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Scrooge U : Part X -- A second chance fumbled

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Scrooge U : Part X -- A second chance fumbled

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I don't really need to explain who Basil Rathbone was, right?

I mean, we're talking about the acclaimed actor who crossed swords with Errol Flynn in "The Adventures of Robin Hood," traded quips with Danny Kaye in "The Court Jester" and even served as the narrator of the "Wind in the Willows" portion of Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad." So surely you film fans out there are already familiar with this man's work ... right?

At the very least, you have to be aware of Basil's many brilliant performances as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous character. For what Alistair Sim is to Ebenezer Scrooge, Rathbone is to Sherlock Holmes. As in: His portrayal of the world's most brilliant detective is the yardstick against which all other performances of this character are measured. The man was just that good.

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Okay. Now that we've established who we're talking about today ... As you may recall from Monday's installment of JHM's newest series, Mr. Rathbone is already associated with "A Christmas Carol." What with having played Jacob Marley to Fredric March's Ebenezer Scrooge in that "Shower of Stars" version of Dickens' classic holiday tale. Which originally aired on CBS back in December of 1954.

Copyright 1954 Columbia Broadcasting System

But what you may not know is that -- just two years later -- Basil was recruited to appear in yet another televised version of "A Christmas Carol." Only this time around, Rathbone got to play the lead.

Basil Rathbone (left) as Ebenezer Scrooge with
Martyn Green as Bob Crachit (right)
Copyright 1956 National Broadcasting System

Alright. So this 1956 version of Dickens' classic holiday tale was saddled with a rather strange title ("The Stingiest Man in Town"?!). But -- beyond that -- this 90 minute-long "musicolor" spectacular was said to be a surprisingly entertaining adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." Sponsored by Alcoa & presented on NBC, "The Stingiest Man in Town" featured a rather varied musical cast. You see, crooner Vic Damone played Young Scrooge, Metropolitan Opera star Patrice Munsel played Scrooge's fiancee, Belle, while the Four Lads played a group of carolers who commented on the action in the show.

I know, I know. That sounds like an extremely odd mix of musical styles & performers. Now add to that the fact that the show's lead hadn't ever danced or sung on screen before. This sounds like a real recipe for disaster, don't you think?

Well, here's the thing. In spite of everything that seemed to be going against this new television musical, "The Stingiest Man in Town" actually turned out rather well. Reviewers back in 1956 were extremely kind to this show & its cast. They particularly went out of their way to praise Rathbone for his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Vic Damone as Young Scrooge (left), Patrice Munsel as
Belle (center) and Basil Rathbone as Ebenezer Scrooge
Copyright 1956 National Broadcasting System

Which perhaps explains why -- just two years later -- Basil was once again cast as the memorable miser. Only this time around, Rathbone played Scrooge on an hour-long episode of the "Tales from Dickens" TV show. Which (at least here in the US) was hosted by Basil's old "Shower of Stars" co-star, Fredric March.

Yes, I know. It's weird how incestuous the show business world can be at times.

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Anyway ... Getting back to "The Stingiest Man in Town" again ... Thanks to the soundtrack album that was released after this special-extended-edition of "The Alcoa Hour" originally aired, many Christmas Carol fans still have very fond memories of this particular holiday special.

Unfortunately, those fond memories are pretty much all that these "Stingiest Man in Town" fans have left. Given that the master tape for this live television spectacular disappeared from NBC's vaults sometime over the past 50 years. The only portion of the program that remains (I.E. The last 30 minutes of the broadcast) is now on file at the Library of Congress.

Still, thanks to that LP (Which proved to be an excellent showcase for Fred Spielman & Janice Torre's surprisingly strong score), "The Stingiest Man in Town" was eventually given a second chance. Only -- this time around -- this live television spectacular was reimagined as an animated holiday special.

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

Now it would be nice to report that the 1978 animated version of "The Stingiest Man in Town" actually lived up to the promise & potential of the live 1956 version of this same show. But sadly, that's not the case. Though Arthur Rankin. Jr. & Jules Bass had produced some of the most beloved holiday specials of all time (Among them "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"), they basically botched this small screen adaptation of Dickens' classic holiday tale.

Which is really a shame. Given that -- when Rankin / Bass initially got started work on this production -- they seemed to be making all the right decisions. After acquiring the rights to use all of the songs that Spielman & Torre had written for NBC's live "musicolor" spectacular, Arthur & Jules then hired an A-list actor to voice the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in this holiday special.

I mean, Walter Matthau (Who actually made a career out of playing curmudgeons who were eventually revealed to have a heart of gold) as the memorable miser? Is that an inspired casting choice or what?

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

Unfortunately, it was Rankin / Bass's next creative decision that basically sent this well-intended animated version of "The Stingiest Man in Town" off-course. With the hope that adding a new character to "A Christmas Carol" might then make this holiday special a bit more kid-friendly, Romeo Muller (I.E. The author of this adaptation) created B.A.H. Humbug.

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

Does this insect look rather familiar to you Disney fans. He should. Obviously inspired by Jiminy Cricket of "Pinocchio" fame, B.A.H. pretty much follows Jiminy's playbook. In that he regularly comments on the action that's happening on screen & directly interacts with several of the characters in the show. This Humbug even gets to sing a song or two.

Unfortunately, by adding B.A.H. to the mix, Rankin / Bass actually wound up shifting the focus away from Ebenezer. And -- as a direct result -- this animated version of "A Christmas Carol" wound up being one of the lesser adaptations of Dickens' classic holiday tale.

 Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

Don't get me wrong. It's not like all of Arthur, Jules & Romeo's choices are bad. They actually do a wonderful job with one of "The Stingiest Man in Town" 's best songs, "It Might Have Been." Broadway favorite Robert Morse plays Young Scrooge in this portion of the program. And Morse and Stephanie Callie (Who voiced the role of Belle in this holiday special) both sing the hell out of this rueful ballad.

And then -- as this sad song draws to a close -- Rankin / Bass do the sort of thing that you can only really do in an animated film. With a split screen, they show Ebenezer & Belle rapidly aging. So that you can then see that these two both wound up old & alone, having missed out on their one real chance at love. This final image really underlines the emotion of the song.

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

Sadly, this is probably one of the only instances in the animated version of "The Stingiest Man in Town" that actually rose to meet the potential of its source material. All too often in this holiday special, Arthur, Jules & Romeo opted to go for cute. So we wind up with scenes where a miniaturized version of Ebenezer dances with B.A.H. among all of the toys that are under the Christmas tree.

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

And then there are those "What were they thinking?" moments in the show. Where it seems like Rankin / Bass don't think that the original storyline of "A Christmas Carol" has enough holiday appeal. Which is why they briefly turn the Ghost of Christmas Present into Santa Claus ...

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

... Or how about that sequence in the show where they have B.A.H. visit the creche that's at Nephew Fred's house? And the Humbug (Who's voiced by Tom Bosley, by the way) then begins singing about what sort of present you should bring to "The Birthday Party of the King" ?

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video

It's musical numbers like this (Which -- to be fair -- actually were part of the original live television version of "The Stingiest Man in Town") that completely pull you out of this animated retelling of Dickens' classic holiday tale. Instead of focusing on Ebenezer Scrooge and how he learns to redeem himself, we wind up with weird fantasy sequences where a now-well Tiny Tim is seen frolicking with the Crachit family dog through pastel-colored fields.

Copyright 1993 Warner Home

Mind you, it's not like "The Stingiest Man in Town" is completely worthless. Disney fans should be pleased to learn that Paul Frees voices an number of characters in this holiday special. Including -- oddily enough -- the exact same character that Frees played in the Mr. Magoo version of "A Christmas Carol." Which is Old Joe, the proprietor of the Rag & Bone Shoppe.

Copyright 1993 Warner Home Video & 2004 Sony Wonder

But -- in the end -- the animated version of "The Stingiest Man in Town" just seems like a waste of resources. I mean, here you had Walter Matthau, an actor seemed born to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Plus you had the score of an already much beloved musical version of "A Christmas Carol." You'd think that the combination of these elements would have resulted in a truly memorable holiday special.

But -- in the end -- what we wound up with instead was the television version of coal in our stocking. This inert, virtually entertainment-free adaptation of Dickens' classic holiday tale.

Which I know must have been very disappointing to all you "Stingiest Man in Town" fans out there. So let me now pass some good news to you folks. This past October, Footlight released a CD version of this long-out-of-print LP. So if you'd like to hear what Basil Rathbone's singing voice actually sounds like, I suggest that you click on this link.

Copyright 2006 Jasmine Music 

Okay. Now that we know what a melding of Sherlock Holmes & Ebenezer Scrooge might have looked like, tomorrow let's take a look at what happens when Arthur Fonzarelli tackles Dickens' miserable miser.

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