Monday, February 10, 2020

Orson Bean and The Hobbit 1977

Snagged from
RIP Orson Bean (1928-2020), who was struck by cars in Venice, CA and died February 7th at the age of 91.  He voiced Bilbo Baggins in the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit, which aired on NBC on November 27, 1977.

Inspired to do a little cursory research about him after the news reports of his death (and an interesting post at Land of Nod blog) I found out that Orson Bean had been blacklisted in Hollywood because as a young man he had dated a Communist woman and attended a few party meetings with her.  A few jobs came to him during the 1950s, including a role in a Twilight Zone episode, but his career prospects improved in the 1960s as the blacklist became increasingly ignored and discredited. 

Anchoring a stellar vocal cast featuring Hans Conried, Thurl Ravenscroft, John Huston, Otto Preminger, and Brother Theodore, Orson Bean helped make this TV special the "whole ganze" for 8-year-old me in 1977 (except for Star Wars.)

Some people don't like the dark visual tones in much of the artwork. To me, even 8-year-old me, this was a feature, not a bug.  The Japanese animation studio, Topcraft, whose members later formed the foundation of Hayao Miyasaki's Studio Ghibli, took Arthur Rackham as inspiration for their line-heavy art and some of the somber tones of its coloring.

The way Gollum was drawn, along with Brother Theodore's vocal performance, was a huge standout for me.
I like the way the trolls and goblins look, especially the latter mounted on wargs.
Another thing people dislike about this version of The Hobbit is the execrable warbling of "The Greatest Adventure."   I had more tolerance as a kid for songs, even lame songs, in movies and cartoons, and TV specials.  My kid, who recently turned 9, never had much tolerance for the tendency of every kids' movie to turn into a musical (a trait exhibited by her restlessness during Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka movie, the old Mary Poppins, the Robin Williams Aladdin, Disney's Little Mermaid.)   When she was 7, I thought she would enjoy the Rankin-Bass movie, so I rented it for us.  My daughter endured "The Greatest Adventure" and "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" but then had to kvetchingly wimp out.

I have to agree with my kidlet and all the haters about "The Greatest Adventure."  But I still love the atmosphere created by the "Under the Misty Mountains Cold" song that impressed me as it eerily resounded along slow pans of cavern walls.  My introduction to the Mythic Underworld as mused out by Philotomy.    

In 1978, my awesome mom was kind enough to buy me a large-format version of The Hobbit illustrated with stills from the Rankin-Bass movie, and a single-disc gatefold LP of the story (which unfortunately, reprised "The Greatest Adventure" many times.)  She then got me the Ballantine paperback of The Hobbit with Tolkein's illustration of Bilbo riding a barrel on the cover.  It was the first huge book without pictures that I had ever tackled. Soon after, I read the Lord of the Rings and was blown away by Ralph Bakshi's movie.  As if to carry on from the approximate place Bakshi's movie petered out in the middle of The Return of the King, Rankin-Bass came out with their own Return of the King, which was truly underwhelming.  I saw it on TV in maybe 1980.  The music was even worse than "The Greatest Adventure" - it still rises unbidden to my inner ear:
                                 Where there's a whip- SNAP-uh! 
                                 There's a way!  
                                 We don't want to work all day!
                                 But the lord of the lash says NAY! NAY! NAY!

I felt such a great impact from the Rankin-Bass Hobbit because I was the right age to receive it.  The spirit of the times was also blowing a great tailwind to speed the movie, the book, and the entire fantasy genre into me.  Led Zeppelin was singing about the Misty Mountains.  Holmes Basic D&D came out, and a kid in 4th grade (who is now a lawyer), enthused to me about black puddings and cool dice with 20 sides.  My mom's junior high students were scrawling twisty dragons all over their notebooks and making school plays about basilisks.  The Minnesota Renaissance Festival was rad and as yet unsullied by cosplayers dressed as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

So, thank you, Orson Bean, for being a part of bringing the love of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, fantasy in general, and D&D to me!

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