|CRICKET ON THE HEARTH (nbc, 1967)|
Why was it such a misfit?
This is of the geniune Rankin-Bass brand, and directly from the classic era -- this is what they turned out before Frosty. "Cricket on the Hearth" is based on a short novella Charles Dickens wrote in 1845 that also had something to do with Christmas, and so R-B thought, "let's adapt it, what's the worst that could happen?" America did not embrace this cartoon they way they embraced other R-B productions from the same period, and you'll figure out the reason soon enough. But first make room for Danny Thomas, who appears in color to introduce the special.
Tonight Thomas will be providing the voice of Caleb Plummer, professional toymaker, and the role of Caleb's daughter Bertha will be played by Thomas's real daughter, Marlo -- also concurrently That Girl. As with most Dickensian stories, the setting is Victorian England, but only half the cast has British accents, and that half sounds incredibly fake. Danny's introduction must have been a late addition, because the cricket himself provides his own opening afterward.
Looks like Jabba the Hutt's lost some weight. No, crickets aren't very pretty creatures, but that's not the reason he's so ugly here -- he's the Old Version of the cricket, who, in his robe by the fireplace, is going to narrate the story of how, long ago, he won such a cozy spot in such a large house. As he explains, the cozy spot AND the house surrounding it almost didn't happen...if it weren't for the luck of a cricket on their hearth!
The cartoon then explains in song that a cricket showing up in front of your fireplace is the luckiest thing that can ever happen to you. "Throw away your lucky horseshoes, throw those lucky pennies in the trash, ooo bop bop, cause with a CRICKET ON YOUR HEARTH you GOT IT MADE, oooo la la, there ain't nothin' luckier than a CRICKET ON THE HEAAAARTH!" I've never heard of such a superstition, have you?
Back to the flashback, and to Caleb. The younger version of the cricket hops over to him and asks kindly if he can make a home on his hearth. Caleb sees no problem with it, or with a talking cricket for that matter. The cricket mentions that his name is Crockett. Crockett Cricket. Killed a bear when he was only three.
Crockett has no sooner gotten himself situated than when he hears sobbing coming from the opposite side of the room. It's Bertha who's weeping, because her fiance has been drafted by the Royal Navy to fight in an unspecified war and he'll be gone for several years. "Bertha, it will be a long time to wait. With your permission, I think I should...release you from your promise."
"OH NO NO, EDWARD, I LOVE ONLY YOU, EDWARD, I WILL WAIT FOR YOU FOREVER, EDWARD!" she cries out. This is leading into a song, which neither John nor Bertha will be singing. Songs are mandatory every five minutes in this special, and they are pretty much all the same -- they're slow and dull, and always accompanied by trippy visuals of colorful moving patterns and toys dancing.
One and a half years and another
song later, Caleb, Bertha and Crockett are all making
toys to fill the orders they've received for the holiday
season....when suddenly, the door slams open and the
greenest man I've ever seen walks through. "Is this
the home of Caleb Plummer, father of Bertha Plummer, who
was in turn engaged to one Edward Belton?"
"It is my melancholy
duty to inform you that a certain Edward Belton, late of
Her Majesty's Royal Navy, was lost at sea."
Because Caleb's only focus now is toward his daughter, he neglects to get the rest of his work done, and as a result, he doesn't sell a single toy for Christmas, right at the time when he needs money most. He takes Bertha to multiple doctors with what little he has left, but none of them can do a thing for her. The lucrative holiday season passes by, and without any more cash, the Plummers are evicted from their toy shop. Caleb spends the next week desperately looking for work, but is turned down from every direction.
By now, you've noticed the main characteristic of Cricket on the Hearth that sets it apart from most other jolly Yuletide productions. It's dark. Very dark. In fact, it's the darkest Misfit Special I've ever come across. It's typical for Charles "may I have some more gruel" Dickens, though -- when you think about it, A Christmas Carol goes to some pretty grim places as well; we're just too used to it to notice.
Caleb has been forced to take in massive debt from unscrupulous loan sharks just to survive. (The guy he meets here just bobs his head back and forth, with a buck-toothed evil grin, going "Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh." I see loan guys haven't changed in 150 years.)
Eventually, Caleb gives up all hope. "Oh, what's the use?" he sighs, leaning against a signpost. "There's only one place left for us...." The camera pans up to reveal an arrow sign reading TO THE POOR HOUSE. For most modern people "being sent to the poor house" is just an expression, but it was once a real place. It was also once regarded as the single worst place to live in all the UK.
"Oh no, we can't possibly go there! If we ever needed a bit of luck, it is now!" exclaims Crockett. Yeah, speaking of luck, where's all this luck you promised us, cricket? You promised it in song! Instead everyone associated with you has gotten the polar opposite! You're more of a curse, admit it.
At that moment Crockett does spot a possible way out...another toy factory, owned by a man named "Gruff Tackleton." Something tells me their problems aren't going to end with that guy....
Gruff can't pay them
anything (or maybe he could but doesn't want to), but he
will give them the room in the back for free, plus three
squares a day, if they'll make toys for him. It's not
like they have any better prospects, so they agree.
Crockett loyally sticks with them, even though his chances of warming up by a fireplace are nil at this point, and Gruff's got a pet raven who'd love to chow down on Crockett.
Tackleton demands his toys be made as cheaply as possible, like dolls with almost no paint or fabric....just bare blocks of wood vaguely humanoid-shaped. Caleb can't let that stand, so every night while his boss is asleep, he sneaks out of bed and spruces up the dolls, then puts them back in their opaque packaging so Gruff is none the wiser. They earn their keep this way for a while, until two days before Christmas, when....
....Caleb runs into an old man on the street. The man apologizes and tries to pick up the boxes he scattered, but has a bad back and can't bend over. He then admits to Caleb that he's been sleeping outside, and Caleb can't let that stand. "We don't have much, but we're willing to share it," he offers, and takes the old man inside.
That night at dinner, the old man is vague about his origins, but Bertha can sense there's something....funny about him. "The way you said my name....just now, it....." She drops it there, but everyone watching can guess easily that it's gotta be Edward Belton in costume. These plot elements were fresher a century and a half ago. I think.
That's the cue for the Bad Timing Gods to work their mojo and for Gruff Tackleton to make a sudden announcement the next day. "I've come to a decision. It's been mighty lonely here in this toy shop, and I'm not getting any younger, so I would like to wed soon. And as my bride, I would like to choose your lovely daughter, Bertha."
Caleb is hesitant but thinks "what's the use." Bertha doesn't know the meaning of the word independent and thinks "well, I wouldn't want to offend him." It's the cricket who becomes sore at this news, and immediately organizes a small army of vermin in the house to throw stuff at Tackleton until he leaves in a rage. Keep in mind, not even he knows Bertha's actual fiance is in the building. He just doesn't like Tackleton much.
Gruff is....gruff over his botched proposal, and he knows it was the cricket's fault. He tells his raven, "I want that cricket ELIMINATED. And this time, gather outside help so that you don't bungle the job!" That's gotta smart if he doesn't think the raven is capable of simply eating Crockett, which he almost succeeded at once. But the raven obeys his master and flies off into the fog.
He flies inside a pipe, and into a seedy bar filled with talking animals of all species, some of which aren't native to England. There, he strikes a conversation with some old buddies who might be willing to take on a dirty assignment.
"So there's this
cricket....my boss wants him gone. You know a guy?"
Ah yes. While this scene is going, there's an impromptu bit where a burlesque cat takes center stage in the middle of the bar and sings about fish while swishing her tail around. The odds of this being part of the original novella are about as good as a Bette Midler poodle appearing in Oliver Twist.
And so the plan is hatched! In the middle of the night, the three shifties jump on Crockett, tie him up and carry him over to a shop docked in the harbor. The Captain grabs Crockett, slams him in a cage, and announces he'll be leaving for China now.
"So how 'bout our
reward, gov'nor?" asks the monkey excitedly.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Crockett Cricket is now trapped on a boat headed for China, while Bertha is due to marry Tackleton in mere hours! How will he get out of this one? "I did find my way back, but you'd never believe me if I told you," Crockett says. We've just seen a singing cat and a gangster monkey; try me.
It is pretty insane. Crockett plays dead, and the captain sees no value in a dead cricket, so he tosses him out the window. Then Crockett is spouted out the blowhole of a whale, rides in the mouth of a pelican, and hitches a ride on the horn of a narwhal until he reaches land. I guess those are some pretty unbelievable circumstances, but he gives no such plausibility warning about what happens AFTER that.....
When Crockett returns to Tackleton's, he's greeted by a stuffed elephant. ALL THE TOYS IN THE SHOP ARE ALIIIIVE! It's midnight on Christmas Eve; that's why. Make sense now?
The toys are forever
indebted to Caleb Plummer, seeing as without him, they
wouldn't look nearly as good. They'll do anything to help
Crockett wakes Edward up and demands to know the true story. Edward confesses that after his ship sank, he washed up on a deserted island and lived there for two years until he was found and taken back. He disguised himself to see if Bertha truly still loved him, but now that she's going to marry Tackleton, he thinks he knows the truth.
"Noooo, she loves YOU! Come with me and I can prove it!" Crockett takes Edward to the room where Bertha is sleeping. He puts his hand in hers and softly calls to her. "Bertha.....wake up, Bertha." "Oh Edward, is it truly you? It must be! Oh, Edward!"
The next morning, Tackleton is preparing for his wedding when he hears commotion coming from the lobby area. He walks in to find Edward and Bertha, in wedding attire, about to seal the deal. He's outraged and demands to know what's going on!
Once he finds out Edward
is back, though, he becomes more depressed than angry.
"Oh. Well, I guess it figures. No one loves an old,
ugly man like me."
"And....handsome?" No one's ever given Tackleton a compliment in his life. This gesture immediately reforms him on the spot, and he starts dancing, throwing coins around and singing "MERRY CHRISTMAS!" This was in the original book, which came out after A Christmas Carol did.....Dickens was thinking if it worked with Scrooge, people might want to see it again. But without a long backstory and three ghosts, it isn't quite as believable here.
As for the rest of the story, they didn't go down in history.
Why didn't it fit in?
Yes, it's uncomfortably bleak, but think about it: some of the most beloved Christmas classics deal directly with how harsh life can get for people. The aforementioned Christmas Carol, It's A Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas -- all these things are full of failure and mean people and how sometimes things just don't go right. Even the more recent holiday movies that have been added to the stable have this as a theme; what else are A Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation about? People watch them FOR their characters failing, because in the end, by Christmas Day, everything works out. And this, to me, is why Christmas has endured as a holiday for so long, and spread around the world to be fully celebrated in countries with a 1% Christian population. When the days get shorter and the nights get colder, people need more than anything a special event to remind them of love and family and what is GOOD about being alive.
And they respond best to stories that explore this idea to its fullest, about characters that have unpleasant experiences we've all had and can relate to. It's why the Simpsons have never told a better Christmas story than in their pilot. It's why Gift of the Magi works, it's why A Christmas Carol works, and it's why Cricket on the Hearth works.