The Stingiest Man in Town (1978) [Revisited]

We watched and reviewed this eleven years ago, but I'm revisiting it as part of my ongoing attempt to watch as many versions of A Christmas Carol as humanly possible. It'd be worth reevaluating this, anyway, since the context surrounding it has changed dramatically. This is a remake of a 1956 version starring Basil Rathbone broadcast live that was believed lost for decades before showing up in 2011. Technically, it was available when we ran our original review, but it wouldn't have been easy to find, nor were we anywhere near as thorough back then.

Obviously things have changed. I actually just finished watching the 1956 version a few days before putting this on (in case it wasn't clear, these reviews aren't entirely being posted in the order I watched them in). Let's dig into how this special relates to its predecessor, adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and Christmas specials in general.

First, I want to acknowledge Lindsay and I have very different backgrounds and feelings towards this. This was a special she watched many times in her childhood, and she still has fond memories of it. I'm pretty sure I caught bits and pieces growing up, but if I ever watched it straight through, I have no memory of doing so. When we watched it together eleven years ago, I recall being fairly unimpressed. I don't think I hated it, but it certainly didn't make much of an impression at the time.

That hasn't really changed, to be honest. I find it more interesting from an academic perspective, given my recent interest in adaptations of this story, but I don't really think it distinguishes itself as an animated special. The designs are fairly generic for kids' media of the time, and even more so if you focus on the companies involved. This is a Rankin/Bass production, and it looks fairly similar to other 2D animated movies and specials they made in the era. Aside from the setting, this looks quite a bit like the animated 1977 Hobbit movie, for example.

To be fair, Rankin/Bass were a little ahead of their time in some respects. They contracted with a Japanese company, which - in sort of a roundabout way - would be subsumed into what later became Studio Ghibli. The animation in The Stingiest Man in Town is by no means bad for the '70s, but it's fairly dated now. Compared to later styles and budgets, this looks pretty cheap in hindsight. And while there are a handful of standout moments, none come close to the quality of the breathtaking 1971 British animated special or the more consistent 1983 Mickey's Christmas Carol. This isn't bad, but it's hard to argue it stands out visually.

That said, it has its moments. The sequence with Marley's ghost is atmospheric and effective, as is the graveyard (though it's somewhat undermined by a somewhat ridiculous cameo from Lucifer himself). There's also a neat conceptual beat where the extinguisher Scrooge uses on the Ghost of Christmas Past transforms to one he's holding over the candle beside his bed. It's a cool concept I'd like to see incorporated into live-action some day.

Let's talk music, because that's ostensibly what makes this significant. This of course borrows its songs from the 1956 broadcast. I was pleasantly surprised when I watched the 1956 to find the music held up well. I was disappointed to find it didn't work as well in the remake. The issue, again, is context. These songs were written to be sung by actors on a stage. The lyrics are silly, giving the performers an opportunity to add comedic bits or emphasize moments in interesting ways. None of that really translates to animation. They try making up for the lack of live actors by using the tools the medium allows - anthropomorphic animals, fantastical situations, and the like - but the songs still fall flat. They're just not right for this take.

Speaking of which...

Let's talk about B.A.H. Humbug, a sort of Jiminy Cricket analog added to this version. Structurally, he replaces the original's chorus and provides narration through the special. He's also given lines of dialogue and songs from other characters. He has a fairly large role, which would be fine if he were a better character. Unfortunately, there's not really much to him. He's basically a knock-off Disney character: this would be better without him.

I'm a little torn about the special's lead, Walter Matthau. On one hand, he brings a great deal of energy to the role, far more than Basil Rathbone managed (though to be fair Rathbone was working under much less forgiving conditions). But while he delivers energy and volume, I don't feel like Matthau pulls off much depth or heart.

The story of course parallels the original, albeit with a cartoon bug tagging along. At times it actually hues closer to the source material than the 1956 version, largely because it's not limited by the constraints of actors and sets used in live television. This includes Marley's face appearing in the doorknob and the December 26th scene between Scrooge and Cratchit, both of which were missing from the Rathbone movie. It's also a bit more firmly set in London, thanks to some establishing artwork. There are still some anachronisms around Santa Claus, but at least the location is right.

Animation that ages well tends to do so because it either feels like great art in retrospect or great entertainment (or in rare cases both). I think the 1971 short delivers on the first category, while Mickey's Christmas Carol is the latter. The problem with the 1978 remake of Stingiest Man is it's really neither. It mainly existed as a source to see truncated versions of the songs from the 1956 broadcast in action. That had a great deal of value when there were no known recordings of the original, but now that it's resurfaced, I'm not sure this has much of a point. It's not at all bad for when it was made, but it's difficult to find anything this does better than other versions out there.