Friday, December 9, 2011

Classic Scrooge

Bah. Humbug. I'm tempted to utter Charles Dickens' famous expletive a lot during the Christmas season. Holiday displays featuring bears and bicycles bring out the Scrooge in me. (Bears? Bicycles? Am I missing the Christmas connection there?) Sometimes it's a version of A Christmas Carol. Have you seen the lumbering musical with Albert Finney? Or the one with Bill Murray that plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched to the limit? There are versions with Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, Jim Carrey, and even the Fonz, er, Henry Winkler. Dickens' classic is in the public domain so anyone can make a movie or stage a theatrical version without requesting permission or paying the author's estate one cent. Even stingy Ebenezer would like that deal. But for my money, there are only two versions as enduring as the tale itself. One is a live action black-and-white theatrical feature. The other is a cartoon made for television.

The feature, produced by England's Renown Pictures in 1951, is known as Scrooge in its native U.K., but was retitled A Christmas Carol in the U.S. and elsewhere. It stars Alistair Sim, whom the late Shel Silverstein once called “the greatest comic actor. . . a genius.” Sim is also the only actor to make enough of an impression as Scrooge to claim the role as his own. The actor shows us Scrooge's hard exterior, but also gives us a glimpse of the sensitive young man he once was, a man bruised by life and determined to protect himself from further disappointment. Scrooge's transformation from cold miser to the man who "knew how to keep Christmas well" is believable because Sim creates a three dimensional figure.

The rest of the cast is also splendid with Mervyn Johns (best known for 1946's classic Dead of Night) a perfect Bob Cratchit and skeletal Ernest Thesiger, good old Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein, as Mr. Stretch, the undertaker as cadaverous as his clients.

Since A Christmas Carol is a ghost story as much as a Christmas tale, the mood needs to be just right and director Brian Desmond Hurst captures it perfectly. The mood is what really distinguishes this film and sets it apart from other adaptations. This is no jolly sleigh ride but a fairly dark tale, often depressing until its joyous climax. When it debuted in U.S. theaters, the film was praised by The New York Times for its "somber and chilly atmosphere" while Variety panned it for being too grim. The film's lack of contrived good cheer hurt it at the box-office, but the film acquired a strong following after it began to appear on television.

Unfortunately, a colorized version that dilutes the film's power has become too prominent on television in the last decade, and the original black-and-white version can often be seen only on video.

If you really want your Scrooge in color, try Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. First aired on U.S. television on December 18, 1962, the hour long animated film is unique in that it casts a cartoon character, the bumbling, dangerously near-sighted Magoo, as Scrooge and does so without compromising the integrity of Dickens' creation. The show is well produced with many memorable songs, and, it too, has a suitably dark tone at times, although it is considerably more upbeat than the 1951 film. If this version isn’t entirely faithful to Dickens, it is nonetheless true to his spirit and is a fine way to introduce children to this beloved literary classic.

A Christmas Carol has been popular with filmmakers since the earliest days of the cinema with the earliest known version appearing in 1908. New versions will continue to be produced as long as we celebrate Christmas, but it's doubtful anyone will offer a version to challenge those of Mr. Sim or Mr. Magoo.

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks


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