Scrooge Revisited Day 1-Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
Posted by blakemp
Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.
Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writers: Romeo Muller & Janice Torre, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Cast: Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morse, Dennis Day, Paul Frees, Sonny Melendrez, Debra Clinger, Bobby Rolofson, Steffi Calli, Eric Hines, Dee Stratton, Darlene Conley
Notes: Rankin and Bass, of course, were the kings of Christmas animation in the 60s and 70s. They’re the people who gave us the timeless versions of Rudolph and Frosty, several definitive Santa Claus specials, added the Heatmiser and Snowmiser to our holiday menagerie, and so on. It’s no surprise that they would eventually tackle the most famous Christmas story of them all. What is kind of interesting is that this animated special was not quite an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather a remake of a musical TV special of the same name from 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. The live action version apparently made it to DVD in 2011. Great, now I’ve got something else to look for.
Thoughts: From the beginning, this adaptation attempts to put a little coat of fresh paint on an old story, with the story narrated by Tom Bosley as “B.A.H. Humbug,” a character I’m sure children of 1978 took to like kids take to the Pokémons today. He’s largely a superfluous character, though, with some weird family history thing he has with the Scrooges that’s never really developed and you don’t really care. The film is almost operettic, with very little spoken dialogue. Nearly every line is sung, which isn’t a bad thing, except that the cast isn’t necessarily the most musical. Neither Bosley or Walter Matthau, as Scrooge, were Top 40 crooners in their day, and as a result, the songs don’t exactly land. Matthau’s singing in particular is stilted, over-enunciated, the sort of thing that sounds like somebody doing a parody of an over-the-top Broadway performer. That would be fine if this film was intended to be a parody. In a serious adaptation, though, it’s a problem when your Scrooge’s voice is the weakest part of your Christmas Carol. In truth, some of the best singing in the special comes from Robert Morse as young Scrooge in the scene where the miser is rejecting Belle (Shelby Flint).
It doesn’t help that none of them are particularly memorable in their own right. Even when it’s not Matthau singing, the songs just aren’t catchy. The best is probably “There is a Santa Claus,” sung at the Cratchit’s house, which is a nice enough piece if you can forget the fact that this is ostensibly Victorian England, where nobody called him “Santa Claus” and the practice was largely abandoned anyway. This odd version of the story not only throws in a superfluous Santa Claus song, but follows that up with the Humbug singing a song about the Nativity. I’m not about to complain about a Christmas special that actually has the guts to talk about Jesus, but it feels very out of the blue, out of place with the rest of the story. The song tries to make an equivocation between Jesus and Tiny Tim, which is the sort of allegory that probably sounded great on paper, but just doesn’t gel in practice.
When he’s not singing, Matthau is adequate as Scrooge. His voice has emotion laced through it, but it’s a little too obvious, a little too much like he’s “acting” instead of delivering the lines naturally. He’s better at the end of the cartoon, after Scrooge’s redemption, when he’s sounding joyful instead of terrified, although his “happy” singing voice is no less bombastic or forced than his stingy one. Matthau is a bit outshined, as well, by Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Past and Present. Frees was one of the usual players at Rankin and Bass, and responsible for a few of their legendary characters – Jack Frost, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a few turns as Santa Claus, as well as performing Ludwig Von Drake and other voices for Disney. His Christmas Present in particular is good, a nice, loud, round-sounding voice that’s perfect for the mountainous spirit.
I’ve got to give Rankin and Bass credit, though, for not toning down the story. The story shows Scrooge in his bed being menaced by an apparition before the opening credits even roll, then cuts back to show the traditional visit with Fred (Dennis Day) in the counting house When Scrooge goes home to see Marley’s face in the door knocker, it’s a rather gruesome sight – mouth wide open and dripping, about as grotesque as you can imagine a cartoon from the 70s ever being. I was hoping for something similarly chilling from Christmas Yet to Come, but instead the character essentially made a cameo, appearing in the traditional robe and vanishing in less time than it took to sing the Jesus song.
It’s worth noting that Rankin and Bass’s animation style had evolved considerably from their classic specials. Unlike the earlier traditionally animated films, like Frosty the Snowman or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which were more or less on-model with the stop motion characters, the character designs in this film are much closer to their 1977 production of The Hobbit – less perfectly round and more bulbous, globular, and wrinkled. Scrooge himself looks like he would be perfectly as home in their version of Bilbo’s shire.
This, frankly, is not one of their best specials. It’s not terrible, but when you inevitably compare it to Rudolph and Frosty, it’s going to fall in the pack of lesser works. The same goes for when you compare it to other renditions of A Christmas Carol. It may not be as painful as An All Dogs Christmas Carol, but it’s nothing to write home about either.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Posted in 4-Icons, Fantasy, Musical
Tags: 1978, A Christmas Carol, Arthur Rankin Jr., Bobby Rolofson, Christmas, Darlene Conley, Debra Clinger, Dee Stratton, Dennis Day, Ebenezer Scrooge, Eric Hines, Janice Torre, Jules Bass, Paul Frees, Rankin and Bass, Robert Morse, Romeo Muller, Sonny Melendrez, Steffi Calli, The Stingiest Man in Town, Theodore Bikel, Tom Bosley, Walter Matthau