Picking up where we left off yesterday ... By the middle of the 1950s, Hollywood was ready to take yet another stab at "A Christmas Carol". Only this time around, it was a TV network (CBS, to be exact ) that rode herd on the next adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale.
And -- on paper, at least -- this new version of "A Christmas Carol" should have really worked. First of all, this hour-long adaptation was produced by Desilu, Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz's own production company. So you had people working behind-the-scenes on this show who were extremely experienced when it came to producing successful television programs.
Then CBS lined up a very prestigious showcase for this new TV adaptation of Dickens' holiday tale. Network execs actually arranged for this new version of "A Christmas Carol" to premiere on CBS's "Shower of Stars" program. Which was this high profile musical-variety show that only aired on the Tiffany Network once every month.
CBS also recruited the Chrysler Motor Corporation to serve as tise program's deep pocketed sponsor ...
Copyright 1954 Columbia Broadcasting System
... And Chrysler really threw some serious cash around on this holiday special. I mean, check out that full-sized carriage in the photo below. It's being pulled by two really-for-real horses. On top of that, this period appropriate carriage is loaded up with costumed carolers & musicians who are in the process of performing a musical number that Bernard Herrmann (Yes, that Bernard Hermann. The guy who wrote the music for "Psycho") wrote especially for this show.
Then when you factor that this carriage is being pulled through an recreation of a snow-covered London street circa 1843 ... Well, that's a pretty elaborate (and expensive) set for a TV show. Especially one that was being shot in 1954.
Copyright 1954 Columbia Broadcasting System
There was all sorts of pricey talent working on this version of "A Christmas Carol." Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote the show's teleplay, while two-time Academy Award-winner Fredric March played the title role in this production. And March was ably supported by such big name performers as Basil Rathbone ...
... (Who was Jacob Marley to Fredric's Ebenezer) and Ray Middleton (Who played the role of Scrooge's nephew, Fred as well as the Ghost of Christmas Present).
You'd think that -- with all of this talent in front of the camera, an experienced production team behind the scenes as well as a well-heeled sponsor -- that this version of "A Christmas Carol" would be really terrific. But -- instead -- it's barely watchable.
How did this particular adaptation of Dickens' classic tale go so far off track? Most of the fault lies with the show's sponsor, Chrysler. Who -- in return for agreeing to foot the bill for this undoubtedly pricey program -- was awarded 10 minutes of airtime during this show in which to advertise its automobiles. Which may not seem like much. Until you consider that this entire holiday special was just an hour long. And 50 minutes just isn't enough time to produce an effective version of "A Christmas Carol" in.
Especially not when you're continually interrupting the flow of this classic story so that your cast can then perform in yet another god-awful musical number. Like the one that young Scrooge (Craig Hill) and his fiancee, Belle (Sally Fraser) sing at old Fezziwig's annual Christmas party ...
... Where they first sing lovingly about what they should get each other for Christmas ... Only to then break up just seconds after they complete singing this song!
You get what I'm saying here? The story portion of this version of "A Christmas Carol" (Because it has to work around all of the car commercials and the poorly placed songs) is extremely rushed. Which is why -- in an effort to have some sort of impact on the audience that's watching at home -- this TV special often has to cheap emotionally.
Take -- for example -- Stave Four in Dickens' story. Which is when Ebenezer is supposed to have his fateful encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be. At this point in the program, there really isn't enough time left to introduce another holiday spirit. So instead, Scrooge just stumbles around a graveyard. Where he first finds his own headstone, then collapses on top of the grave of Tiny Tim.
You want to know the real sad part of this show? Based on how lovingly the car commercials that were inserted into this version of "A Christmas Carol" were shot (With that happy family of carolers carefully positioned so that they don't actually upstage the auto) ...
... It's clear that -- in this adaptation of Dickens' holiday tale, anyway -- that this classic story was actually just a secondary aspect of the program. That Ebenezer Scrooge literally took a backseat to a bunch of cars!
Mind you, this program wasn't a total waste. At least not for Disneyana fans. Do you recognize that woman who's standing to the right of "Shower of Stars" host, Bill Lundigan?
That's Mary Costa. Who's best known to animation fans of the voice of Briar Rose in Disney's 1959 release, "Sleeping Beauty." Mary's career was just getting underway when she served as the co-host of this CBS holiday special. Lucky for Mary, no one today remembers that she actually played a part in this program.
Not until now, anyway.
Mind you, it was possible to present an entertaining musical version of "A Christmas Carol" in just under an hour. Which brings me to the animated take on this classic tale that I'll be discussing in tomorrow's installment of this new JHM series.
Is a copy of this version available to buy. I remember seeing this on 16mm film in a church program once. Yes, the songs are awful!!!!
Now I've never heard of this version before -- with Fredric March and Basil Rathbone? That is quite a pair of stars. Too bad they were limited to just 50 minutes and had to play second fiddle to automobiles and silly music numbers.
A climax without the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?! Did Basil tell Fredric he'd be visited by only <i>two</i> spirits?
Jim Hill continues JHM's new series with a look at yet another version of "A Christmas Carol." This time around, Jim talks about "The Stingiest Man in Town," both the animated & live television version of this holiday special
You should see the 1949 version with Vincent Price. It's so bad, it's good!