There is some debate as to what is the most widely adapted novel of all time. Jayne Eyre is one contender. The Three Musketeers is another. Yet near or at the top of any list of most frequently adapted books is Charles Dickens classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. It’s not too hard to see why it’s adapted so often. It’s a great story filled with great characters. That’s the main reason. The fact that it’s in the public domain doesn’t hurt. And with Christmas coming around every year there is always a built-in audience. Since A Christmas Carol is also considered one of the best ghost stories ever told it can arguably span the entire Halloween to Christmas season.
Long before the invention of the motion picture camera there were stage adaptations of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nocturnal odyssey. British actor Seymour Hicks played that famous miser on stage throughout the 19th century. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis has presented a version since 1974. So has the Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1995 I went to see a lavish musical version at the Theater at Madison Square Garden that Alan Menken wrote. This tuneful production was restaged annually for the next ten years and is now quite popular in regional and youth theaters.
The first known film version was produced all the way back in 1901. Since then there have been more adaptations for film and television then anyone could possibly count. Many people site the 1951 film version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge to be the definitive film version. I for one have never understood why. Sim is okay as Scrooge but I always found this version to be routine and hopelessly creaky. My favorite straightforward adaptation was made for television in 1984 and starred George C. Scott as the legendary skin-flyn. You might find it hard to picture the man who played General Patton as mean old Mr. Scrooge, but he was quite wonderful in the role and the whole production was beautifully realized.
Then of course there was Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, Mickey’s Christmas Carol and the delightful Muppet Christmas Carol. The Bill Murray movie Scrooged has its admirers, of which I confess that I am not. I also had no real interest in seeing Robert Zemekis’ motion capture animated version with Jim Carrey. I caught a little bit of it on cable last year and what little I saw did not change my mind.
For my money, the best screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol was a big, lavish movie musical produced in Great Britain in 1970. It came out at a time when bloated movie musicals like Doctor Doolittle, Star! and Hello Dolly! were losing piles of money at the box office. There were still a few big screen song and dance fests that did well. Oliver! won the Oscar for best picture in 1968. Funny Girl came out the same year and was one of the year’s biggest hits. Fiddler on the Roof would score a box office triumph in 1971. But soon only the really unconventional musicals like Cabaret and All That Jazz or contemporary musical dramas like Saturday Night Fever would stay alive at the box office.
Scrooge, as this lyric version was named, starred Albert Finney as the title character. An incredibly handsome actor, he had landed the dream role of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Finney refused to sign a long-term contract with producer Sam Spiegel and therefore was dismissed, leaving the door open for another blonde-haired/blue-eyed thespian – Peter O’Toole.
Obviously, Finney’s loss was O’Toole’s gain. Whatever regrets he might have had surely melted away a year later when he gave a star-making performance as the title role in Tony Richardson’s film Tom Jones. He might have looked like a matinee idol, but Finney was and still is a character actor par excellence. In a long career that’s still going strong (he was recently seen in both The Bourne Legacy and the James Bond film Skyfall), Finney has proven himself to be one of cinemas great chameleons. He has played Agatha Christies famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, Daddy Warbucks in the original film version of Annie and not too long ago played a wily, Alabama born-storyteller in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Finney was just thirty-four when he played Scrooge. The make-up department did a flawless job turning the handsome Finney into the decrepit old man, but a great actor doesn’t use make-up as a disguise. He or she uses it as an extension of their performance.
Scrooge was directed by Roland Neame. A cinematographer turned producer, he was responsible for producing, among many other movies, David Lean’s film versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, two of the most perfectly realized film adaptations of Charles Dickens or any literary source. He later moved on to directing and enjoyed major international hits with The Prime of Miss Jane Brody and The Poseidon Adventure among many others.
The songs for Scrooge were the work of Leslie Bricusse. At the time he was best known for collaborating with actor/singer Anthony Newly, co-writing the songs for the stage musicals Stop the World – I Want to get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd and the title song for the Bond film Goldfinger. Bricusse later wrote the songs for Doctor Doolittle, which co-starred Newley (but who didn’t write any of the songs). The film may have been a flop but Bricusse’s bank account increased dramatically thanks to the royalties he received from the song “Talk to the Animals”. A year after Scrooge he and Newley wrote the score of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, another box office flop (albeit one that is now justly seen as a classic) which none-the-less gave them a multi-million dollar best selling single when Sammy Davis, Jr. recorded “The Candyman”. In recent years Bricusse has primarily worked solely as a lyricist. He had a considerable success on Broadway when he teamed up with Frank Wildhorn for the widely produced musical version of Jekyll and Hyde.
The film opens with a lovely choral number called “Sing a Christmas Carol” and the credits run over a series of beautiful illustrations by Ronald Searle. You might not know the name but he was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and became one of the most acclaimed British illustrators of his generation thanks to his work on the St. Trinian’s and Molesworth series of children’s books among dozens of others. He continued to illustrate right up until his death in 2011. I bring this up because a recent pet peeve of mine is that so few movies put their credits at the beginning of the movie. More and more of them wait until the movie is over to acknowledge the people who worked on it and in some cases (particularly with the Pixar films) we get an animated title sequence at the end instead of the beginning. Considering the fact that most people are getting up to leave at that point this is a disservice to the filmmakers and the title designer.
But I digress. Scrooge is largely faithful to Dickens tale. We begin with Scrooge and his clerk Bob Cratchet slaving away in a cobweb infested counting house, lined with ledgers and a number of different safes and lock boxes. Scrooge’s jolly nephew Fred (Michael Medwin) shows up to wish Scrooge a Merry Christmas and to invite him to Christmas dinner which he rudely rejects. Later Scrooge will be visited by two gentlemen collecting for charity (look closely, one of them was Veruca Salt’s Dad in Willy Wonka) whom Scrooge again gives a hard time (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”).
Bob Cratchet is played, quite ideally, by David Collings, a well-known British television actor. He’s a cheerful, eager to please gentleman with just a hint of world-weariness in his face. Scrooge works him like a dog and he won’t let him end his shift until the clock finishes it’s seven-o’clock toll. He gives Cratchet his meager weekly wage of fifteen shillings. A shilling was worth twelve pence. In today’s economy that would be 195.48 pounds or $291.61. And you thought Martin Shkreli was greedy!
This leads us into the first musical number, “Christmas Children”, in which Bob Cratchet meets up with two of his children, Hannah and Tiny Tim, and merrily go about their Christmas shopping. They travel through an idealized Victorian marketplace (not surprisingly, Scrooge had the same art director as Oliver!). We see the swells purchasing fine wine, food and presents while the Cratchets make do with a skinny Christmas goose (with it’s head still attached) and some “mystery gifts” wrapped in brown paper.
Soon Scrooge is also walking through the marketplace singing his own song with the blunt hook of “I hate people” (“and I don’t care if they hate me”). He goes about demanding inflated payments from struggling pushcart peddlers and a street puppeteer. Whenever possible he helps himself to some of their merchandise.
Soon Scrooge isn’t alone. A group of cockney street urchins who were previously caroling outside of his office start to follow him around singing an ironically taunting song called “Father Christmas”, describing Scrooge as the complete opposite of jolly and generous old St. Nick.
Scrooge arrives at his own house, and it’s a dreary place indeed, covered with dust and walls that probably hadn’t been painted since the reign of George III. One nice little touch though is a crystal chandelier hanging in the entryway. This probably was a nice house at one time.
Shortly after he enters a ghostly apparition driving a death coach appears, tips his hat, wishes Scrooge a Merry Christmas, then dissolves into the wall. The quantum leap in special effects that would be pioneered by Star Wars was still seven years away, but the effect works beautifully and is good and spooky.
Speaking about Star Wars, Scrooge is soon visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley. None other the Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, Sir Alec Guinness, plays the role. Had Finney not dropped out of Lawrence of Arabia these two master thespians would have already have worked together. Guinness was no stranger to Dickens, of course, having acted in Leans Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Guinness was another great chameleon and here he revels in his role as the ghost doomed to spend eternity carrying around a giant heavy chain forged by his greed and unkindness. But Guinness puts his own unique spin on the character. In most versions Marley is a pathetic whaling banshee trying desperately to save Scrooge’s soul. He’s trying to do that here too, but he also gets a little bit of perverse delight in haunting Scrooge and seeing how miserable he has become.
Now the three ghosts appear. First is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Dickens was somewhat vague in his description of this ghost, describing “it” as a white robbed figure of indeterminate age and sex. The ghost is often portrayed by a young boy in some adaptations, others as a young girl. This version the ghost is an elderly woman played by Edith Evans. A prolific stage and screen actress, she apparently played over one hundred roles in her career, including Miss Western in Tom Jones. Frankly, since this is supposed to be the Ghost of Christmas Past I find casting an old woman a little bit counterproductive.
In the flashback scenes we see young Scrooge courting the love of his life, Isabelle (Suzanne Neve). For these roles Finney appears without his old man makeup. I first saw this movie when I was twelve and didn’t know who Albert Finney was and had no idea that he was just thirty-four. Therefore I had no idea that young and old Scrooge were played by the same actor.
Next we have the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is almost always portrayed as a sort of Father Christmas character in a long green robe and with a holly wreath on his head. And so he is depicted as such here by actor Kenneth More, best known for his role in the BBC series The Forsyte Saga. He’s given one of the best numbers in the show, a very Jerry Hermanesque number called “I Like Life”. It may sound simplistic and juvenile but what is Christmas about but reverting to childhood and simply enjoying oneself and family?
He takes Scrooge to Cratchet’s small Camdenton hovel where he lives with his wife and five children. They don’t have much but they seem like the happiest family on earth (I’ll say this. For a poor family they don’t seem to skimp on hair care product).
Unfortunately this does lead us to an inevitably weak moment in the film, when Tiny Tim (Richard Beaumont) has to sing an obligatory number. Tiny Tim and his fellow Dickensian waifs Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, are not very interesting characters in of themselves but serve as a great stimuli for the interesting characters they encounter. Tim’s number is a particularly coy song called “Beautiful Day”. If you’re watching this movie with other people then this would be a perfect time to use the bathroom.
Then we come to the Ghost of Christmas Future, depicted as a black-cloaked figure of death. He takes Scrooge to his accounting house where all the people who are in his debt have gathered out on the street. One of them is Tom Jenkins, a character made up for the film and played by actor Anton Rodgers who had a long list of West End Theater credits, ending with the Grandfather in the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He passed away in 2007.
Scrooge is surprised to hear Tom Jenkins singing his praises and that everyone is cheering. He turns to address the crowd but fails to realize two things. One is that they can’t see or hear him and the other is the coffin being carried out of the accounting house. With that Jenkins sings the best song in the film, which gave Scrooge it’s one and only Oscar nomination, “Thank You Very Much”. Having him sing a song while dancing on a coffin may seem a bit dark and ironic for Dickens but hey, it’s fun.
Scrooge is then taken to a cemetery where he sees a mournful Bob Cratchet kneeling over the grave of little Tiny Tim. It’s at this point that Scrooge does get a little bit weird.
The grim reaper ghost shows Scrooge his own grave, which he falls into. He falls and he falls like Alice going down that rabbit hole. He then winds up in Hell. It’s a pretty impressive set, all fiery red with the faces of tortured souls in the rock formation. Still, it looks more like it belongs on the cover of one of Meatloaf’s albums then a Dickens musical.
Marley then shows up to greet Scrooge. He tells Scrooge that he will be Lucifer’s clerk, just as Bob Cratchet had been his. He takes him to a replica of his accounting house, only everything is covered with ice. “You’ll be the only person in Hell who’s chilly,” Marley tells him. We then see a bunch of muscular, sweaty, topless guys wearing executioner hoods carrying Scrooge’s massive chain, which he must now carry for all eternity. What can I say? It’s all a bit much.
Fortunately, Scrooge is soon back in his bedroom. It’s Christmas morning and the old miser has a chance to redeem himself. He then sings a particularly lovely song called “I’ll Begin Again”. Admittedly Mr. Finney, who recorded all of his singing live on set (and you thought Tom Hooper was the first to do that in Les Miserables), was not going to launch a singing career but I’m glad he performs it in his own voice. Sammy Davis, Jr, who frequently recorded Bricusse’s songs, made a recording that’s really quite wonderful.
The movie culminates with Scrooge making merry on the streets of London, donning a Santa Claus outfit that frankly looks like it was purchased as Sears (Santa’s red and white colors did not become commonplace until Coca-Cola came up with their iconic Christmas ads in the thirties) and distributing presents to one and all. Three of the numbers are reprised, “I Like Life”, “Father Christmas” (with new lyrics) and “Thank You Very Much”. People who don’t like musicals often complain that people don’t break out into song and dance in real life, the flashmob craze notwithstanding. Actually what they mean is that people don’t sing songs that they make up right on the spot, that other people know, complete with precision choreography and a full orchestra. I’ve always felt sorry for such people. They have so little imagination. And besides, wouldn’t real life be more enjoyable if we did all break out into song and dance?
Scrooge was not a hit at the box office. Fact is, unless you had Bing Crosby in the lead, Christmas themed movies were once a hard sell and rarely made much money. It’s a Wonderful Life, justly considered the greatest Christmas movie of all time was a major flop when it was released. It’s fame came from repeated viewings on television. Miracle on 34th Street was a hit but it was actually released in the summer. People suffering from the heat seemed to crave a yuletide picture and the film continued playing well into the Christmas season. Another Christmas film, albeit a fairly perverse one, that employed a similar strategy was Gremlins.
Part of the problem with Christmas movies has often been that there’s such a small window for these movies to play in theaters. Once the Christmas lights come down nobody really wants to see a Christmas flick. What’s more, November and December have traditionally been when studios release their big Oscar contenders, thus making the competition that much steeper. It really wasn’t until Home Alone came out in 1990 that any movie proved that it could continue to reap profits long after the holiday season.
Television has proven to be a strong lifeline for Christmas movies. Back when it was in the public domain, It’s A Wonderful Life was shown so often it became a joke. NBC/Universal now owns the rights and only airs it once a year. Miracle on 34th Street is shown frequently and unfortunately sometimes in it’s ghastly colorized version. Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story is shown twenty-four hours straight on Christmas day and films like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Elf have enjoyed frequent airings during the holidays. Scrooge was shown on TCM recently, albeit early in the morning. It’s never become a holiday staple, maybe because there are so many other versions of A Christmas Carol to choose from. Not everyone will agree with me that this is the best version, but give it a try. It’s nothing if not a lot of fun.