‘A Christmas Carol’ (and Ebenezer Scrooge) through the years
By T.L. Stanley, Los Angeles Times
Ebenezer Scrooge was a heartless miser in desperate need of reinvention. It should come as no surprise, then, that he eventually found his way to Hollywood for numerous makeovers spanning more than a half century.
Charles Dickens reportedly dashed off the story, “A Christmas Carol,” as a way to quickly pay some debts, dreaming up the tight-fisted businessman in 1843. But the writer had more than money on his mind. He was ruminating on heavy issues like consumerism, morality and redemption. He called it “a ghostly little book” to raise “the ghost of an idea.” He did much more than that.
The central concept -- three specters guide Scrooge through his past, present and future -- has proven irresistible to the creative community. There have been countless remakes of the classic novella across film, TV, theater, opera and radio, with cartoon characters Scrooge McDuck and “The Jetsons’” Cosmo Spacely and British actors Michael Caine and Alastair Sim taking on the title role. ()
Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the screenplay and original music for the 1970 movie version of “Scrooge” starring Albert Finney, said he was happy to tackle the piece because he’d loved the Dickens tale and its heartfelt message since he was a child.
“It’s all about redemption -- that even the worst, meanest person can find a way to see life differently,” Bricusse said. “No matter how it’s interpreted -- contemporary or period -- the eternal truth is always there.”
His iteration of “Scrooge” starred then-34-year-old Finney, at the time the youngest person to ever play the penny-pinching sourpuss. There were other powerful British actors in the mix -- Richard Harris, Rex Harrison, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton -- but Finney landed the role during dinner with Bricusse one evening and was on set the next day.
The production, which features elaborate flash mob-style song-and-dance numbers, continued at that break-neck pace. It filmed in about three months in early 1970 and opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in November, just in time for the holidays.
There’s been talk of revisiting the project as a made-for-TV movie for CBS, Bricusse said, in light of the resurgent interest in musicals. Songs from the film include the show-stopping ditty, “Thank You Very Much,” and Scrooge’s anti-social ode, “I Hate People.” In the spirit of the season, here’s a peek at some of the most enduring big- and small-screen adaptations of the iconic Dickens story. (Cinema Center Films)
In this modestly budgeted MGM production, Reginald Owen stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge. This version is softer and brighter -- more Hollywood, if you will -- than other interpretations, leading some critics to label it “A Christmas Carol Lite.”
Scrooge, for instance, transforms early in the story, shedding his misanthropic ways and embracing the true meaning of Christmas after the first ghostly visit. Why so hasty? Maybe because the film clocks in at a sprightly 69 minutes. Historians have pointed out that the country was still reeling from the Great Depression and on the verge of war, so the filmmakers likely had good reason to smooth out the rough edges. Tip: Go for the original black-and-white, not the colorized version. And see if you can spot a young June Lockhart playing one of the Cratchit kids. (From the Times archives)
Often called the definitive Dickens adaptation, this atmospheric black-and-white film stars Alastair Sim as the soulless skinflint headed for rock bottom. Audiences get a peek at his harsh back story -- his mother died in childbirth, his father blamed and ostracized him, and he lost his only sister.
The British-made film doesn’t dance around the harshness of the original text, lingering on “Ignorance” and “Want,” represented by two scraggly hollow-eyed kids folded into the robes of the ghost of Christmas present. (Some versions omit that scene). Sim’s Scrooge, who goes from bitter and unapologetic to terrified and repentant, laments during his otherworldly journey that he’s “too old to change.” It makes his transformation in the end all the more poignant. (American Movie Classics)
This made-for-TV special with the voice of Jim Backus opened the floodgates for a slew of animated and all-family “Christmas Carols” to follow.
Mr. Magoo’s iteration, with its minimalist animation style and play-within-a-show format, sanitized the classic to make a truly G-rated program. The ghosts aren’t frightening, there are plenty of pratfalls and jokes about Magoo’s poor eyesight, and even the looters who steal from Scrooge are more goofy than sleazy. Music’s from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who went on to pen the songs in Barbra Streisand‘s “Funny Girl.” (United Productions of America)
The film, directed by David Lean protégé Ronald Neame, who’d later make “The Poseidon Adventure,” used the versatile Finney as the young and old Scrooge. And without the benefit of digital effects, it made the ghost of Jacob Marley appear to float from scene to scene. It didn’t hurt that the legendary Alec Guinness played that role. A mostly faithful rendition of the original text, this “Scrooge” did add a twist of its own: There’s a spooky descent into hell filled with rats, chains and Lucifer. That scary five-minute bit often gets cut when the movie’s shown on U.S. TV. It’s intact on the DVD. (American Cinematheque / Dickens In Film)
Beloved characters including Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and the Muppets later had versions of the literary story, which was inspired by “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.”
In this 1983 version, Scrooge McDuck, of course, is Ebenezer Scrooge and Mickey Mouse is Bob Cratchit in an animated adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens’ story. (Disney)
This comedy, very loosely based on the Dickens text, gives Bill Murray a platform for what he’s always done best: caustic, wacky humor with a heaping dose of vulnerability.
In this mish-mash of the classic, directed by Richard Donner, Alfre Woodard stands in for Bob Cratchit, sort of, and Bobcat Goldthwait plays an ousted employee set on revenge. Murray, as a hard-hearted executive of a fictional TV network, cares only about ratings and hypes his station’s live “Christmas Carol” with on-air promos featuring plane explosions and acid rain. (It was the ‘80s.) Carol Kane shines as one of the ghosts and Karen Allen costars as the one who got away. But the film clearly belongs to Murray, who admits, “I was a schmuck!” and then yells, “I get it now!” before leading everyone in a singalong finale.
Bah humbug, indeed. (Paramount Pictures)
In this Muppets take on Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol,” Kermit the Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmire) plays the beloved Bob Cratchit, who helps Michael Caine‘s curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge remember the importance of Christmas. The Great Gonzo (voiced by Dave Goelz) plays Dickens, and Miss Piggy plays Kermit’s character’s wife, Emily Cratchit, naturally. (Jim Henson Productions)
Orson Bean, who starred in “The Facts of Life” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” commenced his portrayal of Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” with a double-take and a drum beat, wrote theater critic F. Kathleen Foley in 1998.
“Bean’s adaptation at Pacific Resident Theatre is cheerfully tongue-in-cheek, his Scrooge a comical curmudgeon whose muttered asides are more reminiscent of Popeye than Dickens,” she said. (From the Times archives)
This TV adaptation of the story features Joel Grey, left, as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Patrick Stewart, of “Star Trek” fame, as Scrooge. This production, directed by David Jones and written by Peter Barnes, is handsome and commendable, though not up to the splendid 1984 rendering with George C. Scott on CBS, wrote former Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg.
“Like Scott’s, Stewart’s Scrooge is no shriveled, doddering, stereotypical miser running his scrawny fingers through mounds of gold coins. Although properly menacing before seeing the light, [Stewart’s Scrooge] is also a robust, shrewd, hard-dealing, tightfisted businessman who just happens to have a low opinion of Christmas and those who celebrate it.” (TNT)
Hal Landon Jr. has become the quintessential Ebenezer Scrooge in South Coast Repertory’'s production of “A Christmas Carol.” The stage, television and film actor has appeared as the wizened miser whose heart is miraculously opened for 31 productions.
Landon, left, is pictured here in 2000 with costar Timothy Landfield, who plays The Spirit of Christmas Present. (Alexander Gallardo / Los Angeles Times)
Kelsey Grammer‘s theatricality filled out his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the television movie “A Christmas Carol: The Musical.” “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexandar, “30 Rock” actress Jane Krakowski, “Law & Order” actor Jesse L. Martin and Jennifer Love Hewitt of “Ghost Whisperer” rounded out the cast. (NBC)
“The Polar Express” director Robert Zemeckis’ re-imagined the Dickens classic as a 3-D action-thriller that zooms through Victorian London and the fever dreams of Ebenezer Scrooge. The special effects encumbered the motion-capture film, which already had a blizzard of Jim Carrey‘s theatrics to weather, wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Betsy Sharkey.
“The actor voices eight characters, including Scrooge at all ages as well as the three ghosts who haunt him -- you can just see him in the recording studio pingponging manically around during one of the Scrooge-ghost tete-a-tetes.” (Disney / ImageMovers Digital LLC)