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God Bless ’Em, Every One

A glut of remakes can’t daunt the joy of ‘A Christmas Carol’

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At a conservative count, there have been nearly 50 films (theatrical and  television) based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 yuletide classic, A Christmas Carol. Most film and TV versions put A Christmas Carol somewhere in the title; another option is to use Scrooge or a variation thereof.

In the silent era, at least three versions were cranked out. Since then, the floodgates opened to include several animated forms, musical renditions—even a gay-themed revision in 2012 called Scrooge & Marley.

Obviously, Dickens’ timeless tale of parsimony and redemption still speaks to all ages and tastes, with results ranging from cloying and syrupy to imaginative and original. Too often, the struggle to be “original” can birth the ridiculous.

Rather than sort through treasures and trash, I’d like to present for your consideration four of the best live-action, non-animated perspectives for holiday viewing. I hope none inspires a “Humbug!”

Three of my favorite takes on A Christmas Carol demonstrate “different” approaches.

Albert Finney (a former Tom Jones and only 34 years old) essayed the role of skinflint Ebenezer in director Ronald Neame’s 1970 Scrooge. One of British film’s greats, Neame was also a cinematographer and screenwriter. As director, his notable films included The Horse’s Mouth (’58) and Tunes of Glory (’60), both with Alec Guinness at his best.

Guinness appears in Scrooge as Marley’s ghost, easily stealing the scene, but the best thing about Scrooge is Finney, an even better actor than Neame was a director. Unfortunately, it was 1970, and there may have been something in the water. That’s one way of accounting for the decision to make a musical with a great actor who was not a great singer.

The prolific Leslie Bricusse (Doctor Doolittle, Goodbye, Mr. Chips) wrote the screenplay as well as the songs, which get in the way of Dickens’ tale and Finney’s spirited performance. It’s a matter of taste, but I could’ve done without Scrooge & Company singing and dancing.

Directing the 1984 TV version of A Christmas Carol was another British director, Clive Donner, with an all-English cast except for Scrooge. Playing that crosspatch miser was George C. Scott, whose portrayal may be the most formidable of the various interpretations. No big surprise, considering it’s ‘Old Blood & Guts’ in the title role.

Scott, like Finney, was such a superb actor, and his ultimate redemption with Tiny Tim et al is even more heartfelt, affirming the sentiment and the depth of Dickens’ masterwork. (Film buffs may note the irony of Susannah York, Finney’s love interest in the stellar Tom Jones, here as Mrs. Bob Cratchit.)

American Richard Donner, erstwhile director of Superman: The Movie and Lethal Weapon flicks, took quite a different route in 1988’s Scrooged, a hip, glossy contemporary update with Bill Murray as ruthless TV exec Frank Cross, who gets a surprise visit from the three spirits of Christmas. Supported by a great cast—including Alfre Woodard, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Karen Allen and Bobcat Goldthwait—Murray is at his cynical best. Who doesn’t love it when David Johansen, as Christmas Past, says, “That’s exactly what Attila the Hun said. But when he saw his mother ... Niagara Falls!”

Scrooged could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, and at first critics were split. Tinkering with a beloved story is risky, and the film’s uneven at times. In the end, though, when Murray’s wiseass Cross is redeemed by the treacly sentiment and affirmation of Dickens’ original, we forgive.

In each of those, the movie’s strength is less the script or direction than the main character’s performance and charisma. It’s also true for the best of the bunch, 1951’s Scrooge in the UK; over here as A Christmas Carol.

The always irrepressible Alistair Sim is the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, and tis script and tone may be the most true to the novel. The cast includes such future luminaries as Michael Hordern (Barry Lyndon), Peter Bull (Dr. Strangelove), and Patrick Macnee (John Steed, The Avengers), A Christmas Carol is obscure director Brian Desmond Hurst’s supreme achievement.

No humbug here. Just Dickens and Scrooge at their best.

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