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20 December 2011

Dickens' A Christmas Carol


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.
    So begins one of the most popular and long-lived novellas in English literature.
 
A Christmas Carol, front piece and title page (1843)
    Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, just prior to Christmas.  But the story, from all accounts, had been fermenting like Christmas punch in Dickens’ imagination for many years.

    If you have read biographies of Dickens, or if you perhaps had the good fortune to catch Roy Dotrice’s 13 part 1976 Masterpiece Theatre presentation chronicling the life of Dickens, you already know that many of the characters in A Christmas Carol were drawn from Dickens’ own life.  Characteristics of Ebenezer Scrooge were taken in broad brush from Dickens' father, a man whose moods swung often from joy to darker visages, who was in and out of debtors prison, and with whom Charles Dickens had a life-long love/hate relationship.   Fan, Scrooge’s fragile sister, bears the same name as Dickens’ equally fragile sister, and her son Henry, a sickly child who died young, is almost certainly the model for Tiny Tim.  Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is also the name of Dickens’ younger brother, a spendthrift of whom Dickens largely disapproved.

    There is also evidence that both the story and the theme of A Christmas Carol had haunted Dickens for years before he actually sat down to write the novella.  In fact, a “working draft” of A Christmas Carol can be found buried in another Dickens story, a short narrative of Christmas redemption that appears in the earlier novel Pickwick Papers.   There, in an episode that also transpires on Christmas Eve, the character Mr. Wardle tells those assembled the story of old Gabriel Grub, a lonely and bitter sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins that show him scenes from his own past and, unless things change, his likely future.

    While all of this is useful background information, The Annotated Christmas Carol by Charles Michael Hearn (2004) notes that the catalyst that inspired Dickens to write A Christmas Carol was his visits in early 1843 to Cornish tin mines.  During those visits the author  encountered child laborers working in deplorable and heart-wrenching conditions.  After touring the mines Dickens immediately set to work on a pamphlet that was to be titled "An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child," and that was intended as a clarion call to end child labor, particularly in the mines.  Charles Kelly, in his 2003 treatise A Christmas Carol, reports that Dickens soon concluded, however, that his call for labor reforms and charity for the poor would be more resoundingly received if they were set forth during the course of a story, particularly one cloaked in the setting of a London Christmas. 

A page of Dickens original manuscript
    But this revelation came to Dickens in October of 1843, barely two months before Christmas.   In order to ensure that the book would be published at the time of year when its message would resonate the most Dickens had to accomplish a Herculean task.  When Dickens began to write A Christmas Carol it was therefore at a feverish pace.  The book was finished a scant 6 weeks later, in early December of 1843.  Less than two weeks after completing the manuscript on December 17, 1843, Dickens published  the first edition of A Christmas Carol at his own expense. 

    Although expenses related to Dickens’ decision to self-publish (tricky then as it can be now) resulted in less of a return than the always over extended author had hoped for, the little book was nonetheless an immediate commercial success.  The first run of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve of 1843 and a second press run was immediately begun .  Since then Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. 

    The success of A Christmas Carol inspired Dickens to write four additional Christmas tomes published between 1844 and 1848:  The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain.  Each of these was published just before Christmas in succeeding years, and each involved a similar theme – redemption of the spirit in the context of the yuletide holiday.  But none matched the success of A Christmas Carol.

    So, what was it – what is it – about A Christmas Carol that struck the right chord?  Well, at least back in 1843 some of the success of the book can be attributed to rather remarkable timing.  Stated another way, the little book was a product of its times.

    In the early 1800s Christmas had been more of a somber affair in England.  It was a day barely observed, when businesses remained open and commerce continued to flow.  That fact makes more understandable the grudging question Scrooge poses to Cratchitt:  “You will want all day tomorrow, I suppose?”  Scrooge, after all, had presided over his business in years when a Christmas holiday from commerce was hardly the norm.

    But by the 1830s times were changing, and the Yule had begun its transformation into a joyous year-end celebration.

    Evidence of this transformation abounds.   In 1841, for example, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, German by birth, introduced a tradition from his homeland and the first Christmas trees appeared in England.  1843, the year A Christmas Carol was published, is also the first year that Christmas cards were widely exchanged in England.  The singing of Christmas carols, suppressed in England since the Protestant Reformation and the Calvinist aversion to "nonessential" religious customs, also enjoyed a resurgence in the 1830s as wassailing took hold in England.  All of this was in place when A Christmas Carol first appeared in the bookstores of London in December of 1843.

    Even meteorology cooperated with Dickens’ narrative.  The “white Christmas” setting of A Christmas Carol was hardly the norm in London, which more typically receives 6 to 12 inches of snow spread over the entire winter season.  But this was not so much the case during Dickens' lifetime.   In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd wrote: "In view of the fact that Dickens can be said to have almost singlehandedly created the modern idea of Christmas, it is interesting to note that in fact during the first eight years of his life there was a white Christmas every year; so sometimes reality does actually exist before the idealized image."  Probably even more telling was the fact that on Christmas Eve of 1836 – seven Christmases before the publication of A Christmas Carol, and the very night that Dickens tells us Jacob Marley lay dying – London  was blanketed in a blizzard that continued for five days and reportedly left snow drifts of 12 to 40 feet in the city.

    And beyond all of this is the moral of the story, which, as Dickens had hoped, captivated his readers.  In 1843 England -- beset with its poor houses, debtors prisons, and child labor -- the hope of individual and societal redemption that lies at the heart of A Christmas Carol fell on sympathetic ears.  Dickens was not the only Englishman appalled by these conditions, nor was he the only one hoping that society would begin to move toward a more charitable approach toward poverty and its ravages.

    So a joyous Christmas story, set in a snow-bound England, and telling a tale of redemption, of throwing off miserly ways, of embracing human kindness and charity, was one that the reading public readily embraced.

    It is more elusive, perhaps, to explain the amazing staying power of A Christmas Carol.  It has proven itself, beyond all debate, to be a story not just for the Victorian age, but for all ages.

Alistair Simms -- perhaps the finest
portrayal of Ebeneezer Scrooge
    Not only is the book universally read, it is equally universally performed.  Think of the actors who have played Scrooge over the years – Reginald Owen, Alistair Sims, Basil Rathbone several times (he also played Marley at least once), Frederic March, Ralph Richardson, Cyril Richard, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, and Patrick Stewart.  The story even resonates when Scrooge is played in a stretch – by Mickey Mouse, Mr. Magoo, Jim Carrey, Tim Curry, or by Kelsey Grammar (in an operatic version, nonetheless), or by Henry Winkler (in a western version), or by Marcel Maceau in a mime version, or by Bill Murray (in a jaded Hollywood setting), or by Michael Caine (performing opposite the Muppets),  All of them, and others, have looked out at us and expounded on burying revelers with a stake of holly through their hearts.  All of them have muttered about blots of mustard, crumbs of cheese, and underdone potatoes.  All of them have snarled “humbug,” a word that did not exist until Dickens penned it.  And each of them, every one, has been blessed and redeemed in the end. 

    I read Dickens A Christmas Carol every year, and (at least for me) it always works.

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!

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!

18 December 2012

Christmas Stories: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


 by Dale C. Andrews 
 
     Most years around this time I settle down to a re-read of Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke, a 1957 mystery that I consider one of Queen’s best and that takes place during the course of Advent in 1929.  Building a Christmas mystery for Ellery to solve was a temptation that even two Jewish cousins from Brooklyn, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, could not resist.  The temptation has also lured virtually every other classic mystery writer.   Agatha Christie gave us not only Hercule Poirot’s Christmas but also a Miss Marple short story Christmas Tragedy.  Rex Stout contributed the 1957 Nero Wolfe novella Christmas Party and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jumped into the fray with Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.  (The Holmes story is now available to Audible subscribers this month as a free holiday download.)

    Christmas stories are not the sole province of Golden Age mystery authors.  Our own Elizabeth Zelvin has contributed such a volume, to the holiday shelf Death Will Trim Your Tree.  The temptation to offer up Yuletide tales is also apparent from the works of other modern popular authors.  John Grisham has Skipping Christmas, and David Baldacci has The Christmas Train.

    Christmas stories have also provided the backdrop for many memorable movie classics.  Last year at this time of year I wrote of the many adaptations of my personal favorite, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and our family’s Christmases usually are not complete without at least one screening of Irving Berlin’s 1954 musical White Christmas – this year my wife and I even attended the stage version at the Kennedy Center here in Washington – and we also always manage to find an evening to devote to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

    My family has always celebrated the Yule on Christmas Eve – when my brother Graham and I were kids that was the evening Santa visited our home, just after dinner.  The same was true when my own two sons, now well ensconced into their twenties, were kids.  And now, with my immediate family having dwindled down to four (all adults), six including my brother and his wife, we gather at Graham and Nikki's restored Victorian home near the St. Louis botanical gardens each year for the holiday.  We do all of the expected things – listen to carols, open presents, dine in front of the tree.  But we have a darker side to our Christmases as well.  When the presents have all been opened, and the room is a hopeless clutter of torn metallic papers and ribbons, we pour ourselves a couple stiff ones and turn on the TV in search of bad Christmas movies.

    With on-line movies, YouTube and obscure DVDs readily available, finding almost any given movie is not that difficult.  But finding the right one is not always an easy task.  Not just any bad movie will do.  Just as you can get too much of a good thing, it is even easier to get too much of a bad thing.  What we search out each year are movies that, while failed, offer something camp; something so awful that it is funny but not so awful that it is unwatchable.  We have been laughing “with” all evening; now it is time to laugh “at.”

    Candidates for this year, together with some that have already been rejected, include the following:

    Santa Claus Conquers the Martians This incredibly cheesy 1964 movie makes every list of “ten worst Christmas movies” as well as “ten worst movies ever.”  The premise:  The Martians kidnap Santa Claus because there is no one on Mars to give presents to the Martian kids.  Apparently no one cares about the rights on this one, so if you are tempted you can see the whole debacle, including the original title song "Hooray for Santy Claus," at this YouTube site.  (Watch closely -- an eight year old Pia Zadora plays one of those mini-Martians.)  Special effects include what charitably  appear to be five dollar masks and action sequences where everyone leans to the right when the spaceship veers left.  We’ve seen this one before.  I’m still looking for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode featuring the movie.  Score; Watchable, but two or more scotches will likely be required.  

    Santa with Muscles Hulk Hogan stars in this 1996 film about an evil millionaire who gets amnesia, hides from pursuers by donning a Santa costume, and then believes that he is Santa after seeing himself in a mirror.  Ed Begley, Jr. also stars as an evil scientist intent on taking over an orphanage for some obscure reason.  Movie critic Joe Leydon wrote “John Murlowski directs with all the enthusiasm of someone going through the motions to pay off a debt.”  Score: As yet unseen, but a candidate for a two scotch watch.

    Jingle All the Way Yet another 1996 Christmas movie that consistently makes the “worst 10 Christmas movies” list.  More money was spent on this film than on any other in the list but, by all accounts, it still does not work.  Arnold Schwwarzenegger in his pre-governator days stars as a harried parent trying to secure the hottest toy of the year.  Comparing this movie to the Hulk Hogan opus discussed above, film critic Chris Hicks said that the Hulk’s movie "makes Arnold Scwarzenegger seem like Laurence Olivier.”  I have yet to see this movie, but it is a favorite of our kids and a likely watch this year.  Score:  Sight unseen, but a candidate for watching with the first scotch of the evening.

    Santa Claus aka Santa Claus versus the Devil  This 1959 Mexican production has garnered several critics’ nomination for worst movie ever filmed.  (An awesome feat – that means it defeated the horrible -- but non-Christmas -- Plan 9 from Outer Space, starring Bela Lugosi and his chiropractor, who filled in for Bela after he died in mid-filming.)  Anyway, this Mexican entrant in the Christmas sweepstakes tells the story of Santa and his best friend Merlin the Magician who are off to thwart the Devil’s plan to kill Santa and, in the words of the film’s promo piece, “make all of the kids in the world do evil.”  Apparently no one cares about copyright protection on this Christmas turkey either -- the whole film is a click away on YouTube.  Score:  sight unseen, but we will likely take a peak this Christmas.  A candidate for a two and a half scotch watch.  Also a film where one senses the remote should be kept handy just in case.

    Christmas Vacation 2 – Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure  This 2003 TV movie sequel to the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was apparently shown once, and only once, on network TV.  The sequel, as the name implies, jettisons the Griswold clan, leaving us only with Cousin Eddie and his . . . “brood.”  What were they thinking?  The WebSite DVD Verdict calls the film a "bedsore of a movie" and suggests that any copy should be "thrown into a burlap sack, weighted down with rocks, and tossed into the closest body of water."  Score: I’m not going to even try it.  

    A Christmas Carol – the Musical  Not to be confused with Albert Finney’s very passable 1970 musical Scrooge, this 2004 made-for-TV film stars Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge and has Jason Alexander playing Marley’s ghost. And – worse – the movie is not just a musical, it is virtually an opera – almost everything is sung.  I mean everything. One reviewer summed up the film as follows: “Never in all my days have I ever seen such a turgid remake of what can only be described as one of the most heartwarming Christmas events.” Score:  As noted, I’m a huge Christmas Carol fan (I even liked Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which, by the way, featured better music than this version.) I tried to watch this film when it aired in 2004 and turned it off within 10 minutes when it became evident that no one was going to (1) stop singing, or (2) sing adequately. Score:  Unwatchable.  Cannot be saved even by scotch.

    An American Carol  This 2008 film played in theaters for about a week. It is hard to classify it strictly as a Christmas movie since it takes the Dickens premise and then shifts the underlying holiday to July 4 and re-invents the story as one involving a liberal movie producer who, in all but name, is Michael Moore, and who has forgotten the meaning of patriotism. He is visited by three ghosts including (see above) Kelsey Grammer as General George Patton, a re-invented “ghost of Independence Days past.”  If that were not enough, Leslie Nielsen, in one of his final films, appears as Osama Bin Laden.  Film critic Sam Graham had this to say about the movie: “It’s been suggested that An American Carol wasn’t screened for reviewers prior to its theatrical release because the predominantly left-leaning critics would pan the film merely because of its conservative subject matter, thus torpedoing its box office potential .There’s some justification for that belief, but there’s another reason that certain films aren’t pre-screened: because they’re not good . . ..” Score: I have yet to watch this movie, but am likely to give it a try this Christmas. Having said this, I will be surprised if I get through more than 10 minutes. Three scotches and keep the remote well in hand.

   The Star Wars Holiday Special  Although not truly a “story,” this 1978 television special at least has a story-line that attempts to tie things together -- Chewbacca and Hans Solo visit Kashyyk, Chewbacca's home world, to celebrate “Life Day.” The special featured all of the actors from the original Star Wars trilogy and is universally (in a galaxy not that far away) judged to be one of the most horrible television programs ever aired. Some of the cast members have at times denied that the program even existed. George Lucas has spent a great deal of effort ensuring that it will never be re-broadcast. To quote Lucas, "if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it." In similar tone, David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?:  The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, ranked the holiday special at number one, calling it "the worst two hours of television ever."  While the show was never re-broadcast and never released on tape or DVD, if you want to see just how bad a film can be, there are original copies (recorded off the air in glorious VHS) that are available on YouTube. Full length versions are relentlessly blocked by "the Federation," but the smaller snippets persist.  This one contains the first ten minutes, which, in truth, is all you need.   Score: Unwatchable. But having said that, you should try just the first few minutes, scotch firmly in hand, to see how a group of talented people can come up with something this totally wrong-headed. Jaw dropping is the only response to the overly long and totally incomprehensible segment set in Chewbacca’s home near the beginning of the film. As actor and critic Ralph Garman observed, “it's so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.”

Happy Holidays!



17 December 2015

Christmas is Almost Always Murder


by Eve Fisher

Seriously, Norman Rockwell has a lot to answer for. All those pictures of Mom and the turkey, the family gathered around... All those "Old Home Folks" stories about the perfect Christmas, and how sweet it was when children were grateful for a penny, and grownups didn't get anything, but they all ate like horses and loved it. All those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (I mean, really, 24 hour a day Christmas movies starting on THANKSGIVING??????) Okay, back to those, where it's all about love, love, love, love, love, with red and green and what is the deal with all those movies about a "Prince/Princess for Christmas"?

I really am turning into a grinch, right?

Wrong.

We're No Angels - 1955 - poster.png I love a good Christmas movie or story, but I take my entertainment with a little salt, thanks. Or at least a shot glass. And a little murder just adds to the fun.

Here's a list of my favorite Christmas movies, the ones my husband and I watch every year, and yes, we know the lines by heart:

We're No Angels, (1955), Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, and Basil Rathbone. For my 2012 take on this movie, complete with synopsis and begging everyone to go to Netflix and get it immediately, see here: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/12/were-no-angels.html

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Monty Wooley, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, and more. The worst house guest in the world is also the most erudite, witty, arrogant, and popular man on the planet. Sheridan Whiteside was Kaufman and Hart's masterpiece (especially as played by Monty Wooley), based on (of course) the Algonquin Club's founder, leader, gatekeeper and spoiled child, Alexander Woollcott.
Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes (in her breakthrough screen role), and Monty Wooley
The play - and the movie - are chock full of characters who were based, almost libellously, on real people. Banjo = Harpo Marx. Beverly Carlton = Noel Coward. Lorraine Sheldon = Gertrude Lawrence, of whom Beverly Carlton says, in my favorite movie line of all time,
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."
And Mary Wickes as Nurse Preen, who has to nurse the impossible Sheridan Whiteside:
"I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you , Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on , anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed YOU, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!"
Reborn (1981). Directed by Bigas Luna, originally titled Renacer, "starring" Dennis Hopper as the snake-oil selling Reverend Tom Hartley, Michael Moriarty as Mark (a thickly-veiled Joseph), and (I kid you not, spoiler alert!) a helicopter as the Holy Spirit. While it has horrible production values, and was obviously made (in Italy, Spain, and Houston, TX) on rather less than a shoestring (I think all the money was spent on the helicopter), this still may be one of the most interesting versions of the Nativity that's ever been done.
"You're going to have a baby? I can't have a baby! I can't even take care of myself, much less a baby!" Mark.

The Thin Man (1934). William Powell and Myrna Loy. Machine-gun dialog, much of it hilarious. A middle-aged peroxide blonde and an incredibly young Maureen O'Sullivan. More drinking than anyone would dare put into a movie today, at least not without a quick trip to rehab for somebody, especially Nick Charles. And mostly true to Dashiell Hammett's plot.
"Is he working on the case?" "Yes, a case of scotch!"

Okay, a quick break for myself and the grandkids: A Muppet Christmas Carol (with Michael Caine), A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (narrated by Boris Karloff). Love, love, love them ALL.




Okay, back to more adult fare:

Listed under secret pleasures, Love Actually (2003), mostly because I start laughing as soon as Bill Nighy starts cursing. (What can I say? I'm that kind of girl.)
"Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!" Truer words are rarely spoken in a Christmas movie...

Totally NON-secret NON-guilty pleasure: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988). Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder), Tony Robinson (Baldrick), Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Miram Margolyes as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and Robbie Coltrane as the Spirit of Christmas...
"Mrs. Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen stone and built like a brick privy. If he eats any more heartily, he will turn into a pie shop." God bless us, everyone.
Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) (1951). Alistair Sim. This is my favorite version, mostly because it feels like Dickens to me, because I love Fezziwig's sideburns, because of the hysterical charwoman, but mostly because Mr. Sim's Scrooge really ENJOYS being a hard-hearted miser from hell. Which makes his delight, after coming back from his Christmas travels among the spirits, more believable. Or at least I always find myself grinning from ear to ear...



"I don't deserve to be this happy. But I simply can't help it!" Hit rewind, while I make another cup of tea and pull out the Christmas cheer…
Merry Christmas, everyone!

22 December 2015

Have a Holly Jolly Crime Season


by Paul D. Marks

Since Christmas is a couple+ days off and New Years a week or so away, but as we’re in the middle of the holiday season, I thought I’d try to find some appropriate movies and books for the season. And though I wrote this over a week ago it seems that great minds think alike as Eve also did a post on holiday movies. Luckily there’s really not any crossover in our choices.

Mine are appropriate for people who are into crime for whatever demented reasons we are. So, much as I love Miracle on 34th Street, The Shop Around the Corner, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and others—and by the way, that’s my way of getting these non-crime holiday movies that I like mentioned here—the focus here will be on holiday movies/books with a crime element. Though I will exclude horror and stick to mystery and thriller.

So, without further ado:

Movies:




Christmas Holiday – Deanna Durbin is a torch singer in a dive club. There’s violence and insanity. And Southern gents—nasty Southern gents. Prison breaks and Murder. And murder cover-ups. So I ask you, what the hell more do you want in a Christmas movie? Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham of all people. And directed by Robert Siodmak, one of noir’s iconic directors. Maugham and Siodmak, a match made in......Hollyweird.






Comfort & Joy – My wife’s favorite on this list. In fact, she made me add it at gunpoint. A 1984 Scottish movie about a radio DJ who gets stuck in the middle of a feud between rival ice cream trucks. The grisly carnage of melted ice cream on velour upholstery is not for the faint of heart.





Die Hard – There’s a Christmas party happening in the Nakatomi Building in LA (incidentally not too far from where I lived when the real building was going up and I could see its progress every day).  Everybody’s happy! Until some guy named Hans Gruber—you know he’s a bad guy with a name like that—spoils everybody’s fun, taking them all hostage. Luckily, there’s a barefoot Bruce Willis in the head ready to save the day. So Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow—of course, in LA when you say that you might not be talking about condensed water...



Die Hard 2 – “Another basement, another elevator...how can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” asks Bruce Willis’ John McClane in the first of 739 sequels to Die Hard. (Don’t get me wrong, I like ’em...except for that last horrid thing set in Russia, and maybe that’s the real crime here re: the Die Hard movies.) It’s Christmas Eve, Bruce is waiting for his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) at Dulles Airport in DC. Franco Nero arrives around the same time, a South American drug dealer being brought here to stand trial. But the bad guys have other plans for him. Not a creature was stirring, not even a louse, ’cause what they didn’t know was that John Mclane was in the house. So Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!




Holiday Affair – Robert Mitchum gets Janet Leigh fired from her job in a department store. Hilarity ensues. Maybe not really a crime story, but since Mitchum is the cause of Leigh’s losing her job, we’ll call that a crime and let it squeak by. Besides, who’s a bigger iconic noir actor than Mitchum—that’s enough to let it qualify.







Home Alone – Cuter than beans Macaulay Culkin gets left behind by his oblivious family when they go on vacation. Hey, that’s nasty stuff. And there’s burglars (hence crime) in the form of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. And if you’ve seen Goodfellas you know what a nasty SOB Pesci is. So we’re good here for a crime Christmas movie. And it’s directed by Chris Columbus and, if you listen to some people, you know that Mr. Columbus is the cause of all the problems in the New World. Crime, baby!





Ice Harvest – John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Randy Quaid. From a book by Scott Phillips.  Christmas Eve. Wichita, Kansas. A mob lawyer, a pornographer and a mob boss (walk into a bar...). What the hell more do you want in a Christmas movie?






LA Confidential – Hey peeps, on the lowdown, who do you think of when you think of Christmas? Bethlehem? Hell no! Santa Claus, you nuts? James Ellroy of course. It’s Christmas time. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is beating up a wife abuser. The cops are having a Christmas party in the station. They decide to beat up some Mexicans. It’s Bloody Christmas. But keep it quiet, friends, off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush. So what is your valediction, boyo? Kevin Spacey’s is Rollo Tomasi. Mine is just Rolos.



Lady in the Lake – On Christmas Eve, Philip Marlowe wants to publish his mystery stories, but the publisher wants to hire him as a detective instead, can’t imagine why. But we here all know that’s just a way of saying go jump in the lake (and maybe you’ll find the lady in there), we’re not interested, like saying “we love it, but it’s just not right for us at this time” and “good luck with it elsewhere”. Robert Montgomery directs and stars as Philip Marlowe in this experimental (photography-wise) version of Chandler’s book. The subjective cinematography is interesting but wears after a while.





Lady On a Train – Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin again) is on a train heading for New York at Christmas. Reading a mystery book. She looks out the window to see a man in another window getting clomped on the head. But no one will believe her. Think Rear Window on steel wheels. And from there the plot thickens into a nice roux of murder and mystery with Ralph Bellamy, David Bruce, Edward Everett Horton and Dan Duryea. It’s more fun than a barrell full of gunpowder. And anything with Dan Duryea is worth watching. And Deanna’s not too bad either.

Lethal Weapon – Mel Gibson beating up bad guys, doing his Three Stooges Routine, getting drunk and blessing out an LA Sheriff’s deputy with every expletive and racial slur he can think of in his drunken state—oh wait, that last bit was real life. But Lethal takes place during the Christmas season and even has a clip from the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol on a TV in the movie and some Christmas songs. Yup, it qualifies.



Remember the Night – Barbara Stanwyck. Fred MacMurray. Black and white photography. Crime. A 1940s flick. You’re thinking Double Indemnity, aren’t you? Nope! This flick came a few years before. Stanwyck is a shoplifter, arrested right before Christmas. MacMurray is the DA prosecuting her, but he feels sorry for her and takes her home to his family for the holidays. Fun ensues.







And last and maybe least Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – well, the crime here is that this movie exists at all. Though my wife does have fond memories of it from when she was a kid. Go figure kids’ tastes... If you like cheesy sleazy with terrific production values (is my nose growing?) this is the movie for you.






***       ***       ***

And now for some favorite movies set during the holiday season, even if they don’t have crimes in them:

Can’t Buy Me Love (Well, it’s partially set during the holiday season and it’s my list so I can do what I want!)
Christmas Story, A
Christmas Carol, A, in its many forms
It’s a Wonderful Life
Miracle on 34th Street – my personal fave, followed by the one below:
Shop Around the Corner 

***       ***       ***

I’m sure I’ve left some of your faves out, so make your own damn list and check it twice.


***       ***       ***

Novels:

I was going to try to pick out a handful of Christmas murder mysteries. But the list is long and I came across Janet Rudolph’s lists of holiday mysteries. She collected a more complete list than I ever could. So I thought instead of my compiling a few titles, I’d give links to Janet’s comprehensive lists:

2015 Christmas Mystery List/s:

A to D: http://www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-d.html
E to H: http://www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-crime-fiction-authors-e-h.html
I to N:  http://www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-i-n.html
O to R:  http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-o-r.html
S to Z: not yet available


2105 Hanukkah Mystery List:

http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/11/chanukah-crime-fictionhanukkah-mysteries.html


***       ***       ***


And my wish list for Santa (’cause I'm pretty sure he reads this blog):


  1. A slot car racing set
  2. Bob Dylan to come out with Volume 2 of his Chronicles autobiography
  3. Mark Lewisohn to come out with Volume 2 of All These Years, his Beatles bio
  4. Rain for California
  5. An Edgar award
  6. Another Shamus award
  7. An Academy Award
  8. A trip to the Amazon
  9. A Macavity Award
  10. An Anthony Award
  11. The Croix de Guerre
  12. The Idi Amin Most Medals Award (take a look at his chest sometime)
  13. Rain for California
  14. My hair back in all its former glory (see pic)
  15. Vintage Marx playsets
  16. Rain for California
  17. A computer that doesn’t drive me nuts
  18. Every noir movie ever made to be available for streaming free
  19. And, of course, World peace, ’cause Miss America’s got nothin’ on me.
  20. And...Rain for California.




AND HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO EVERYONE!



***       ***       ***

And speaking of Christmas, how 'bout picking up a copy of Vortex, White Heat, LA Late @ Night or Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea – hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t invent commercialism at the holidays. Or signing up for my newsletter.



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###

19 December 2019

Angelic Voices


by Eve Fisher

'Tis the week before Christmas, and the rituals have begun:

Image result for vintage ceramic christmas treeWe put up our Christmas tree.  (Forty years ago, it was real; twenty years ago, it was artificial; the last five years it's been vintage ceramic!) 

We watch our favorite Christmas movies:  We're No Angels (the original 1955 version); The Man Who Came to Dinner; Reborn; Scrooge (1951, Alistair Sim); The Muppet Christmas Carol (I'm a sentimentalist at heart); The Bishop's Wife (1947, Loretta Young & Cary Grant); National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation; Blackadder's Christmas Carol; and all the Christmas Specials from Last of the Summer Wine.

We go driving around at night and look at Christmas lights.  Falls Park does a great light show; downtown's pretty; and there are all these old houses over by McKennan Park and elsewhere that have wonderful decorations.

Winter Wonderland at Falls Park
Sioux Falls - Falls Park's "Winter Wonderland"

And we go to various musical concerts.  Some years, Handel's Messiah, or Christmas at the Cathedral, or any of a variety of musical Christmas offerings.  This year we went to hear the Singing Boys of Sioux Falls at East Side Lutheran Church.  I hadn't heard of them before, and while I knew that there were men's choirs in Sioux Falls, I hadn't known there was a boys' choir.  So we went, and it was wonderful - beautiful music, beautiful voices, beautiful church.

Now boys' choirs developed in the Middle Ages, when women were barred from participating in any sort of performing arts in mixed company in churches, and they had to get sopranos from somewhere.
NOTE:  Later, of course, women would also be barred from participating in theaters, which leads to the crazy plots in Shakespeare, et al, in which a man playing a woman in disguise as a man courts another man playing a woman, who sometimes pulls a double switcheroo, and basically good luck keeping up with who's playing what when.  It makes our current touchiness about gender roles look pretty strange.
Anyway, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that women were allowed to join church choirs, which is why boys' choirs remained strong well past the Victorian Age. Cathedrals had cathedral schools for young boy singers, where a good voice could get you an education and perhaps even a career where you weren't plowing fields or living on the streets with Fagin.

And there were plenty of boys to choose from. This was because (1) people had a lot more children before birth control and (2) children didn't hit puberty until their mid to late teens because most of them were malnourished. Poverty was a huge factor. Most people were poor. Very poor.

We tend to forget how prevalent poverty was, is, and how it was one of the major subjects of most Christmas stories. Until now. Probably the last Christmas special on TV that centered on the poor - with any sort of accuracy - was the precursor to The Waltons, 1971's The Homecoming:  A Christmas Story.

But almost all Victorian Christmas stories were about the poor.  That or ghost stories (see my blog post https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/12/ghoulies-and-ghosties.html) .  Part of the reason why Dickens' A Christmas Carol became such a runaway bestseller is that it combined the two.


Christmas (12 days of it, thank you) with ghosts, and the poor, and sometimes they died! As in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl - because no Victorian ever shied away from death, even the death of children. Especially the death of children. Think Little Nell, Tiny Tim (until Scrooge's repentance), Beth March, Smike, as well as a host of lesser known victims of the Victorians' love of a good cry, especially at Christmas. And well past Victorian times. There's O Henry's The Gift of the Magi.  There's Mary Mapes Dodge's Hans Brinker, or the Silver SkatesLittle Women opens with this famous sequence:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got father and mother and each other," said Beth contentedly, from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,—  "We haven't got father, and shall not have him for a long time." She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone,—
"You know the reason mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for every one; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don't;" and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.
And then Marmee shows up and the girls go off to get the real Christmas spirit by helping the Hummels, German immigrants who are desperately poor, crammed 6 in one room, with a dead father and a very sick mother.

Besides the actual story of the birth of Jesus, i.e., the Incarnation (which most Victorian authors considered too sacred to write directly about), this was what Christmas used to be all about - helping the poor.  But any more it seems that modern Christmas movies are either comedies (increasingly raunchy) or the neverending Hallmark offerings, which specialize in Christmas Princess and other glittery tales of beautiful young women meeting the perfect hunky guy in the perfect snow-covered site - well, I think this video sums it up best:




But back to boys' choirs.  Most of the old 1940s/1950s movies (The Bishop's Wife, Going My Way, and The Bells of St. Mary's) showcased the Mitchell Singing Boys, led by Robert Mitchell from 1934-2000.  (Mr. Mitchell himself lived from 1912-2009!).  The example below is from The Bishop's Wife.



Today, boys' choirs are up against increasing affluence.  Frankly, boys today get a lot more to eat, so the boys go through puberty earlier and earlier.  This means that the general age of boys' choirs have decreased.  And a 10 year old can't be expected to have the same musical ability, understanding, and musical ability as a 15 year old.  The result is that modern boys' choirs have greater turnover, and are often singing much less complicated music than they used to.

Meanwhile, let's listen to the Vienna's Boys' Choir from 1957, with (according to YouTube) boy soloist Michael Paddy Quilligan.  And have a very Merry Christmas, with or without ghosts!