A deep dig into the soundtrack from a film that generates strong emotions (positive and negative) with a Sherman Brothers score controversial simply by its presence.
Paramount Pictures Presents
A Hanna-Barbera/Sagittarius Production
Original Sound Track Recording
Paramount Records PAS-1008 (Stereo / 12” 33 1/3 RPM LP)
Released in 1973. Producer: Tom Mack. Music Supervisor/Arranger/Conductor: Iriwn Kostal. Music Coordinator: Paul DeKorte. Original Scoring Mixers: Artie Becker, Ami Hadani. Re-Recording Engineer: Dave Wiechmann. Running Time: 28 minutes.
Voices: Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte); Paul Lynde (Templeton); Henry Gibson (Wilbur); Agnes Moorehead (Goose); Pamelyn Ferdin (Fern Arable); Dave Madden (Sheep); Bob Holt (Homer Zuckerman); Joan Gerber (Edith Zuckerman); John Stephenson (Fair Announcer); Bill Lee, Gene Merlino, Jackie Ward, Bob Tebow, Paul DeKorte, Joann Alberts, Dick Bolks, Fred Frank, Susie McCune, Jay Meyer, Jackie Allen, Paul Sandberg (Singers)
Songs: “There Must Be Something More,” “I Can Talk,” “Chin Up,” “Mother Earth and Father Time,” “We’ve Got Lots in Common,” “A Veritable Smorgasbord,” “Deep in the Dark/Charlotte’s Web,” “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig,” “Charlotte’s Farewell (Mother Earth and Father Time)” by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman.
Instrumentals: Main Title (“Charlotte’s Web,” “Mother Earth and Father Time,” “We’ve Got Lots in Common,” “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig”), “Chin Up March,” “End Title (“Charlotte’s Web,” “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig,” “We’ve Got Lots in Common”) by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman.
Like Charlotte herself, the beauty of Hanna-Barbera’s version of Charlotte’s Web comes from within. It was produced during H-B’s post-Scooby-Doo days, when the studio was in complete factory mode, thus making the feature much less polished than 1964’s Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear or even 1966’s The Man Called Flintstone. The cels are dusty and the animation, though above H-B’s TV average, inconsistent.
This Paramount film (which went into wide release 43 years ago today) came at the tail end of a history of backstage politics (the Hubleys and Gene Deitch were all involved with bringing the story to the screen and were wounded in the process). The resulting film displeased the author and his wife (who called it “a travesty”). So how could it be considered one of the best animated features of the 1970’s?
Because somehow it worked. Touched by witnessing the onscreen death of a creature that they would have otherwise squished, children and adults came out of theaters with teary eyes. Critics were impressed, especially that Hanna-Barbera could pull it off. As one of the earliest animated features to be released on home video (partly because it wasn’t Disney and not a box office smash), the feature sustained rentals and sales for years, before and after Disney started opening its vaults to VHS and DVD—thus ingraining it further into generations of collective memories.
Among the many reasons that Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web beat the odds and still stands as a beloved adaptation of one of the greatest classics of children’s literature is that H-B did with Charlotte Walt Disney did with Mary Poppins (another film that displeased its author depending on the day of the week she was asked)—they brought in additional talent to elevate the production and put their best in-house artists in key roles whenever possible.
Celebrated writer Earl Hamner (The Waltons, The Twilight Zone), was an inspired choice to adapt the script. “My agent called and he said, ‘You’ve been offered this job,’ and I said, “Yes! I’d do it for nothing!’” Hamner told Stu Shostak at stusshow.com. “He said, ‘You will not!’ When I was working on the script, the phone rang and someone said, ‘Earl, you sound all choked up. What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘A spider just died.’ So I was that involved with the script emotionally.”
Hamner’s script was so faithful to the book, one can almost read portions of the book along with the film. Very little was omitted, the “Dr. Dorian” chapter being the biggest edit. Fern’s indifference to Wilbur losing first prize at the fair is also softened in the film.
Few voice casts have ever been more perfectly assembled for an animated film. To this day, Debbie Reynolds is handed more Charlotte’s Web soundtrack albums to autograph than any other memorabilia from her vast career. Dave Madden considered the sheep a favorite role. Pamelyn Ferdin credits the film with helping inspire her to fight for animal rights.
Paul Lynde’s performance as Templeton the Rat became so iconic that Gary Winick, director of the 2006 live-action/CG remake of Charlotte’s Web, revealed that his fairground scenes with Templeton in his film had to be extended because test audiences were disappointed that the “Smorgasbord” song was missing.
Perhaps more than anything else, Hanna-Barbera’s version was blessed with the music and lyrics of the Sherman Brothers and the musical supervision of Irwin Kostal, teaming the trio again after Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. With endless respect to E.B. White (whose Charlotte epitaph, “A True Friend and Good Writer” may also be engraved on this writer’s final mile marker), taking the songs out of H-B’s Charlotte is like taking the songs out of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel or Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady — the source material is still classic, but it loses something substantial.
Charlotte’s death is heartrending in the book. When accompanied by the music, lyrics and meaning of “Mother Earth and Father Time,” it is—subjectively–heart-searing. This is the essence of why musicals are so uniquely powerful as an art form: the songs advance the story and provide emotion impossible to convey otherwise.
Granted, the same may not hold true for “I Can Talk,” in which Wilbur makes much ado about gaining the power of speech at Zuckerman’s farm. In the book, he simply begins speaking with the other animals with no comment. Perhaps the song that most unnerved the author was “We’ve Got Lots in Common,” with its Broadway barnyard finish featuring a chorus line of chickens. As Gene Deitch revealed for the first time in 2012, White “was strongly against turning Charlotte’s Web into a song and dance musical, but that is exactly what Hanna-Barbera did with it!” White had long since signed away his right of approval, so it is unlikely that the Shermans, Hamner, Hanna, Barbera, Nichols, Takamoto or anyone else on the projects may have been aware of how he felt.
Seconds into the very beginning of the movie, as the strings swell into the title melody, one is forever attached to the music—a score, by the way, that was a personal favorite of hit songwriter Al Sherman, the father of Richard and Robert.
As arranger, Kostal once again brings his skills from Broadway as well as Disney to maximize the mood of each Charlotte’s Web song. There’s even a little musical bonus for H-B fans: Kostal (probably inadvertently) added a classic H-B touch to the “Chin Up March,” which accompanies Wilbur through the throngs of fairground admirers. The arrangement suggests Hoyt Curtin’s early cartoon compositions, particularly those heard in The Huckleberry Hound Show. When the chorus picks up the tune after the special award ceremony, it’s as if Curtin handled the arrangement himself (interestingly, the trailers for the film closed with this piece of music).
If there’s any criticism to be leveled at Paramount’s soundtrack album, it might be that there’s a tad too much reverb and the overall playing time is too short. It might have been nice if the album included, for example, the major key instrumental rendition of the title song and the fairground theme (which served as the countermelody in “A Veritable Smorgasbord”. The album packaging is impressive, though, with a pop-up barnyard and punch out play figures, making it an extra-special album release indeed. In addition to the LP, Paramount Records also released a 45 RPM single of Debbie Reynolds singing a pop version of the title song.
To date, MCA has expressed no interest in reissuing the soundtrack album of Charlotte’s Web, much less producing an expanded version. So how’s a reissue from Intrada, which has issued so many wonderful Disney soundtracks recently–or Quartet Records, which released a wonderful expanded soundtrack of the Sherman Brothers’ other big musical of 1973, Tom Sawyer? Hmm?
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“A Veritable Smorgasbord”
This is the song that audiences missed in the 2006 live-action/CG remake of Charlotte’s Web, proving that the impact of a story is somehow lessened when a great song is absent. It’s Paul Lynde at his best, along with Agnes Moorehead, shortly after both had made an indelible mark on television as Uncle Arthur and Endora on Bewitched.