SCREEN SCROOGES: Rules of the Game

     The original text of “A Christmas Carol has been chopped into 47 sequences, which form the chapters of this book.  For each of these, we start with Dickens’s original.  (Why 47?  Well, I wanted to do an even 50, but the book won’t break down that way.  It insists on 47.)

     It has been a struggle, but I have resisted the temptation to change punctuation and spelling.  English has changed more than a bit since 1843; we’re not nearly so comma-mad.  My teachers would have slung a dictionary at me if I had been so free with colons and semi-colons.  But this is the original text, and, as somebody or other once wrote, “my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it or the country’s done for.”

     Following each chunk of text comes a brief summary of how the filmmakers regarded that particular sequence, and a discussion of how it was handled in each movie under discussion.  The versions chosen for study in this book were selected for balance and variety.  (Um, I actually just bought every version I could find available on videocassette in December.  Just TRY to buy a carol in April.  I ordered one in January and threw an entire warehouse into a tizzy.  I finally got that video in August.)

     Because titles vary from version to version, and can change between countries (England prefers “Scrooge” while Americans want “A Christmas carol”) each fi is referred to in the discussion by the name of the actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge.  The films considered here are:

     I.HICKS  (“Scrooge”, 1935)

     THE MOVIE: The 1930s gave us The Wizard of Oz as well as The Three Stooges.  You can see bits of each here, along with an injection of Twenties Expressionist film.  The version most easily available on videocassette is the one edited for television in 1946, and lacks about 18 minutes of the original film.  There was a videocassette of the full version which, befitting cinema purists, is brighter, cleaner, and funnier, showing how the editors in 1946 did a masterful job tightening the movie but left out some of the fun.   (2023 postscript: The one hour version is now much harder to find than the 78 minute version.  The world turns around.)

     HIGH POINTS: Seymour Hicks is a spectacularly idiosyncratic Scrooge, and one of the least aristocratic.  He had played the role first on stage in 1901 and was the star of a silent version some twenty years before this first known talkie Scrooge.  He took a hand in the script and direction of this version as well.  Then there is that splendid Cratchit, Donald Calthrop, possibly the closest  anyone ever dared come to the Cratchit Dickens produced in his live readings of the story.  And for talking purposes, there is that amazing sociocultural section as the Lord Mayor’s household prepares for the official Christas diner.

     LOW POINTS: These are the cheapest special effects this side of a middle school media class, and the sorriest set of ghosts ever.  By gum, no Jacob Marley was going to upstage Sir Seymour Hicks.

     II.OWEN (“A Christmas Carol”, 1938)

     THE MOVIE: An MGM B-movie, this was designed to knock Hicks off screens at Christmastime in the U.S., and it did.  Sterling British character actor Reginald Owen appears as the most querulous of Scrooges, who winds up partying with the Cratchits on Christmas Day like a man moving joyfully into a second childhood.

     HIGH POINTS: There never was such a rollicking batch of Cratchits.  Tiny Tim looks as if he might crumble before our eyes, and Bob is pitiable if portly, but the rest of the family (including June Lockhart in her film debut opposite her parents as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit) are suitably but bearably lively.  And then there is Jacob Marley, one of the most creepily corpselike ever to menace an Ebenezer.

     LOW POINTS: If the picture benefits from MGM production standards, it suffers some of the scripting flaws of Golden Age Hollywood as well.  The film runs barely an hour, but finds time not just to underline plot points but ring them with neon and blare them with trumpets.  These Cratchits are also some of the most well-off, with a home worthy of Judge Hardy ad Andy.  Fred has been made a bachelor to beef up his subplot in case Dickens’s story wasn’t enough to fill the hour.  And the attempt to make Owen look at least a generation older than he actually was doesn’t quite come off.

     III. SIM I (“Scrooge”, 1951)

     THE MOVIE: For many people, this is THE Carol.  Screenwriter Noel Langley (“The Wizard of Oz”) went farther than most in including material Dickens neglected to provide.

     HIGH POINTS: Alastair Sim himself, of course.  His Scrooge is utterly unrestrained; even when he is subtle, he is WILDLY subtle.  He carries you by force of will through all Scrooge’s ups and downs.

     LOW POINTS: Except when he is whining about being too old to change his ways: what was the point of all THAT business?  And Marley’s deathbed repentance fails to move me (despite being another great scene for Sim.)  These are minor quibbles; this production, even if you have to watch a colorized version, is top of the line.

     IV. MARCH (“Shower of Stars: A Christmas Carol”, 1954)

     THE PICTURE: This took over, in many US markets, the role of definitive television broadcast Scrooge from Hicks.  It featured Frederick March and Basil Rathbone in a script by Maxwell Anderson, with score by Bernard Herrmann (before he started scoring for Alfred Hitchcock movies and episodes of the Twilight Zone.)  The readily available videocassette of this reverses a trend, being a black-and-white version of a television program made in color.

     HIGH POINTS: Nice touch, as well as economical, to have the same actress play Scrooge’s lost love AND the Ghost of Christmas past, while nephew Fred’s actor makes an excellent Ghost of Christas present.

     LOW POINTS: But where is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?  Bob Cratchit is little more than wallpaper here, and given a choice between story and more songs, the production goes for the songs every time.  And what, um, was the purpose of giving Frederick March a fake nose roughly eleven feet long?

     V. RATHBONE  (“A Christmas Carol”, 1959)

     THE PICTURE: This was part of a television series called “Tales From Dickens”, in which Frederick March hosted half hour adaptations of full novels.

     HIGH POINTS: Er, it certainly is individual.  More of the story makes it in that you’d expect from a half hour production.  And it has Basil Rathbone, so how bad could it be?

     LOW POINTS: Well, that depends on your definition of “bad”.  This is staged like a cross between a silent melodrama of 1914 and a particularly unenthusiastic episode of The Twilight Zone.  Whether those sets are meant to be surreal or just really really cheap is a matter of opinion, and as for the story, it’s a perfect example of what happens when you hand over a classic to someone who feels nothing matters but the plot.  All the decorative plaster is removed from the structure, allowing you to admire the framework and scaffolding.

     VI.MAGOO (“Mr. Magoo’s Christas Carol”, 1962)

     THE PICTURE: a made-for-tv cartoon by UPA, with Jam Backus’s Quincy Magoo as a Broadway star appearing in a musical version of “A Christas Carol”.  This play is divided into five acts, roughly corresponding to Dickens’s five staves.

     HIGH POINTS: I recuse myself.  This was my first Scrooge, and try as I may, when I think of the Carol, I see this Jacob Marley, this Christas Past, this Christas Yet to Come, and especially these Ragpickers.  More books than mine, though, call this the best musical version of the story.

     LOW POINTS: The cut-and-paste here is ruthless as whole scenes and characters are moved about willy-nilly.  The most obvious example has to be putting the Ghost of Christmas PAST AFTER the Ghost of Christmas Present.

     VII.HADDRICK (“A Christmas Carol”, 1969)

     THE PICTURE: An Australian animated version aimed at the Saturday morning TV crowd, featuring the voice of Ron Haddrick in the first of his two animated Carols.  Visually, the adaptation is free, but textually it clings to the original words, adding mere bits of business here and there.

     HIGH POINTS: Some of the added material is not unamusing, and he get one of the flintiest, most heartless Ebenezers on screen ever.

     LOW POINTS: What DID the artists have in mind?  Most characters are buck-toothed buffoons, particularly Fred.  Jacob Marley looks like nothing human, though Scrooge recognizes him at once.  The colors are sickly, and a pointless preview at the beginning shows us Marley’s Ghost, killing the suspense later on.

     VIII. FINNEY (“Scrooge!”, 1970)

     THE MOVIE: A musical from the people who gave us “Oliver!”, this was intended as a similar lush Victorian romp.  The critics were largely unkind.

     HIGH POINTS: The music is lively, the Musical Fantasy Early Victorian London is colorful and jolly, and the material added to the original story is pert and fanciful.  Christmas Past and Christmas Present are magnificently solid spectres, both of them mildly astonished to find themselves associating with someone as petty as Scrooge.

     LOW POINTS: If you like your literary creations dead serious, Albert Finney and Alec Guinness as Scrooge and Marley will be a sore trial to you.  Scrooge occasionally comes across as Mr. Hyde by way of Richard III and possibly Quasimodo.  He is the wildest Scrooge outside of Alastair Sim, which is not to all tastes.  (And one of the few who could play both the present day Scrooge and his younger self.)

     IX. SIM II (“A Christmas Carol”, 1971)

     THE PICTURE: Winner of an Oscar as Best Animated Short Subject for 1971, this cartoon was made in the grim, swirling fantasy style very popular at the time.  Not only does it attempt to be true to the original text as far as time allows, it brings backs the performers of Scrooge and Marley from Sim I, and reuses some other key imagery as well.

     HIGH POINTS: This animation style is well suited to the darkest, grimmest parts of the story.  The dark house Scrooge inhabits was never darker, the Ragpickers never more verminous.

     LOW POINTS: It’s a short subject, and moves far too quickly, lopping out a great deal just to bring the picture in under thirty minutes.  (Still, it is the best half-hour version out there.)

     X. MATTHAU (“The Stingiest Man In Town”, 1978)

     THE PICTURE: This was an animated revival of the 1954 TV musical of the same name which starred Basil Rathbone.  It abbreviates script and songs, and recasts everything with the twinkling touch of Rankin-Bass, makers of some of the most memorable of TV holiday specials.

     HIGH POINTS: This is a jolly Carol.  Matthau’s Scrooge gives us a pretty good hint of how W.C. Fields might have played the role.  The Rankin-Bass touch was not meant for gloom; bright backgrounds and perky people populate this version.

     LOW POINTS: In 49 minutes, not only is the original story much abbreviated, but so is the script of the 1954 musical  Subtle plot points do not have much place in a quick-moving cartoon tale.

     XI. MCDUCK (“Mickey’s Christmas Carol”, 1982)

     THE PICTURE: Disney characters assume the roles here, with Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit in his first movie role in nearly thirty years.  This was Scrooge McDuck’s second movie appearance after decades in the comic books, and the last picture for Clarence Nash, who had done the voice of Donald Duck since the advent of talkies.

     HIGH POINTS: Liveliness, certainly.  Perky music.  And a great source of fun, particularly picking out Disney characters in the background.

     LOW POINTS: Thoroughly Disneyfied, this version retains perhaps a dozen lines from the original (And two of THOSE are “Bah, humbug!” and “God bless us, every one!”)  It is also one of the few versions of the Carol in which The Ghost of Christmas yet to Come talks.  I bet you didn’t know he was from Brooklyn.

     XII. SCOTT (“A Christmas Carol”, 1984)

     THE MOVIE: a lush and dramatic production, replete with authentic backgrounds and moody effects.  George C. Scott is a hefty self-satisfied Scrooge, who takes a LOT of convincing before he realizes he is not just the model of a proper British businessman.

     HIGH POINTS: It takes some getting used to, but once you’ve accepted George C. Scott’s face (certainly the least like Dickens’s description of Scrooge than anyone except maybe Mr. Magoo), it becomes the focus of the story.  It twitches.  It grimaces.  Even before the reformation , it smiles a WHOLE lot.  And it is as classically constructed as the Victorian buildings behind it.

     LOW POINTS: It is a cold, hard Christmas, isn’t it?  Every character in this production seems to exist solely for the purpose of lecturing Ebenezer Scrooge.  The Ghosts treat him with contempt, his nephew is hard and angry, and Bob Cratchit labors with an air of seething resentment.  No wonder he’s dour: even his customers treat him to lectures about his behavior.  You start feeling sorry for him long before the Ghosts even appear.

     XIII. CAINE (“The Muppet Christmas carol”, 1992)

     THE MOVIE: A mix of Muppets and men: as with Mickey Mouse’s version, part of the fun is recognizing characters you already know from other roles, even if Dickens did not make room for a boomerang fish act.  It is the only musical version to include singing lobsters.

     HIGH POIINTS: exuberance.  Enthusiasm.  The music bounces along, the dialogue is well-spoken.  The social conscience of the Muppets is a good fit for that of Charles Dickens.  Caine is a nicely cold and stony Scrooge, and there has never been a warmer Ghost of Christmas present.

     LOW POINTS: Touches here and there echo the Mickey Mouse version.  The Marley brothers are having an awfully lot of fun for two damned souls, and the ragpickers have been shortchanged.  The Muppets are not all that well suited for the grimmer parts of the tale.

     XIV. CURRY (“A Christmas carol”, 1997)

     THE PICTURE: This animated version includes a star-studded cast in a story set perhaps fifty years after the time period of the original.  Scrooge owns a dog named Debit, with whom he shares a Dastardly-and-Muttley relationship.  Debit handles the slapstick in the early parts of the story but sits out most of the middle.

     HIGH POINTS: Tim Curry is another particularly hard-hearted Scrooge.  He sics Debit on the charity solicitors, and hurls lumps of coal at the carolers, then sending Cratchit out into the cold to bring the coal back.  He has some great throwaway lines.  There is interesting background action.

    LOW POINTS: Why on earth assemble a cast like this and do so little with it?  Whoopi Goldberg is a very restrained Ghost of Christmas Present, and Tim Curry is not allowed to be all that much more than a good Saturday morning cartoon Scrooge.  The music is well-meaning, I suppose.

     XV. STEWART (“A Christmas Carol”, 1999)

     THE PICTURE: A made-for-TV extravaganza, with much period detail and an attempt to include as much Dickens as possible.

     HIGH POINTS: London and Scrooge are properly served chilled, as here.  We find less of an attempt to be picturesquely Victorian: a drab office in a drab building of 1843 has much in common with a drab office of today.  A lot of thought has gone into the dialogue: Joel Grey is a warm, glowing Ghost of Christmas past, and Stewart makes Ebenezer Scrooge very much his own.

     LOW POINTS: The Ghost of Christmas present seems almost TOO sardonic, too grim.  And with all the work in special effects, couldn’t the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come have been a little more impressive?

     (Next week: Down to Dickens)

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