Have a Scroogey Christmas with Rathbone

Thursday November 8, 2012

Stingiest Man in Town -- On the evening of Dec. 23, 1956, the Alcoa Hour telecast a "musical play in three acts" titled "The Stingiest Man in Town." Basically it was yet another retelling of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" with song and dance and would not be worth the restoration on a VAI DVD were it not for the remarkable cast.

From the world of opera there are Patrice Munsel (Scrooge’s boyhood sweetheart) and Robert Weede (Marley’s ghost). From Gilbert & Sullivan there is Martyn Green (Bob Cratchit). From the pop scene are Vic Damone (young Scrooge), Johnny Desmond (Fred) and The Four Lads (Narrator-Carolers and beggars).

But the Big Draw in this product is the Scrooge of Basil Rathbone. The old Sherlock Holmes is quite a trooper as he races through the dialogue and doesn’t do too badly with some songs (which he gets through by speaking them in time to the music) and a few dance steps to show his reformation after the third spirit’s visit. His Scrooge, however, will never drive from my memory the superb characterization of Alastair Sim in the 1951 British film version.

To be sure, the music of Fred Speilman and the lyrics of Janice Torre leave much to be desired. The former I must describe as "50s homogenous" and the lyrics as less than clever. After all, who wants complex melodies and Lorenz Hart lyrics on Christmas Eve? I must admit that one song does make an impact: "One Little Boy." As sung by the Spirit of Christmas-Present (Robert Wright) with reference to Tiny Tim (Dennis Kohler), it does conjure up the essence of the holiday, which had long before this show been turned into a frenzy of buying with only a nod toward what the holiday should be about.

The crowd scenes are cramped by the studio space, and the choreography by John Heawood is workmanlike, except for wonderful moments when the dances of Dickens’ time are recreated.

The original color kinescope (a camera filming a television screen) of this show is lost; and the black-and-white copy offered here is a little marred by ghostly lines in the video. However (to me at least), this just adds to the magic of watching a relic from the past that is quite a reminder from the long lost days of what live television used to be.

Cornwall -- Cornwall to me is Arthurian romances, "The Pirates of Penzance," and (more recently), "Doc Martin." To a certain actress, it is a place to "spend a Cornish summer amid glorious scenery and fascinating people." That is from a blurb on the cover of an Acorn Media set of two DVDs, titled "Cornwall with Caroline Quentin."

What it amounts to is a 176-minute advertisement, dressed up as a travelogue, to draw visitors to that rocky part of Great Britain. Yes, the scenic shots are marvelous, especially in widescreen. But the endless interviews with shopkeepers, chefs, and local business people and residents quickly grew tiresome for me. All this material would have been just fine in a single hour-long episode; but eight episodes of 22 minutes each was cloying.

I think it was that early clichéd shot of the narrator walking from one side of the screen to the other, making believe she is alone, that turned me off. Why must directors stick to the same old tired techniques that are so artificial?

Of course, many might enjoy "Cornwall" for what it is. And as I said, the scenery is fabulous.

Andsnes -- It is most remarkable that a keyboard superstar like Leif Ove Andsnes never recorded anything by Beethoven. And it is refreshing to read in the program notes of a new CD an honest statement that he hadn’t found anything personal to express in the piano works of that composer.

Well, he seems to have found just that, as can be heard in the Sony Classical CD, "The Beethoven Journey, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3." The program notes go on to examine his approach to these early works (Op. 15 and 37, respectively). But the listener will have to judge this performance against so many other recordings.

I like what I hear, but I leave it to my betters (for example, professional pianists) to come to their own conclusions.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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