12 Days of lilt Christmas Viewing — #6: The many faces of Ebenezer
It really is a great and unlikely story, “A Christmas Carol.” Unlikely because we’re asked to be interested in a truly nasty, old man, and then to believe in ghosts, and in time travel, and ultimately in a humanitarian notion of Christmas. But like all of Charles Dickens’s great works, it’s all about character, and this tale includes plenty of memorable ones.
There are a lot of filmed and televised versions of “A Christmas Carol” — as varied and colorful a bunch as the characters that populate it. I can’t list them all, but here are a few chestnuts….
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Two of my favorite leading men: Michael Caine (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Kermit the Frog (Bob Crachet) — that’s a treat in itself. Beautiful, hilarious, moving and wonderful, this film manages to hit all the right Dickens notes and all the right Muppet notes. Caine said he decided to play this role straight, as if he was working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I think that is key in making this one of the best of the Muppet features.
(Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951, Renown Pictures) Many consider this British version starring Alastair Sim to be the definitive version, and I am inclined to agree. It captures the spirit of Dickens tale with a top notch cast, and beautifully dark cinematography. Sim is irresistible. [Full movie on YouTube.]
(Ronald Neame, 1970, National General) This musical stars Albert Finney as Ebenezer and Alec Guiness as Marley’s Ghost. Need I say more?
Sadly, it’s not as great as one would hope. The music works about half the time — Scrooge singing “I Hate People” is funny… at first… And what up with that weird walk Guinness uses? It’s creepy, but not in a ghostly way.
Neame, who began as a cinematographer, gives us the most lovely of the color versions, with velvety black shadows and heart-wrendingly warm candlelit. It may not be a great movie, but it is quite fun. [on Blu-Ray and DVD; on TCM 12/20 8AM EST, also on YouTube but quality is lousy].
A Christmas Carol (1938)
(Edwin L. Marin, MGM) Lionel Barrymore who had portrayed Scrooge on the radio annually for years, was set to star in this MGM production when he fell and broke his hip. Due to strict annual budgets, the production could not be delayed. Barrymore himself recommended Reginald Owen for the role — and introduces him on the trailer! Owen is good, but… You can get an idea of the film-that-might-have-been by listening to Barrymore’s radio version (linked below), and watching him steal scenes as the wicked Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.(Carol is streaming on Netflix)
(Henry Edwards, Twickenham Film) The first sound version, which I guess is interesting, but I was unmoved. Seymour Hicks had played Scrooge on stage for years before this filmed version. He is great, but somehow the production seemed boringly bland to me. To be fair, I’ve only seen this YouTube version, which is poor quality and probably had a lot to do with my not being impressed.
A Christmas Carol (1910)
(1910, The Edison Company) This little gem squeezes the entire familiar story into less than 15 minutes, and yet loses very little of the content. Charming.
(Richard Donner, Paramount) I loved “A Very Murray Christmas,” but I’m sorry, I hated this movie. I know it’s Saint Bill, but it represents the worst of 80’s cheap-and-crass humor to me. Yet, so many people love this version, who am I to judge? Checkout the so-eighties cast: Karen Allen, Bobcat Goldthwaite, John Forsythe, Carol Kane, Don Glover, David Johansen and Robert Mitchum — what?!
A Christmas Carol (Zemekis, 2009)
When I say “of interest,” I don’t mean it’s good. It’s motion-capture digital animation, staring Jim Carey — in all the key roles. I guess that looked like a good idea on paper. Hello? It’s a story about an abused child who grows up to be an abusive adult, whose life is revealed to us in non-linear flashback. Carey would not be my first pick.
I saw Polar Express in IMAX 3-D and loved it. It was as if I’d been transported into Chris Van Allsburg’s beautiful storybook world. The space of it was astonishing. A Christmas Carol looks more like a haunted house version of a Victorian Christmas card, which is cool (I also saw this in IMAX 3-D), but doesn’t make up for the lackluster performances. And if you’re watching it in 2-D at home… meh.
Carol for Another Christmas (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1964, ABC) Wow. Rod Serling’s script transposes the familiar tale to the cold war sphere making a plea for peace among nations. This broadcast was sponsored by the U.N. and Xerox. Sterling Hayden is the Scrooge-esque industrial magnate, whose son, Marley (Peter Fonda) was killed in WWII, Steve Lawrence is Christmas Past, Pat Hingle, Christmas Present, and Robert Shaw, Christmas Future. Have I hooked you yet? Add Peter Sellars, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, James Shigeta, and Britt Ekland.
A Christmas Carol (David Hugh Jones, 1999, Hallmark) Patrick Stewart is Scrooge, Richard E. Grant is Bob Crachit, Dominic West is Fred, and Joel Grey is an ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past. (Amazon Instant Video purchase only, and on DVD)
A Christmas Carol (Clive Donner, 1984, CBS) Between playing Patton and Mussolini, George C. Scott took a turn as Ebenezer. Donner and Scott had teamed a couple years earlier for a television version of Oliver Twist, with Scott as Fagin and Tim Curry as Bill Sykes. As much as I adore Scott, I was disappointed by the unevenness of this version when it came out, but it does have it’s moments. (You can buy this on Amazon, but they won’t let you rent. Humbug!!)
A Shower of Stars: A Christmas Carol (Ralph Levy 1954) Shower of Stars brought to you by Chrysler. This was the first color version, but sadly only a black and white version is known to exist today. Frederic March was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Scrooge. Basil Rathbone plays Marley’s Ghost. They are fantastic. The interminable musical numbers are not.
An American Christmas Carol (Eric Till, 1979, ABC) I love you Henry Winckler, but, Fonzie as Scrooge? Um… no.
The Campbell Playhouse 12/24/1939. Narrated by Orson Welles with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge. Barrymore was pretty much synonymous with the role in American homes in the 1930s having portrayed him on radio annually for years. Makes one ache for the filmed Barrymore version that never was.