“A Christmas Carol” on Film

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“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Of all the tales and morality plays associated with Christmas throughout the years, few are as enduring as Charles Dickens’s immortal “A Christmas Carol,” published on this day in 1843. We love this simple, uplifting story because it offers hope for everyone. No matter how empty or greedy we have lived our lives, there’s always the opportunity for transformation. It’s a story rife with the Christian concepts of unconditional kindness, charity, forgiveness, redemption.

Last year at this time I offered a short list of some of the best Christmas movies and television specials [Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)]. I included a way-too-brief homage to various film versions of “A Christmas Carol” (often entitled “Scrooge”). For this blog post, I’d like to expand and offer reviews of some of the more notable versions. And at the end, I’ll confess my favorite.

Scrooge (1935), starring Sir Seymour Hicks. Born in 1871, Hicks practically owned the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the early years of the 20th century. He portrayed Scrooge thousands of times on the British stage, was in a silent film version in 1913, and reprised it for this talkie in 1935.

A young Seymour Hicks

A young Seymour Hicks

This film is very smoky and atmospheric. The ghost sequence is downplayed, and there’s a long buildup to emphasize Scrooge’s miserliness. Noteworthy: in addition to his association with the Scrooge part, Hicks produced and wrote his own films, and is famous for hiring a young Alfred Hitchcock to make his directing debut in 1923.

A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen. OwenThe first popular talkie version, and it ranks with the best, although this U.S. film took liberties with the Dickens story (e.g. Scrooge’s fiancé is entirely removed). Scrooge was originally to be played by the great Lionel Barrymore, who did it annually on radio, but he was replaced by the lesser-known Owen. Character actor Gene Lockhart portrays Bob Cratchit, and one of the Cratchit children is his daughter June, who later starred in Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction, and hosted many “Miss U.S.A.” and “Miss Universe” beauty pageants. Noteworthy: the ghost of Jacob Marley was played by Leo G. Carroll, famous to American TV viewers for his title role in Topper, and as Mr. Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alistair Sim. alistairA number of film critics consider this the all-time best adaptation. For one thing, it’s British rather than American. Also, Sim is a more convincing Scrooge than Owen was. It was very popular in England when released, but didn’t really take off in the U.S. until about 1970. Since then it has been regularly shown on television. Noteworthy: Patrick Macnee, who has a bit part as a young Jacob Marley, later became famous as courtly John Steed in The Avengers English TV show.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). This was the first-ever animated holiday special. For a lot of baby boomers (like me), it was also their first exposure to the Dickens story. MagooPrevious to this animated musical, “Mr. Magoo” was a popular cartoon series about a man blissfully unaware he’s legally blind, and who faces recurring disasters but always comes out on top. By today’s standards, the Magoo series was very un-PC, but this animated Christmas musical was well-received, and even today is many people’s favorite version of “A Christmas Carol.” The music by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, composed on the heels of their score for Funny Girl, was top-caliber. Noteworthy: the voiceover for Mr. Magoo was done by Jim Backus, who later became stranded, as Mr. Howell, on Gilligan’s Isle (he’d earlier played James Dean’s father in the classic movie Rebel Without a Cause).

SerlingA Carol for Another Christmas (1964) starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Definitely one of the strangest versions, this American TV movie was written by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame during the height of the Cold War. It was loaded with socio-political messages and good intentions, but it came off heavy-handed and depressing. It was broadcast only once, on December 28, 1964, then shelved until Turner Classic Movies (TCM) dusted it off in 2012. Noteworthy: Hayden and Sellers had starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove earlier in the year. Other actors included Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) and an awkward Steve Lawrence (of “Steve and Eydie” fame).

Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney. FinneyAnother musical, although this one’s non-animated. This is arguably the most colorful and glittery version of the Christmas classic, with gorgeous cinematography, graphics, special effects, and original songs. It’s great in every way, impeccably produced and directed (by Ronald Neame), with music in classic English music hall tradition (the song “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for an Academy Award). My only criticism is Albert Finney’s acting. Finney’s a great actor, one of the greatest of his generation, but I feel he overacts the part of Scrooge. Nonetheless, this 1970 film is not to be missed. Noteworthy: Sir Alec Guinness, who played Marley’s ghost, had starred in David Lean’s film adaptations of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” in the 1940s.

ScottA Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott. Speaking of greatest actors of their generation, here we have Academy Award winner Scott (The Hustler and Patton) taking a turn as everyone’s favorite miser, in a TV adaptation, and earning an Emmy Award in the process. Scott’s acting is, unlike earlier attempts, refreshingly low-key. He’s the “thinking man’s Scrooge,” apt to sneak in a twisted smile here or there for effect. The film is remarkably well-done for a television production. Filmed on location in England, with primarily English actors, it was released theatrically in Great Britain but debuted on CBS in America. Noteworthy: director Clive Donner had been an editor on the 1951 film version.

Other versions, which I haven’t seen so can’t comment on: Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, which is a trendy, U.S. modernization of the tale and received mixed reviews; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a live-action musical featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge; and A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart, who was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for his performance.

My personal favorite: a tie between the Albert Finney and George C. Scott versions. In my opinion, Scott’s acting trumps anyone else who portrayed Scrooge, but the Albert Finney version is just so visually and aurally sumptuous.

Now tell me your favorite version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”!

(Note: thanks to Wikipedia for most images and some info)

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Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by William Powell

Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)

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Red Ryder BB-guns and green roast beast.  As the yuletide season approaches, so too does a smorgasbord of holiday-related entertainment.  In my last post I got into trouble with a few family members.  So, this is sort of my olive branch (or mistletoe twig).  These are films and animated specials that have stood the test of time and appeal to both juveniles and adults.  If you see them on TV, check ’em out!  And if I’ve omitted your favorite, please let me know!

Here they are, oldest to newest:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra directed this uplifting (literally) fable starring Jimmy Stewart.  It concerns how a man’s seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can have an enormous effect on people and events around him.  Lots of subplots and spot-on acting, and the ending is one of the most heartwarming in cinema history.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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I’ve never seen this movie beginning to end, but it must be good because the original 1947 version has been remade numerous times.  An unassuming Santa Claus at Macy’s claims he’s the real Kris Kringle, and his sanity is called into question.  Edmund Gwenn, as Kringle, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Also stars Maureen O’Hara and a precocious child actress named Natalie Wood.

White Christmas (1954)

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With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney, and featuring the timeless songs of Irving Berlin, this has both great storyline and music.  The highlights are the gold-plated vocal cords of Crosby and Clooney.  I’m not big on musicals, but this has to be one of the best.  To be shared with loved ones and a tray full of hot toddies (or hot chocolate) while wearing red and green turtlenecks before a crackling fire.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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This is a stop-motion animated movie, narrated by Burl Ives, and it’s the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.  Why is it so popular?  My guess is the sly adult humor and offbeat characters: a nerdy elf who wants to be a dentist, a rambunctious prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and a cross-eyed Abominable Snow Monster who has his teeth extracted by the elf.   If this were made a few years later, I’d suspect the creator of experimenting with more than just animation.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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Linus’s speech “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” alone on stage, in hushed silence, is the centerpiece.  But my favorite scene is when Schroeder starts jamming and turns the Christmas play into a dance party, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Creator Charles M. Schulz was equal parts animator and sociologist.  His genius, and pianist Vince Guaraldi‘s cool jazz score, makes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the gold standard among animated Christmas specials.  My personal favorite.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

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Dr. Seuss as narrated by Boris Karloff.  What a brilliant teaming!  Karloff, for those who don’t know, was the original movie “Frankenstein” monster and made many subsequent horror films.  His lilting and slightly ominous delivery make him perfect to narrate this tale about a sinister green creature who lives on a mountaintop and plots to ruin Christmas for the townsfolk below.  This animated special came on the heels of the Peanuts and Rudolph specials and caps an amazing three-year run for network television at Christmastime.

A Christmas Story (1983)

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This comedy is shown as a marathon every holiday.  We’ve all had that experience of yearning for that one special toy.  Here we have a man’s reminiscence of his boyhood in a small Indiana town and his obsession with getting a BB-gun for Christmas.  It has a ton of old-fashioned charm, and some folks consider it the greatest thing since spiced egg nog.  I haven’t joined the cult yet (the narration gets to me after a while).  But it has more holiday ambience than any other movie of the last 30 years, ages like a fine wine, and appeals to kids ages 9 to 90.

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) (various years)

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Charles Dickens’s miserly Scrooge is so compelling he’s become part of the vernacular, and it’s hard to imagine him and “Bah humbug!” not existing until the mid-19th century.  There are several fantastic filmed versions starring, variously, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and George C. Scott.  Also a modern translation with Bill Murray that got mixed reviews, and a well-regarded cartoon movie starring Mr. Magoo, among many others.

I’ll let Tiny Tim have the last words: “God bless us everyone!!”

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