Scroogeathon

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER!) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but whose paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.

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17 Responses to “Scroogeathon”

  1. David, just for the record Basil Rathbone played both Scrooge (in a musical version!) and Jacob Marley (to Fredric March’s Scrooge). Both performances for television. Scrooge would seem to have been right up his alley but he gives a disappointingly stock performance. He had some demons at the time.

    Great piece, which made me want to revisit Sim and Finney, at least. I only saw Finney’s once, when it was new, but I can still sing most of “I Hate People” from memory. I was only in my teens but I guess it resonated with me….

  2. Thanks!

    I should’ve mentioned “December the 25th” as being a reasonably good song too, which gives us the sight of Laurence Naismith and Kay Walsh singing and dancing together. It goes on a bit, but it’s quite nice.

  3. The Limmy Show’s Christmas special just did an effective (and as far as I know, totally original) short take on A Christmas Carol. You should have a look at it on the BBC Player.

  4. Thanks, we’d been meaning to catch that. I recommend non-UK readers check out Limmy’s Show on the YouTube.

  5. Vanwall Green Says:

    The Mr. Magoo version is interesting, and has a scary part or two for the small units, and is actually quite faithful to the original Dickens in parts.

  6. Thanks! I had contemplated checking that one. “Quite faithful in parts,” is an interesting recommendation: does Tom Hanks use it on Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks?

  7. Vanwall Green Says:

    Much more faithful than a Disney whitewash, the Magoo version has more dialogue from the Dickens than most other adaptations, I think.

  8. Please note that Donald is inviting Scrooge to dine on Goose. “Cannibal Holocaust” has nothing on Uncle Walt.

  9. Magoo was annual TV fare when I was a kid, and my introduction to the story. I adored it, and I’m still a sucker for just about any version.

    A lot of my favorite movies — “Time Bandits” for example — are narratively divided into discrete “stand-alone” segments, each with its own setting, atmosphere, and key moments. “A Christmas Carol” has that structure. So maybe that’s what I’m a sucker for.

  10. Rod Serling did a modernized version, funded by Xerox to promote the UN (!), which features Ben Gazarra, Sterling Hayden, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Sellars, Britt Ekland, and Robert Shaw (!!!). From the bits I’ve seen, it’s terrible – Serling at his preachy worst, with the actors living down to the didactics of the dialogue. However, I think I’ll have to watch it through one day, just to facilitate my imaginings of the cast conversations that took place over catering.

  11. Something most productions forget is that Marley and the other damned aren’t supposed to be merely scary. Dickens meant us to be horrified FOR them and their fate.

    And that fate isn’t simply dragging chains around. The Williams version was the first time I saw the vagrant woman with her baby, surrounded by miserable ghosts reaching out to her. They failed to reach out in life; now they are cursed to forever witness human misery without the power to intercede.

    Also, too many adaptations imply that Scrooge turns good because he fears physical death. No amount of goodness is going to erase that tombstone; what Scrooge gains is a joyful and fulfilled mortal span and perhaps a happier afterlife.

    “The Annotated Christmas Carol” by Michael Patrick Hearn is essential reading here. It discusses film versions briefly, but more importantly it explains all the stuff that adaptations either discard or present as puzzling background detail. It also reviews literary criticism, backing the case that Scrooge was not so much “scared straight” as steadily awakened to his strong but repressed humanity.

  12. Chris L, you can find my review of Serling’s Carol for Another Christmas around here somewhere. I think it’s superb. If you can’t be preachy with Scrooge, when CAN you? Plus it’s enlivened by extraordinary performances by an extraordinary cast — one of Peter Sellers’ most psychotic turns, a terrifying Robert Shaw, a hepcat Steve Lawrence, a repulsive Pat Hingle, and an impassioned James Shigeta. You may be pleasantly surprised.

    Scrooge’s reward, even disregarding the superior class of afterlife he’s destined for, is surely a reconnection with the human race, which I think is the part of the story that resonates with even us non-religious types.

  13. It was Joe Mankiewicz’s first movie after Cleopatra

  14. Mr. Cairns and I collaborate on a limerick on the ’51 Alistair Sim SCROOGE.

    http://limoday.blogspot.com/2013/12/humbug-repellent.html

  15. David – thanks, found the review at The Forgotten. It’ll help me sit down for it – when I eventually do – with an open mind. I’d certainly prefer to like it!

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