Since its debut in 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been considered one of the greatest Christmas specials ever created. Many people-myself included-have loved the special because of its wonderful story, charming songs, and unforgettable characters. Indeed, it has become something of an annual tradition for people to catch Rudolph when it airs on CBS. Unfortunately, this amazing special has also become the victim of being edited in various ways in the 45 years since it first aired. From additions of new scenes to deletions of older sequences and even having one song becoming out of sync with what was happening on-screen, Rudolph has suffered greatly over the years, though its charm has remained intact. Let us look at the history of this special, which has endured despite its various makeovers.
Rudolph was first seen in 1964 on NBC (it would not air on CBS until 1972) in an hour-long telecast with General Electric as its sponsor. This version had GE commercials that have not aired since, perhaps the only understandable cut. Also featured was an expanded version of the song “We Are Santa’s Elves” and a duet between Rudolph and Hermie, the elf who wanted to become a dentist, called “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” At the end of the special, Yukon Cornelius ended up finding a Peppermint Mine after Santa went off to make his annual delivery. This ending would never be shown on television again, but it has been preserved on various VHS and DVD versions of the special released since 1998.
When it was rebroadcast for the first time in 1965, the so-called act of butchering the special began. First, “We Are Santa’s Elves” was edited, and then a new song entitled “Fame and Fortune” made its debut. As soon as Rudolph and Hermie decided to run away together, they sang this song as they traveled through scenes that were left over from “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” As catchy as “Fame and Fortune” was, the song that it replaced was a better fit on account that it fit the whole “misfits have their place in life, too” theme quite well. “Fame and Fortune” has not aired since 1997, but it can be found on older VHS versions of Rudolph and as a bonus feature on some DVD editions.
The most significant change to the 1965 broadcast was a new ending featuring the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys. Many people felt that Santa had neglected these toys, and thus this alternate ending was created. Here, the toys feel that the terrible blizzard may have prevented Santa from coming to rescue them, and thus they fear that they will never leave the island. Suddenly, along comes Santa, with Rudolph leading the way. The toys thus experience a happy ending as they are delivered to children everywhere. Every broadcast since 1965 has this ending, which ended up eliminating the Peppermint Mine ending in the process.
The special did not change again until 1998, when a restored edition materialized. “We Are Santa’s Elves” was restored to its original length, and “We’re a Couple of Misfits” was brought back. For the first time in over thirty years, people could watch the special almost the way it was meant to be seen. Some younger fans, such as myself (I was 14 when this version was first aired), were exposed to material not seen in years for the very first time. While the original ending was still missing, this was as close to the definitive Rudolph as it had come since 1964, and I felt that the special actually improved over the 1965-1997 broadcast on account of the “new” footage. This version aired through 2004, when the special turned forty years old.
It was not until 2005 that the worst version of Rudolph would begin to air. This new high definition version would make the special appear to look more or less brand new, but would also make some rather unforgivable edits likely made for the worst possible reason: to allow more time for commercials. “We Are Santa’s Elves” was once again shortened, but the worst change was reserved for Rudolph and Hermie’s duet. They would sing a truncated version of “We’re a Couple of Misfits”…with footage taken from “Fame and Fortune” being shown on-screen. As a result, the two characters were out of sync with the song being played, and the song itself, charming before, had been altered for the worse. Sadly, CBS has stuck with this version through at least 2008, and has made no attempts whatsoever to bring at least the 1998-2004 edition back.
When I first saw the special as a kid, I always assumed that I was watching the version that had always existed. Indeed, I had no idea that there had been some missing footage out there somewhere, but at the time, I did not care, since Rudolph was charming and wonderful in its then-current form. As much as I enjoyed the 1965-1997 version, I felt that the 1998-2004 version was better in that it featured some fun sequences that should never have been removed in the first place. “We’re a Couple of Misfits” in particular is a great song that ties in rather well with the story. I also did not know of the original ending until 1998, when I came across someone watching a VHS version of the special and I saw some footage of Yukon Cornelius that I never knew existed. Why this ending has not aired in many years is beyond me, but I consider the restored edition to be the (almost) definitive version of this timeless classic, and one that CBS should never have stopped airing.
Then came the 2005 edit, and suddenly, the special, or at least CBS’ treatment of it, ended up jumping the shark. As if the shortening of “We Are Santa’s Elves” was not bad enough, the treatment given to “We’re a Couple of Misfits” was just plain sad. Here we have a great song, edited and reduced to being played while the characters sing completely out of sync. I can understand Classic Media’s insistence that this song is the definitive duet between Rudolph and Hermie, but what I do not understand is why CBS would mistreat the entire sequence so badly. Unfortunately, commercial time has increased over the years, and if things remain as they are now, this version is the one that will continue to air. Alternatively, even more cuts might be made to the extent that the special does not resemble the one that many people have grown up with, and thus we would have to turn to VHS and DVD copies of the special in order to watch it the way it was meant to be seen.
I would like nothing less than to have this special air in its entirety, with all available footage being shown and absolutely no significant cuts or alterations being made. We need to have the entire versions of “We are Santa’s Elves” and “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” We should be allowed to see both endings, one right after the other. Maybe the “Fame and Fortune” tune could come right after “We’re a Couple of Misfits.” Perhaps the best way that this could be done is the have the hour-long special increased to 90 minutes or even two hours. Any leftover time could be devoted to a making-of special or even a new Rudolph adventure. If ABC can expand A Charlie Brown Christmas to an hour in order to leave all of its footage intact while adding new holiday-themed sequences to round out its running time, why can’t CBS do the same for Rudolph? It is high time that this wonderful special was aired the way it was meant to be seen.
There is no denying that Rudolph is very enjoyable, and has rightfully been deemed a true holiday classic. The fact that it has endured in spite of its many changes is proof that it is still loved by fans today. However, it would be an even greater special if CBS were willing to give it the definitive treatment that it deserves. Will the special ever air in more-or-less its entirety again, will CBS stubbornly stick to its current butchered form, or will even more cuts be made at some point? In the years to come, we will surely find out for ourselves. Rudolph deserves to have his story be shown in its entirety, but until and unless it happens, I shall continue to dream of the day that it happens.