The Ten Best Christmas Songs of All Time

The Ten Best  Christmas Songs of All Time
                Despite what retailers have been telling you since before Halloween, the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving.
                Now that has passed and the Christmas season is in full swing.  Some radio stations are playing holiday tunes 24/7. As is usual with radio broadcasting in its current state (see my prior blog titled “I Finally Bury a Long-Dead Friend”), you will likely hear the same ten songs over and over instead of a wide variety of cuts.
                Some songs you will undoubted be sick of by December 25th; some songs you are still sick of from all the airplay last year. Some songs will make you smile. And there are some songs you’d wish they play even just once.
                I used to say the holiday season doesn’t really commence until I hear two specific songs: “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen.  The latter was hard to catch on the radio, if it was played at all; but now thanks to Youtube I can listen to the tune even on a hot August day.  Those two are on the list, by the way.
                I’m listing individual tracks. I could do another list just on general songs that I enjoy (although some versions are grating): “Holly & Ivy”, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle” and “I Saw Three Ships” would make that list.
                These are the songs that transcend the genre: the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “Layla” of holiday music. And these are in no particular order.
                I’d love to know YOUR list of favorites:

1.       Joy to the World by Percy Faith. The opening fanfare of this song makes you rise from your seat. It makes you want to march out in the snow with arms stretched outward and shout “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Listening to this makes you picture a bustling city street seen through swirling snow. This should be played when the Ghost of Christmas Present is showing Scrooge Christmas morning in Old London. It’s as majestic as it is iconic. It is the opening song of “A Christmas Story”.  It should be the first song played at the start of the season.
2.       Ring Those Christmas Bells by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. I’ll bet you’ve not heard this one. If you have, you know how strange this song is – especially since it was produced in the 1950s. It has an early 1970s post-psychedelic feel to it. It starts off with the singers talking merrily and then break into a chorus of Jingle Bells. Someone chants “Merry Merry Christmas” and it is repeated by the singers as a mantra. That segues into “Ring Those Christmas Bells”; a song whose tune sounds vaguely like the theme to “Green Acres”. At the end the “Merry Merry Christmas” mantra returns. It’s a bizarre tune. I love it! It is on Youtube.
3.       Silent Night by Mannheim Steamroller. The first two tunes on the list are upbeat songs of celebration. This is a very quiet song, appropriately. You listen to this song sitting on the couch in the evening drinking hot cocoa and watching the snow fall. Being Mannheim Steamroller, this version of the song is filled with electronics tweets and whistles and notes that don’t quite sound like they fit, but eventually do. And the end is beautiful; a swelling crescendo followed by a wisp of the first four notes played as if by a child on a toy piano. Absolutely beautiful.
4.       All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey. A fun romping song that sounds like it came off of a Phil Spector Christmas album. Mariah has the chops to pull off the vocal acrobatics of the song and the sex-kittenish sensuality of the lyrics and her delivery (especially the introduction) makes the song a favorite. Ignore the remakes and stick to the original. You’ll thank me. The song is alluring, and not in the creepy sexiness of a “Santa Baby”. Whereas the latter requires a shot of penicillin after every listen, “All I Want …” is a wonderful upbeat happy song for the holidays. This song sometimes makes lists of worst Christmas songs, and there are some remakes that are pretty bad, but I like the original.
5.       Happy Christmas (War is Over) by John Lennon. I used to joke, “You know it is Christmastime when you hear Bing Crosby and Yoko Ono on the radio”.  Yoko sings the middle eight of this sweet song. Like “Imagine”, this is likened unto a children’s song. However, I always found it a sad song. Not only because Lennon was murdered in the month of December and this song was on the playlists at the time; but also because I hear the lyrics as an accusation or condemnation. A man looking at himself in the mirror – “so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun…” Another year passed with unfulfilled expectations.
6.       Snoopy’s Christmas by the Royal Guardsmen. The band hit big in 1966 with “Snoopy vs The Red Baron” and this is a sequel from 1967. Our man Snoopy is once again called upon to fight his arch enemy.  Without giving away the ending, I wonder if the band knew this is similar to an actual event – the Christmas Truce.  In 1914 German and British soldiers exchanged greeting and songs across “no man’s land” – even exchanging gifts such as food and souvenirs. At the end the opposing troops sang carols together and played football (that’s soccer for you mouth-breathers…).  But soon the unofficial truce was over and such fraternization was banned by the so-called superior officers and both sides went back to slaughtering each other over the next four years.
7.       My Little Drum by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s a shame that Vince Guaraldi will be known for only his work on the Charlie Brown cartoons, as he should be remembered for the piano-playing genius he was. We are lucky we have his soundtrack to “Charlie Brown Christmas” available on CD. Every song on the album could be included in a Top Ten, but “My Little Drum” is a unique take on the traditional song (that being “Little Drummer Boy”). Once you hear it, you’ll want to hit the back button and listen to it again. Minor and major notes are hit on the beat and off; and the children singing and humming and prrrrr-ump-ump-ing make a sweet counterpoint to the jazzy beatnik arrangement. It’s the cat’s meow, man. One of the best songs from one of the best holiday albums of all time.
8.       Must Be Santa by Bob Dylan. Even at his best Dylan’s vocal “style” is an acquired taste. Now that he is older and his voice is scorched from too many tours, he sounds the way an oak tree would sound it if could sing. “Someone is vivisecting a wildebeest!” “No, it’s Dylan’s latest album.”  BUT, his voice fits this genuinely great, great version of the Christmas song. It sounds like a rollicking good party was going on while recording it (and the video accompanying the song plays that out to great effect. Mordant bleu, Bob Dylan dances in the video – dances!!). The song is a chestnut of Mitch Miller’s Christmas song chest, but here Dylan made the song fun without quite pushing it into novelty territory.
9.       Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. The 1977 Christmas special from which this song aired is available on DVD. It is strange watching Crosby introduce the video of Bowie’s “Heroes” standing behind a Christmas trees and twinkling lights. The legend says that Bowie hated “Drummer” and did not want to sing it as a duet with der Bingle. So the writers whipped up “Peace on Earth” to act as a descant to “Little Drummer Boy” and also a middle eight for Bing and Bowie to duet. It worked. Bowie’s high vocals paired beautifully with Crosby’s baritone. Crosby sang the main song quietly. This is important. “Little Drummer Boy” is usually performed as a big production filled with artificial melodrama in complete contrast to the ideals within the song. Here the song is quiet and respectful – a small child presenting the only gift he could give to the infant king. Plus I like Crosby’s vocals in his later years. His voice deepened and rumbled. Water glasses vibrated when he sang. It’s a lovely song. And it was Crosby’s last Christmas single. That lends a sadness to it that it otherwise might not have.
10.   Jingle Jingle Jingle by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer soundtrack. I have not heard anyone remake this song, but it is one of my favorite Christmas songs, perhaps THE favorite. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it is sung by Santa in a deep baritone. A predictable song of ascending and descending notes with staccato trumpets and strings. A simple song for children that captures the season in their eyes. A sweet and lovable song.
11.   OK, one more, what the heck, it’s Christmas. Plus, this list is pretty bare as far as Bing Crosby – only one? You might think I’m building up to “White Christmas” – the song is so iconic and I think the past two generations have forgotten how tremendously HUGE that song was and is. But I want to go with another song by Bing that brings a holiday smile – Melaka Leke Maka. I love singing along and imitating Bing’s low rumble. He sounds like he’s having a fun time with it too. The song is so much fun the Andrews Sisters tolerated each other long enough to sing backing vocals.  And by the way, “Melaka Leke Maka” is NOT the Hawaiian term for “Merry Christmas” – it is the phonetic spelling of a Hawaiian native trying to SAY “Merry Christmas”.

                And there we have the ten best individual songs! Are any of these already stuck in your head? Lucky you…

Thanks for reminiscing with me!
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry

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In Defense of Cousin Oliver … or at least Robbie Rist!

In Defense of Cousin Oliver … or at least Robbie Rist!
(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});                 My daughter is very much into the Disney cartoon “Doc McStuffins”. The premise is straightforward: little girl pretends to be a doctor and fixes broken toys. It can be anything from dirt to broken “winder-uppers” to stuck on-off switches or volume controls.
                Helping her are her own toys. When no one else is around, her toys come to life through the magic of Doc’s stethoscope. Her toys assist with the diagnoses and/or rescue of the various other toys she helps.
                These range from a wind-up surfer girl to a loving plush lamb to a hippo with a southern accent who acts as her chief nurse.
                There is also a dragon named Stuffy. He is clumsy and slips and falls a lot. He also likes to brag about being fearless. This is usually followed by something scaring him; a typical kid-TV occurrence (children’s television is not known for their unexpected plot twists. This isn’t “Chinatown”…).
                On a whim my wife checked out “Doc McStuffins” on International Movie Database. “The guy who does the voice for Stuffy played Cousin Oliver on ‘The Brady Bunch’.”
                Cousin Oliver.  If you are of a certain generation – mine – the combination of those two words just made your jaw clench.
                Cousin Oliver appeared only in the last six episodes of “The Brady Bunch” – six out of one hundred and seventeen. He had the last line of the last show of the series. Sam the Butcher and Tiger the dog were in more episodes and yet Cousin Oliver is remembered by more fans of the show than either of the former.
                …and more reviled.
                …oh so reviled.
                Why? By 1974 “The Brady Bunch” was in its fifth season. The lovable children (I am NOT going to rehash the plot for you – if you don’t know the plot of “The Brady Bunch” you are reading the WRONG blog…) were growing up and some were old enough to start college.
                The show reflected that to an extent. The attic was converted to a room – sorry, a groovy pad – for Greg. It would not do for a basically grown man to still share a bedroom with two younger brothers. Greg was a young man with raging hormones and needed some personal space to entertain Marcia his cadre of chicks now swarming all over him.
                I suppose Marcia’s flying the coop would have been next in a Season Six. Perhaps they would have converted the garage or turned Mike’s office into a separate room for her. Perhaps they would do what Mike & Gloria did later in “All in the Family” and move out altogether. We would have had scenes set in Marcia’s college dorm. It would have changed the whole tenor of the show. I doubt the program would have lasted past that season if that happened. Probably best it was not renewed when it was.
                Can you imagine the producer’s dilemma?  “Our cute kids are now handsome and beautiful adults! What do we do?”
                “Let’s add a wacky neighbor,” one says. (There is always some schmuck at meetings like this that wants to add a wacky neighbor)
                “Quiet! No, no, this show is about a group that will somehow form a family, remember?  If the kids are growing up, let’s replace them with more kids!”
                “Carol and Mike having a baby?”
                “Too realistic. This is the show where they mow Astroturf. And babies won’t help – what kind of plots can we have with a baby? We need to get back to pre-teen kids so we can have stories about trouble at school or the playground. Let’s bring in nephews or cousins or something…”
                Thus was born Cousin Oliver. He was younger than the Brady siblings (step-siblings, let’s remember) and was overall cute and lovable. Before Oliver the last season’s shows had lackluster stories and repetitive plots. During Oliver the shows had lackluster stories and repetitive plots. It’s like putting a dying plant into a different pot.
                I’ve read comic books all my life. This sort of thing happens in that medium every ten years or so. “We’ve run out of ideas; let’s change things.” Changing Superman’s suit doesn’t help change lackluster writing and overused scenarios. It only makes it LOOK different.
                Thus “The Brady Bunch” was not renewed and Cousin Oliver got the blame.
                Also thus the term “the Cousin Oliver Syndrome” was born. A dying show would add a cute kid to spark new interest among viewers and energize the writers, producers and staff. It never works. Well, it worked with Olivia on “The Cosby Show” but that was the frickin’ Cosby Show. They could have replaced the children with Jello Pudding Pops and it still would have worked…).
                “Different Strokes” brought in a new white kid after two-thirds of the child cast went to prison grew up, “Growing Pains” added Leonardo DiCaprio, “Married With Children” quickly realized their new kid – named Seven – was a mistake and made fun of him throughout the rest of its run, “The Partridge Family” added a neighbor’s kid – I think he played oboe or something, “Family Matters” seemed to add a new kid every season, and “Who’s the Boss” added another kid after Alyssa Milano became too unbelievably sexy to play a tomboy named Sam anymore. None worked.
                Cousin Oliver still elicits mob-like vitriol: “I hated that little so-and-so.” “That brat!! Why if I ever meet him, I’ll …”
                All right, everyone relax. Yes, Cousin Oliver and what he spawned should be despised with all our passion, but the actor himself … he’s had a wonderful career!
                His name is Robbie Rist and he was born on April 4, 1964. Yes, Cousin Oliver is older than I am.
                “April 4th! The day is cursed! Martin Luther King was assassinated and Cousin Oliver was born!”
                OK, stop that right now…
                After “The Brady Bunch” he appeared in most shows you would imagine in the 1970s and early 1980s: “CHIPS”, “Medical Center”, etc.
                He was in a few episodes in “The Bionic Woman” as a student.
                I remember him more for two other roles:
                He was Ted and Georgette’s adopted son on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. The scene where Ted has to spank his naughty son is one of the funniest scenes of the series – which means it is one of the funniest scenes on television. Youtube has the show available for viewing (for now): 
                It starts at about 20:00 minutes in. This was unintentionally recreated word for word the first time I had to swat my daughter.
                Although he was in one episode of “Lou Grant”, he did NOT play David Baxter.  Much like that other so-called spin-off “Trapper John MD”, the show had nothing to do with its parent program. It took the name and that was about it…
                He was also a regular on the NBC Saturday morning live-action show “Big John Little John”. I loved that show. I expect if I were to see an episode now I would be drearily disappointed; as I am with most Saturday morning cartoons I cherished as a kid but watch now with rolled eyes.
                And now Robbie Rist is known for his voice-work – from video games to animated shows. Batman, Blues Brothers, Ghost Busters, Final Fantasy, Lord of the Rings, and Naruto.
                He played the bus driver on the bogglingly successful movie “Sharknado”. Did you see him?
                And of course he does the voice of Stuffy on “Doc McStuffins”. Which is where I started this whole thing.
                So cheers to a great career, Robbie Rist!
                And for the rest of you – love the sinner and hate the sin, would ya?
                Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry

We’re Off to See the Wiggles… A review of the Wiggles US Tour 2013

We’re Off to See the Wiggles…
A review of the Wiggles US Tour 2013
                September 18, 2013 my wife, daughter and I saw the Wiggles in concert at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis, Missouri.
                I retired from concert-going in 1992. My hearing was shot even then and with a screeching baby the tinnitus has not gotten better. Going to concerts would rip apart what was left of my hearing, as well as rip apart what was left of my bank account. Five hundred bucks to see the Eagles?  I can hear them for free every time I turn on the radio. Every. Time.  Not even if they performed in my front room.  I came out of retirement three times – once to see Ringo Starr do a free concert under the St. Louis Arch on July 4thin the late nineties (a Beatle for free? Yes, I will come out of retirement to see a Beatle for free…), once last year to see Rik Emmett ($10.00, yes, I will come out of retirement to hear Triumph’s Greatest Hits live for $10.00), and now to take my daughter to see the Wiggles.
                This was the tour supporting their DVD “Taking Off” and was the first “solo” tour of the new Wiggles. Founders Jeff, Murray and Greg retired. Anthony continued with three new Wiggles – although all of them were with the franchise either playing secondary characters or back-up singers and dancers.
                The new members were Simon, Lachy and Emma. It was quite a controversy when the new Wiggles took over, but most of their world-wide fans wished them the best when the shock wore off.
                My daughter discovered the Wiggles early in 2013. To her mind, Emma is as much a Wiggle as Greg. Or Sam for that matter. She adores Emma. She is her favorite. So of course she wanted to dress like Emma for the show. Easy enough – she already has a black skirt, black leggings and a yellow shirt.
                She looks good in yellow, with her dark skin. My wife has always been happy about that.
                I was afraid I would be the only adult male at the show. I wasn’t. I was afraid I would be the oldest father there. Surprisingly, I wasn’t. In fact, most of the fathers I saw there were about my age. Some of them had children younger than mine (this concert was her fourth birthday present).
                I’m not sure what to make of that. I am afraid of generalizing by saying younger fathers wouldn’t bother going to such a thing … but I have no facts to support my theory.  Would an older father tolerate these things easier than a younger one? “See the Wiggles!?  And miss Kill Division playing across town!?”
                The stage cast consisted of Anthony, Emma, Lachy, Simon and Paul Paddick as Captain Feathersword along with three back-up dancers and singers. They would take turns as the costumed characters of the franchise: Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog and Henry the Octopus.
                They did an excellent job of keeping the pace going so that you never noticed who was missing from the stage when the costumed characters were on.  Paddick does the voice for Henry the Octopus. I didn’t notice if he was on-stage or off-stage while Henry was “singing” his song. He may have been IN the costume for all I know.
                The set was sparse considering the concert videos you can purchase or watch on You Tube. This isn’t Madison Square Garden or a packed amphitheater in Australia. This was the last few weeks of a two-month North American tour playing smaller venues. The following night they were in Nashville, then Detroit, then Chicago for two shows on Saturday. The following week they played two matinees in New York. Remember this was the same franchise that sold out twelve shows in a row at Madison Square Garden
                So there were no elaborate sets depicting Wiggle Town or the Wiggle House, no 12-foot blow-up Wiggles, no working Big Red Car. The backdrop was a replica of the cover of their new DVD that set behind a drum kit and keyboards and guitars. The only props were a cardboard castle set in front of a tall stand as well as a camel and airplane costume – each worn by Captain Feathersword.
                Sparse settings made sense, though. Who knows how successful this tour would be? Who wants to spend millions on setting up, tearing down and moving elaborate sets for half-filled stadiums?
                They needn’t have worried. They went for smaller venues and all of them are sold out. I checked the tour venues online and there were only forty or so seats remaining in each venue for the rest of the tour. All but forty seats available for a 3,500-seat venue (at least for Peabody)? I’d say that’s pretty good.
                I checked and checked online for a set list for this tour with little luck. The only review I found was on a blog of a Detroit mother. I thought I would do a set list and review the show. By the time this post gets to most of my readers the tour will be over, of course. But perhaps if they tour next year (or more likely the year after) this will give parents who know nothing of Wiggle concerts a taste of what to expect.
                I spent most of my time talking photos, writing down names of songs and smiling at a squealing and giggling three-year-old. Near the end of the show, my daughter and two others were on the far left aisle dancing. I had to warn my daughter not to flail around too much for fear of hurting the other children.
                The mother of one of the little girls asked her to stay near. She kept her arm around her daughter at first. She didn’t want her daughter dancing with other girls while some tall, fat, bald man took their pictures. But she soon relented.
                During the last song my daughter finally took that tumble I warned her about. She cried and I picked her up. It was by now 7:50 and she was very tired. As the Wiggles waved goodbye I told her they were leaving and to say goodbye. She stopped crying immediately – as children of that age do – and shouted goodbye to everyone on stage.
                Before and after the concert we took pics of the stage. An usher very kindly took a picture of the three of us in front of the stage when the show was done. Although sold-out, by 7:30 quite a few of the ticket-holders left with their sleepy charges. We ended up with only a few people in our Orchestra Left section.
                This allowed me to stand and take plenty of photos of the performers. Earlier I was afraid to stand too long for fear of blocking the people behind me. One of the few younger fathers sat two rows ahead of me. He wore his hair in high spikes, which blocked most of my camera’s flash. Near the end, as there was no one behind me; I could stand and hold the camera as high as I wished – his light-absorbing head no longer a problem.
                We had great seats. Well, Peabody Opera House (I still think of it as Keil Opera House – I saw Clapton there in the 1980s) does not have a bad seat; but we had particularly good ones. We were seventh row to the far left. The front rows taper outward. This means there were three rows between us and the far stage left. 
                 Lachey spent some time on our side of the audience. He gave my daughter a high-five!
                 When Anthony stood on the end of the stage he was ten feet in front of us. He waved back at Abby and me. Yes, I was waving at Anthony – I am one of the few surviving Cockroaches fans in the States…
                The Wiggles and their troupe sang and played their instruments live.  In most of the concert footage they look like they are lip-synching. With all their dancing and activity that isn’t surprising. And this is the Wiggles, not Milli Vanilli – who cares?
                But we were close enough to tell. They sang live. And their instruments were live, too. Good for them.
                This despite the fact that there was LOTS of dancing going on. Every song had its own moves. The children (and most adults) followed along faithfully. Captain Feathersword played bass, Anthony played acoustic and electric guitar and drums, Emma played drums, Lachy played keyboards and the glockenspiel. And even the dancers played percussion, drums and guitar as needed.
                Speaking of the dancers… They were introduced at the end, but by then I was dancing with and photographing my daughter.  Looking online doesn’t help identify the three dancers.  The beautiful Catarina Mete has a bit of a following and hers is the only name I can find. The other lady is Lauren –  I hope the spelling is correct.  She was named in a concert segment on the Wiggles’ new TV show.  The male dancer, Nick, looks a lot like Lachy; so much so my daughter thought it WAS Lachy when he came on stage.  
                He was the first one on stage. He gave us a safety lecture much like the stewardi on a plane – find your exits, watch your children, that sort of thing.  He also told us to tweet what we think about the show and they will later read their favorites during the concert.
                So spend the concert staring at your phone? Um, no. I disagree – My tweet would read, “I would love to watch the show but I haven’t seen a minute of it because I am trying to tweet.”  Don’t text and wiggle.  
                Like I’m one to talk. I spent the concert taking photos and jotting down the playlist.
                Speaking of which:
Rock a Bye Your Bear
Can You Point Your Finger and Do the Twist
Quack Quack
(My Sharona – spoof)
Monkey Dance
Here Comes a Bear
Romp Pomp a Chomp
(The Rose – spoof)
Joannie Works With One Hammer
Numbers Rhumba
Shakey Shakey
Fruit Salad
Peanut Butter
Toot Toot Chugga Chugga
(If I Could Turn Back Time – spoof)
Captain’s Magic Buttons
Five Little Joeys
Emma (With a Bow in Her Hair)
We’re Dancing With Wags the Dog
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Henry’s Dance
Simon Says
There Was a Princess Long Ago
I’ve Got My Glasses On
Shimmy Shake
Hot Potato
Do the Propeller
                Oh, and I tried keeping a “Gee C’mon” tab, but I lost track among the other things going on. I know Anthony said it two or three times.
                Emma left the stage for a time to say hello to the fans. Doing my best stage-mother imitation, I grabbed my daughter and walked with her to the center aisle and plopped her in front of Emma. 
                “You’re wearing a yellow skivvie and a black skirt just like mine!” Emma said. My daughter was giddy! She met Emma! Her favorite! I was so happy for her!
                I knew my daughter was getting tired when she kept asking, “Is it over?” after ever song during the second half.  But not in a whiney way, just like asking if a TV show is over. She had a ball. She squealed with delight and laughed and giggled when she recognized a song. By the end, though, she was happy just to dance along with the songs in the side aisles. It made both of us so tremendously happy to see her so happy.
                There were enough nods to the adults to keep us smiling, too. Captain Feathersword did a funny Cher imitation.  Anthony made a Lady Gaga reference. He said, “We used to say Miley Cyrus but we changed that a few weeks ago.” It was funny but I’ll bet he was also very serious. There were comical homages to the songs “The Rose” and “My Sharona”.
                We might get one last Wiggles concert out of our daughter before she gets too old for that sort of thing and starts dragging us to the boy band dujour.  But I’ll cherish the look on her face and the sound of her laugh. Thanks Wiggles!
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry


Three Scrooges, Part 11: Personal Best (my favorite versions)

Three Scrooges, Part 11: Personal Best (my favorite versions)
               Thought of the blog: How much do you think Scrooge donated to the solicitors that Christmas morning? In George C. Scott’s Carol movie, it is obvious they are mouthing “a thousand pounds” that would more than likely have been just over $150,000 US. Back payments indeed!
               “A Christmas Carol” starring George C. Scott as Scrooge was a made-for-television film shown on CBS in 1984. It was the first serious attempt at a Carol movie in thirty-three years. All previous adaptations were animated features, musicals or a spoof/homage from current television programs.  As such it was the first serious adaptation to be filmed in color.
               This is without question my favorite version. The acting and characters are superb. The scenery is beautiful. Its flaws are small and insignificant compared to the majesty of the film.
               Uniqueness: it’s loyalty to the original story makes for very few scenes that are not in the book, but they exist. Changes were had because of Scott’s tinkering with the character to reflect his “motivation”. They make sense: borrowing from 1951’s “Scrooge”, he was the younger child, Fen the older (Scrooge’s mother died in childbirth and his father holds him a-grudge).  We get to see Scrooge’s father for the only time in any other adaptation (Scott standing defiantly behind his younger self sends a shiver down the spine – staring down at the man who made him what he was.
               Missing: not much. No trip to the miners/lighthouse/ship is the only part I can recall missing other than Dickens’ asides. The debate between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present about closing the bakeries on the Sabbath is missing (only “Disney’s …” includes it to date). Too bad, it would have given the Ghost played by Edward Woodward another reason to snarl at Scrooge.
               There is so much to love about the movie – not just the beauty of the settings. The Ghost of Christmas Present’s verbal bitch-slapping of Scrooge to mind his tongue when discussing the poor and destitute was the dramatic highlight. Rather than cringe, Scrooge smirked and nodded, conceding the point.
               Scrooge meeting Fred’s wife for the first time says, “I was in love once, can you imagine that?” “Yes, yes I can,” she says quietly. Scrooge then addresses his nephew, “You will forgive me but I see the shadow of my sister in my face.  … God forgive me for the time I’ve wasted.” A moving scene.
                Cratchet, mourning Tiny Tim, holds his youngest daughter and cries, “my child; my little, little child”. If that does not bring a tear to your eye, you have no soul.
               Scenes of poor families living under a bridge and cooking scraps found on the street is not from the novel, but aptly placed.
               His descent into coldness was realistic; his conversion was realistic. That was Scott’s point in tinkering with the “motivation” of Scrooge – these were not caricatures or archetypes, these are (or at least should be) real people.
               The book says Scrooge was not a man of humor, but Scott imbues Scrooge with a sharp intelligence and humor, wicked though it may be. “You’re devilishly hard to have a conversation with,” he tells Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
               The cast is perfect – although Bob Cratchet could have looked a bit less robust. Tiny Tim looked, well, tiny. And cute as a button.
               The film is a joy to watch. A joy.
                The television show “WKRP in Cincinnati” aired for three years on CBS. It was a documentary about the inner workings of a radio station disguised as a sit-com.  IMHO it was the best thing ever to air on TV.
               They did two Christmas shows – one was a Carol spoof. Mr. Carlson played the Scrooge character refusing to give out Christmas bonuses. He is visited by cast members Jennifer (Loni Anderson never looked more beautiful than in this episode), Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid having contagious fun) and Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman’s genuinely creepy Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come).
               The humor was, as always, character-driven, well-written and funny.
               Ironically I find the third visit the most melancholy. Fever shows Carlson the future of the radio station. There was Herb Tarlek sitting at a desk while the automated computer behind him broadcasting generic music (Christmas music) with presumably generic DJs.
               If you’ve listened to the radio lately, you’ll know that despite Carlson’s conversion, the dark future happened anyway. Most radio stations nowadays are composed of the sales staff and a computer tech.  It was the only Christmas Carol in which Scrooge did NOT change the future…
UNSEEN SCROOGES (version I have not seen but will review anyway, oh like that’s never been done by professional critics…)
               “A Christmas Carol” – an Australian 1982 animated feature. I have not yet seen the movie, but it received glowing reviews. It is called the most complete and accurate depiction of the novel done to date. Wow! I’ve got to YouTube THIS…
Next: Leftovers (a potpourri of Carols that didn’t quite fit…)
Copyright 2012 Michael G. Curry

Three Scrooges, Part 10 (of 12): The Big Guns

Three Scrooges, Part 10 (of 12): The Big Guns
               What would Scrooge’s reaction had been if it were August and Fred invited him to church instead of a Christmas party? Would he have still called it a “humbug”? Would he consider church an excuse for picking a man’s pocket every week?  He attended a church service on Christmas morning after his conversion, but would he have been so vitriolic to Fred’s invitation?
               “Scrooge” was released in 1951 by a British company named Renown Pictures. The milestone. The one all Carol adaptations before and after are compared. It was so influential and successful it was 33 years before another serious movie was made of the novel – others being cartoons, spoofs and TV episodes adapting the plot.
               How I disliked this film for many years. Overly dramatic; Scrooge mumbled his lines so quickly as to be inaudible. Over the years I have warmed up to the film and, although not my favorite, it’s not so bad.
               It includes most of the standard Carol scenes. Scrooge states that swallowing a toothpick would haunt him with goblins for the rest of his days. When showing the toothpick, Scrooge says “you are not looking at it”. Marley says, “but I see it nonetheless.”  Those lines have not appeared in any other version of the tale I have seen.  The miners are shown during the Ghost of Christmas Present’s visit, but not the lighthouse keepers or the ship at sea.
               What makes this movie unique is what it adds: a long and very interesting segment showing Scrooge (and Marley’s) financial rise; the death of Scrooge’s sister giving birth to Fred; Scrooge’s fiancé Alice (Belle in the novel) working at a home for poor children; Scrooge at Marley’s deathbed; and a comic scene during Scrooge’s redemption with the charwoman Mrs. Dilber (in the novel Dilber was the laundress).
               The effects are standard – lots of double exposures to make for see-through ghosts.
               Despite my warming to the movie, I still laugh at an obviously health Tiny Tim. I can’t help but think of the great quote for “Black Adder’s Christmas Carol”: “Tiny Tim is 15 stone and built like a brick privy.”
               A nice bit is Scrooge’s genuine scream of terror on meeting the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  It is a little harsher than the MGM 1938 film, but still a good movie to watch with plenty of popcorn and family.
               Note that I do not go on too much about this (and the 1938 version) if only because by the time you read this you will likely have seen it already this season – or will find it and watch it yourself.  I enjoy discussing some of the more obscure adaptations and encourage you to find them online or (rarely) on cable.
               Actor Fredrick March has appeared in two TV versions of Carol.  One was under the umbrella of his own show “Tales from Dickens” from 1958 and the other a musical version in 1954.
               1958 version stars Basil Rathbone as Scrooge with March narrating. Rathbone’s profile under his long white wig makes him look like an elderly Geddy Lee.
               Despite its running time of twenty-five minutes, it packs in scenes usually excluded from other short productions. It does omit the solicitors and the married-with-children Belle discussing Scrooge with her husband.
               The special effects are nearly non-existent with the exception of Marley’s double-exposure-produced etherealness.  Otherwise the only other effect was dry-ice mist on the floor of most scenes. It does not lessen the production.
               I was tickled to see they added the line about (I paraphrase) Scrooge expecting anything from a baby to a rhinoceros for his second ghostly visit. I have never seen or heard that in any other version.
               The 1954 version starred Frederick March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone, this time, as Marley.  Fred was played by Ray Middleton, who played Col. McKean in “1776”, a Cardinal on MASH and Ted Knight’s father in the sitcom “Too Close for Comfort”. He doubled as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
               Although called a musical, the “music” was mainly choirs singing between scenes. Belle and the young Scrooge do sing, as does the Ghost of Christmas Past & Present. Tiny Tim sings. Tiny Tim always sings. But it does not deter from the plot (ie – “oh another song, time to get some more Fritos…”)
               This was produced for the anthology series Shower of Stars. March received an Emmy nomination and the show was filmed in color, although only the black and white version are known to still exist.
               Coming in at under 60 minutes it includes all of the standard scenes except for Fred’s party (the ghostly visit and the actual visit).
               The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is never shown, and they imply he is played by a crow barking over Scrooge’s grave. That’s never been done before. Nice touch. One other VERY commendable casting was making the other ghosts people from Scrooge past and present. The same actor plays Fred and the Ghost of Christmas Present.
               The same actress plays the Ghost of Christmas Past and Belle. Scrooge comments on it to the Ghost when they meet – “You look so like …” She was played by the fall-on-my-knees beautiful Sally Fraser. I looked her up on IMBD, but did not recognize her other roles than a bit part on “North by Northwest”. I think if I ever did a version of Carol, I would make Belle the Ghost of Christmas Past, too. I would have added much more pathos to the encounter than they did here.  Another nice touch!
               The effects were good for its time – double exposed see-through ghosts. Rathbone makes a better Marley than Scrooge; his final lament of “Oh God, oh God, there is so little help for me…” as he leaves the scene was spooky…
               Scrooge was missing a front tooth – upper left side just before the canine. Yet another nice touch – one of many for this version of the novel. This has become one of my favorites.
UNSEEN SCROOGES (version I have not seen but will review anyway, oh like that’s never been done by professional critics…)
               “A Diva’s Christmas”, “A Carol Christmas”, “It’s Christmas, Carol” and “It Happened One Christmas” – I have never seen either of these movies – the twist being the Scrooge character was played by a female lead (Vanessa Williams, Tori Spelling, Marlo Thomas, etc.). I saw about ten minutes of “A Carol Christmas” and may have seen “Happened” when it first came out, but I have no memory of that movie. I wasn’t too impressed with “A Carol Christmas”. Are the others any good?
NEXT: Personal Best
Copyright 2012 Michael G. Curry

Three Scrooges, Part 8 (of 12): Silly

Three Scrooges, Part 8 (of 12):  Silly
                Thought of the blog: At Fred’s party, they played a guessing game called “Yes and No”. Fred thought of a thing and they had to guess with yes-or-no questions what that thing was: it was a savage animal that growled and grunted and lived in London. Someone asked if it were a horse.  Were the streets of Victorian London stalked by savage, growling horses?
                “A Muppet Christmas Carol” was a theatrical release in 1992 starring Michael Caine as well as Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy and the gang. It was the first Muppet production after the death of Jim Henson –  to me it added a sad air to the film. Hearing Kermit’s new voice was jarring. Richard Hunt had also died of aids earlier that year. He and Henson did the voices of the crotchety critics Statler and Waldorf. Hearing their new voices was also somewhat sad.
                The movie was peppered with musical numbers, most of which are forgettable except for “It Must Be Christmas”.
                Critics were underwhelmed. They had the same complaint as they did for “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” – a canny effort adding nothing to either the Muppet or Carol mythos.
                True, but without Henson at the helm you would hardly expect a home run. And it does have its charms: Old Fozzy-wig; Rizzo the rat became a top-level muppet with this movie; Sam the Eagle as the schoolmaster (“It is the American way! Hmm? Oh, yes, it is the British way!”); Robin as Tiny Tim warms the heart; Scrooge’s clerks (all rats) breaking into a calypso, etc.
                The best bits? Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker as the solicitors (any scene with Beaker is first class) and Statler and Waldorf substituting for Marley (ditto).
                The story followed closely to standard adaptations seen before and since and without many bits added on. My favorite though is Scrooge’s reaction to seeing his younger self, “Good Lord, it’s ME!”  That kind of reaction has never been done.
                And Michael Caine is as brilliant as ever. He played it straight despite emoting to cloth-covered costars with ping pong balls for eyes.
                Could it have been better? Oh yes – they could have taken a page from Mr. Magoo and made this an extended version of “The Muppet Show” with Michael Caine as the guest doing a version of Carol. Caine could have been particularly grumpy and the ghosts showed him the errors of his ways all while the production of Carol on the stage continued. This is the basic plot of Bill Murray’s “Scrooged”  a few years before. Perhaps they didn’t want to risk the comparison.
                I adore the Muppets, so I probably have a bias in this movie’s favor it does not deserve; but I like the movie. It’s sweet, accessible to a younger audience and (knowing its back story) sad. The puppeteers (including Frank Oz) have said they still miss Jim Henson. If they heard him say, “Mmm, lovely,” after a take they knew it was the perfect one.
                I’m sure he said that very thing when he saw “The Muppets Christmas Carol”.
                “Black Adder’s Christmas Carol” from 1988. I love the “Black Adder” television program! My love for Rowan Atkinson as Black Adder even surpasses my dislike of Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean.  Here is the Victorian Blackadder, the nicest man in the old town. The Ghost of Christmas (played by a post-Cracker but pre-Hagrid Robbie Coltrane – someday I will write about the post-Python comedy troupe that included him, Atkinson, Emma Thompson and the cast of “The Young Ones”) shows him what rotten people his ancestors were. Miranda Richardson, Tony Robinson, Stephen Frye and Hugh Laurie all reprise their various roles. Blackadder sees the error of his goodly ways and converts to become a complete bastard – finally enjoying a Happy Christmas! You probably need to be a fan of the series to enjoy it, so become one. All that laughter will only do you good!
UNSEEN SCROOGES (version I have not seen but will review anyway, oh like that’s never been done by professional critics…)
                I vaguely remember an episode of “Family Matters” doing a Carol spoof. Alex – the teenage Reagan Republican raised by ex-hippie parents, played Scrooge. I suppose the rest of the family played the Ghosts, etc. The show was on before “Cheers” which is why I only saw the last two minutes of each program. Perhaps some fan of the show can fill in the blanks.
NEXT:  Strange Scrooges…
Copyright 2012 Michael G. Curry