There’s a reason you’ve probably never seen Cricket on the Hearth. At the very least, you’ve almost certainly never seen it on television. Airing only once as an episode of The Danny Thomas Show in 1967, the Rankin/Bass special fell into obscurity afterwards, never being seen again until it got a home video release during the 1990’s. When Golden Book Video did the advertising for the VHS, they marketed it as a “long lost treasure.” Whether or not Cricket was ever actually “lost” is possibly up for debate (if anything, one reason for it being gone for so long may have been a copyright issue), but it did finally start airing again on television in 2006 when PBS bought the rights for Saturday morning broadcasts.
Still, the special is something of an oddity even today, and even if you’re a big Rankin/Bass fan, you’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. The strangest thing of all about it is that it feels like a later era special from the production company, coming from a period when they were churning out new holiday titles year after year from increasingly mediocre results. Yet Cricket on the Hearth comes from the studio’s golden age, before they made the almost universally beloved Christmas favorites Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Unlike those cartoons, though, Cricket is an incredibly muddled affair, with an unfocused narrative and a pretty bizarre storyline.
Part of the reason for this may have been that the special was largely produced as a showcase for stars Danny Thomas and his daughter Marlo, which means that it gives both of them several songs spread throughout it 49 minute running time. Danny Thomas both introduces and bookends the cartoon, merrily proclaiming that he had “no idea” that Dickens had ever written a holiday story outside of Carol. The numbers have virtually nothing to do with the plot, including an out-of-nowhere ballad by Danny Thomas about the first Christmas. A soundtrack album was available at the time, with all characters from Cricket curiously absent on the cover, but given how poor the ratings for this apparently were at the time, maybe that worked in the record’s favor.
So let’s do something I haven’t done in my previous retrospectives on the site so far and get into the story, something which isn’t going to be easy, because it’s so scattershot I’m not even sure how to explain even though I’ve seen this cartoon multiple times. There’s a cricket (voiced by Roddy McDowall) who befriends a stranger who’s a toymaker. The toymaker (Thomas) invites the cricket to live with him because he thinks all crickets bring good luck (which…may have been a superstition at the time? I guess?), and all seems well until the toymaker’s daughter (Marlo) is told her fiancée has drowned at sea. This causes her to spontaneously go blind from shock (what?), and the toymaker is so heartbroken that he stops working and has to close his shop as a result. He then gets employed by a greedy miser who is basically a clone of Scrooge (something which actually is from the Dickens story, because the man knew what his audience wanted), and the miser wants to marry the daughter, but he also wants to have the cricket assassinated (for…some reason). He hires his pet raven to do the deed, but the raven instead decides to kidnap the cricket and sell him to a sailor who pays “big money for crickets.” This somehow results in murder. Also, there’s a singing cat.
Most peculiarly–in a special full of peculiarities–is that the titular cricket does barely anything in what is supposedly his story. The animation, meanwhile, has that haphazard look of some of Rankin/Bass’s later work, which is confusing since this was made before Frosty the Snowman, which looks beautiful even today. This has much more in common with something like ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (you know, the one where Santa skips a town because he’s offended by a fake news letter to the editor written by a mouse), both in terms of its uneven tone, shoe-horned in songs, and general lack of charm. And while Night Before Christmas has, for better or for worse, earned itself a fairly loyal following thanks to repeating airings on ABC, Disney Channel and ABC Family (along with various home video releases), Cricket on the Hearth hasn’t been afforded that luxury. A Dickens of a confounding holiday tale, it’s hard to believe that Rankin/Bass still had some of their best work to come, rather than it being the other way around.
And, oh, yeah, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube if you want to. But you didn’t hear that from me.
Next: Barbie in A Christmas Carol is a Surprisingly Decent Holiday Movie