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Blog, TV, Music, Records
Posted on Dec 14 2011 by Greg
I have to admit to being more than a little misty-eyed after finally getting a chance to watch the original, live 1956 musical, The Stingiest Man in Town, now on DVD. I had first seen the Rankin/Bass animated remake in 1978, then found the 1956 Columbia cast album and listened to it for 30 years, never expecting to actually see the live show itself -- unless maybe I got to visit the Paley Center and they had it in their library.

To my delighted amazement, Video Artists International located an astonishingly nice-looking kinescope with excellent sound -- and that sound is largely due to a certified Disney Legend: Tutti Camarata.

Tutti was the conductor of this special 90-minute live presentation on The Alcoa Hour. His ear for acoustics surely influenced how distinct the instrumentation come across, even in this vintage kinescope. In 1956, Disneyland Records had just begun, with Tutti as artists and repertoire director. You can hear his style in The Stingiest Man in Town, as well as what was likely some arrangements by Maury Laws, whom Tutti told me could have likely done some chart work for the special (the soaring violins in "An Old Fashioned Christmas" are just like the ones Laws created for such Rankin/Bass specials as Rudolph and Frosty).

You have to get a feel for the temporal context to fully appreciate how ambitious this live show truly was for its period. This was the day of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and other vaudeville-type live variety shows, as well as legendary live dramas on Playhouse 90 and Studio One. Walt Disney's filmed series was less then two years on the air, Mickey Mouse Club was in its second season and Howdy Doody was still an NBC staple.

Mary Martin's TV tradition of Peter Pan had begun a year earlier (as live shows until it was taped in 1960) and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella would premiere a year later (live with Julie Andrews, then taped in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren). I can't confirm this for sure, but that makes The Stingiest Man in Town very likely the first -- or at least one of the first -- original musicals created especially for television.

Director Dan Petrie (A Raisin in the Sun, Sybil, Eleanor and Franklin) worked with in what appears to be a very limited space, with tight, elemental, movable sets. (Notice the clever transitions, such as Basil Rathbone sinking off camera in the graveyard while a "stand-in" hand grasps the tombstone, enabling Rathbone to race back to the bedroom set for his next scene.)

The cast, crew and orchestra clearly had a short rehearsal time to perform a show of this scope -- and that's what makes live TV so amazing. The cast, orchestra and chorus are right there, and if the singer misses a cue or changes tempo, the accompaniment has to keep up. Keeping all of this in mind, what unfolds is a remarkable achievement that was largely forgotten for decades, unless you happened to have the cast LP -- or this superb CD reissue.

Young audiences may not sit still, at first, for the black-and-white, low-def, leisurely paced kinescope experience of the original Stingiest Man -- more akin to a filmed stage show than a modern recorded and edited production. But if you can impress upon them the importance of these programs, how they paved the way for what we take for granted today (especially technical advances) and just enjoy the pure talent involved, they may find themselves beguiled.

These are some of the greatest Broadway talents of their day, top popular singers and of course, the great Rathbone, with a truly memorable musical score conducted by one of the most respected names in the music industry.

It might be fun if you watch this along with the Rankin/Bass animated remake (available in the above 2008 DVD set) and listen to the cast album. In an ocean of Dickens Christmas Carol adaptations, this particular version is one of the all-time finest.

Blog, TV
Posted on Dec 02 2011 by Greg
Have you ever heard someone refer to Remy as "Ratatouille?" I haven't but I've overheard it. But I must confess that I have had trouble remembering that "Prep and Landing" is the name of this recent addition to the holiday TV season, but the lead characters are named "Lanny" and "Wayne." (Maybe I get it from my Mom, who calls one of her favorite TV shows "Bad Men" starring "Don Hamm."

John Lasseter and the Pixar artists have often expressed their fondness for the work of the Rankin/Bass production company, who still hold the record for the highest number of holiday specials, and the highest-rated ones, too. Prep and Landing is inspired by the perennial joy of seeing favorite specials every Christmas season, yet it wisely does not try, as others have with varied success, to emulate the Rankin/Bass model. There are loads of little nods -- including the distinctive lettering that has become ubiquitous yet began with Anthony Peters' work for Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Paul Coker, Jr.'s designs for other Rankin/Bass shows and numerous greeting cards.

Thought it was created through Walt Disney Animation, Prep and Landing is bears the fruit of collaboration with Pixar. The half hour show even seems like a Pixar short film,or Monsters, Inc.  The amusing extra features are much in the style of Pixar, with cute training films (though without the spot-on acerbic edge of the Krusty Krab Training Film episode of Spongebob Squarepants), news reports and commercials. I love this kind of clever stuff and I hope they keep doing it.

Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 30 2011 by Greg
Made-for-video Disney sequels can be a polarizing subject for Disney fans for many reasons, but one positive way to look at them I share with you courtesy of  beloved Disney enthusiast and merry, magical artist Stacia Martin, who looks at video sequels as "what if's" that may or may not have happened -- much like the comic book and Little Golden stories extended characters into new adventures. If you look at it that way, you can dismiss an inferior sequel with a simple, "Oh well, it never really happened anyway." I choose to believe that about the dreadful Superman 3.

Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Enchanted Christmas, which premieres this year on Blu-ray, is nice enough to resist dismissal, however. With a wonderful musical score by Rachel Portman and Don Black, and the original voice cast, this is a worthy video-level successor.

One cannot expect quite the detail or consistent animation of the theatrical Beauty, but a lot of effort went into making this film something that would hold up with every holiday season. If you still have your DVD and do not have Blu-ray, some of the bonus features, including an animated "fireplace," have made their way only over to the Blu-ray on this new edition.

Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World shows us what a regular television series might have been like had it happened. The film is comprised of four individual stories with little connection except that the all take place after Belle arrived and before the happy ending. Having read quite a few storybooks and comics with the same plot restriction, it's got to be a challenge for the writers to come up with premises that cannot advance the situation too much, but also take the characters to some new point at the same time.

The four stories are pleasant, the songs -- by the wonderful Patty and Michael Silversher, who wrote so many great Disney songs for TV and recordings -- are delightful, but the animation falls a bit short of Enchanted Christmas. Perhaps that is why this title was not released on Blu-ray.

Both Belle's Magical World and Enchanted Christmas include one half-hour episode of a former Disney Channel children's series called Sing Me a Story, in which a live-action Belle on videotape sits in her nice library/living room with two children, some puppets and visiting human characters and retell two stories using footage from vintage Disney cartoons.

This is not unlike the 1972 syndicated series, The Mouse Factory. Purists will be taken aback by the editing and redubbing of the cartoons, but it's wasn't the first time this happened and it won't be the last. The most interesting thing about these shows is that they were produced when Disney's Hollywood Studios was Disney-MGM Studios and actual TV and movie production was in full swing there. Both Los Angeles and Orlando actors appeared in the series -- some who worked in the Parks one day and did TV appearances on other days.

Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 27 2011 by Greg

On this three-disc boxed Blu-ray set, The Original Christmas Classics, you can see three of the top Christmas specials, produced and directed by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, in high def -- plus get a music CD of original-version holiday pop hits like Brenda Lee' "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and Burl Ives' Decca versions of "Rudolph" and "Holly Jolly Christmas."

[For some reason, the DVD version of the same set includes seven specials. The set of three Blu-ray discs contains four shows in total, and it's a better deal than buying the three Blu-ray discs separately.]

Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer is the first Rankin/Bass holiday special, and only their second TV special ever (the first being Return to Oz). Still the all-time champ, Rudolph is the longest-running holiday special in television history, running annually since 1964, mostly on CBS and NBC. You can get hung up on the modest scope of the stop-motion Animagic figures, elemental sets and limited effects, but you can't deny its power. There is simply an engaging quality about the production that charms every generation, regardless of how high-tech things become. Production designer Anthony Peters deserves more attention for his creations, which we see almost everywhere today -- even the lettering is widely imitated.

At its core, the story is about being "different," and how those differences become strengths. For a show aimed at children's, the characters can be downright cruel (this particular Santa, besides appearing to have an eating disorder, shows such displeasure he'd be right at home sitting next to Donald Trump on The Apprentice).

If you view the special in its historic context, during the civil rights movement, suddenly Rudolph is a victim of prejudice -- Clarice's father won't let his daughter be seen with him. Maybe that's reading too much into the story, but it makes one wonder if some members of '60s households realized they were watching or just dismissed it as a cute kid's show. Probably the latter.

As a cultural icon, you can't dismiss the influence this single special had on so much that followed it. Many of today's greatest names in animation have either cited it as a favorite (along with other Rankin/Bass films) or slipped its lore into their own work. Like The Wizard of Oz, elements of Romeo Muller's script have become part of our vernacular, from Charlie in the Box to Hermie the Dentist.

On Blu-ray, of course you can see the handmade quality of the animation in all its glory -- as well as details you may have missed, like Clarice's touch of blush or Fireball's freckles. AND, the long-omitted "Peppermint mine" scene has been included. If you've ever wondered if there was more to Yukon Cornelius' quest for riches, you'll see it just before Santa goes off to pick up the misfit toys.

For more about Rankin/Bass and Rudolph, check out the books and blog of author/expert Rick Goldschmidt, who helped save the peppermint mine scene.

Frosty the Snowman came along in 1968, when the small New York-based Rankin/Bass production company was proving itself in a marketplace dominated by Hollywood animation giants with Saturday morning series (King Kong), feature films (The Daydreamer, Mad Monster Party) and other specials (Cricket on the Hearth). Like all of their weekly series, Frosty was done in what is now called 2-D or cel animation. Almost all of their animation was done in Japan, and this was one completed at Mushi Studios.

The animation isn't much more fluid than in their Animagic productions, but it works very well even by today's standards, in which flash is becoming so prevalent in TV cartoons. What makes it stand head and shoulders over most specials is its unerring simplicity, the voice cast (led by Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon and Billy DeWolfe) and the rich musical "house style" by Maury Laws. More than anything else, perhaps, the design by Paul Coker, Jr. comes across most dramatically in hand-drawn animation and makes Frosty look like a Christmas card come to life.

Watching the crisp, linear Coker images (which resemble his work for countless greeting cards and especially MAD magazine) in Blu-ray is a treat. This was either beautifully preserved or painstakingly restored or both. By daughter remarked that it "looks like it was just made yesterday!"

The "bonus" on the disc is Frosty Returns, the 1992 special CBS commissioned years later (though the 1974 Rankin/Bass 'Twas the Night Before Christmas special usually held the ratings in the second half hour following Frosty), was directed by "Peanuts" legend Bill Melendez. CBS may have also requested that the special resemble a "Peanuts" special because Frosty Returns looks almost identical to a show with Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Frosty Returns is notable for several reasons, including the voice of a very young Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olsen on MadMen) when she was a child actor, a witty script by Oliver Goldstick and Jim Lewis, and a nice supporting cast, especially if you're a SCTV and Saturday Night Live fan (the executive producer was SNL's Lorne Michaels, whose Broadway Video controlled the Rankin/Bass video library at the time).

My only quibble is that Frosty Returns either never got the loving care in the vault as it animated predecessor or there was a mastering problem, because there is a lot of "line noise" throughout, almost as if it were a VHS tape instead of a Blu-ray! I might guess that since this show is not the main attraction, it didn't matter as much, but you can't miss the flaws when you can see the images so clearly.

Other than that, Frosty the Snowman itself on Blu-ray does indeed look like it was made yesterday, rather than over 40 years ago.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town came to ABC first in 1970, when Rankin/Bass was firing on all cylinders. The visual difference between this production and that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is considerable, especially with regard to the immense, detailed sets and more intricate characters, designed by Paul Coker, Jr. Yes, there is the same animation "on two's and three's" as well as a few modest effects, but everything clicks within the brisk 51 minutes, none of which seem padded.

When I asked him to name a favorite special (in The Cartoon Music Book) Musical director/composer Maury Laws called this his favorite, because he thought every element was perfect, from the cast to the script to the overall feel. Fred Astaire proved added another dimension to his legendary career as one of the best narrators in any special. Mickey Rooney's bravado was ideal for the young Kris Kringle. Keenan Wynn's Winter Warlock was memorable (especially when he gets the choo-choo). And our beloved Robie Lester (read Mouse Tracks for more about her) was the show-stopper when, as Jessica, she undid the proverbial bun and belted out her solo, a great tune in a score that hasn't a dud in the bunch (though sadly, in today's more creepy times, "Be Prepared to Pay" may seem to take on an odd -- thoroughly unintentional -- connotation).

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is so spectacular that it's the visual crown jewel in the trilogy with Rudolph and Frosty. And sure, it adds yet another set of myths to confuse those trying to figure out the origin of Santa.

In this case, the story springs from the mind of writer Romeo Muller, but I wonder if, like Rudolph, this special contains a nod to its cultural context. In 1970, Richard Nixon was president, the war was raging and the counterculture was questioning. Kris and Jessica become outlaws and get married in a forest like hippies (since no town would welcome them), and the Burgermeister does resemble Nixon a little. I even noticed that, when Kris says "It's not even safe here," they're standing among the burned remains of what might have been their small camp -- we get a quick glimpse and then it's gone with no other mention. This is the story of Santa as a revolutionary against political oppression.

Okay, enough with the term paper hypotheses. This is Rankin/Bass at their best and glows like a shimmering holiday display on Blu-Ray.

NOTE: If you have the original DVD of Rudolph, you may want to hang onto to it, though, because the Blu-ray contains no extras.

Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 24 2011 by Greg
Even though it's not on DVD (though I hope for it year after year), the lesser-known Rankin/Bass ABC holiday special, The Mouse on the Mayflower, is a family tradition in our house.

Premiering in 1968 -- the same year as Frosty the Snowman on CBS and The Little Drummer Boy on NBC -- Mouse was an hour-long cel-animated musical presented by "Your Gas Company," which also sponsored Drummer Boy.

There are precious few Thanksgiving specials, so this one is worth looking at even for that reason. But what makes Mouse so special is its example of Rankin/Bass in its prime, featuring a star narrator, celebrity voices and a rich set of original songs by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. One of the songs, "Elbow Room," was also in the fabled stage musical, A Month of Sundays, which despite a Laws/Bass score and Romeo Muller book, disappeared as quickly as it came.

Tennessee Ernie Ford is in top narrator form as the Mouse himself, with strong support from Eddie Albert as Captain John Smith, Paul Frees as most of the male voices and June Foray as most of the female cast. Faring fine in the singing department, but not so much in the acting arena, are the popular recording stars Joanie Sommers ("You're in the Pepsi generation") and John Gary as Priscilla Mullins and John Alden (with Gary also voicing William Bradford with a Richard Burton-esque lilt). R/B may have wanted them to boost soundtrack album sales, but the score was never commercially released by RCA, Gary's label (a promotional album was released by the Gas company).

Trade ad announcing the special (indicating that Tennessee Ernie Ford was not originally slated to narrate) from Rick Goldschmidt's site.

The Mouse on the Mayflower fell into syndication in the late '70s/early '80s (with some of its songs edited) and was released on DVD (with the songs intact). It's not exactly Fantasia, with low-end animation by Mushi Studios of Japan (same as Frosty). Two of its characters are caricatures, of a sort -- one a Bear resembling Baloo and Priscilla looking a bit like Princess Aurora. The Native Americans are likely not the most PC of depictions (though R/B was prescient enough to clearly identify a villainous Native American as a reject from his tribe). However, it's still an engaging special and a nice slice of the Rankin/Bass canon.

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