Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas edition: Cricket on the Hearth

I recently picked up that DVD of "The Original Christmas Classics" from Rankin/Bass, although it dubiously includes "Frosty Returns" as one of those 'classics' (why not "Frosty's Winter Wonderland" instead?  At least that one is old enough to be thought of as a classic).  It also included a special from 1967 that I had never heard of, "Cricket on the Hearth," which is based on a story written by Charles Dickens.

In this special, an old cricket tells the audience about his younger days, and how he came to live with the Plummers, father Caleb and daughter Bertha, who make their living making and selling toys.  As it usually is with these stories, Bertha is engaged to a young man named Edward, who is commissioned in the Royal Navy, but is lost at sea near the beginning of the story.  This news renders Bertha blind, and Caleb spends all his money on doctors for her, but to no avail.  Eventually they end up just one step away from the poorhouse, until Caleb gets work with a crooked toy factory owner, Mr. Tackleton.
For Bertha's sake, Caleb pretends that they are doing better than they are, making him and the cricket effectively living in two different worlds.  I don't really get how Bertha was fooled by this, especially since they were eating Tackleton's scraps.  Then again, she may have been aware of what her father was doing and just humored him, but this isn't made apparent in the special.  Anyway, things get moving again when Caleb runs into an old, homeless man and takes him in.  The way he says Bertha's name makes her gasp, though she can't explain why.  Hm...

On Christmas Eve, Tackleton proposes to Bertha, but gives her some time to think about it.  She's of a mind to accept, since her father has described Tackleton as a better man than he actually is.  The old, homeless man comes to tell her something, but loses his nerve after Bertha announces her intentions to wed "the most wonderful man in the whole world."  Determined not to let Bertha marry Tackleton, the cricket gets in the way of the couple that afternoon, so Tackleton commands his pet crow to eliminate the cricket.  The crow, meanwhile, hires some thugs from an animal bar to get rid of the cricket.  The thugs capture the cricket and mean to sell him to a sea captain who sells crickets on the black market in China, but the captain shoots them both instead.  Meanwhile, the cricket manages to escape and makes it back to the shop just as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, which makes the toys magically come to life for one hour.  The cricket rallies them to help him stop Bertha from marrying Tackleton.  They lead him to the old, homeless man, sleeping just outside the shop, and they take off his disguise, revealing Edward! (The cricket is shocked.)  The toys also start telling the cricket about how Edward came to be where he is, but their time runs out before they can tell the whole story.  

Fortunately for the cricket, Edward wakes up, his face chilled by lack of beard, and tells the cricket the rest of the story.  Apparently he felt guilty about Bertha being blind, and took up a disguise to be near her without her knowing, but everytime he tried to tell her the truth, something got in the way.  The cricket doesn't buy his story, nor does he accept Edward's excuse of him being poor for why he should let Bertha marry Tackleton.  To prove that Bertha still loves Edward and only Edward, the cricket wakes her up and the two have a happy reunion, getting married first thing the next morning.  Tackleton is outraged when he hears this, but Bertha melts his heart by calling him kind, noble, and handsome (since no one has ever called him this before), and he leaves them be, full of Christmas spirit.  And that's how the cricket earned his right to be a lucky cricket on the hearth.

The special is bookended by live-action scenes of Danny Thomas, who played Caleb, while Bertha was played by his real life daughter, Marlo Thomas (of That Girl fame).  Hans Conried (whom you may recall from the post I made about him) played Tackleton, but what really made this special enjoyable was Roddy MacDowall as the cricket.  He made a very lively (and occasionally full of rage) character.
Unfortunately, he doesn't get to sing any of the songs, and it's really a shame, since only two of the songs really have anything to do with the plot.  I mean, a saloon cat gets to sing a song, but the cricket doesn't?  Not even part of his own theme song (sung by the Norman Luboff Chorus instead)?  That's just wrong.

No comments: