*Note: Unlike my "History of Hanna-Barbera" series, "Rankin-Bass Retrospectives" will be looser with chronology in order to separate their famous holiday specials from their other, lesser-known work. While this article covers 1960-1965, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (from 1964) will be saved for a future installment.*
Arthur Rankin Jr. began his career at the very dawn of television in 1948, joining ABC as an graphic designer for the young network and eventually becoming art director for such early series as “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Schlitz Playhouse” (both of which were broadcasted live). In 1952, he left ABC to go freelance, developing commercials for various agencies in the New York area; One of these agencies he produced for was Gardner Advertising, where in the mailroom he met a young man named Jules Bass. The two hit it off and in 1955 founded their own production company: Videocraft International.
For its first five years of operation, Videocraft worked solely on commercials, combining Rankin’s “artistic know-how” and Bass’s “advertising know-how”. But with the booming business of television animation, the two decided to try their hand at crafting a television series.
The New Adventures of Pinocchio
In a first for American cartoons, Rankin/Bass chose to outsource production of their series to Japanese studio MOM Productions. With animator Tadahito Mochinaga helming production, Rankin/Bass began its long series of stop-motion creations, given the moniker “Animagic” to separate it from the competition.
The first series churned out was “The New Adventures of Pinocchio”, premiering in syndication in 1960. It follows the continuing stories of the Italian puppet and his spiritual advisor Cricket as they go on adventures, helping out people they come across. Each adventure followed a serialized format, running through five 5-minute segments that would be shown Monday through Friday (totalling out to 26 adventures or 130 segments). Voice acting was primarily done by Canadian actors, like Joan Fowler as Pinocchio, Stan Francis (who later voiced Santa in Rudolph) as Gepetto, Larry D. Mann as the sly-talking Foxy Q. Fibble, and Paul Kilgman (who also did voices in Rudolph) doing additional voices.
As the first stop-motion production from Videocraft, it’s rather crude but there are hints in New Adventures of Pinocchio of the artistic direction that the studio would soon be known for.
Tales of the Wizard of Oz
September 1961 - 1962
After trying out stop-motion for their first series, the second produced by Videocraft ended up using traditional animation. Animated by Crawley Films (run by film producer F.R. Crawley), “Tales of the Wizard of Oz” follows the trio of the Scarecrow (“Socrates”, voiced by Alfie Scopp), Tin Man (“Rusty”, voiced by Larry D. Mann, also the Wicked Witch), and Cowardly Lion (“Dandy”, voiced by Paul Kilgman) from L. Frank Baum’s book series.
Much like the books, “Tales” has the trio (as well as Dorothy, voiced by Corinne Conley) in various different (five-minute) adventures, while in the background the Wizard tries (and fails) to figure out a way to send Dorothy home. Most notable about Tales of the Wizard of Oz is its very simplistic art style, the primary characters (Socrates, Rusty, Dandy, and the Witch) generally being made up of simple shapes and one singular color. It ran in syndication for approximately 110 episodes.
Return to Oz
February 9, 1964
In early 1964, Rankin-Bass would return to the “Tales” versions of the characters with a one-hour TV special airing on NBC’s “General Electric Color Fantasy Hour”.
In this special (Rankin-Bass’s first TV special), Dorothy, who finally did discover the way back home to Kansas, receives a letter from her friends who want her to visit them. Grabbing her silver shoes, she returns to Oz to discover that the Wicked Witch of the West has returned, kidnapped her friends and (conveniently) placed them where Dorothy (in the books) originally found them; Socrates hanging up in a cornfield, Rusty rusted near a log cabin, and Dandy wandering lost and terrified in the woods. So she embarks from Munchkinville to rescue her friends, meet with the Wizard, and defeat the Wicked Witch once and for all in what amounts to a direct adaptation of the original book.
Alfie Scopp and Larry D. Mann return as Socrates and Rusty/Witch respectively. Dandy the Lion is now voiced by Carl Banas (who also voices the Wizard), with Dorothy voiced by Susan Conway (and singing voice provided by Susan Morse). The special was the first Rankin-Bass work for Romeo Muller, a screenwriter who’d go on to write the majority of Rankin-Bass’s most well-known holiday specials.
The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show
Unaired (Produced 1965)
More of an interesting footnote than anything, this was an unaired pilot for what would have been Rankin-Bass’s second stop-motion TV series. Edgar Bergen was a popular ventriloquist of the era who, with his dummy Charlie McCarthy, performed on radio to audiences who were thoroughly entertained by the illusion that Charlie was a real person.
While many radio stars had been making the leap to television, Bergen was extremely hesitant. After seeing some of the Videocraft work, he set up a meeting with Rankin and Bass. In just that one meeting, they signed a deal to produce a series for CBS (with a sponsor, Chevrolet, already on-board). Writing duty was placed upon one of the co-creators of the 50’s radio series “Fibber McGee & Molly” (though which one was never clarified by Rankin), who spent six months developing the script (Rankin/Bass had initially said they could have the pilot done in only a week). Six months later, the pilot was finished and it seemed as though the show would move forward into a full-length series. However, Edgar Bergen, then in his early 60’s, was beginning to have health problems which made production difficult, ultimately leading to the entire project being scrapped. Very little information still exists about this pilot outside of an interview Arthur Rankin gave in “The Barker Magazine”, a periodical for ventriloquist enthusiasts.
Willy McBean and His Magic Machine
June 23, 1965
“Willy McBean and His Magic Machine” was released in theaters on June 23, 1965, being not only the first feature film that Videocraft/Rankin-Bass produced, but also (clocking in at 94 minutes) the first full-length stop-motion film ever produced in the United States.
The concept for this film originated from a storyline in The New Adventures of Pinocchio, where Pinocchio met a time-traveler named Willy Nilly. For a potential second stop-motion series, Videocraft decided to take this character and do a set of stories about him. Ultimately this series never materialized, but it was decided to salvage the idea with a feature film. A musical, in fact, sharing the same composer (Edward Thomas) and song writers (Jim Polack and Gene Forrell) as the prior “Return to Oz” TV film.
The film opens with an evil scientist named Professor Von Rotten, who is angry that he is not among the great names in history. To correct this, he builds a “magic” time machine (in the shape of a large pocket watch) to go back in time and steal the credit for such advancements as the discovery of fire-making and the colonization of America. His lab monkey Pablo (who speaks in a stereotypical Mexican accent and wears a sombrero) escapes with a copy of the time machine blueprints and finds Willy McBean, a young schoolboy fed up with history classes. He convinces Willy to help stop Von Rotten, and Willy builds a duplicate of the time machine.
What follows is a series of adventures through different time periods where they encounter various famous figures, such as Buffalo Bill in the Wild West, Christopher Columbus in 1492, and King Arthur in the Middle Ages. As they go further and further back in time, Willy McBean stops Von Rotten at every turn, eventually ending in a confrontation at the dawn of civilization. The episodic element of each segment of the film, with each trip back in time having its own set of characters they encounter and a clear beginning, middle, and end in the adventures, definitely seems to give some insight into what the original television series concept would have been like. In the end, Willy saves Von Rotten’s life and the professor reforms, even sort of getting his wish to have some influence on history by showing cavemen how to make fire (while allowing the cavemen the credit for the discovery as history intended).
Most of the cast and crew who worked on the film also worked on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which was produced concurrently with Willy McBean, such as sharing the same character designer, Tony Peters. Willy McBean is voiced by Billie Mae Richards, who also voiced Rudolph. The sidekicks of both characters, Pablo and Hermie the Elf, share Paul Soles as a voice actor. For Professor Von Rotten, they got Larry D. Mann, the voice of Yukon Cornelius. For the cast of characters through the various time periods, there was Alfie Scopp (Charlie-in-the-Box) as Buffalo Bill, Paul Kligman (Donner and Comet) as Christopher Columbus, and Bernard Cowan (the recording supervisor for Rudolph) as Khufu and Ned the Caveman.
Willy McBean and His Magic Machine is overall a fun little movie that has unfortunately been forgotten in the annals of time. It was released on VHS in 1986 and again in 1992, but hasn’t been released in any form (or aired on television) since.