rankin/Bass classic of the 1960s, this is a simpler and more childlike Rudolph.
He is still bullied, but the differences in this story are amusing. Spindly-legged reindeer in the community sometimes walk on their hind legs, Rudolph’s mother wears a house dress, and when Santa has a near collision with a plane on a fog-bound Christmas Eve, he discovers Rudolph’s red nose accidentally when coming into Rudolph’s bedroom to fill Rudolph’s stocking. Rudolph of course saves the day, and is curiously given a medal by Santa labeled “Commander in Chief.” Whether this title allows him to live in the White House is not addressed.
Rudolph had been created by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward company retailers in 1939, a bit of merchandizing that took on a life of its own almost immediately. Mr. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks wrote the tune, and it was recorded by many, including Gene Autry’s famous version in 1949.
There is some dispute as to exactly when director Max Fleischer, known for Popeye and Betty Boop, made this cartoon. Perhaps Mr. Autry knew what a hit Rudolph was going to be, but Mr. Fleischer and Mr. May might have been astonished at what place the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would have in future American Christmases.