Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Cornucopia Part II: The Four Faces of Scrooge

Last week we reviewed Fred Guida’s masterful A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television, and it got us thinking of our favorite dramatizations of the story.
The Carol is perhaps Charles Dickens’ most theatrical work.  Whole sections of dialogue are infinitely quotable (and have, indeed, entered into the language), and the simple, basic dramatic arc of the story cries out for dramatization.  Dickens himself made a performance piece of it, doing public readings of the text over several years, enacting all the parts himself.  (The closest we have to this type of protean reading was the magnificent one-man show starring Patrick Stewart (born 1940); sadly, his own full-cast dramatization made for Hallmark television is something of a disaster.)
It is no exaggeration to say that Your Correspondent has spent his entire life closely watching various versions of the Carol, so naturally I have some opinions in the matter. 
So, in no particular order, my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol are:
Scrooge made in 1951, starring Alistair Sim (1900-1976) as Scrooge.  This has been hailed by many as the yardstick by which versions of the Carol are measured.  However, while we certainly love this film, it is not our favorite.  Screenwriter Noel Langley (1911-1980) takes a great many liberties with the original text, providing an extended backstory for Scrooge and introducing many non-Canonical characters.  In addition, while Sim is magnificent, we find that none of the Christmas spirits are particularly memorable. 
Finally – heresy coming! – while Sim is terrific, he is not the definitive Scrooge to our way of thinking.  Sim is essentially a great comedian, while we believe Scrooge is best performed by a tragedian.  Sim’s quirky eccentricity, his giddiness upon his reclamation and his heavily-circled eyes make him something of a cartoon.
The great actor Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) essayed the role of both Scrooge and Marley several times on early television, but perhaps never better than as the all-singing all-dancing Scrooge in 1956.  This broadcast-live musical, The Stingiest Man in Town, was originally part of The Alcoa Hour.  This production had been counted as lost for decades, and only recently come to light in a terrific DVD transfer that preserves the live broadcast, flubs and all.  The show also starred Martyn Green and Vic Damone and the score, while not stellar, is certainly pleasant.
What is fascinating here is Rathbone’s take on Scrooge.  I think Rathbone a fascinating figure – he was really the first actor to bridge the classical and popular worlds; were he alive today, he would have Ian McKellan’s career.  Too bad he ended up in some of the films he did.    I appreciate Stingiest Man more than I like it, but Rathbone is never less than captivating.
Where Rathbone shines is that his post-reclamation Scrooge is little different from his frosty Scrooge.  His mannerisms and approach are the same … we see here a Scrooge who is still trying to figure out the impact of the Spirits on his life, and post-Scrooge will always be a work-in-progress.
There are many animated versions of the Carol, but by far the very best features Mr. Magoo.  Produced in 1962, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol offers one of the most faithful adaptations of Dickens’ story, and includes some truly champion songs, performed by the likes of Jack Cassidy, Jane Kean and Paul Frees
The centerpiece, though, is Magoo, as voiced by character actor Jim Backus.  This is in every instance a real performance, filled with anger, fear, pathos and joy.  Whole swathes of dialog were lifted verbatim from Dickens, and now it is nearly impossible for Your Correspondent to read many of these lines without hearing Backus’ voice.
Nearly every version of interest takes some central part of the story and turns it into a showpiece (demonstrating that Dickens’ tale is nearly inexhaustible).  The highlight of the Magoo Carol is definitely the musical number involving the Undertaker, Laundress and the Charwoman, all of whom have robbed the dead, unloved body of Scrooge.  Catchy, funny and infinitely memorable (perhaps the only tune to ever rhyme “reprehensible” with “pencil-ble”).
Finally, our very favorite version was made for television in 1984 starring George C. Scott (1927-1999).  Directed by Clive Donner (1926-2010), this Carol is the most faithful, artful and moving version of all.
One pitfall that it is all-to-easy for adaptations to fall into is portraying Bob Cratchit as a spineless milksop.  Donner neatly avoids this by casting screen villain David Warner (born 1941) in the role, who plays Cratchit as a simple working man of unusual decency.  He is ably supported by Susannah York (1939-2011) as Mrs. Cratchit.  Here, when Bob talks about Tiny Tim’s inherent goodness or his hope’s for the boy’s recovery, York looks aside, as if she is more than used to Bob trying to convince himself of good outcomes that will never come to pass.
The philanthropists seeking money from Scrooge are wonderfully played by Michael Gough (1916-20111 -- who appeared in countless horror shockers in the 1960s) and John Quarmby (born 1929) – and they turn these usually sanctimonious nudges into simple humanitarians.
The late Roger Rees (1944-2015) is excellent at Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.  As with Cratchit, many actors make Fred nearly simple-minded in his goodness; here, Rees, is simply a warm, kind man who feels responsibility towards his uncle.
Perhaps the finest thing about this version of the Carol are the Spirits.  In Dickens, the Spirits are mighty creations, other-worldly visitations that are both great and terrible.  Things start with a magnificent, sonorous, stentorian Marley, played with histrionic biro by Frank Finlay (born 1926).   Angela Pleasance (born 1941) is truly … unnerving as the Ghost of Christmas Past.  There is something positively inhuman about her, and her line readings sound as if they come from another world.  Perhaps even better is Edward Woodward (1920-2009) as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Playing on stilts beneath a rich mantle of green, this is a Ghost of great joviality, but he is also tormented and angry at witnessing man’s inhumanity to man.  His revelation of the horrid children, Ignorance and Want, residing beneath his robe is one of the most affecting, chilling moments in television movies.  The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Michael Carter) is little more than a shrouded skeleton, a truly terrifying, gothic figure.
Which leaves us with Scott.  This is a Scrooge to be reckoned with.  This Scrooge ableydefends himself against the accusations of the ghosts, and has a marked sense of humor while relishing his own wickedness.  But, at heart, Scott is a tragedian.  This is a Scrooge who feels, more than any other, what might have been.  Perhaps Scott himself, who had many career ups-and-downs, understand the variable nature of life and how certain roads led to ruin or success. 
After his reclamation, Scott is transformed.  Unlike Sim, who merely tapped into the whimsy patently within him, Scott is saved by finding a new lightness of heart, a sense of salvation, and the certainty that he now has the ability to change his life.  This is the Scrooge who I would like to know personally.

More Christmas dispatches tomorrow!

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