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The publisher didn't believe in Charles Dickens' Christmas book – the author had to use his own money to finance its five-shilling color-plated first edition. But A Christmas Carol has always been popular: on the day it was first published, December 25, 1843, it sold 6000 copies. Since then it has earned additional fame through scores of dramatizations, including many film and television versions. Eight of these are now on tape, and they star an unusual cross-section of performers, from Alistair Sim and Henry Winkler to Mickey Mouse and Mr. Magoo.
"Should all of Charles Dickens' marvelous creations, from Mr. Pickwick to Edwin Drood, be suddenly threatened with extinction, the story of Mr. Scrooge would certainly survive," observes Michael Patrick Hearn in The Annotated Christmas Carol. "It has become part of Christmas folklore. " What most modern readers don't know, however, is that at the time of the story, the Christmas tradition itself was threatened with extinction. The Industrial Revolution had given impetus to a recent trend of people turning away from holiday cheer and charity, and by the mid-19th century many did not even look on the day as a holiday.
Dickens, who fondly remembered the old traditions (which were maintained more in the country than in the city), wanted to revive them, and the good will that went with them. He was also concerned about the plight of the poor, who depended ahnost. entirely on volunteer charity. "My heart so sickens within me when I see these scenes, that I ahnost lose the hope of ever seeing them changed, " he wrote after visiting a school for poverty-stricken children.
The author soon hit on the idea for A Christmas Carol as a way to address the issue. In the story he reworked a pair of previous tales to tell the saga of aged miser Ebenezer Scrooge-cruel to his underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit, uncaring of charities, and scornful of the Christmas spirit, which ·he called "humbug." On Christmas Eve Scrooge is visited by four ghosts: his former partner Jacob Marley, chained and damned because he refused to do good while alive; and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. These ghosts take Scrooge to witness scenes of his youth, of current Christmas cheer he is missing, and of his death and the joy it causes his debtors and "friends."
The story is most effective in its use of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit's "good as gold" crippled son, who will die from poverty if Scrooge does not change, and in its comment on the restorative powers of memory. It is by remembering, by seeing how he once was-kind, generous, unconcerned about the security of money-that Scrooge first begins to change, and to believe in Christmas. "Scrooge," notes Edgar Johnson in his definitive biography of Dickens, "is the embodiment of all that concentration upon material power and callous indifference to the welfare of human beings that the economists had erected into a system, businessmen and industrialists pursued relentlessly, and society taken for granted as inevitable and proper. The conversion of· Scrooge is an image of the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind."
The success of the book was more than Dickens himself could have predicted. Beyond the book sales, there were unauthorized stage versions, plagiarisms, and even a "sequel” (a book purporting to tell the life of Scrooge and Tiny Tim until the former's death). There was also a whole new genre: the "holiday book," which Dickens (and his contemporaries) continued to write every year, reworking the Carol's elements of the supernatural and holiday redemption.
And then came the film versions: silents in 1908, 1911, 1913, and 1914, then a slew of talkies, including a new TV adaptation this year starring George C. Scott. Most of these are now available on tape (the most noteworthy exception is the 1938 MGM adaptation starring Reginald Owen) and all offer something of interest to someone. Here's a chronological rundown of what's around, with particular attention paid to the humbug mixed in with the genuine holiday goods.
Scrooge (1935). For Carol collectors only: This was the first sound version of Dickens' story and it stars Sir Seymour Hicks, a distinguished British stage actor who had appeared as Scrooge in a 1914 silent version. His is the best performance in this fairly inept low-budget British production, represented here in a deteriorating print from Reel Images/Video Yesteryear. Dark figures walk in shadowy streets, made even more shadowy by the film's poor contrast. But that's the least of the film's problems.
Technical tricks were then limited in the struggling British film industry, so when Marley makes his appearance all we see is an opening door, a terrified Scrooge crying to the empty air, "Who are you?" and the reply: "Look well, Scrooge, for only your eyes can see me." Then the miser has a talk with a chair in the best Topper tradition. The visits to the past and present are equally wretched.
Although Scrooge's childhood is cut entirely, other familiar characters are here:
Tiny Tim, singing an off-key "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"; Bell, his ex-fiance, delivering her lines with what sounds like a German accent; and Bob Cratchit, looking and acting a lot like a humorless Stan Laurel. Hicks tries to overcome it all and has some success in making his character believable. And Dickens' happy ending still has a nice feeling, but it's not enough to pull this one out of the dumpster. As a curiosity Scrooge is fascinating. As drama it's dull.
A Christmas Carol (1951). This might be called the "Psychological Scrooge." More than any other version, Brian Desmond Hurst's adaptation, scripted by Noel Langley, emphasizes the motivations that guided Scrooge, making him less a symbolic figure and more a complex, tragic everyman. "Nobody ever cared for me, " the child Scrooge says to his sister. "Nobody ever will." This fear and its effects are shown in a series of new scenes, extrapolated from ideas in the story, in which young Scrooge betrays his kindly employer, abandons his fiance, and buys out his former' mentor. A deathbed encounter between Marley and Scrooge shows the depths to which his fear has taken him, unmoved by his best friend's passmg.
The 1951 Carol was created by two past masters of adaptation, Hurst and Langley, who between them had worked on' The Wizard of Oz, Ivanhoe, The Pickwick Papers, and Tom Brown's Schooldays. They were helped by a lively crew of professionals: Alistair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Michael Hordern, and Ernest Thesiger in a wonderful cameo as an undertaker waiting outside the door of Marley's room for him to die ("Ours is a highly competitive profession"). As Dickens enthusiasts, Hurst and Langley brought a loving attention to detail: the London stock exchange was used as a backdrop for one scene, real Victorian toys were employed for Tiny Tim's scenes in a toyshop, and Dickens' dialogue was used constantly.
And even when the words aren't his, they are unerringly on-key: "A message from Mr. Marley to Mr. Scrooge. Just say that Mr. Marley ain't expected to live through the night and if Mr. Scrooge wants to take his leave of him he should nip along smartly or there won't be no Mr. Marley to take leave of as we know the use of the' word." New scenes added – such as young Scrooge at work with young Marley (here played by Patrick Macnee, later of The Avengers) – are seamlessly Dickensian. Most wonderful of all, though, is Sim, who makes Scrooge's gradual transformation, from uncaring to joyful, completely believable.
The main fault in what is probably the best production yet are the tacky special effects (a twirling hourglass on wires represents the passing of time). These are not enhanced by the shockingly bad condition of the print used to make this tape. Besides scratches and dust, many frames are missing (which causes a lot of skipping), and the black & white contrast is poor, giving the darker scenes, obviously lit for atmosphere, a washed-out look. Inaudible sound often compounds the difficulty of understanding thick English accents. This Christmas Carol is a good film given a bad presentation.
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1964). The premise of this TV musical, produced when the myopic Mr. Magoo was reaching the peak of his popularity, was typical of many TV adaptations of the Carol: the producers would take familiar series characters (such as Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, or Ralph and Norton in The Honeymooners) and cast them as Scrooge, Cratchit, and the ghosts in a retelling of the tale, usually done as a dream or a stage production.
In this Carol the miser is played by Quincy Magoo (astute casting since he could never see the world clearly in any of his previous cartoons). The plot follows the main points of the story (though it inexplicably switches the chronology of the Spirits of Past and Present), using a silly device in which Magoo acts as Scrooge in a hit Broadway version (though all the special effects and scene changes shown would have been impossible in any theater I know).
It's all pretty dreadful, from a series of forgettable Broadway-style tunes by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill ("I'm All Alone in the World," "Razzleberry Dressing," "Ringle, Ringle, Coins When They Mingle") to the limited animation employed (popularized by Hanna-Barbera Productions in The Flintstones and The ]etsons; George Jetson seems to be playing Cratchit). The colors are flat, the characters lifeless and jerky, and the whole show is inspid and commercial. The tape is also terribly reproduced, giving the whole thing an ancient look. Strictly for kids, and not very demanding ones at that.
Scrooge (1970). In 1968 Lionel Bart's musical Oliver!, based on Dickens' Oliver Twist, came to the screen, and it was such a hit that Leslie Bricuse (Dr. Doolittle, Goodbye Mr. Chips) conceived, wrote, and scored a musical rendering of the Carol. There had been musical versions before, but none as lavish as this colorful production, just released on video by CBS/Fox. Originally shot in widescreen, the movie's images are noticeably truncated in some spots, and there also seems to be a phasing problem in many points (the corner of the image often shakes and is out-of-focus).
Aside from these difficulties, however, the film is top-notch, a lively "family" adaptation that is best when it is faithful to the original tale and dialogue, worst when it gets too cute-as in an added sequence in which Scrooge visits Marley in hell and has a huge chain placed aroµnd him. The Oliver! -like songs include the popular "Thank You Very Much," "I Hate People," and "Father Christmas." There's a lot of dancing, good cheer, and special effects, ably hat!dled by a cast that includes Alec Guinness as Marley's ghost; Edith Evans, Laurence Naismith, and Anton Rodgers. Albert Finney looks as though he is enjoying himself as the miser and has an affecting scene when he watches and vainly tries to change his past. Dickens might have enjoyed this one. Ronald Neame, who handled The Poseidon Adventure, directed and seems to have based many of his camera setups on the 1951 Carol.
An American Christmas Carol (1979). You can almost see an executive coming up with the idea for this TV movie: "A Christmas Carol is old-hat. Let's update it to Depression-era America and get the hottest star on TV today, Henry Winkler. It can't miss."
Surprisingly, it doesn't, thanks in large part to Winkler's sensitive performance as the Scrooge character, renamed Benedict Slade, an unscrupulous loan shark in Concord, New Hampshire in 1933, and also thanks to Jerome Coppersmith's excellent script, which captures the spirit of Dickens' story without sticking to the letter. For instance, the ghosts are all here, but this time; in best Wizard of Oz fashion, they are people Slade/Scrooge has cheated.
The approach makes the story even more universal (if that's possible), showing that the facts of the tale may change but the essential truth remains: we so often shut our eyes to what is around us, pretending we don't know, when we really don't want to know. When Slade sees the effects of his actions (courtesy of the three spirits), he tries to excuse himself by pleading ignorance. But as the Cratchit figure (well played by R. H. Thomson as a decent man trying to keep his job and conscience) explains to his daughter at Tiny Tim/ Jonathan's grave: "When someone is remembered with love, their spirit never , really dies. So instead of looking for someone to blame, let's make a promise to each other. We will always remember little Jonathan."
Memory is movingly worked into this version, with touching performances by Susan Hogan and Chris Wiggins, and a superb job by Winkler as Slade, aged 22, 36, and 80. The scene in which he brings the means of salvation to Little Jonathan is so well-played that it brought tears to my eyes; it is an effective use of sentiment in which Winkler's actions belie his external crustiness. He becomes a lovable curinudgeon whose bark is no longer as vicious as his bite.
The direction, by Eric Till, is crisp, using" visual cues to imply future events (a burning cigar on a desk tells how a fire in the next sequence began), and the lighting recalls the sepia look of old Christmas cards. There are no technical problems to speak of; the colors are well-reproduced, and the sound is fine. "This is an entirely new approach to the Dickens story," Winkler said in 1979. Yet in being new, the filmmakers really went back to the basics and came up with a thrilling interpretation of the same message of charity and goodwill upon which Dickens himself was so keen.
A Christmas Carol (1982). This Australian animated film is part of "The Charles Dickens Collection," a series of Dickens adaptations acquired by Vestron. In style it is much like the old Classics Illustrated comic books, and as such it is faithful to the source material and can serve as an introduction to the story if nothing better is on hand. Beware: the colors are flat and dull, and the animation – though pretty good by modern standards – is jerky and limited compared to Disney or the old Warner Brothers cartoons. The voices often don't match the intent of the words (the Ghost of Christmas Past seems peevish, and Scrooge is cruel even when he's trying to be nice). It's a wonderless retelling, a message without any merriment.
Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983). Walt Disney's name has become synonymous with kid's stuff. A Christmas Carol is essentially a child's story, for as Dickens said, "If we can only preserve ourselves from growing up, we shall never grow old and the young may love us to the last. Not to be too wise, not to be too stately, not to be too rough with innocent fancies, or to treat them with too much lightness are points to be remembered."
That could be the credo for this wonderful half-hour cartoon, which returns to the form the studio pioneered. This version (Disney's second) casts familiar characters in the roles: Scrooge McDuck is the miser (with the voice of Alan Young, Mr. Ed's Wilbur, who also worked· on the script), Mickey Mouse is Bob Cratchit, the Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk is the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Goofy is Marley. As one animator points out in the revealing Making of Mickey's Christmas Carol tape: "There was a challenge in every character in this picture because the part the cHaracter was playing sometimes didn't meet up exactly to the part the character was .... Goofy is a fumbling, bumbling idiot. .. but he had to play Marley, who has to scare Scrooge somehow .... That was a big problem. . . I think we handled it successfully. "
They do it by remaining faithful to the tale's main points and having fun in the process (Goofy trips and falls down the stairs; the Giant/Ghost cries "Fe Fi Fo Fum-" before recollecting that he isn't supposed to say that). The animation is wonderful, excellently reproduced on this flawless tape: fluid and colorful, with rich tones and textures that suggest life on every frame, trom Scrooge's glistening golden pile of money to an ominous graveyard scene. This last is Disney at its best: somber purples, mixed with a red glow in the sky, create an effective mood as Mickey/ Cratchit bids farewell to Tiny Tim. Then follows a nightmarish sequence of flames and death for Scrooge.
Mickey's Christmas Carol is the sort of cartoon they weren't supposed to be making anymore: the characters and background are constantly moving, and it's exciting to watch, the kind of work that fills children (young and old) with the sense of wonder that is a part of Dickens' story.
Scrooge's Rock 'n' Roll Christmas (1983). When A Christmas Carol had reached the peak of its popularity, Dickens was ilispirited to see the crop of plagiarisms and bastardizations that soon appeared. These ranged from a theatrical· dramatization, A Christmas Carol; or The Miser's Warning, to an outright ripoff, "A Christmas Story reoriginated from the original…and analytically condensed for this work;" Such unauthorized adaptations were par for the course, though they still infuriated Dickens, who complained to a friend that his work had been "made to appeared a wretched, meagre, miserable thing; and is still hawked about with my title and my name-with my characters, my incidents, and whole design."
One wonders what he would have thought of this misconceived video, a "free adaptation" that has, little to do with Dickens, the Carol, or the spirit of Christmas. Opening in a dimly lit workroom on Christmas Eve, the tape introduces us to a rather ratty looking Scrooge bemoaning the humbug of Christmas. Then a pretty young woman, looking like an over-aged Alice in Wonderland, enters the workroom thinking it's a record store. She uses a magic crystal ball to cheer Scrooge up with performance videos of, among others. Three Dog Night, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and Bobby Goldsboro, all singing big Christmas hits.
The premise is bad enough, but the videos are even worse: bland demo tapes for the stars, who frolic in the snow or stand in front of Christmas trees lipsyncing such tunes as "White Christmas," "Rocking Around the Christmas Trees," and "Jingle Bell Rock. " The nadir probably comes during "Do You Hear What I Hear?" – a saccharine song warbled by Love and Mary Magregor, who hold a bored six-pound sheep between them (I wonder what it was thinking?).
The clips are interspersed with inane commentary by the pseudo-Alice and the cantankerous Scrooge-who, as played by Jack E1am, seems more like a drunken Grizzly Adams than Dickens's creation ("I didn't see no dogs," he quips after a song by Three Dog Night). The whole extravaganza, well-reproduced on tape, was directed by Bob Franchini and Lou Tedesco. It is the worst sort of holiday Dickens' exploitation, the kind of kitschy music-hall variety show I thought no one had the nerve to produce these days. Bah, humbug indeed.
VIDEO, December 1984