Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Three Scrooges

Watching A Christmas Carol in any of its numerous cinematic and televisual incarnations is an essential of the festive season for me, and eight days into December, I have already finished with the third of what will probably be five or six.

I began with Scrooge, the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney. This has always been my favourite, mainly because it was the first I ever watched. It enchanted me from the moment I first saw those gaslit Victorian streets. Despite being in his 30s, Finney manages to pull off the role quite convincingly. Leslie Bricusse's songs, as always, differ in quality, with some embarrassingly trite lyrics surfacing here and there. Overall, however, the tunes are hummable, with a few showstoppers that have stood the test of time, such as I Like Life and Thank You Very Much.

Oswald Morris's camerawork provides the film with a rich, multitextured look that has its dark as well as its light. The supporting cast are a treat, with Alec Guinness camping it up outrageously, yet delightfully as Jacob Marley, Edith Evans both wry and grandmotherly as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Kenneth More spirited and commanding as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The second, and by far the least successful of the three, was A Christmas Carol (1938). Lionel Barrymore's declining health prevented him from playing Scrooge, so the role was taken on by Reginald Owen, who tries rather too hard in the part, playing him unconvincingly as a caricature. Leo G Carroll, on the other hand, looks perfect as Marley, and yet underplays a role that can really benefit from some pantomime hamminess (so Michael Hordern in 1951 and Alec Guinness in 1970).

This version contains none of the bleakness or creepiness of the story. Scrooge's offices are overlit, his bedroom too ornate, and the Cratchits look fairly well-off in their spacious house. It is perhaps understandable that in 1938 MGM felt cheeriness was the way to go - but this film is overloaded with it. Most of Dickens's episodes are replaced with saccharine, whimsical vignettes that do little to advance story or character. Elements from the book are too often dealt with in perfunctory fashion.

In happy contrast, I was enthralled by the BBC's 1977 production of A Christmas Carol, which was a new discovery for me this year. Michael Hordern, who played Marley brilliantly in 1951, now plays Scrooge. It is a short piece, lasting only about an hour, but it is perhaps the most faithful adaptation I have yet seen. It is typical vintage BBC drama: shot on video on a shoestring budget, a tad rough around the edges, but carried off with creativity, sensitivity and atmosphere. Unlike many versions, it really feels like a ghost story.

Hordern is pitch-perfect, avoiding caricature, playing the miser with the appropriate amount of nastiness and presenting a believable transformation. Clive Merrison commendably avoids the usual bland portrayal of Bob Cratchit. I couldn't decide whether I liked Tiny Tim or not. For a change, there was nothing mawkish about him; yet the child actor seemed rather nervous, even glancing unsurely into the camera at one point, and the classic closing line ("God bless us, everyone") was delivered hastily and with uncertainty.

I'll be revisiting at least two very good adaptations before Christmas is over: the 1988 comedy Scrooged, and the 1951 British film with Alastair Sim - perhaps the screen's finest Scrooge, and certainly the most popular.

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