“Did you ever hear of that terrible year when Santa unhitched his sleigh?” inquires none other than Mrs. Claus (voiced by Shirley Booth), who narrates this stop-motion animated holiday favourite. At the North Pole, elves are busily preparing for Christmas but Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) is feeling under the weather. He sends for his personal physician, an old grouch who only makes things worse by suggesting Santa is too old to be flying about in this cold weather and ought to get a proper job (!) since nobody cares about Christmas anyway in these cynical modern times. Such revelations leave Santa so aghast, he decides to take the year off. There will be no globe-spanning sleigh ride, no presents left under the tree, no Christmas!
Santa’s decision shocks Jingle Bells (Bob McFadden) and Jangle Bells (Bradley Bolke), a couple of clumsy but well-meaning elves who set out to prove human beings have not lost their Christmas spirit. Along with the North Pole’s littlest reindeer, Vixen, the elves fly over to Southtown USA, a town where it never snows, full of irate policemen, grumpy old ladies and kids too jaded to give a hoot about Santa Claus. However, they reawaken a spark of good cheer in young Ignatius Thistlewhistle (Colin Duffy), who soon joins Mrs. Claus in her efforts to convince the local mayor to grant Santa his own personal holiday, as a sign of gratitude. The mayor flippantly remarks he’ll do it if they manage to make snow fall on Southtown. To accomplish this seemingly impossible task, Mrs. Claus and friends have to convince two supernatural beings who control the elements, the all-singing, all-dancing, forever-feuding brothers Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving)…
By the mid-Seventies, the stop-motion animated specials by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were as much a Christmas tradition as eggnog and mistletoe. While predecessors Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Here Comes Santa Claus (1970) were both based on holiday hits composed by singing cowboy star Gene Autry, The Year Without A Santa Claus was adapted from a storybook by Phyllis McGinley. While the plot is more allied with cosy greeting’s card sentiment than the heartrending eloquence of Rudolph, a deeper message typical of Rankin-Bass is still detectable.
The film implores children not to take kindness for granted. Instead of reducing the holiday season to the simple act of grabbing as many gifts as you can, why not consider where our presents come from and show a little gratitude. Be that in Santa’s direction or, ahem, somewhere closer to home, right mums and dads?
Mickey Rooney reprises his role as Santa, but the focus this time round is largely on Mrs. Claus, voiced by Shirley Booth in her final screen role. An Oscar-winner for Come Back, Little Sheba (1953), Booth was a respected stage actress albeit best known for her popular sitcom “Hazel”. Her slightly croaky, yet appealing singing voice is all part of the charm. Rankin-Bass’ puppets retain their handmade allure, even if the cluttered array of characters fail to match the impact left by those scene-stealing, squabbling siblings the Miser Brothers. Voiced to perfection by Dick Shawn and George S. Irving, Snow Miser and Heat Miser bag all the best gags and songs, winning their own special place in the hearts of children who saw this first time round. Indeed, Snow Miser’s song was briefly featured in Batman & Robin (1997) (a backhanded compliment, but there you go) while the brothers got their own belated feature film: A Miser Brothers’ Christmas (2008). The Year Without A Santa Claus was later remade as a live-action television special in 2006.
Music by Maury Laws and the film also includes that seasonal favourite “Blue Christmas” by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson.