A Christmas Carol (1956-1978) – Versions 6-10 of 20 – reviewed by George

6. The Stingiest Man in Town (1956 – 1:21, with the DVD Release in 2011)

Scrooge = Basil Rathbone / Cratchit = Martyn Green / Tiny Tim = Dennis Kohler.    Directed by Daniel Petrie, with book and lyrics by Janice Torre and music by Fred Spielman.

Two years after playing Marley’s Ghost, Basil Rathbone is back in a second musical version of “A Christmas Carol’ and this time he’s playing Scrooge! This is also a television program, but it was broadcast live on NBC’s Alcoa Hour, and is subtitled on the DVD packaging “Musical Version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens”. Basically, if it were in color you would be seeing it annually. The songs are really good and the production numbers are big and fun and involve lots of dancers. I recognized the first song, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas”, from the Andy Williams Christmas specials, and I’m sure that I’ve heard another song, “The Birthday Party of the King”, in a Rankin-Bass program. In truth, I ordered the CD right after watching the DVD. Torre and Spielman wrote many songs for the movies, but perhaps their biggest hit was “Paper Roses”, recorded many times.

The cast has to be able to sing, but is not drawn from just one discipline – they come from pop music, operetta, and opera. Johnny Desmond plays Fred, Vic Damone plays Young Scrooge, Patrice Munsell is Belle, Martyn Green is Bob Cratchit, and Betty Madigan is Martha Cratchit, with a solo of her own. Even Basil Rathbone sings and dances!

“It Might Have Been”, sung by Young Scrooge and Belle, is possibly the best song in the score, but I also was impressed and touched by “One Little Boy”, comparing Tiny Tim’s courage and kindness to Scrooge’s crack about decreasing the surplus population. Another song, “There Is a Santa Claus”, seemed wildly anachronistic, so I did a bit of reading. A poem “Old Santeclaus” was published in America in 1821, and of course “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, which transforms Saint Nicholas from a worshipped saint to a jolly little man who delivers toys on a sleigh that uses reindeer power, was published in a New Your newspaper in 1823. But I could find nothing that would indicate exactly when Saint Nick became Santa Claus over here, much less in England, or that in a mere 40 years Santa Claus had crossed the ocean to replace Father Christmas, who is also noticeably absent from the Dickens story, which is after all an adult redemption tale. However, I’m willing to overlook this because of the final line of the song: “If there is kindness in this world, there is a Santa Claus.”

With the addition of a full score, some tropes have been omitted, but the story is still strong, a really wonderful rendering. What follows is not quibbling, just telling you what to expect. The Past: mentions Scrooge’s school, his sister Fan, and her son Fred, but is mostly concerned with Young Scrooge and Belle and their doomed relationship. The Present: shows the Cratchits’ Christmas, then Fred and Betty’s Christmas party. The Yet-To-Come: shows Scrooge’s death but not Tiny Tim’s.

Actors who became better known later: John McIver plays one of the charitable gentlemen and later would become a top character actor, including being shot through a milk carton in  the first version of The Manchurian Candidate.

 

7. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962 – 0:52)

Scrooge = Mr. Magoo (Jim Backus) / Cratchit = Jack Cassidy / Tiny Tim = Joan Gardner. Directed by Abe Levitow / Adaptation by Barbara Chain / Music and Lyrics by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.

This third musical version (also for television) is filled with humor and heart, and it’s our first cartoon version. The great Mr. Magoo is starring in A Christmas Carol on Broadway! That gives Barbara Chain the freedom to make all the near-sighted jokes she wants, and to keep death at a distance (it’s just a play!) so that even the youngest children can love this with the rest of us. Early on Magoo has to get to the theater and he sings, “I’m gonna shine – will you turn me on – like that neon – that you see on – Broadway!” After some traffic tie-ups and a side-trip to a restaurant (which he thinks is the Stage Door), Magoo arrives on stage as Scrooge, to count his money and sing “Ringle, ringle, coins which they jingle, make such a lovely sound.” When Cratchit asks for more coal Scrooge says, “Blasted help situation! He’ll be wanting a feather bed and tea service next thing you know!”

Scrooge deals with the charitable gentlemen, and berates Cratchit (first unique twist within the story: no Fred!), and goes home to find himself arguing with Marley’s Ghost, who predicts three visits by spirits. Then another twist: the Ghost of Christmas Present shows up first! And shows Scrooge the Cratchit Christmas, but of course not Fred’s, since he isn’t here. The Ghost of Christmas Past is next and shows Scrooge himself abandoned at school, but at an age of about 9, a bit younger than we’re used to. Child Scrooge sings “I’m All Alone in the World” and Old Man Scrooge joins him in a duet. To me this is the best song in the show. Next stop is Fezziwig’s where Belle will only consent to dance with Scrooge, and then a few years later there she is sadly releasing Ebenezer from his vow, and mourning the winter when he proposed – she sings “Winter Was Warm”. The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge the businessmen discussing the death of a man they won’t miss, and then we have the Old Joe sequence where the charwoman, laundress, and undertaker join Old Joe in gleeful song and dance celebrating their thievery. And Magoo gets that great line where Scrooge reveals himself as basically innocent of nuance: “I see, I see. The case of that poor unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way now….” Then the aftermath of Tim’s death is shown, and Scrooge realizes the unmourned dead man is himself. He cries and reprises “I’m All Alone in the World”. The Christmas-Day-I-didn’t-miss-it scenes are always fun, with the “intelligent boy” being quite proud of himelf, and Scrooge in full-on Magoo shortsightedness giving away money like crazy. He goes to Bob’s and gives the Cratchits’ the best Christmas they’ve ever had, and we’re into the curtain calls for the cast and Magoo’s final near-sighted calamity. The conceit of the stage play is really clever. It’s pretty obvious that the scenes from the back of the theater looking down the center aisle with the curtains closing and then reopening framed the commercial breaks. I like this one a lot.

 

8. A Carol for Another Christmas (1964 – approx. 1:26)

Daniel Grudge (Scrooge) = Sterling Hayden / Fred = Ben Gazzara / Charles = Percy Rodriguez / Ruby = Barbara Ann Teer.   Christmas Past: Ghost = Steve Lawrence / Wave = Eva Marie Saint / Doctor = James Shigeta.   Christmas Present: Ghost = Pat Hingle. Christmas Future: Ghost = Robert Shaw / Imperial Me = Peter Sellers / Mother of Child Gunman = Britt Ekland.   Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Screenplay by Rod Serling.

This was filmed (not taped) in black-and-white for ABC-TV and was shown commercial- free. After its first airing in 1964 it was not seen again until Turner Classic Movies showed it for Christmas 2012. I recorded it a few days before Christmas 2013, and just watched it last night. I think it may be shown again on TCM this year, so stop here if you think you might watch. I will fill in outlines and topics, and some specifics, but it is really difficult to describe the changes made or the arguments presented without saying too much, no matter where you (or I) stand on the issues.

This movie takes the basic frame of Dickens’s story and brings it right up to 1964, using it as a discussion tool – is there a right way to strive for peace? Are we simply too stubborn to do what is necessary? What exactly is necessary?

The Scrooge character, Grudge, has just put the kibosh on a cultural exchange between the college where his nephew Fred teaches and a college in Krakow, Poland. He’s not on the Board of Trustees, but is a big enough contributor that he can pretty much tell some Board members what he wants and get it. Fred arrives to try to get some idea of what Grudge may think he’s accomplishing, and maybe talk some sense into him. What does trading a couple of college professors for a year mean anyway? Why is Grudge apparently furious about it and threatened by it?

Grudge’s son Marley was killed in a war – I think  it must have been Korea, given the timeframe. Marley Grudge keeps appearing to his father but never says anything. Fred and Grudge argue over the U.N. (Grudge is against diplomacy, always referred to as “talking”), the U.S. as Policeman for the World (Grudge is an isolationist), etc., with Grudge always on the side of the tried and true (read “old”) way of doing things. I realize these arguments are still going on, and I don’t think seeing this film today is going to change anyone’s mind anymore than it did 50 years ago. Grudge throws his nephew out, walks down a narrow staircase, and steps onto a troop transport carrying caskets of soldiers’ remains back home. This is presented as about 20 years before Grudge’s own service, or 1918. The singer Steve Lawrence does a excellent job as the Ghost of Christmas Past, who discusses war with Drudge, and also tells him that talking is good, because when you stop talking, someone starts bleeding. Christmas Past also includes Grudge’s own trip to the ruins of Hiroshima many years before, with Eva Marie Saint as his WAVE driver, and James Shigeta as a doctor caring for survivors.

Pat Hingle is the Ghost of Christmas Present. and I did not recognize him for a long time, and then only by his voice. Part of his section of the film deals with world hunger; he says 2/3 of the world’s population goes to bed hungry, and 1/2 of the world’s population suffers pain from hunger.

Robert Shaw plays the Ghost of Christmas Future, and I didn’t recognize him either. Grudge finds him in the ruins of Grudge’s own town’s Town Hall, and he is very upset about it, as he holds the Town Hall in high regard as a place neighbors could talk through arguments about taxes, growth, education, whatever. You don’t need a picture drawn, but Serling draws it anyway, with the Ghost reminding Grudge that the U.N. is a Town Hall, just on a global scale. SPOILER ALERT: Then Peter Sellers shows up as The Imperial Me, carried in by admiring townspeople, the “Mees”. He tells them that two separate groups of people nearby want to talk with the Mees about working together, but he sends the Mees off with instructions to kill the other groups, and then to turn on each other until there is only One Me. Until the Ghost of Christmas Future showed up I thought Serling’s script was clear and important for starting discussion, but as The Imperial Me droned on I tuned out. The play had become a heavier-handed (than it already was) polemic, and I no longer cared.

When he gets back home, Grudge walks into the kitchen where his servants, a married couple played by Percy Rodriguez and Barbara Ann Teer, are listening to a radio broadcast of Christmas carols being sung by the children of U.N. delegates. Percy quickly turns the radio off, but Grudge says he has decided to have his coffee in the kitchen and he turns the radio back on.

The movie has a pedigree that just won’t quit, with some of Hollywood’s best actors, a script by Rod Serling, and the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz directing. But experiencing it is more like taking in a lecture than a drama. I’m not sorry I watched, but I find it hard to recommend you do the same.

 

9. Scrooge (1970 – 1:53)

Scrooge = Albert Finney / Cratchit = David Collings / Tiny Tim = Richard Beaumont / Marley’s Ghost = Alec Guiness / Ghost of Christmas Past = Edith Evans / Ghost of Christmas Present = Kenneth More / Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig = Laurence Naismith and Kay Walsh / Isabel Fezziwig = Susanne Neve / Fred = Michael Medwin / Tom Jenkins = Anton Rodgers.

Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse / Directed by Ronald Neame.

This is a knockout! A big studio (Shepperton) musical with a huge cast singing and dancing, at Fezziwig’s Party, and in the Streets of London, and (as the old saw adds) into your hearts! Set in 1860 (I have no idea why) and with 8 major numbers, this version will certainly keep you awake. “Father Christmas” is sung by urchins teasing Scrooge as he goes from client to client collecting (some people just can’t get to the office – they’re selling soup or handkerchiefs or putting on a Punch and Judy show). “December the 25th” is the anthem for a spirited dance – talk about high spirits – at the Fezziwig party. And “Thank You Very Much” is the hearty response of the debtors to Scrooge’s conversion.

There are many memorable visuals – one example: when Scrooge first arrives home on Christmas Eve a transparent hearse pulled by white horses races through his house. Good bit of original dialogue: Scrooge tells Fred, “And be good enough to leave me alone during business hours!” Fred replies heatedly: “Seven o’clock on Christmas Eve? That’s not business hours; that’s drudgery for the sake of it, and an insult to all men of good will!”  And there’s a lovely original bit of irony: As the sequence with Christmas Yet-to-Come ends Scrooge goes to Hell to work in his old office, but as clerk to Lucifer, and it’s freezing – he will be the only cold man in Hell, wrapped so tightly in the Chain He Forged in Life, that he can’t move at all.

Albert Finney is too young to play Old Scrooge and a bit too old to play Young Scrooge, but it’s so nice to see the same actor play both parts, and he does such a good job at both, that it ends up being a plus. And Bricusse’s songs are so good it’s hard to imagine anyone having the courage to tackle this story ever again with original music for a production this big.

 

10. The Stingiest Man in Town  (1978 – 0:50)

This is a Rankin-Bass cartoon (not stop-motion) remake of the Alcoa Hour live production back in 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. It debuted in 1978 on ABC-TV. The adaptation of Janice Torre’s script is by Romeo Muller, who worked with Rankin-Bass many times. The songs are the same, thank goodness. The film was directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr, and voices are provided as follows: Walter Matthau is Scrooge, Sonny Melendrez is Cratchit, and Robert Rolofson is Tiny Tim. Theodore Bikel voices Marley’s Ghost, Robert Morse is Young Scrooge, and Dennis Day plays Fred. In addition Tom Bosley plays B.A.H. Humbug, Esq. – the narrator, but he also reprises songs, carries the story forward, and has a solo in “The Birthday Party of the King”, the song I was sure I had heard in a Rankin-Bass cartoon in the review of the live version.

The animation was done in Japan and is very impressive. In a world of candlelight, the way shadows move across faces is not realistic, but its impressionistic style is superior to mere realism. Because some details are lost in shortening the script from 1:21 to 0:50, the style of the animation is basically what makes this version so touching. That, and the wonderful songs.

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