Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

You Shall Be Upheld in More Than This (The 21st Century Update)

I admit it, I’m something of a Christmas Carol fanatic. 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 now-entrenched ideology 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 crank out the movies.

Here's a neat overview from Jerome Weeks 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 the Madison Square Garden theater 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, 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 – and although we never did get around to listing and ranking the top 50 or 100 sitcom clichés before our lives diverged, the idea lives on in various sites about TV Tropes). This site at About.com 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). Robin’s now put all the versions we could find on my desktop so I can pull them up and watch them on Apple TV any time I want. And I now circulate a comparison chart every year on my Facebook page, to see which versions come closest to the book and where they deviate. You wouldn’t believe how the number of Cratchits very from version to version, or how many modern ones eschew the name Fan in favor of Fran.

· 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. It was hard to sit through, but at least there were six Cratchits. I’ve seen one from 1901 that featured eight!

· Did you know Seymour Hicks played Scrooge twice on film? Once was in 1913’s silent Old Scrooge and then again in 1935’s Scrooge, where of course he was a good deal older than in the Old version. Confused? You will be! I gotta say though, I love the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come being a large shadow of Hicks’ head through which we see his regular head wondering about the future.

· 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 Trumpian 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.

· Hey look, "Shower of Stars" did a "live" telecast in 1958 starring Fredric March, Basil Rathbone and a young Robert Wagner. Yowza!

· Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962) – Surprisingly, 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.

· Scrooge (1970) – Albert Finney looks very good as a young man, and actually won a Golden Globe for his performance here (he did seem to be one of those actors who spoke songs rather than singing them, but his dancing wasn’t bad). There are bits of it I really like, particularly the incidental characters, but OMG every time Alec Guinness minces about and chews the scene, particularly in hell, I cringed. Hard to believe this was only seven years before Star Wars.

· The Stingiest Man in Town (1978) – There were a few animated versions around this time (one featuring Alistair Sim reprising his role, one with Michael Hordern and very lovely moody animation, a Bugs Bunny version out the same year, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol which came along a few years later featuring Uncle Scrooge as, well, you guess), but this is the Rankin/Bass version. 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 a favorite Scrooge, and this one of my favorite adaptations 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.

· Scrooged (1988) – I found this pastiche just okay. Murray was fair but not all that terrific, and the last 15-20 minutes still make me wince. But you cannot beat 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.

· 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.

· 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.

· 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 I think they took more liberties than I would have liked. Still, overall solid performances, and a very classy rendition. 

· 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.

· 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 pastiche 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.

· Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001) – Neither movie nor so much Christmas Carol, I fear. This joint European-British animated feature seemed overly enamored (as so many are) of putting its own imprint on the story, and of following some stupid unwritten rule that if it’s an animated film it’s mandatory to feature cute animals – in this case, mice. One in the hospital where Scrooge’s old love Belle works as a nurse, and one who’s actually the miser’s pet. As Wikipedia says, "Both Belle and Old Joe notably have bigger roles in the film. Unlike the book as well as other film adaptations, Belle does not marry and have children with another man. She is a nurse. Old Joe is a henchman of Scrooge who arrests or robs people who owe Scrooge debt but Scrooge fires him after mending his ways. Also in the film Marley's ghost haunts Scrooge before he goes home and Scrooge is notably younger as he has auburn hair and is middle-aged rather than being elderly.” It’s a bloody mess.

· A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004) – Does Jason Alexander’s Marley make one long for the comparatively subtle performance of Alec Guinness? Then this musical probably isn’t for you. But will you watch it anyway? Depends upon your Jane Krakowski tolerance, I suppose. Alan Menken’s music is just fine, and it’s got all the wonder one would expect from a Halmi production, which is to say the cheese is part of it, and this one doesn’t even include mice.

· Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) – I like this more every time I watch it, particularly by comparison with some earlier efforts. Jim Carrey does a nice job with a variety of accents from non-estuary London (as Scrooge) to Irish (the Ghost of Christmas Past) to Liverpudlian (Christmas Present), and it sticks remarkably close to the book, give or take the “Mr. Scrooge’s Wild Ride” sequence set in the future.

Interestingly, no other adaptations I know of in the intervening years, but with our modern Ebenezer Scrooge (and worse!) assuming power next month I’m hoping there’s always call for another version of one of the most potent cautionary tales of the last couple hundred years.