Saturday, July 27, 2013

SCROOGE 1970

It’s Christmas in July! Or, at least that’s how it feels since I got it in my head this month to read (for the first time!) Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. An act which, in turn, brought about my umpteenth revisit to the 1970 big-budget musical flop Scrooge (mercifully, without an exclamation point), my absolute favorite screen adaptation of this oft-told holiday allegory.

A Christmas Carol and its tale of a miserly old curmudgeon who finds spiritual redemption through the intervention of three spectral warnings, has been adapted, reworked and re-imagined so many times and in so many different formats that reference sources can't even agree on an actual number. I've seen and suffered through a great many over the years myself, the best of the lot being the well-regarded 1951 Alastair Sim version; that beloved staple of my childhood, Mr. Magoo’s A Christmas Carol (1962); and, a particular favorite, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. But no adaptation rouses me, touches my heart, or gets the waterworks flowing for me like Scrooge. I just adore it. It may not be the most faithful Dickens adaptation, or even the best, but like the tree atop the Capitol Records Building in my neighborhood of Hollywood, it never fails makes me feel like it's Christmas. And as such, it's the most thoroughly charming and satisfying of all the versions of A Christmas Carol I've ever seen.
Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge
Alec Guinness as Jacob Marley
Dame Edith Evans as The Ghost of Christmas Past
Kenneth More as The Ghost of Christmas Present
A brief look at the films released in 1970 reveals a kind of battle being raged at the boxoffice. Old-fashioned, elephantine studio releases like Airport, Tora!Tora!Tora!, and Ryan’s Daughter were duking it out with smaller, youth-centric films like M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces, and Diary of a Mad Housewife. When my friends and I went to the movies on weekends, it was often a choice between what we called “parent's movies” or “something good,” which usually meant something pretentious, grounded in “realism,” or with nudity (preferably, all three). Old-style Hollywood movies, particularly musicals, were considered "plastic." Something which, in post-'60s vernacular, was appreciably worse than old-fashioned. Plastic meant artificial, contrived, corny, and old-hat. Hollywood, which had grown increasingly out of touch with public tastes in the latter part of that decade, could have saved itself untold headaches (not to mention millions) by heeding the cultural warning signs and not continuing to sink money into pricey dinosaurs like Star! (1968), Hello Dolly (1969), and Paint Your Wagon (1969) long after interest in films of this scope had waned.
Dancing on His Grave
The townsfolk celebrate Scrooge's demise in the exuberant (and Best Song Oscar-nominated) "Thank You Very Much,"a number owing a considerable debt to Oliver!'s "Consider Yourself"
A good example of how abruptly tastes had changed by 1970 is apparent in the way movie fans that year avoided Barbra Streisand doing what she does best (singing) in the G-rated On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in favor of seeing her in a more realistic milieu (crassly so, many thought) playing a foul-mouthed, non-singing, New York prostitute in the R-rated and hilarious The Owl & the Pussycat. Even Julie Andrews, the lady largely responsible for reviving the musical with The Sound of Music, couldn't get fans to turn out for Darling Lili that same year. Tellingly, the only movie musicals young people went to see in 1970 were all documentaries: Woodstock, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, and The Beatles’ Let It Be.
The Ghost of Hollywood Yet to Come
By the '70s, big studio productions like Scrooge were already a dying breed. 

While the story of Ebenezer Scrooge had a pre-sold market familiarity and a royalties-free public domain accessibility, the mounting of a large-scale, wholly British musical production of the material was a hard sell from the start. Albert Finney was known to American audiences for his Academy Award nominated/Golden Globe winning performance in Tom Jones (1963), but was nobody's idea of a boxoffice draw. Likewise director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Poseidon Adventure), who was hardly a household name. Screenwriter/composer Leslie Bricusse was seen as something of a drawing card due to his long association with entertainer Anthony Newley, but whatever goodwill he'd built up on the strength of Broadway hits like Stop the World-I Want to Get Off (1961) was compromised by being very publicly associated with the double-barreled bombs: Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) and Doctor Dolittle (1967). Saddled with feebly-rendered posters and a terrible ad campaign practically designed to scare audiences away (“Scrooge - All Singing! All Dancing! All Heart!”) Scrooge limped into theaters in November of 1970 with its only marketing hooks being the familiarity of Dickens' story and the surprising presence of a handsome 34-year-old leading man cast in the role of the crotchety old miser.
Albert Finney as young Ebenezer, Suzanne Neve as Isabel Fezziwig, the love he let get away

For all the above stated reasons, I steered clear of Scrooge when it came out. But when it began to make the rounds on TV every Christmas, I regretted never granted myself the opportunity to see it on the big screen. Even in its heavily-edited* state, it thoroughly delighted and captivated me.
*Perversely, early TV broadcasts eliminated most of the musical number "Thank You Very Much," arguably the most lively and kid-friendly song in Scrooge's lovely but somewhat sluggish score, and edited out the scenes of Scrooge in hell and some of the scarier stuff involving Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Ignoring the fact that children's classics like The Wizard of Oz are heavy on both scares and cheerful music, like a death-wish, the networks zeroed instead on Scrooge's warmth...a guaranteed humbug for children's Christmastime viewing. Happily the DVD has everything restored.
Banished to Hell, Scrooge is shown the ropes (or, in this case, chains) by his old friend, Jacob Marley 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Not meaning to sell Scrooge short, but I'd be less than honest if, in praising this well-acted and wholly pleasing adaptation,  I fail to mention that I'm a bit of a soft touch when it comes to A Christmas Carol as a story. There is just something I find so elementally moving in the hopeful theme of personal transformation, the retrieval of the lost soul, and the warming of a frozen heart. The idea that all people, no matter how deeply mired in the selfish and superficial, have within them the potential for positive change, has always been one of my narrative pet weaknesses. It just rips me up. It’s a poor adaptation of A Christmas Carol, indeed, that doesn't have me in tears by the time Ebenezer begins to see the error of his ways. Scrooge does this job exceptionally well, and by the film’s last 10 minutes I’m fairly a mess.
Albert Finney won a  Best Actor Golden Globe for Scrooge. He would sing onscreen again as Daddy Warbucks in 1982's Annie
There’s something about the fairy-tale quality of Dickens’ writing - present in A Christmas Carol in particular - which lends itself to easy transfer to a musical format. The characters have great, Seussical names like Fezziwig and Cratchit (and of course, the onomatopoeic perfection that is Ebenezer Scrooge…which is like, the best name EVER!), and the broad emotions of Scrooge’s reality are almost like musical counterpoint to the melancholy tenderness of the story's sentimentality. During the last act, the two contrasting worlds mesh, it feels like a musical crescendo.
The redemption/transformation musical medley that makes up the final act of  Scrooge (wherein many of the songs that had previously underscored highlighted Scrooge's misanthropy, are converted into anthems celebrating his magnanimity) is the star on top of this particular cinema Christmas tree. It's funny, it's moving, and I wish I could watch it just once without getting all choked up.

Perhaps due to the fact that the story itself has such a musical rhythm, Leslie Bricusse's score of melodic, undistinguished songs, feel perfectly fine without being particularly noteworthy. The songs are pleasant enough, propelling the plot, fleshing out character and motivation, and, when they are at their best, expressing joy. But unlike say, the songs of the Sherman brothers (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs & Broomsticks) whose melodies for Disney movies are so infectious they have almost become nursery rhymes and childhood classics; no matter how often I see Scrooge, I can’t remember a single song afterward except “Thank You Very Much.” On the plus side, the forgettable nature of Bricusse's songs has the effect of making the film feel new to me each time I revisit it.
David Collings and Frances Cuka as Bob & Ethel Cratchit
I love adaptations of A Christmas Carol which deviate from the book text and allow for scenes of the Cratchit family reacting to the rehabilitated Scrooge.

PERFORMANCES
Where Scrooge surpasses so many other versions of A Christmas Carol for me is in the pleasure I derive from Albert Finney’s bilious take on Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s a great deal of fun as a devoted killjoy, barking insults at people and shoving children out of his path. So much so that one is likely to be reluctant to see him rehabilitated too soon. As should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen his Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, Finney is a movie star with the heart of a character actor. Concealing makeup and prosthetics that would swallow up lesser actors only seem to liberate the versatile British actor from the limitations imposed by his leading man good looks.
As Scrooge, Finney’s transformation is mostly body language, and he plays Ebenezer as a sad, disappointed man who has steeled himself from pain by stiffening and gnarling his entire countenance into a knot of meanness.
Scrooge contemplates his younger self

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I have no idea what that shooting budget for Scrooge was, but the the film looks great in that old-fashioned, shot-entirely-in-a-studio way that triggers a certain nostalgia. The scope of  the film isn't as grandiose as its spiritual cousin Oliver!, but Scrooge boasts a distinguished cast of British actors, pleasing period detail in costumes and sets, and the overall look of it is finely turned-out and sumptuous. The special effects, which must have been pretty dazzling in 1970, are pretty primitive by today's standards, but rendered all the more charming by that fact (God, am I tired of CGI). Also, I think most of the cast, if not all, does its own singing! 
A Page Out of Dickens
Bob Cratchit with son Tiny Tim (Richard Beaumont) and  daughter, Kathy (Karen Scargill)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Christmas is my favorite holiday season. And living here in L.A., its a beautiful time where the city of glitter and glitz puts on an extra layer of tinsel that makes a simple walk down the street feel like you're starring in your own MGM musical. It's not my usual habit to watch holiday movies in the swelter of summer, but in this case, I had such a blast (and a REALLY good cry) revisiting the world of Charles Dickens. Dickens by way of a delightful musical film that just happened to have been released when delightful musical films were no longer on America's agenda of moviegoing prerequisites. If Scrooge isn't already considered a holiday classic, it should be. It stands as an excellent reminder that just because a film is out of step with the times in which it was made, doesn't necessarily mean that it's a film out of step.
"God bless Us, Every One!"
Copyright © Ken Anderson

17 comments:

  1. Ken, I'm a big fan of "Scrooge," too. Like you, I made no effort to see it when it was in release but caught it a few years later on TV - and fell for it instantly. I've seen various dramatic (and comic, for that matter) versions of "A Christmas Carol" and, among them, tend to prefer George C. Scott's TV Scrooge of 1984, but the version of any genre seems to me the most 'Christmas-y' is "Scrooge." Love Albert Finney's over-the-top Scrooge, Leslie Bricusse's songs and the overall look and tone of the film. Agree with you completely that it deserves to be a holiday classic - and that though timing matters, it is by no means everything.

    I, too, have shed tears over "A Christmas Carol" in no matter what form I've found it - book, film, TV movie - it's themes are, as you eloquently note, "so elementally touching."

    Great post.

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    1. Thanks, Eve!
      I remember liking that that George C. Scott version, too.
      A Christmas Carol is such a flexible story it begs multiple adaptations(I remember one with Vanessa Williams playing Scrooge as a pop music diva).
      I keep hoping some Christmas this "Scrooge" will be released at one of the local revival theaters. I would love to see it on the big screen.

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  2. "Finney is a movie star with the heart of a character actor" -- thank you, thank you, for this brilliant descriptor. I have to say that it reminds me of

    "Can you explain Megan Fox's appeal?
    "Yes. She looks like a porn star and has the same acting talent as one, yet for some reason she makes mainstream movies. This tonal disconnect is what's so appealing about her."

    not to imply any direct comparison between the actors. (That's from the immortal review http://www.toplessrobot.com/2009/06/bonus_robs_transformers_2_faqs.php .)

    As much as I like Albert Finney, he is the single weak link in my favorite movie, Millers' Crossing. It's perhaps the only Coen Bros. movie populated by human beings rather than caricatures (not that there's everything wrong with that!), but apparently he didn't get the memo.

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    1. Ha! I'm glad you liked the comment about Finney, but I hope you know that I meant that as a statement of very high praise! I love him mostly in character parts. As the hero in movies like "Wolfen" and "Looker," he's almost not there.

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    2. Let's not forget that Miss Fox also has a NAME like a porn star. Actually, hardly her fault...

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    3. Your description of Megan Fox was acurate as Hell.

      Thank god Carol Reed directed Oliver! whan he did.

      I shudder to think what Michael Bay would have done with Oliver!(i.e having whoever was potraying Nancy wear skimpy skirts so he can do underskirt shots).

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  3. You're watching christmas movies in the summer! I haven't seen this and now I want to thanks to your review. How I envy the you having been able to see films from this period in time at the cinema! So many of my favourite films were released then, sigh...

    I am fascinated by the big budgeted musicals from the late 60's and what you describe about the younger audiences wanting to see something completely different than what the major film studios were providing. It would be great to read your opinions of Star!, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Doctor Dolittle, Hello Dolly, Paint Your Wagon and Darling Lili! I am glad they were made but very few of the songs from them are as memorable as the songs from The Sound of Music.
    -Wille

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    1. It's normally not my habit to watch Christmas movies out of season, but this was a special case, what with reading the novella.
      I like that you have an affinity for this rather schizophrenic era in movies. Going to the theater with one's parents was often a crapshoot and frequently embarrassing. I recall My mom being a fan of both Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn, so the entire family went to see "There's a Girl in My Soup." Within the first half hour or so, Goldie has a nude scene, and my mom decided it was time for all of us to go.
      Of the movies you listed, I only saw "Paint Your Wagon" in the theaters as a kid. I loathed it, but somehow saw it like 3 times. I do remember being made to feel literally freezing by the way they shot "They Called the Wind Maria" it was gorgeous, and the only part of that film I liked.

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  4. This is my favorite Charles Dickens book, and I have seen just about every film of it, from the 1938 and 1951 black-and-white versions to the more recent incarnations. There is something wonderful about them all...I LOVE Albert Finney's Scrooge, but I also love Bill Murray's and more recently Jim Carrey's interpretations of the character. George C. Scott scares me in every movie...he has absolutely no warmth...all his characters are like General Patton...so his mean Scrooge is effective but I never believe the transformation at the end. Finney is perfect - we see how Ebenezer became embittered and cruel, and genuinely feel his pain... then rejoice as Scrooge comes back to life so believably at the end.

    I think this is a very good film, with fine actors and production values. I too enjoy the music here, but it is not as memorable as other Bricusse scores such as Willy Wonka or even Dr. Doolittle. Pleasant, but not catchy enough, as others have noted here.

    Christmas in July? Never! I don't watch these movies until Thanksgiving at least, but now I will be sure to catch this one again at holiday time!! :-)

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    1. I never saw the Jim Carrey version, but I remember liking the Bill Murray film (especially Alfre Woodard in it).
      "A Christmas Carol" is sort of hard to mess up, but every now and then you run into a clunker.
      Come Christmas, hope you remember to dig this one up again.
      Thanks, Chris!

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  5. Thank you very much for posting this review, Ken. It has been many years since I watched this film on television. I was very young when I saw it on television, but I recall being positively spellbound by it all. Every kid knows about the story of Scrooge and his "Bah, humbug!" catchcry. Perhaps it's only later that they find out about the novel "A Christmas Carol". I must confess, I've not yet read the novel--but since you've only recently gotten around to it yourself, now I don't feel so bad!

    As a child, what surprised me was how old some of these films were. I mean, I was watching these back in the 1980s, but seldom if ever did these films seem terribly "dated" to me. "Scrooge", released some seven years before I was born? Let's not forget "Wizard of Oz", released back in 1939--even before my PARENTS showed up!

    But you know what? These old musicals always seemed magical to me. "They don't make 'em liked they used to", which is a pity. At the Astor theatre, I still see kids under the age of ten watching these old films, and guess what? They positively love them. The enduring appeal of these old films make liars of soulless Hollywood executives who ardently believe that children need to be fed a stream of gratuitous video game violence and computerised special effects in order to be "entertained". In fact, I think that a lot of the real-life cynical "Scrooges" in Hollywood would do well to see the happiness that fine old films such as "Wizard of Oz", "The Sound of Music" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" still bring to the faces of children.

    I'm no prude, there's room for many sorts of films, but I feel that these days, children and their parents are being short-changed by Hollywood. The "movie magic" is being evaporated in favour of satisfying insatiable techno-nuts (typically men in the 18-35 demographic) who only value a film if it's incredibly noisy, terribly violent and loaded with CGI special effects (I refer to, and agree with, your sentiments in your recent "Superman" post).


    In conclusion, I simply must check out "Scrooge" again--and thanks for the heads up about the "missing footage". I'm guessing I saw a cut-down version, so if I am able to locate this picture again, it would be great to get the "whole story".

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    1. Hi Mark
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the enduring appeal of kid's films, musicals once thought too old fashioned. They really do achieve a kind of timelessness that allows kids to relate to them generations after they were made.
      Like you, I think studios sometimes underestimate what kids might enjoy in the way of sweet-natured entertainment. Not every kid responds to bathroom humor, sarcastic dialog, and endless noise.
      I once saw "meet Me in St. Louis" at a theater, and little kids were sitting there like they were watching "Harry Potter" or something...just enthralled by the fantasy. So i know what you mean when you describe your Astor theater screenings.
      Great comments, Mark. Thanks!

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  6. The old age makeup on Finney is what sells this movie for me - they nailed what he has looked like as he aged. His body language sells the character, but the makeup is dead on.

    Usually old age makeup is over the top or goes off in a more exaggerated direction, so it breaks the illusion for an audience when we see an actor who actually did grow old looking nothing like the "old" version in the movie. (Good example: "old" Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane" looks nothing like what Orson Welles ended up looking like. It throws some people off.)

    It takes a great makeup artist to extrapolate what a young actor will actually look like when older. The only other movie I can think of that did so well at its age makeup is "Once Upon a Time in America."

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  7. I'm glad you brought that up, and I wholeheartedly agree. Finney's makeup and his approximation of an elderly carriage is one of the joys of the film. When not outright laughable (the Carol Ann character in "Mommie Dearest") rarely is old age makeup convincing. Thanks for bringing up yet another good reason to love this movie!

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  8. I think part of the problem with Scrooge was that it was as you put it old hat.

    The polar opposites of Scrooge, Bedknobs & Broomsticks and their ilk in terms of 70s musicals were Caberet and Grease which was considered slightly edgier , more subtle and the latter featured phrases like pussy wagons and Olivia Newton John in black leather, selling points that would later be used in Chicago (Catherine Zeta Jones in suspenders gets my dad going), Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp hell bent on bloody revenge gets my mum going) and their ilk.

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  9. Solely based on your tribute to "Scrooge" here, I watched this tonight after having DVR-ed it from a recent TCM airing. I was amazed at the art direction... The mammoth pile of holiday foods, decor and (real) candles that Kenneth More sits upon! My God! Such a thing would be completely CGI-ed today... but nothing can beat the real thing. Anyway, it was highly enjoyable and, yes, I teared up at the end the same as you always do. (I once played The Grinch in a stage production and am very much into scenes of remorse/redemption, they almost always get me!) A wonderful cast, entertaining music and a really sumptuous, highly-detailed production. I really liked it and am so glad that you steered me to it through your site! (Merry Christmas, BTW!)

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Sorry to have come to this so late after the fact (not to late to wish you Happy New Year), but I'm so glad my write up was a factor in your taking a chance on this version of A Christmas Carol.
      I watched it again this year and you're rght, there's something about the "real-life" visual effects and productions values that really stand out over time.
      Hard to put one's finger on just WHY it makes such a difference, but it does.
      Also nice to hear we share a fondness for remorse/redemption scenes. Playing the Grinch! How fun that must have been!

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