Chief Justice Michael Stailey never developed a taste for figgy pudding.
The Holy Grail of lost Dickensian television adaptations.
As a lifelong fan of cinema's classic Sherlock Holmes franchise, I could hardly turn down the opportunity to see Basil Rathbone's take on another of literature and fildom's most iconic characters. He does not disappoint.
Facts of the Case
We all know the story. In order for Ebeneezer Scrooge to save his immortal soul, he must spend Christmas Eve with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, confront his life's many transgressions, the impact those choices have had on those around him, and see the error of his ways. But this time, he must do it all in song!
I do believe I've now seen most every cinematic and televised version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, from Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder's Christmas Carol, 1988), Henry Winkler (An American Christmas Carol, 1979) and Susan Lucci (Ebbie, 1995) to Fred Flintsone, Mickey Mouse, and The Muppets. My top three Scrooge variations have long been Alastair Sim (A Christmas Carol, 1951), Albert Finney (Scrooge, 1970), and Bill Murray (Scrooged, 1988). But within the past year, two more actors have swollen the ranks of that pantheon from three to five, with the addition of Michael Gambon (Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol, 2010) and now Basil Rathbone (The Stingiest Man in Town, 1956).
This long since lost-to-the-ravages-of-time artifact from NBC's Alcoa Hour, presents a live stage production more ambitious than Bill Murray's Frank Cross attempted at ITV. Broadcast on December 23, 1956, Rathbone fronts a fine musical theatre ensemble offering up an original take on Dickens' tale from writer/lyricist Janice Torre (George Pal's Tom Thumb) and composer Fred Spielman (Torch Song). I say "original" in the sense that all of the story's classic beats are present, but the plot is propelled by strategically placed musical numbers given to characters who often receive less prominence. Scrooge's nephew Fred (Johnny Desmond, China Doll) gets a solo with "An Old Fashioned Christmas" rapidly followed by a duet with his uncle on "Humbug" (including a brief lip-synching save for Rathbone). Young Scrooge (crooner Vic Damone) and his lady love Belle (opera star Patrice Munsel) anchor the second act with an extended duet of "Golden Dreams" and "It Might Have Been" (part of which is sung to a brick wall). Bob Crachitt's daughter Martha (Betty Madigan) comforts a disbelieving Tiny Tim with "Yes, There is a Santa Claus" and "We're all kids at Christmastime." A Greek chorus of carolers (The Four Lads) open and close the show, as well bring viewers back from each commercial break. And the list goes on. There are 30 musical numbers in all, which prompted NBC to release an original cast album; one you can still purchase today.
While much of the music is far from memorable, there are some interesting story twists not seen in other versions of the tale. Fred and his party guests put a heavy emphasis on the birth of Christ. The Crachitt children turn their attention towards Santa, the more prominent Martha and Peter drawing focus away from their parents. Scrooge even receives a Christmas Future death ballet that finds Rathbone chained to a tree in the cemetery (quite Christ-like), while being ravaged by spirits from Hell. Credit director Daniel Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun) for not only calling a multitude of live camera shots, but employing some very effective special effects as well, be it superimposing spirits during Marley's number "I Wear a Chain," using the Ghost of Christmas Present's robes to aid in location transitions, or overlaying Rathbone seamlessly into several Christmas Past sequences. Nothing beats the energy of a live theatrical production, and though you'll occasionally see the arm of a stage hand (Marley's bedroom exit) or a momentary technical delay (the live cast introductions at the top of the show), The Stingiest Man in Town comes off with nary a major glitch.
But when all is said and done, it's Basil Rathbone who makes this adaptation work. With all the energy and enthusiasm he put into this performance, he could have been surrounded by a cast of incompetent fools and made each and every one of them look good. Thankfully, that's not the case, as this ensemble of very busy 1950's television actors—Philippa Bevans (The Phil Silvers Show), Alice Frost (The Farmer's Daughter), Martyn Green (The Bell Telephone Hour), Ian Martin (Hallmark Hall of Fame)—and prominent stage stars—Robert Weede, Martyn Green, Patrice Munsel—make for a solid supporting cast, one which has a surprising amount of screen time when compared with other adaptations. The amazing thing is that Rathbone never intentionally or unintentionally upstages them in any way. He may be the title character, but blends his Scrooge into a larger tapestry leaving behind a treasured piece of holiday entertainment.
Presented in classic 1.33:1 standard definition full frame, this digitally remastered black and white kinescope (a filmed recording of a television broadcast) is nowhere near other cinematic presentations of its time. The classic fish-eye beveling of the frame edges, lack of detail clarity, a fair amount of image noise, and the occasional evidence of shutter bar banding are all present, though your brain will quickly adjust to format and disregard much of the distortion to focus on the story. The Dolby 2.0 Mono audio fares much better since many of its most egregious flaws (dropouts and distortions) can be attributed to the micing of the actors and the stage. But when the powerhouse vocals of Vic Damone, Patrice Munsel, and Robert Weede kick in, you'll have no trouble appreciating any of their performances, recorded in what appears to be an extremely tight studio space (as evidenced by the Ghost of Christmas Past taking Scrooge from his bedroom through the counting house and out onto the street).
Save for a vintage Alcoa Aluminum commercial that closes the broadcast (and what a trip that is!), there are no bonus features on this release. It would have been interesting to see interviews with the few surviving members of the cast and crew, but the fact that The Stingiest Man in Town has made it to DVD is bonus enough for fans of Dickens and Rathbone alike.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You may be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute…all of this sounds vaguely familiar, but I remember it being in color, with a different cast…and animated." Your memory does not fail you. Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass—the dynamic holiday duo responsible for generations of animated Christmas memories—adapted The Stingiest Man in Town for broadcast in 1978, starring the voice talents of Walter Matthau (Scrooge), Robert Morse (Young Scrooge), Theodore Bikel (Marley), the great Paul Frees (Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present), Jack Benny's best friend Dennis Day (Nephew Fred) in his final television performance, and Tom Bosley as the narrator (B.A.H. Humbug).
Though this 51 minute presentation lops off nearly half an hour from the original, it remained faithful to the 1956 production in both story and song. This version of The Stingiest Man in Town did receive a VHS release from Warner Bros. in 1993, but can only be found on DVD on their terrible Classic Christmas Favorites collection from 2008 (which suffered production flaws like replacing the classic animated The Year Without a Santa Claus with its mind-numbing live-action adaptation, and voice synch problems on Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July). Though, if memory serves, this is one of Rankin/Bass' lesser works, on par with 1974's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, so you may not be missing much.
A vintage timepiece from an era long since forgotten, The Stingiest Man in Town is a worthy entry into the Dickensian Christmas canon. Be sure to add it into your holiday movie rotation. You won't be disappointed.
Humbug? Not even close!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Video Artists International
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