Three Scrooges, Part 4: The Sound of Silence – some silent movie versions

Three Scrooges, Part 4: The Sound of Silence – some silent movie versions
Thought of the Blog: Whither Dick Wilkins? Scrooges’ fellow apprentice who liked Scrooge very much. Is he still alive? In business for himself? Has he ever visited the man who thinks him his best friend?  How would Scrooge react of Dick, instead of Fred invited him to Christmas dinner? Would Scrooge have been so curt or glad to see him (glad for Scrooge that is)?
Bit of a change of format here as I would think most silent film versions of “A Christmas Carol” to be quite rare…
1901 – only 3-1/2 minutes exist, but it tells nearly the whole story. Marley shows Scrooge his past, present & future with sophisticated special effects for its day.
1910 – ten minutes, but packs more into the story than most hour-long specials. It even includes mankind’s children Misery and Want (instead of Ignorance and Want). As sometimes is the case in version of the novel, here Scrooge goes to Cratchet’s house to present the goose and give him a raise. Here, as in Patrick Stewart’s version, Cratchet wields a weapon to protect himself from the obviously crazed Scrooge (in this case a fireplace shovel). In this version, as in the 1951 film, Scrooge makes his nephew Fred a partner. These are the only two versions I have seen this happen. Scrooge also give Fred enough money to marry his beloved fiancé (in most versions, they are already married).
1923 – Russell Thorndike plays Scrooge in this silent version of “A Christmas Carol”.  My copy is on a DVD and it is in desperate need of restoration.  At times the copy is so bleached you cannot see the faces or costumes of the actors – only their outline. Actually, that would make a better ghost effect than the double-exposure see-through (the height of special effects at the time) that they used here.
                This version runs 27 minutes and the beginning hits all the highlights – Scrooge barking at Cratchet about the coal fire, Fred, the businessman (singular) visit, the “You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose”. Marley does not appear until 12 minutes in!
As usual in these short silent films only a few segments of the novel are used (only his break-up with Belle is shown in the past and the Ghost of Christmas Present appears, lectures Scrooge and leaves without showing Bob’s dinner or Fred’s party) and the sets are sparse at best.
                Uniqueness of this movie? The Ghost of Christmas Past is only two foot tall, Ghost of Christmas Present is basically Father Christmas.  Tiny Tim, the lynchpin of most adaptations, is nowhere in the film! No Tiny Tim? Scrooge does attend his nephews’ party at the end and there is a brief scene with Topper wooing Fred’s sister-in-law (in a much less eely fashion than in the Patrick Stewart version). Topper yes, Tiny Tim no?
                A nice aspect of the silent movies is the costuming – Cratchet is dressed in near-rags and Scrooge’s suit is threadbare.
                With his black Edwardian suit and longish white hair this Scrooge reminds me of William Hartnell’s Doctor Who. (An aside – the television show “Doctor Who” has also done a Carol adaptation – and a good one – but sentimental me was hoping for an appearance by a former actor appearing as a Doctor-Who-of-Christmas-Past. Rumors always abound of Peter Davidson appearing (Doctor #5), which would have made the perfect opportunity. A Doctor-Who-of-Christmas-Yet-To-Come would have featured a future regeneration, but his features stealthily hidden).
NEXT: Gone Hollywood
Copyright 2012 Michael G. Curry

Three Scrooges, Part 2: Where No Scrooge Has Gone Before

Three Scrooges, Part 2: Where No Scrooge Has Gone Before
WELL KNOWN SCROOGES
                “A Christmas Carol” ran on the TNT network in 1999 to mixed reviews. I refer to it as the Patrick Stewart Christmas Carol for its star who plays Scrooge. Its reception was only fair, probably due to the high expectations (see my Rare Scrooges entry).  I wish I could say I enjoyed it as much as I anticipated I would, but I walked away from it disappointed. Since its release I count it as a wonderful movie – its flaws have faded over time.
                It is a very cold movie – the scenery, the acting, almost everything about it. It is the antithesis of the George C. Scott version with its beautiful and bright sets. That is one aspect of it that I did not like at first but love now.  It’s almost as if the camera lenses were covered in a blue film. Everyone and everything is dark and drab.
                And Scrooge is frozen emotionally. He does not have mean or harsh feelings towards either – he has no feelings. You’d think he was the actor who played Data, not Picard (Star Trek references are inevitable, so I got this one out of the way quickly).
                There are so many things I like about this movie, so many little moments that make it stand out:
                1.                “Games, Spirit, games…” – Scrooge begs the Ghost of Christmas Present to stay at his nephews party. You can barely hear the pleading seep through the ice. In the novel, Dickens says Scrooge asked to stay in an-almost childlike way. Stewart’s way was much more to his character. Seeing him laugh and play along (“he can see” during blind man’s buff – yes it is buff, not bluff) showed the ice thawing.
                2.            The Cratchets are probably best portrayed here than in any other movie. Malnourished, poor teeth, sunken cheeks – they hired a Tiny Tim that actually looked like he may be seeing his last Christmas.
                3.            The Ghost of Christmas Present ages noticeably through his Stave.
                4.           Scenes with Welsh miners, sailors and sea and lighthouse keepers all celebrating Christmas were shown – rare scenes in “Carol” adaptations.
                5.            “I’ll give you a shilling,” if the boy running past his window would return with the prize turkey. Stewart said the line hunched low in the window – as if afraid someone would hear. I laughed out loud at this. I enjoy the few times Scrooge has had difficulty with his conversion.
                6.            When Scrooge told Cratchet Merry Christmas during “The End of It”, Cratchet backs off and grabs a fireplace poker and wields it in defense from what must be, to him, a Scrooge who has finally cracked.  Scrooge realized what he must seem like and backed off.  I laughed out loud.
                Some things I did not like about the movie still gnaw at me: Scrooge’s toe taping during Fezziwig’s dance while still being stone faced.  Wouldn’t it have been better for Scrooge to not only tap his toes but also to try to smile, cracking the facade slowly?  Scrooge’s convulsion that turned into laughter: true it was meant to show the ice finally breaking, but seemed tooforced, too obvious.
                This movie contains two things of note that are not in other versions: the discussion at the very beginning about what is so dead about a doorknob.  Also, Caroline and her husband are shown – they are happy that Scrooge is dead and thus payment of their debt to him will be delayed long enough for them to save it up! In the musical “Scrooge” the character (unique to that movie) Tom Jenkins takes their place leading to the rousing “Thank You Very Much” musical number. No other version I have seen includes Caroline.
                Then there was Topper, the friend of nephew Fred’s who flirted with his sister-in-law. Played by Crispin Letts in an oily, stalking manner that makes Eric Roberts character in “Star 80” look like Sebastian Cabot in “Family Affair”. Kudos! This is the ONLY version of “A Christmas Carol” that has a character more unlikable than Scrooge!
RARE SCROOGES
                I had a cassette tape set of Patrick Stewart’s one-man stage production of “A Christmas Carol” long since worn out and trashed. I expect it is still available on CD or download. If so, get it. It was this program that made me (and presumably the disappointed critics) so look forward to Stewart’s movie. The only thing better would have been seeing it live.
                Stewart used Dickens’ stage notes when the author would perform the work.  Talk about a faithful adaptation…  While not a word-for-word reading of the novel, it comes pretty darn close. It makes any road trip worth the journey.
UNSEEN SCROOGES (version I have not seen but will review anyway, oh like that’s never been done by professional critics…)
                “A Jetson Christmas Carol” from 1985. Since I am critiquing Patrick Stewart’s versions of the tale I thought I’d keep with a faux-sci fi theme. In this version the Jetsons are the Cratchets and Mr. Spacely, his boss, is Scrooge (although they are never called that). I expect it is filled with silly future gadgets and does not stray from the basic story. It has good reviews on IMDB, so I expect it not to be a complete waste of time.
                I would imagine the best part would be listening to all the original voice actors playing their roles for one of the last times. It was always fun hearing Daws Butler’s octogenarian growl trying to sound like a young child. And by now Mel Blanc’s voice was so low it vibrated the windows.
                Astro as the sickly Tiny Tim?
NEXT: Scrooge, a Song and Dance Man…
                                                                                                               Copyright 2012 Michael G Curry

Three Scrooges, Part 1: Famous First Editions

Three Scrooges, Part 1: Famous First Editions
                Question of the blog: Note how Belle, when asked by her husband to guess who he saw, immediately says “Ebenezer Scrooge”?  How often does she think of him? How many times does her husband walk past his office? Does she still have strong feelings for him? Is her husband stalking Scrooge? Does he bring up his wretched state often as a way of showing her she made the correct choice? What kind of control freak did she marry?
WELL KNOWN SCROOGES
                “A Christmas Carol” has been filmed as long as there has been film. But “Scrooge” from 1935 is the first talkie of the novel. It stars Seymour Hicks in the title role. Look very quickly to see Maurice (Dr. Zaius) Evans in a bit part. It is on the public domain so it has often been run on TV and released many times on video cassette tape and DVD. I wish someone would take the time and resources to restore it.
                While not the best of the films, it is not the worst either. Seymour Hicks’ Scrooge looks ghastly. Wild hair, pasty and craggy face – he exudes the bitter hatred Scrooge seems to feel toward humanity. He doesn’t seem the caricature that is typical in Carol adaptations – he seems a genuinely grumpy old man.  Hicks also plays the younger Scrooge during the scenes with Belle – he is either made up to look very much older or younger than he was. An excellent job either way!
                It is a canny effort with the usual expected scenes. Some scenes included here and rarely elsewhere is Scrooge dining in a pub before going home. There is also an extended scene that no other version shows…
                The Lord Mayor’s Ball was mentioned only briefly in the novel and then forgotten. In this film we see the Lord Mayor’s banquet and contains the funniest line from any Carol adaptations. “My Lord, will you make your speech now or will you let the ladies and gentlemen continue to enjoy themselves?”  Genuine humor in Carol adaptations is rare indeed.  I think it was included in order to air “God Save the Queen” during the dinner – a patriotic touch in a depression-era Englandbeginning to hear the early thunder of war…
                Uniqueness: Marley is never seen! Scrooge emotes to an empty chair, beating Clint Eastwood by 77 years! Certainly saves on the film’s budget.  Ghost of Christmas past is a bright light shaped like a tall man’s shoulder and head; Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is a black shadow against a wall (only the Ghost of Christmas Present is cast – and is played as a gluttonous blob). They air the lighthouse keepers and the sailors, but not the coal miners.
                It is a product of its time – filled with melodrama and enough overacting to embarrass even the child actors on “Barney & Friends”.  But it IS fun to watch. The first talking version of the novel and a very fair version.
RARE SCROOGES
                “Christmas Carol” was a silent film version released in 1913. It was re-released in the USunder the title “Old Scrooge” in 1926.
                This movie is 100 years old this year. Wow. It has long thought lost, but the version I have on DVD is in incredible shape – it must have been meticulously restored.
                Like most silent versions of Carol, this was based on a stage play rather than an original adaptation.
                Here is Seymour Hicks again, 24 years earlier, still with craggy face, white hair almost comically askew and dressed in an even more threadbare suit.
                Uniqueness: the movie opens with a bit of the history of the story – telling us of Dickens’s past and childhood. It opens with Dickens at his desk writing the opening line. We are told Scrooge is an ogre with a frozen heart and body. Scrooge lives where he works – remember this was based on a stage play – which is pretty common in silent films to save the cost of different sets.  Strangest of all, I think, is that a creepy Marley (draped in white sheets), not the three spirits, shows Scrooge his past, present and future. And yet they DO change scenes to show Scrooge visiting Cratchet and giving the children coins. This was a “dream segment” – he later plays the usual trick the next day pretending to be the same old covetous miser before revealing to Bob his changed nature.
                Was this the first film version of Carol? No, but it is the first time Seymour Hicks played Scrooge on film; and his second film was the first talking version.
UNSEEN SCROOGES (versions I have not seen but will review anyway, oh like that’s never been done by professional critics…)
                My friend Clyde Hall (whose blog is http://playmst3kforme.blogspot.com) posted on Facebook about a version of Carol I have never seen. The cartoon “The Real Ghostbusters” did a Carol episode in which the ‘Busters caught the three Christmas Ghost and thus Scrooge never redeemed himself. The ‘Busters try to reverse what they did. Note “The Real Ghostbusters” is a cartoon based on the movie, not the cartoon based on the Saturday morning cartoon from the 1970s.  That should have been called “The Actual Ghostbusters”. Spencer, Tracy and Kong came first…

Next: Where No Scrooge Has Gone Before…

Copyright 2012 Michael G. Curry

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
                For over a decade my Christmas tradition began Thanksgiving night with a reading of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.  Not to a crowd or to a child, just to myself. Usually I finished it before the long weekend. Now with a wife, a child, work, writing and games it takes about a week, haha.
                I love the story in all its incarnations. I love the movies, the TV spoofs and once got to see a stage production in St. Louis.
                The plot is … well, if you don’t know, stop reading right now.
                The story behind the story is almost as interesting. (taken liberally from Wikipedia, but I did check the facts …) Dickens was concerned about the plight of poor children. In early 1843, he toured a tin mine where children worked. The conditions of the FieldLaneRaggedSchool he visited that year were equally appalling to him. In February 1843 a parliamentary report exposed the effects of the Industrial Revolution upon poor children; it was called Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission.  Dickens planned to publish an inexpensive political pamphlet tentatively titled, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” in May of that year but changed his mind, deferring the pamphlet’s production until the end of the year.
                In a fund-raising speech on 5 October 1843 at the Manchester Athenæum (a charitable institution serving the poor), Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, and realized in the days following that the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply-felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays. It was during his three days in Manchester, he conceived the plot of Carol.
                Dickens had already written a tale of Christmas redemption as part of “The Pickwick Papers” in 1837; Gabriel Grub was a lonely and mean-spirited sexton, who undergoes a Christmas conversion after being visited by goblins who show him the past and future. 
                Although Dickens made little money from it at first, it was an immediate success – stage productions and readings (some by Dickens himself) developed quickly. The first was February 1844 (it was published two months earlier). It has since become as much a holiday classic as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.
                It has been called an indictment of 19th-century industrial capitalism and  Scrooge’s redemption underscores the conservative, individualistic, and patriarchal aspects of Dickens’s ‘Carol philosophy’, which propounded the idea of a more fortunate individual willingly looking after a less fortunate one. Personal moral conscience and individual action led in effect to a form of “noblesse oblige” which was expected of those individuals of means. I knew I liked the story for some reason…
                This idea would make some In this politically-charged atmosphere faint dead away. “Use our means to help the poor!? Why on earth would we want to do that?” Because Jesus told you to. And as of 1843, so does Charles Dickens.
                The current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol. Hutton argues that Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a self-centred festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In superimposing his secular vision of the holiday, Dickens influenced many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
                This simple morality tale with its pathos and theme of redemption significantly redefined the “spirit” and importance of Christmas, since, as Margaret Oliphant recalled, it “moved us all those days ago as if it had been a new gospel.” and resurrected a form of seasonal merriment that had been suppressed by the Puritan quelling of Yuletide pageantry in 17th-century England.
                I enjoy reading through the small bits and pieces you usually do not see during the films and plays – the many religious references for one (other than Tiny Tim’s hoping his being in church would remind others of who made lame men walk, etc.).  “Carol” has turned into a secular Christmas tale, but I was surprised how many references to the birth of Christ, the visit of the Wise Men, and so forth, are peppered – lightly, but still peppered – throughout the story. I also enjoy Scrooge’s political debate with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge is thoroughly back-handed by the ghost, who all but says Scrooge is no Jack Kennedy.
                This was a nice bit taken from IMDB about the 1938 movie. It’s a good description of Scrooge: The word “humbug” is misunderstood by many people, which is a pity since the word provides a key insight into Scrooge’s hatred of Christmas. The word “humbug” describes deceitful efforts to fool people by pretending to a fake loftiness or false sincerity. So when Scrooge calls Christmas a humbug, he is claiming that people only pretend to charity and kindness in an scoundrel effort to delude him, each other, and themselves. In Scrooge’s eyes, he is the one man honest enough to admit that no one really cares about anyone else, so for him, every wish for a Merry Christmas is one more deceitful effort to fool him and take advantage of him. This is a man who has turned to profit because he honestly believes everyone else will someday betray him or abandon him the moment he trusts them. 
                From now until Christmas I will be reviewing three adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” in each blog. One will be a well known, often-played version; a rarely-seen version; and a version I have not seen. How can I review something I’ve not seen? Oh please, happens all the time.  It won’t be a comprehensive list, but I’ll do my best to keep to the format.
                I enjoy watching all the different versions of the story – there have been dozens and dozens. How closely these various adaptations follow the story is fun to discover – what they add and what they leave out are intriguing. Most of the cuts, especially in the early films, are economical – we have five minutes to tell this story, we’re not spending a lot of time on where Cratchet’s daughter Martha works; but in some cases they producers have to add bits to fill in two hours of content. Sometimes it’s a song, sometimes it’s an entirely new scene. That’s half the fun of watching. The other half is enjoying a jolly good tale!
                More to come!