24 December 2013

Dickens' A Christmas Carol – at the Movies


by Dale C. Andrews


Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.  
       As I wrote in this space two years ago, so begins one of the most popular novellas in English literature. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published just before Christmas in 1843, rushed to the press since it had only been completed several weeks earlier by Dickens. That previous article discussed the back-story of this little classic in some detail, but today lets look in the other direction. While many of us read this slim volume annually as part of our holiday ritual, it is safe to say that many more revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in versions of the story that have been adapted for the screen. 

Tom Ricketts as Ebenezer Scrooge, 1908
       By Wikipedia’s count, which is close enough for present purposes, there have been 42 filmed versions of A Christmas Carol over a period now spanning more than 100 years: The earliest, a 1908 silent version filmed by Essanay Studios in Chicago, starred an uncredited actor named Tom Ricketts as the miser on the cusp of redemption; the most recent, a 2009 animated motion-capture version of the story filmed in 3-D by Disney and starring a very credited Jim Carrey. Rather than discussing each of the 42, lets cull the list a bit. After all, if you are sitting in front of the tree today with your eggnog while you surf the channels looking for some filmed holiday cheer, there are really only six versions of A Christmas Carol that you are likely to encounter over the air or on DVD. And as to those, here is my holiday viewing guide.

     A Christmas Carol (2009) As referenced above, the most recent filmed version of the story is the ambitious 3-D adaptation released by Disney in 2009. The film, written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a followup to his previous holiday offering The Polar Express. As is so often the case when the adjective “ambitious” is used, in many respects the mighty efforts here have produced a version of Dickens’ story that is flawed. First, and notably, the motion capture technique that Zemeckis uses here and in Polar Express, while visually stunning, is also a bit creepy in its rendition of characters. Second, stated carefully, Jim Carrey is not for everyone. And while he works hard at his Scrooge he is still, well, Jim Carrey, an actor not known for subtle performances. Third, the movie was one of the first of the new batch of 3-D films, and as such it employs some of the older 3-D tricks – like throwing things at the audience – that James Cameron subsequently managed to leave behind a few months later with the release of Avatar. Particularly embarrassing is the prolonged scene in the Third Stave of the story, where Scrooge is shrunk to the size of a mouse and then slides down a roller coaster-like incline. When that comes on, think of it as a commercial and act accordingly. (In other words, leave the room for another drink.) The movie does have its moments, however. When not reaching for gimmicks, the 3-D can be beautiful, even stunning, And Zemeckis’ version provides an interesting new perspective for the story, situating Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley above much of the action, as they stare down through the transparent floor of Scrooge’s rooms. The film received mixed reviews, although Roger Ebert gave it four stars. 

       A Christmas Carol (1999) is graced by the presence of Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart is not only a gifted actor, he is also a long-time fan of Dickens’ story and has performed it as a one-man reading in London and New York for years. The film was produced for the TNT television network and is generally available over the air during the holidays. Unlike some other versions, at least the early parts of Stewart’s interpretation have a somber, gloomy aspect to them, much in keeping with the original tale by Dickens. The approach is realistic and I like it. Remember that, as discussed in the earlier SleuthSayers’ article, Dickens intended his story as a morality tale – a condemnation of British child labor laws and the plight of the poor in England in the mid 1800s. Stewart’s version toys with the original a bit, offering up more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley, but this works well even if it involves scenes not envisioned by Dickens. And in addition to Stewart’s bravura performance as Scrooge, watch for a good turn by Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Also watch for the montage, early on, of various denizens of the English working class -- in mines, on boats, in a lighthouse – setting aside their troubles to sing Silent Night. The scene is original to Dickens, but only rarely portrayed in filmed versions of the story.

     A Christmas Carol (1984) is yet another television adaptation of the story, this time starring the late George C. Scott as Scrooge. The film was produced by Hallmark and aired for years on NBC each December. Like the Stewart version Scott’s Scrooge is depicted in early scenes that are not found in Dickens' novella, including (again) in scenes fleshing out more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley’s beginnings. Scott was reportedly anxious to participate in this production since he had long believed that Scrooge tended to be portrayed by others in too broad a brush. Scott’s goal was to present Ebenezer Scrooge as a hard man of business, conservative and strict, but not someone who was mean simply for the sake of meanness. Beyond Scott’s performance, highlights of the version include Anthony Walters’ portrayal of Tiny Tim. Unlike some other child actors called upon to breathe life into that role, young Walters actually looks the part – managing to convey innocence, kindness and frailty in his demeanor. Another highlight is the superb performance by the late Edward Woodward (who played the lead in CBS’ The Equalizer) as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Toward the end of Stave Three Part Two of the book, Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present turn like quicksilver from jovial to fed-up as he listens to Scrooge.  He looks Scrooge in the eye and delivers the following line: 
'Man,' . . . if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. 
No one, and I mean no one, delivers this line as effectively as Edward Woodward. Essayist Lewis Bayard, writing for Salon.com, called this “the best Christmas Carol ever.” Even if you don’t agree, you can’t go wrong watching this one. 

       Scrooge (1970) This version of our story is the Leslie Bricusse musical adaptation, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge, which was filmed for theatrical release. I like the version, but it is sort of an acquired taste and decidedly not for everyone. Telling a story as a musical, with certain exceptions, becomes an invitation to tell it as a musical comedy, to play it too broadly, and that light air certainly has its effect on the brooding morality of Dickens’ original story. As an example, the most hum-able song in the score, the Oscar nominated Thank You Very Much!, is sung by those who owed Scrooge money as (unbeknownst to Finney, who is joyfully singing along) his coffin is wheeled down the streets of London. Also a bit strange is the casting of Finney, who decidedly is not a singer, although, according to rumor, the score was originally written for another non-singer, Rex Harrison, who ultimately turned down the role. The film also adds an excruciating scene after the Ghost of Christmas Future in which Scrooge falls into his grave and ends up in Hell, as an accountant to Lucifer. The scene, often cut (thankfully!) in the televised version, was likely added to give Alec Guinness, portraying the ghost of Jacob Marley, one more scene. If it is still in the version you find yourself watching, well, think of it as another invitation to refresh your drink. But don't get me wrong, this version does have its treasures, including the best metamorphosis of Scrooge’s door knocker into Marley’s face ever filmed, a wonderful stint by Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Laurence Naismith, who delivers the absolute best Fezziwig of all time.

     Scrooge (1951), released in the United States as A Christmas Carol. Many (myself included) believe that this modest British production is the finest film version of Dickens’ story. Alistair Sims is so perfect as Scrooge – tall, skinny, gaunt, tortured -- that he played the role not just once, but again in 1971 when he voiced it in an animated version of the story. Interestingly, Sims was reportedly a substitute for Basil Rathbone, who was originally to have played the part. But that is mere trivia – Sims' portrayal is perfect and wonderful. The production also is true to Dickens in the sense that it is presented darkly – for me it plays better in the original black and white than in the colorized version of several years ago. In the black and white film one feels, particularly in early scenes, the desolation of the English working class that is at the heart of Dickens’ story. But at the same time Sims’ version goes beyond Dickens in some respects and, like the George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart productions discussed above, delves into Scrooge’s past life with Marley and Scrooge’s evolution into the miser that we meet in Stave One. Watch for a young Patrick MacNee (later John Steed in The Avengers) in those early scenes portraying the young Jacob Marley. 

       A Christmas Carol (1938) This is likely the earliest version of Dickens’ story that you will find on broadcast channels or streaming video. It starred Reginald Owen, who was also a last minute Scrooge substitute, taking the place of Lionel Barrymore who stepped out of the production because of arthritis, but still provided the film’s opening narration. The film is a good rendition and, perhaps, its only fault is that it has a sort of sunny disposition that makes it difficult to find the London of Dickens. Cratchit looks too well fed; Tiny Tim, too big, too healthy.  The two starving children, "Want" and "Ignorance," who Dickens revealed hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, do not even appear in this version.  But watch for Leo G. Carroll, who later starred on T.V. as Topper and then as Mr. Waverley on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and who delivers a great ghost of Jacob Marley. Also of interest is the fact that the Cratchits are portrayed by Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, married in real life, and that one of their daughters, in an uncredited role, is played by their real-life daughter June Lockhart, who went on to a career portraying television mothers in both Lassie and Lost in Space

       Finally, if you are looking for a spoken word version of Dickens, over the years there also were many radio adaptations of A Christmas Carol. One of my favorites was a 1975 episode of CBS’ Radio Mystery Theatre starring E.G. Marshal as Scrooge. Marshal was the host of the series and this episode, as an interesting aside, is the only one in which he also appeared (er, was heard) as an actor. This adaptation is available for downloading on line. 

       So if you are looking for a little Dickens this year, you will not go completely wrong with any of the versions discussed above.  And, as noted, there are some real gems out there.

       Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and see you in 2014.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

10 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Dale, I really enjoyed your reviewing various performances of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Our readership is so wide that many will not have seen my favorite. For years, Theater in the Park, Raleigh, NC, sponsored Ira David Wood III's version on the road in the Southeast. Ira David Wood III wrote and starred in this magnificent musical with lots of dancing and absolutely hilarious antics. My sons and I saw this every year from when they were little until Mr. Wood became unable to perform the role of Scrooge and the performance stopped touring.
Bravo for Ira David Wood, III, and all others who have brought this classic to us!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wonderful post, Dale. I've seen the Alastair Sim version many times, but you made me want to see all the others. :)

Eve Fisher said...

My favorites are (1) the Alastair Sim version and (2) the Muppet Christmas Carol. What can I say? Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchit knocks my socks off. Merry Christmas everyone!

Janice Law said...

I remember being scared to death by the Ghost of Christmas Future in an old black and white version of Carol.
Maybe that's why I've stuck to the print version, which, I can assure you was still popular with today's students.

Robert Lopresti said...

Your opening reminded me of a story about Avram Davidson, a great writer of mystery and fantasy stories. Supposedly there was some workshop for writers and the instructor began by explaining that "characters in fiction had to be alive!"

From the back of the room Davidson shouted "Marley was dead, to begin with!"

And the great James Powell wrote a story called "The Tamerlane Crutch" which begins: "Marley was dead, to begin with. And when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it." Scrooge as Spade.

Miriam Maytea said...

When we say Scrooge is "mean," let's not forget that mean has quite another meaning besides nasty and unkind: it's also defined as tight-fisted and uncharitable… everything Scrooge was.

I enjoyed both articles and wish everyone a merry Christmas.

Leigh Lundin said...

Dale, like you, I played Scrooge in middle school. I don't especially recall my modest yet compelling performance or the laudations, but the best part was the chains and money boxes, which may yet reside in some dusty school closet. My dad fabricated sturdy sheet steel into money boxes, dropped in steel slug 'coins' (from electrical junction boxes), and welded them to chains. They made a satisfying rattle when dragged about the stage.

Dale, I enjoyed both articles. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

David Edgerley Gates said...

I'd add MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, with Scrooge McDuck, and Goofy as the Ghost of Marley, and Black Pete as the Ghost of Christmas yet to come. Alastair Sim is still the best, though. I think the story is impervious to harm. Dickens didn't invent Christmas. He simply made it his own. Really good post. And a Merry Christmas to you all.

Dale Andrews said...

I agree completely with David. You can't really ruin this story. I cry at the end of Scrooged, the Bill Murray version. Happy holidays to all!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Sir. My dad was born on 24 Dec and I remember seeing the Albert Finney version with him at the Plaza Theatre in Des Moines.

Others I like are An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler and Ms. Scrooge with Cicely Tyson.

Even though August here in Saudi Arabia I just watched the George C. Scott version.

God Bless Us Everyone.

Warren Sparks