Friday, December 19, 2008

Review Of THE CRICKET ON THE HEARTH By Bethany Ruthven

Good evening, darlings, and thank you for reading. For today's post on The MonsterGrrls' 25 Days Of Christmas we are examining The Cricket On The Hearth, a Christmas tale by Charles Dickens that was transformed into an animated special by the Rankin-Bass studios in 1967, in association with comedian/singer Danny Thomas's Thomas/Spelling Productions. Thomas was also on hand to host this special, and worked alongside his daughter Marlo Thomas as voice talent for the production.

The Cricket On The Hearth, while being a huge commercial success for Dickens, received mixed critical reviews upon its release in 1845. The original tale concerns a man named John Peerybingle, whose life and family become involved with the fate of Caleb Plummer, a toymaker with a blind daughter and a missing son, who is in thrall to the miserly Mr. Tackleton. The son, Edward, has traveled to South America and apparently never returned; subsequently, Tackleton plans to marry Edward's sweetheart May. The cricket of the title lives on the hearth of Peerybingle's home and acts as a sort of guardian angel to his family, bringing them luck. As the story puts it, "To find a cricket on the hearth is the luckiest thing of all." One must observe, of course, that Dickens' era possessed not a shred of pest control.

The animated version is much simplified, removing John Peerybingle and his family and centering solely on Caleb Plummer (Danny Thomas), his daughter Bertha (Marlo Thomas), Bertha's sweetheart Edward (Ed Ames), the miser Tackleton (Hans Conried) and our cricket, here named Crockett (Roddy MacDowall). Caleb, a successful self-employed toymaker, takes in Crockett as a good-luck charm, while Bertha pines for her Edward, here in employ of the Queen's Royal Navy and going off to sea for two years. At the end of two years, on Christmas Eve, an agent of the Queen arrives with a letter saying Edward has been lost at sea. Bertha (for reasons unknown, perhaps shock) goes blind upon hearing this news, and Caleb drops everything to take care of his daughter, losing all his business in the process. While Crockett pledges to stay with the Plummers through thick and thin, Caleb is forced to work for miserly Tackleton, who has in his employ an evil crow named Uriah Caw (voiced by Rankin-Bass mainstay Paul Frees) who instantly dislikes Crockett and plots to get rid of him. Poor Caleb begins to lie to Bertha about their situation, until one night when a mysterious stranger arrives and takes up lodgings with the Plummers. You can probably guess what's going to happen now, but you do get thrown a bit by the sudden decision of Bertha to marry Tarkleton first.

This special is unfortunately not one of Rankin-Bass's better specials: the animation is very poor compared to what came along with such specials as Frosty the Snowman and their excellent productions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Return Of The King. While
reducing the number of characters is an excellent move, the story, which was rather convoluted to start with, seems unfortunately to become more so as the show wears on. Crockett becomes reduced to a passive observer, and the subplot of Tarkleton's marriage to Bertha, when one sees their character designs of a rather warty, jowly old man and a pert young girl, is rather improbable, making the whole become more farcical than heartwarming. Many songs are included to both stretch the air time and show off the singing talents of the Thomases, but the musical theme of the special flies off the rails during an odd burlesque number, "Fish And Chips," sung by a rather overweight femme fatale cat in a scene where Uriah Caw goes to an animal-festooned ginmill to solicit assistance in getting rid of Crockett. The song does not particularly add to the story, and becomes more a distraction than a plot device. The cat is voiced by Abbe Lane, and the inclusion appears, to these eyes, very much like nepotism among the voice talent. And speaking of the voice talent, all involved perform their parts well, though the very refined McDowall's Cockney accent for Crockett leaves much to be desired. (The Thomases, New Yorkers to the core, thankfully do not attempt British accents.)

There is also a scene that I believe should have been edited from the final cut, as I found it especially disquieting for a Christmas production. In the scene, Crockett is kidnapped by Uriah Caw and his henchmen from the ginmill and taken to a ship, where they bargain with the cruel captain of the ship to take Crockett away and remind him of his promise to pay them. The captain "rewards" Uriah and the henchmen by taking out a gun and shooting them on the spot. Though this scene cuts away to the exterior of the ship, and only a gunflash from the window is seen, I do not believe that such a thing should have been included in a television special for young children at Christmas. Despite Dickens' penchant for true readings of the squalor and cruelty in the Victorian England of his times, this, in my opinion, is a grave misstep from Thomas and company in their attempts to present a Christmas special.

I advise a rental of this special rather than buying if you must see it. While it is available in single-disc form, it is also included on a recent DVD set release entitled The Original Christmas Classics (which several of our reviews this month have come from; click the picture at left for ordering information from The purchase of the set will allow you to view the special on your own if you wish to screen for children, plus there is the added luxury of other more interesting items to view, so if you are a Rankin-Bass completist looking to buy, I recommend a set purchase rather than the single disc. I also suggest that perhaps this might be viewed after Christmas if you have nothing else pressing.

We send greetings to our faithful readers and do hope you shall return for tomorrow's rendition of The MonsterGrrls' 25 Days Of Christmas! Cheers to all!

Warmest regards,
Bethany Ruthven