Saturday, December 24, 2016

Stubs - A Christmas Carol (1984)

A Christmas Carol (1984). Starring George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees. Directed by Clive Donner. Screenplay by Roger O. Hirson. Based on  A Christmas Carol (1843) a novel by Charles Dickens. Produced by George F. Storke and Alfred R. Kelman. Runtime 100 minutes. United Kingdom/United States. Color. Christmas. Drama

A Christmas Carol continues to be a source for Christmas movies, including comedic send-ups, like Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray and A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart. The story seems to attract a lot of big names, the same way that the Christmas album does in music with everyone and their brothers putting out holiday releases. But perhaps the biggest movie star to appear in one of these films is George C. Scott, the winner of the Best Actor for his role in Patton (1970), an honor he ultimately refused.

In the early 1980s, the UK became a production location for not only American films but also television. Drawn to the island by tax incentives and lower costs, Hollywood was also drawn to the wealth of talent that lived there, too. Shot on location in Shrewsbury, England, this Christmas Carol was to receive a television release in the U.S., but a theatrical release in the UK.  Like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), which was sponsored by Timex watches, when this version aired on U.S. television, it had a single sponsor, IBM, then a personal computer maker.

The story starts on a foggy, snowy Christmas Eve, 1843. Our narrator, Roger Rees, reads the first lines of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” We are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge (George C. Scott), a miserly man who does not share the rest of the world's merriment at Christmas. When his nephew, Fred (Roger Rees) comes to his office to invite Scrooge to dinner the next day, he is turned down.

Fred (Roger Rees) invites his Uncle Scrooge (George C. Scott) over for Christmas dinner.

On his way out, Fred says hello to Bob Cratchit (David Warner), Scrooge’s long-suffering employee. Fred asks about his family and wishes them a Merry Christmas before leaving. Scrooge is on his way out to the London Stock Exchange and admonishes Cratchit for using too much coal in the fire and for wanting the whole next day off. He makes Bob promise to be early the next day and hurries off.

Bob Cratchit (David Warner) is Sctooge's long sufering employee.

Outside, he encounters a cripple, whom he mistakes for a beggar. But the boy, Tim (Anthony Walters) tells him that he’s waiting for his father to get off work.

Scrooge initially mistakes Tiny Tim (Anthony Walters) for a beggar.

At the exchange, Scrooge drives a hard bargain for corn that he has that three men want to buy. Apparently, discussed this transaction the day before and want to accept Scrooge’s asking price, but he’s now raised it 5%. The men tell him that it will make the grain too expensive for the poor to afford, but he is adamant about the price, even threatening to raise it further if they don’t buy now. They capitulate and he demands payment in full before it will be shipped.  (For the first time in our survey, we are given an occupation for Scrooge, commodities.)

Scrooge is then accosted by two businessmen, Mr. Poole (Michael Gough) and Mr. Hacking (John Quarmby) who are collecting charity for the poor. Scrooge asks them about the prisons and the workhouses, which both men acknowledge are still operating. Relieved that those institutions, which his taxes are paying for, are still open, he refuses to give them anything. When he’s told that many would rather die than go to one of them, Scrooge encourages them to hurry up and relieve the surplus population. Dismayed, the men move on.

Scrooge is stopped by Mr. Poole (Michael Gough) and Mr. Hacking
(John Quarmby) looking for donations for the poor. 

When Bob gets off work, he finds Tim still waiting for him. Tim wants to stop by and watch the other boys play in the snow and Bob is only too happy to take him. After a little while, though, he decides they should go home.

Scrooge meanwhile returns home in the dark. On his way in, he notices that on the door knocker is the image of his deceased partner, Marley (Frank Finlay) who had died seven years before on this day. Going inside, Scrooge makes a point of locking all the doors behind him, even setting the dead bolts on the door to his bedroom, before settling down to a bowl of gruel.

Scrooge the face of his deceased partner Marley (Frank Finlay) on his door knocker.

It is not too long before the locks are opened and Marley’s Ghost enters the room. His mouth is tied shut and he is wrapped up in and is dragging long thick chains. At first, Scrooge tries to dismiss Marley as a reaction to a bad piece of food but is made to believe that the Ghost is truly there in front of him. Marley notifies his ex-partner that in the afterlife he is being made to walk the earth as punishment for not doing more with his life.  He informs Scrooge that a similar fate awaits him unless he changes his ways.

Marley comes to warn Scrooge about the fate that awaits him.

To help him, Scrooge is informed that three spirits will visit him, the Ghost of Christmas Past at one o’clock; the Ghost of Christmas Present at two and the Ghost of Christmas Future sometime after that. Marley then disappears out the open window.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Angela Pleasance) appears to Scrooge.

Scrooge is not convinced and when the clock strikes one and there is no Ghost, he is pretty sure that Marley was just a bad dream. But a few seconds later, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Angela Pleasance) appears, carrying with her a large dunce cap looking object.

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to hisScrooge days.

She takes Scrooge back to his old days at school. It is Christmas time and he is lonely with only books to keep him company. Flash forward, years have passed and Scrooge is older, but still alone at school. Older Scrooge explains to the Ghost that his father blames him for the death of his mother who died during childbirth. That is until one day when his sister Fan (Joanne Whalley) comes to collect him. She tells her brother (Timothy Bateson) that father has changed and that they’re here to take him home for Christmas. But outside his father Silas (Nigel Davenport) is waiting and he’s not as bubbly as Fan or as changed as she had claimed. He informs his son that even though he will not return to school, he will be going in three days to an apprenticeship.

Scrooge watches as his younger self (Timothy Bateson) hears about his apprenticeship.

The Ghost and Scrooge end up at Fezziwig’s (Timothy Bateson) establishment. Once again it is Christmas Eve and Fezziwig tells all his employees, including Scrooge to put away their work and clear the office for the holiday party to come that night and once again, elder Scrooge and the Ghost are there to bear witness. They watch as the younger Scrooge dances with Belle (Lucy Gutteridge), a young woman with whom he is in love and to whom he is engaged.

But, as we see, as time goes by, their love starts to wane. Belle begins to feel that she is running an increasingly second place to Scrooge’s love of making money. In fact, when we see them again, the younger Scrooge is running late for their date because he had business to take care of. That seems to be the last resort for Belle, who frees him from their commitment.

Belle (Lucy Gutteridge) breaks off  her engagement with Scrooge

Again, we see into the future and see Belle surrounded by her children. When her husband arrives home he relates that he’s seen an old acquaintance of hers. She guesses Ebenezer Scrooge, which he confirms. He tells her that while his partner Jacob Marley lies near death, Scrooge is still hard at work in his office rather than visiting his deathbed. 

Scrooge has had enough and tries to force the spirit to stop. Using the cap the Ghost has been carrying, Scrooge smothers her, but in reality, he’s on the floor of his bedroom at home. Thinking it all a bad dream, Scrooge goes back to bed.

Once again, the clock strikes the hour and when there is no instant appearance of the second ghost, he dismisses Marley’s warnings. But it is only a few seconds before Scrooge hears himself being beckoned into the adjoining room that is filled with bright lights. There sits the towering figure of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Edward Woodward).

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Edward Woodward) is the second one to visit Scrooge.

He takes Scrooge out to see how other people are celebrating Christmas. They stop at the Cratchits, where they observe the family enjoying the holiday, being content with their small dinner. Scrooge takes notice of Tiny Tim. When he asks about Tim’s future, the Ghost tells him that he sees an empty chair at next year’s table and a well-preserved cane leaning by the fireplace.

The Cratchits are happy even if they have very little.

They next go to Fred’s where Scrooge’s nephew tells those in attendance that he wishes his Uncle would accept his invitation but remarks that he continues to turn it down. When the party plays a game of similes, Scrooge is hurt when he is the punchline for Fred’s wife Janet (Caroline Langrishe) answer to “Tight as…"

Next, the Ghost takes Scrooge out into the street where we see homeless people trying to survive. One family sustains themselves on the wood and food the husband can find. When he gets depressed about their situation and suggests they go to the poorhouse, the wife insists that if they go they’ll be separated and turns down the idea.

If that doesn’t drive the point home, the Ghost warns Scrooge about the evils of “ignorance” and “want” symbolized by two destitute children. They are thin and sickly and more than Scrooge can bear to look at for long.

The Ghost shows Scrooge Ignorance and Want.

It is on the street that the Ghost leaves Scrooge alone and afraid. At this point, the final ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears. Silent and cloaked, this Ghost takes Scrooge to the future. At the London Stock Exchange, Scrooge observes three businessmen talking about the death of another man. None of them are really sorry about the death and are willing to go to the funeral as long as a meal is provided.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears to Scrooge.

When Scrooge asks who the man is, he’s taken to a room like his house where a body lies alone under a blanket. The Ghost wants Scrooge to pull back the sheet, but Scrooge can’t get himself to do it. Next Scrooge is taken to a fence named Old Joe (Peter Woodthorpe). Mrs. Dilber (Liz Smith) has brought in several pieces of Scrooge’s possessions to sell. Scrooge tries to pretend they are not his things, but it is clear that he’s bothered by the practice.

Old Joe (Peter Woodthorpe) pays some of Scrooge's possessions for cheap from Mrs. Dilber (Liz Smith).

Scrooge demands to see someone mourning a death and he’s taken to the Cratchits. Tim has indeed not survived and the entire family mourns his passing, especially Bob who is heart-broken by the death of his son.

When Scrooge pushes to know the identity of the man they saw under the blanket and he’s taken to a cemetery. There he brushes the snow from the marker and sees that it has his name engraved on it. Scrooge begs to know that if what he’s seen can be changed and promises to change himself.

Scrooge uncovers his name on a grave in the cemetery.

Awakening in his own bed, Scrooge wonders what day it is. He hurries to a window and through it sees a young boy (Ian Giles) running by down on the street. When he asks the boy what day it is, the boy replies that it is Christmas Day. Scrooge is gleeful that the spirits have done their work in one night. He implores the boy to go and bring the poulterer (Alan Bodenham) who has a large turkey in his window. The boy hurries off in an effort to earn the half-crown Scrooge promises him.

Scrooge pays the boy (Ian Giles) for bringing the poulterer (Alan Bodenham).

Dressed, Scrooge greets the man and has him anonymously deliver the turkey to Bob Cratchit’s house. The Cratchits are surprised to receive the but are happy about their good fortune.

The Cratchits are surprised by their unexpected bounty.

While out and about, Scrooge bumps into Mr. Poole and Mr. Hacking, offering them a substantial donation for the poor.

Scrooge is a surprise guest at Fred and Janet’s party. Still, they welcome him with open arms, happy that he’s come, even though he is the first to have arrived. In a lighter moment, Scrooge coaches Janet that the answer to the simile question “Tight as…?” is “a drum.”

Scrooge shows up at Fred's house and meets his wife Janet (Caroline Langrishe) for the first time.

The next morning, Cratchit, who is already late, arrives at the office. Unbeknownst to him, Scrooge is already there and calls him out. No doubt fearing a stiff reprimand or, worse, termination, Cratchit is pleasantly surprised when Scrooge doubles his salary and tells him that he wants to help him with his family.

Having made changes in the present, Scrooge has altered the future. Going forward he is said to keep the spirit of Christmas inside him all year long. Not only does Tiny Tim live, we’re told in narration, but Scrooge becomes like a second father to him.

Scrooge becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of those books that has been adapted so many times that films and TV movies based on it, sometimes rely more on past adaptations than on the source material, as if trying to feed our expectations. As an example, the visitation of the three Ghosts; in the original story, Scrooge is visited by one each successive evening. But in all of the adaptations we’ve reviewed, including this one, all the visits happen on the same night. While it does work better from a story standpoint, I wonder which was the first adaptation to decide the first Ghost would appear at one o’clock, the second at two and the third at three?

Another example is when Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past that his father blamed him for the death of his mother during childbirth. Again, this is not from the novella, but rather from the 1951 Scrooge, released in the U.S. as A Christmas Carol, replicating dialogue Alastair Sim had with his Ghost. While this is a convenient and somewhat believable explanation for the frosty father-son relationship, it does give rise to its own unresolved complication. Scrooge has a younger sister and there is no mention of the father remarrying. If Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him, how does Fan exist?

There are other ways that this version diverts from its source material. To begin with, Scrooge’s father, here named Silas, is referred to in the novella but never seen. Nephew Fred is given the last name Holywell, in the book he is not given a surname. And in an effort to make the story more relevant, the movie introduces the idea that Scrooge feels his lack of a fortune makes him unworthy of Belle’s affections and that he must be able to finance their future life together in order to deserve her. These were not Victorian attitudes.

But perhaps the biggest departure is the portrayal of Scrooge himself. Unlike his earlier counterparts, Scott’s Scrooge is far from a fragile and scrawny old man. Scott also makes his Scrooge into more of a ruthless businessman than simply a miser. Finally, this Scrooge seems to think himself funny, as he laughs at his own joke when delivering the "stake of holly through his heart" line.

Like all the other adaptations, Scrooge is the center of the story and no other actor brings as much clout as Scott does to the role. An American, rather than British, Scott doesn’t try to sound English nor does he affect an accent. But to his credit, this isn’t Patton in Victorian England either. Scott is a fine actor who can and does handle the role with skill.

Roger Rees also stands out, but he like the rest of the cast, is subordinate to Scott’s Scrooge. Rees, a fine actor in his own right, might best be remembered for his year-long stage portrayal of Nicholas Nickleby in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980-1981. He also played the role of Robin Colcord during season eight of the long-running sitcom Cheers.

Roger Rees plays Fred in A Christmas Carol.

Edward Woodward appears to relish the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present, with a hearty laugh to go with his bare chest. His performance is one of the highlights of a very strong cast.

Of all the Tiny Tim Crachits we’ve seen, Anthony Walters certainly looks the role with the dark makeup shadows under his eyes. He also underplays the role with a subtlety better than any of his fellow actors that we’ve seen in the role.

Anthony Walters is made up to look sickly as Tiny Tim.

One area where this version is lacking are the special effects. As impressive as the 1938 version was, especially given when it was made, this is a bit of a letdown. To begin with, Marley’s Ghost stops being an apparition and becomes a solid body almost as soon as he enters Scrooge’s bedroom, which is a little unexpected, given the advancements in technology. There’s not the sense of flight that the 1938 version did so well or the multitude of ghosts out the window as there was in the 1951 version. Not sure how much of this were artistic choices and/or budgetary ones. This is a more of a no-frills vision of the story. Not that it suffers too much from this more-straight forward approach, just that one would expect more, especially if you’d seen previous versions.

The Ghost of Marley becomes a solid body rather than remaining an apparition.
It is interesting to note that the director of this film, Clive Donner, who began his career as an editor, is credited as the film editor on the 1951 version of the film. His directing career began with some low-budget films and shorts, including the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre film and TV series in 1960. His other features include What’s New Pussy Cat? (1965), perhaps best known as Woody Allen’s first screenplay; and The Nude Bomb (1980), an attempt to resurrect TV’s Agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams). Donner does well by this material, but I’m not sure what effect if any, his previous work with the story had on this adaptation. 

There is something very satisfying about this adaptation of A Christmas Carol. While certainly not a page per page adherence to the original story, none of them are, this one feels more complete somehow and approachable. It no doubt gets the benefit of trodding some very familiar territory. Charles Dicken’s novella is one of the most familiar literary offerings. While it’s hard to pick a favorite, this adaptation, while perhaps not as family friendly as either MGM’s 1938 version or Mr. Magoo’s, is still a very strong entrant in a very crowded field.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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