Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Friday, October 04, 2002

You Shall Be Upheld in More Than This

It's early October, which in many parts of the US (particularly on television and in mail-order catalogs) means Christmas season is well underway again. And with the publication of a comic book version of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (yes, you read that right, I'm incapable of making up something that bizarre), I'm awash in -- well, I dunno. Kinda tingly anticipation of it all. It's partly childhood nostalgia, but not entirely. First off, my family, being Jewish, didn't celebrate Chratzmich (I have no idea if there's a Yiddish word for Christmas but that's how my mom says it) so I kind of lived it vicariously through kids' TV, and cartoons that you only saw once a year were always special events. (I'll touch on this more in Part 2 of these ruminations.) I'm sure it's also my love of camp and pop-cult references. And I admit, in the case of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol it's partly because some of the non-musical parts of the cartoon are a pretty decent adaptation of Dickens' tale. (Fortunately I'm not the only one who thinks this either; check out this overview from John Kenrick, about halfway down the page.) And the songs by Styne and Merrill are cute and sappy and I like that kind of thing sometimes, in its proper place, if it's not overdone. I'm sorry, "I'm All Alone In The World" still brings a tear.

Moreover, the Dickens classic itself fascinates me. I think it's a lovely, compact, well-told redemption story, and redemption stories are probably my favorite thematically next to hero's journey stories (one of the reasons the original Star Wars trilogy is so cool to me is that it features the Hero's Journey of Luke and the Redemption of both Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker). While it's full of references to the spiritual aspect of Christianity, contrast "witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!'' with the pedestrian, heavy-handed, negative-dwelling "You were born a sinner." It's subversive in its own way, as is much of Dickens' writing for the people, sometime I needn't point out to fellow radicals who've had to deal with the last 20 years of "profits before people." And it contains some amazing, evocative, flowery language. "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased...Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!'' Every other sentence seems to have such gems. I could quote it endlessly, and do seem to around this time of year, because that's when the TV stations gear up for the movies.

Here's a neat overview I found that Jerome Weeks wrote a couple years ago looking at some of the different ways in which the story's been interpreted, mostly for the theatre. I've seen two theatrical productions of A Christmas Carol, one with Robin and Steve (my first husband) at Radio City Music Hall which starred Roddy McDowell shortly before his death. And, like the line he flubbed, there was definitely "more of grave than of gravy about" him and this treacly musical production. The other one, also seen with Steve (who would check the book out of the Brooklyn Public Library where he worked every year, he was that into it), was a one-man show by Patrick Stewart on Broadway, which basically consisted of him reading the story verbatim and playing all the parts. That remains my favorite version of them all, because in my opinion (and in Stewart's, I would warrant, although the 1999 TV movie he made didn't at all match expectations) the truer you remain to the actual story Dickens wrote the better it is. The writing is that solid. It's all in there, it doesn't really need anything added.

Now, that's not to say additions and revisions always fail on their own merits. When Steve and I were married we amassed at least a dozen different versions of the story on video, not including the various sitcoms that inevitably did their own version of "Character Learns the True Meaning of Christmas" (which we deemed Sitcom Cliché #1 - no, we never did get around to listing and ranking the top 50 or 100 sitcom clichés before our lives diverged, so maybe I'll save that for a future blog). This site at About.com (yes, that means pop-ups, sorry) has what I think is a pretty complete list of most of the versions I know of. And this site claims the story has been filmed over 200 times, and plugs a book by Fred Guida called A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations (which naturally you can buy from the site). I don't presume to step on Mr. Guida's territory, so I'll just mention some other cool stuff Robin found during a random search today, before giving my thoughts on the versions I've seen. Steve is currently in possession of the videotapes so this is all just impressions from memory.

· This biography of Dickens says the first filmed version was called "Scrooge: or Marley's Ghost" in 1901, directed by W.R. Booth. Various films using alternate titles have included "A Dickensian Fantasy" (1933, dir. Aveling Ginever); "Leyenda de Navidad" (1947, dir. Manual Tamayo) and "The Passions of Carol (1975, directed by Amanda Barton).
· Check out these pictures from the silent version filmed by the Edison Company in 1910.
· Hey look, "Shower of Stars" did a "live" telecast (I guess it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, therefore the quotation marks?) starring Fredric March, Basil Rathbone and a young Robert Wagner. Yowza!
· If you live in Edmonton, Alberta, you might want to take in this stage version in December. Original songs and everything!

Okay, here's the skinny on what I remember liking and not liking from some of the other versions I've seen:
· A Christmas Carol (1938) - Reginald Owen was far too melodramatic and wimpy a Scrooge for me to find the redemption believable. (I would loved to have seen Lionel Barrymore do it, as originally planned!) Owen didn't play it crotchety and mean so much as somewhat constipated. I loved that husband and wife Gene and Kathleen Lockhart played Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, and their daughter June (yes, Lassie's and Lost in Space's mom!) made her film debut here as one of the Cratchet kids. [By the way, the Missus is never given a first name in the original story; neither are the two siblings, a boy and a girl, closest to Tiny Tim's age. Only Bob (Dad), Martha (the eldest), Belinda (the second eldest), Peter (the oldest boy) and Tim. For those keeping track, that's six kids altogether, bringing the number of family members to eight - not very far-fetched in 19th century England! - so if you want to do a Christmas Carol drinking game, I suggest you take one swig for every number of Cratchit children the adaptation gets wrong.] It's been colorized, but is much better in B&W, even though the versions I've seen all look like they used too much gauze on the screen. An okay version, fairly true to the dialogue of the original. Leo G. Carroll is outstanding as Marley's Ghost.
· Scrooge (1951) - This is the Alistair Sim one, probably the best known one since it's the one they replay all the time, and doesn't look too bad colorized, but I still prefer the B&W. Sim is terrific and believable throughout. Hermoine Baddeley can do no wrong as Mrs. C. I liked the addition of the scene showing a younger Scrooge and Marley at their Enronian best. And the two wan winsome women characters, Alice (never given a name in the original) and Fan, are present here as well. Very recommended.
· The Stingiest Man in Town (1978) - The Rankin/Bass version, so I'll attend to that whole milieu later. Notable for Scrooge's snuff box, which he always carried around but never worked properly because, yes, he was too stingy to give away a good sneeze. Wince with me, boys and girls.
· Rich Little's A Christmas Carol (1978) - I only have vague memories of this, but I do recall it was fun and well done. He played Scrooge with a W.C. Fields impression, Bob Cratchit as done by Paul Lynde, Scrooge's nephew Fred as played by Johnny Carson... you get the idea. Probably worth seeking out. Instead of chains, Marley's ghost as played by Nixon lugs around 18½ minutes of tape. Okay, it's dated, but so am I.
· An American Christmas Carol (1979) - Henry Winkler with bad makeup. Can he now receive credit for jumping two sharks?
· A Christmas Carol (1984) - George C. Scott remains my favorite Scrooge, and this my favorite adaptation save the Stewart one-man show reading. I love the atmosphere. Captures much more of the spirit of Dickens' time than the letter of his book, but I don't mind. Frightening and heartwarming and brilliant in all the right places.
· A Christmas Carol (1999) - Patrick Stewart makes a fine Scrooge as well (how could he not, he's all but memorized the story after all those Broadway performances), but something was lacking from this, at least for me. For whatever reason I was expecting more, but as I recall they took more liberties than I would have liked. I'm determined to watch this again and perhaps re-evaluate my initial impression.
· A Diva's Christmas Carol (2000) - I know garlic wards off vampires, there has to be some herb you can ring round the windows (mistletoe?) to prevent this one from ever coming into your house again. Bland city, as to be expected from one of the whitest black women around. I couldn't even watch the entire thing, and seeing as how much I love the story that's saying something.
· The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) - "Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat!" You'll not ever hear me say a bad word about this one. A lot of fun. And it's got Scruffy-Boy extraordinaire Michael Caine as Scrooge. Watch it again, you know you want to.
· Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988) - Again, what's not to love? The twist here, for the half dozen of you who may not know, is that Blackadder starts out a wonderful, generous soul and by the end of the movie is shown the error of his ways and becomes a miser.
· A Christmas Carol (2000) - I call this "the real Scruffy-Boy Christmas Carol." It was as wonderful as the Williams one was bland. It stars Ross Kemp (from Eastenders) as a Eddie Scrooge, a nasty loan shark. It's almost a combination of Christmas Carol and Groundhog Day. It starts out a bit rough but it's worth sitting through and seeing it to the end; please do so if you can. And speaking of Groundhog Day,
· Scrooged (1988) - I found this just okay. Murray was fair but not all that terrific, and the last 15-20 minutes still make me wince. But you cannot beat the Carol Kane and David Johansen as, respectively, the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, and the rest of the stunt casting is equally eclectic. It's got Michael J. Pollard and Jamie Farr and Mabel King and Robert Goulet and Buddy Hackett and Lee Majors and Michael O'Donoghue and Paul Shaffer and Mary Lou Retton... it's kind of like an episode of the Love Boat crossed with SNL or something. Very weird.

Well, that's quite enough of that for now. Tune in soon for Part 2 of this (pre-)seasonal rambling, wherein I examine the myth-shattering Rankin/Bass, in a piece I like to call "So That's How He Got The Crown of Thorns!"