Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Old Sinner: Walter Matthau (1978)



In the '70s, there was no competing with Rankin-Bass for televised animation, whether hand-drawn or stop-motion. They were everywhere: from Christmas specials like Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming to Town to classic literature like The Hobbit and their Festival of Family Classics series. So, it didn't shock me to learn that they also had their turn at A Christmas Carol. Their casting of Walter Matthau as Scrooge was a bit of a surprise though.

Rankin-Bass' wasn't the first to be called The Stingiest Man in Town. It borrows its name from a musical TV version that starred Basil Rathbone as Scrooge (which I'm gonna have to get and watch now). I don't know how Rathbone's goes yet, but the cartoon opens in the traditional, Christmas Carol way with snow falling over the Victorian London skyline. You can recognize St. Paul's of course, but Big Ben is also there to clue you in, especially if you're a younger viewer.

It should be interesting to compare this with Mickey's Christmas Carol. As with Shower of Stars and the Chuck Jones version, it'll be interesting to watch the cuts and see how they keep The Stingiest Man in Town short enough for TV (though this was an hour-long special, so they have more room than some of the others). I'm especially interested though in seeing how Rankin-Bass' version is different from Disney's, the only other animation studio putting stuff out with anywhere near the frequency and popularity of Rankin-Bass at the time. I'm very familiar with Disney's version and know that since its primary purpose was to entertain, they took some major liberties with the story. Rankin-Bass's adaptations of classics took liberties too and certainly sought to be entertaining, but they also had an educational component to them. Or maybe I'm mistaking schmaltz for a serious side. Either way, that should create a very different feel from Disney's.

Back to the story, the London skyline gives way to a Christmas street scene with carolers singing a typically upbeat Rankin-Bass tune in front of wreath-filled windows. I can't embed video for it, but you can see the first part of the special and hear the songs on YouTube.

Holly Ho!
Holly Ho Ho Ho!
Holly Ho! Holly Ho!
Sing a Christmas carol written long ago.

As they sing, the view changes to a large house, also decorated for Christmas. There's a fire blazing in the fireplace, the table is set for Christmas dinner, and presents fill the space beneath a decorated tree. Above the tree, the camera zooms in on a small, anthropomorphic insect who's dancing in the rafters and joins in the song. Any child of the '70s will immediately recognize the voice as Tom Bosley from Happy Days.

He wishes us Merry Christmas and welcomes us to "the merry household of the kindest and most generous man in town, Ebenezer Scrooge." He acknowledges our surprise at that title, but asks us to take his word for it. By way of credentials, he introduces himself as B. A. H. Humbug, Esq. Rankin-Bass may have sought to educate, but they knew their audience and loved to throw in friendly, celebrity narrators or cutesy animal sidekicks; sometimes - like here - both in the same character.

Humbug concedes that Scrooge wasn't always so jolly. As he explains how Scrooge used to be, the scene changes to another snowy, London street where children are building a snowman in front of Scrooge & Marley's counting house. Humbug quotes Dickens ("Now Marley was dead to begin with.") while explaining that Scrooge kept Marley's name on the sign because he was too cheap to paint it out.

Inside the counting house, Scrooge - looking very much like a bald, white-headed Walter Matthau - smiles and plays with his stacks of coins while his humble-looking clerk writes at another desk. The Humbug sings:

There was a mean and stingy man
Named Ebenezer Scrooge. 
His heart was hard and cold because
He was the Devil's stooge.

While Scrooge sat down to count the gold
That his mind could never leave,
Young people in the square outside
Celebrated Christmas Eve.

If you've seen Rankin-Bass' The Hobbit, you're familiar with this tendency to suddenly insert snippets of songs here and there. It works better in The Hobbit though because that's what Tolkien did too. In A Christmas Carol, it's not without its charm, but it does get distracting.

As Humbug sings, Scrooge continues playing with and biting his money, stopping occasionally to glare spitefully out the window at the snowman-builders. As Humbug gets to "Celebrated Christmas Eve," they yell a Merry Christmas through Scrooge's window. That gets him up and to the door.

He shakes his cane at them and cries, "Away! Away with you and your infernal 'Merry Christmas!'" Rankin-Bass dialogue is nothing if not cheesy. And - as long as we're being critical - saying that Scrooge "cries" at the kids is an overstatement. Walter Matthau was never a particularly passionate actor and I'm afraid that's true here too. Instead of acting, he sounds like he's reading the lines to his grandkids from a book.

Calling Scrooge kind and generous isn't the only foreshadowing this production does. Immediately after Scrooge's chasing off the children from his store, we cut to his bedroom where he's checking under the bed with his candle before he gets in and covers up. Humbug quotes Dickens' "old sinner" passage and says that that's how it was "until that Christmas Eve when the ghost came." Cue the chain-clinking.

The first time I saw this version I thought that maybe they were going to skip over the entire first part of the story and go straight to Marley's ghost. Once you have an insect named BAH Humbug narrating your story, you get the feeling that the traditional way of telling this thing has kind of been left on the curb. But never fear. As Marley's shadowy figure forms at the foot of Scrooge's bed, Humbug goes into carnival barker mode. "Ladies and gents; boys and girls; a ghost story for Christmas: The Stingiest Man in Town." The music swells and the credits begin.

It's cheesy, but it's also a unique, fun, suspenseful way of opening the story. Sure, it spoils the ending, but it either assumes that you're old enough to know the end already or young enough that you may need some encouragement to watch this miserable old guy for an hour. And hey! There's going to be a ghost!

The credits play over more London skyline (now with the London Bridge, the Tower of London, and probably some other landmarks that I'm too dense to identify easily). An orchestra plays an overture of tunes we can expect from the production until we get back to the street in front of the counting house. Carolers, of course, are singing.

An old-fashioned Christmas
With snow falling hard
On scenery looking like
A pretty Christmas card.

Inside the counting house, Humbug keeps up the song for Bob Cratchit as Scrooge merrily plays with his money in the background.

An old-fashioned angel
On top of a tree
And candlelight shining down
On friends surrounding me.

Scrooge interrupts the song to yell at Cratchit for wasting time and threatens him about becoming "an old-fashioned pauper if you don't attend to your job" before fussing at him about using too much coal. There's nothing new about Scrooge and Cratchit so far in this version. Rankin-Bass' innovations are all about the narrative structure.The scene ends with Cratchit's changing the subject by looking out the window and noticing aloud that someone's coming.
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