To Scrooge, or not to Scrooge, that is my question.
Every year will all gather 'round the yule log to make merry... ah who's leg am I pulling? Every year many of us re-watch old movies that help get us into that Christmas feeling. It could be Home Alone. It could be Die Hard, Love Actually, or a classic like It's A Wonderful Life. This year we have a new entry into the Christmas movie sweepstakes with Spirited. Yes, it's silly, but who knew that Will Farrell and Ryan Reynolds could almost sing and dance well? It's not Fred Astaire, but it's pretty good. Stay for the credits. The best number is Ripples, which was cut from the body of the film probably for time.
In its way, Spirited is a radical retelling of that nugget of holiday lore, Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. The key to the story is the redemption of - "Hey! Do I really need to announce a spoiler alert?" Stop reading if you don't want me to spoil an almost 200-year-old story that has been turned into a movie nearly 100 times. I'm not even gonna count all the TV versions here. So many. This Christmas, there will be countless airings, streamings, and youtube-ings of all the different versions.
Today's mission, if you choose to accept it? It is to read my thoughts on the best and worse versions of the legendary classic, A Christmas Carol. I will include a brief identifier, so you know the added value.
Best Audio/Radio Version:
I'm a big fan of Old Time Radio, and there is a pretty awesome version you can buy or listen to in various formats around the world wide web. Or as we seniors call it, "the Inter-nets." That was a joke. I am not a senior citizen yet.
A fine version that clocks in around an hour, with commercial breaks, is The Campbell Soup Playhouse presents Charles Dicken's Immortal Story, A Christmas Carol! (Wow! That took longer to type than to listen to.) Orson Welles directs this version and also narrates, which causes the exposition to fly. The actor who portrays Ebenezer Scrooge is remembered fondly for another Scrooge-like Character, Mr. Potter, in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, Lionel Barrymore. The rest of the cast gets rounded out by Mercury theater regulars and is excellent.
The only drawback in the program is I keep expecting Barrymore to say, "You've been a boil on my neck too long, Bob Cratchit!
A pretty good recording can be listened to on wellesnet.com, which has the entire show transcription for your reading pleasure.
An American Christmas Carol is the best version of A Christmas Carol featuring Arthur (the Fonz) Fonzerelli as Scrooge.
No, this isn't a joke. It's true. You can see it on YouTube if you dare. Set in New Hampshire in the early 1930s depression. "The Great One," as they dubbed it. (The depression, not Henry Winkler, but he is trying awfully hard.) It hits all the notes, if you can get past the fact that he never says, "Ayyyy!" Not even one time! The film is okay for a late 1970s TV movie.
After that last paragraph, we are all asking ourselves the same question, "But Why?" Why, indeed, for those of you not old enough to remember, I'll spill it fast. George Lucas' made an Oscar-winning movie called American Graffitti.
This inspired the world to listen to popular music from the 1950s. Television executives were hot trying to figure out how to tap into this phenomenon. Garry Marshall, a long-time television writer, hit on the idea of Happy Days. The story of one of the characters from American Graffiti, played by the actor from American Graffiti. (They never say this explicitly, but it's...?) That actor is long-time television mainstay and Oscar-winning director Ron Howard. They needed a tough character to threaten the lead.
You know, the narrative needs conflict and all that. Henry Winkler was cast as Arthur Fonzerelli, the leather jacket over a white t-shirt-wearing biker bully. Winkler played a similar role in 1973's The Lords of Flatbush, about a group of Brooklyn gang members who, in 1958, strut about wearing Leather Jackets over white t-shirts, chase girls, and all the usual hijinks. It has a fascinating cast featuring Sylvester Stallone, Perry King, Ray Sharkey, and Henry Winkler as Butchy Weinstein. In my Brooklyn-born father's contemporaneous review of the film, "It's great! It's about the losers who used to beat me up!"
Trivia: Richard Gere got fired because he and Stallone didn't get along. Could Richard Gere have become the Fonz? Stallone told everybody that the writer didn't speak Brooklyn and re-wrote much of the dialogue. Paul Jabara, who portrays Crazy Cohen, in the film, went on to win the best song Oscar for the Donna Summer hit, Last Dance, which, to further mess with your mind, is the only award won by the film Thank God It's Friday. He also wrote It's Raining Men with Paul Schaffer, amongst other tunes.
Anyway, Fonzie became huge! A cultural phenomenon. His leather jacket hangs to this day in the Smithsonian. But to keep the gravy train running after five years of wearing the same costume from The Lords of Flatbush, the network started throwing him bones to keep him playing the Fonz. The American Christmas Carol is one such bone. But it's Henry Winkler, an actor I enjoy. You can see this Award-Winning actor (3 Emmys, 2 Golden Globes, more Nominations than you can shake a stick at) Knighted by Queen Elizabeth with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6233 Hollywood Blvd between Vine and Argyle) currently on Barry on HBO.
My review, eh? But FONZIE!
One last thing, Henry Winkler is the fellow who actually "Jumps the Shark," from which the popular expression is inspired.
The Best Version with Muppets:
The Muppets Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. No complaints about the Academy award-winning actor. He's game for anything. So what if he's been in some real dogs in his career? Daddy has to eat! I'm not saying this is a career low. He gives it his all. But the high point is Kermit the frog (Steve Whitmire), who gives a grade-A performance as Bob Cratchit. And Ms. Piggy (the great Frank Oz) has the usual high-level charm as Emily Cratchit and Oz gets that little pig up to eleven.
Small children will enjoy this, and blood will not pour from your orifices as you die a painful death watching it with them.
Best Modern Scrooge:
I have thought long and hard. I'm going to go with Bill Murray in Scrooged. It's a little over the top, and you don't believe he is redeemed. But when Carol Kane, the ghost of Christmas Present, smacks him in the face, hard, it's bliss! It also has an odd cameo by Buddy Hacket as Ebenezer!
And then there is a three-part BBC miniseries version starring actor Guy Pierce. Reviewers said, "This radical retelling and overlong presentation of Charles Dickens's classic parable struggles to justify its oppressive tone and edgy flourishes, although Guy Pearce is suitably haunting as the haunted Ebenezer Scrooge."
Guy Pearce is a heck of an actor, even if he is a little skinny. Performing Scrooge as haunted before he gets Haunted. This idea is so crazy it just might work. And it sort of does. It's dark, and Christmas is one day, and there are 364 of them where life is terrible, and you could die from the sniffles. This show could have been called, The Peaky Blinders Christmas special! Too long and too dark. I watched it because Tom Hardy and Ridley Scott had something to do with it. I'm not sure what. As a bonus, Andy Serkis calls Tiny Tim "my precious," (he doesn't, but he should a done.)
One thing about this Dicken's book, it’s a novella, meaning a short novel. There is a lot of stretching of the story here in mini-series form.
Best Animated Scrooge:
Hands down, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Not only is it television’s first Christmas special it might be the best featuring the nearsighted master of disaster.
Jim Carrey's motion capture excursion had some stunning special effects, but I could only watch it through once. I tried.
Best Singing Scrooge:
That would have to be the teenage Albert Finney. Okay, he was like 30. In Ronald Neame's musical Scrooge! British cartoonist Ronald Searle designed and executed the lovely art for the title sequence. These drawings were then published in a children's book based on the film.
Thank You Very Much is the only song I can remember, but It's a doozy and got nominated for an Oscar. I enjoyed watching the film. I did! It's fun, energetic, and way better than the mediocre animated film on Netflix and better than Disney's version to boot. The high point here is Alec Guinness's performance as Jacob Marley. Fantastic! Not the usual take on the character.
Before I talk about my favorite Scrooge, let's briefly (That's like asking for trouble. I don't even know what briefly means.) discuss the runners-up:
George C. Scott. By far the most threatening Scrooge. He's not only going to foreclose on your home, he's going to beat the crap out of you as well. And the ghosts don't scare him one bit!
Basil Rathbone, the Refined Scrooge. It's only a half hour, but he hits all the notes, and luckily Frederic March is there to tell us what's happening. Not Stellar. Youtube.
Stay away from the truly awful, and not in a good way, The Stingiest Man In Town. Basil Rathbone, obviously needing a paycheck, plays old Scrooge while singer Vic Damone plays young Scrooge. And while there are songs, not one is On the Street Where You Live. Ugh!
Best Runner-Up: Reginald Owen, the British-born actor, was in close to two hundred films. He played both Holmes and Watson, but not at the same time, and is quite good as Ebenezer Scrooge in this fine Hollywood adaptation. My only problem is he's saying the words of the miserly Scrooge, but I don't quite buy it. Under the bluster seems like a nice guy trying hard to get out. But otherwise, it's fine entertainment for the whole family.
Jack Palance in Ebenezer, a retelling set in the old West. The synopses from TV Guide says: "Ebenezer Scrooge is the most greedy, corrupt, and mean-spirited crook in the old West! He sees no value in "Holiday Humbug." When the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come open his eyes, Scrooge discovers that love and friendships are the greatest wealth of all." Don't believe it! He's a low-down dirty rat snake, and I can't believe Jack Palance. He hasn't changed at all. Even Shane, with his six-shooters blazing, could not make him kind and generous.
But Palance tries hard to do it right. But he's just too durn mean.
As a kid, I had a record with the story performed by Ralph Richardson and Paul Scofield, a cast of great British actors. Whenever I ask for a receipt or change at a store, it comes out like Richardson. I liked that record and played it year-round, but we left it behind when my dad left the service.
Jean Luc Picard, I mean, Professor X, no, of course, I mean Patrick Stewart. He proves that you don't need hair to act in a Victorian costume drama. (I don't need hair to do most things.) This version is very good. He is perhaps too likable because even when he's grumpy, there's something lovely about him. Am I right? The film is produced for TV by Acorn, Brit Box, BBC America, or one of those companies. Filled with so many familiar faces, it's like going to your spousal unit's family reunion. You don't know everybody's name, but they all look familiar. And you like them! The only problem here is that they pull their punch and make it seem like Scrooge is just going through a tough patch. I like it because it feels like they studied my favorite version and tried to copy it in tone and, should I say, spirit.
My Favorite version of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol is Scrooge from 1951. Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, whose other significant contribution to cinema is Dangerous Moonlight 1941. It's a love story, told in flashbacks, about a fictional composer who is a piano virtuoso and "shell-shocked" pilot. He meets an American war correspondent in Warsaw and, buoyed by love, joins the RAF in England to fight the Germans and liberate Poland. Hot stuff! It started a trend of films featuring music as a backdrop to a larger story that wasn't a musical. This type of story was on its way to becoming a proper sub-genre when Preston Sturges skewered it in Unfaithfully Yours in 1948 and popped the bubble.
Anyhoo, B.D. Hurst cast Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim was a late bloomer for an actor. When he returned from the trenches of World War One, he announced that he would not return to university but would become an actor! The family kicked him out. For several years he prowled the countryside as a day laborer and itinerant poetry reader. This skill brought him some acclaim as it led him to start an Elocution school with a little drama for spice!
By the time Alastair got to tread the floorboards and be under the stage lights, he was 30. His first appearance in the West End is as an extra in William Shakespeare's Othello. Not auspicious, or was it? In addition to his role, he was also the understudy for the three main parts of Othello. In this production, Othello was the great African American performer Paul Robeson. (This probably couldn't happen today.) Iago, the actor/producer Maurice Browne (his wife, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, played Desdemona). Roderigo, by Ralph Richardson. On any given night, Alister Sims would be expected to leave his role as extra and play the Bejesus out of the requisite role. And according to history, he did and was never unemployed again. That immense talent has never been utilized more effectively than in Scrooge. (For more Sim, try, Green For Danger.)
Alastair Sim is Scrooge. Done. On film, the character has never been played better. His Dickens antihero is definitive, a cynical brute who nonetheless seems to be hiding tiny glimmers of kindness behind those vast, sad, and soulful eyes.
The film is darker than most Christmas Carols. It's downright scary! I have caused many a child to run from the room crying. Michael Hordern's howling Jacob Marley is terrifying. (And is the spitting image of the actor who plays him in this year's, Spirited).
Sims leans into that darkness early on, with his Scrooge famously pushing child carolers from the pavement, and says Christmas is "a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every December 25!" His redemption is guaranteed, and he plays it exquisitely, especially with a climactic and deeply moving Shakespearean roar: "I'm not the man I was!"
We all know how this story begins and ends. Whether Scrooge McDuck plays him or Jack Palance, we can reach all the story points. It is tried and true, a perfect story. Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) is like Argentina winning the 2022 World Cup. The October 1, 1931 World Series game when Babe Ruth called his home run, leading the Yankees to sweep the series. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein. Richard Roundtree as Shaft. Scarlett Johansen as Scarlett Johansen(!). We've all seen these games and characters before, but rarely have we seen them better.
With movies, we can go back and experience them as it was released. Yes, it's a different time, but the experience is as the filmmakers intended, and as I feel, has never been done better. There are other Scrooges to choose from, and you probably have your own, but give mine a shot.
Happy Christmas, or happy whatever holiday you celebrate or don't celebrate. Thanks for reading!