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Scrooge U : Part VII -- Finney is fine, but ...

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Scrooge U : Part VII -- Finney is fine, but ...

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ... You know that somewhat queasy, bloated feeling that you sometimes feel on Christmas Day? After you've made a little too merry, maybe had one too many glasses of eggnog? Well, 1970's "Scrooge" is the cinematic equivalent of that feeling.

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to like about this Ronald Neame film. It's got a terrific cast, top-notch production values as well as some very hummable tunes. And yet -- in spite of everything that "Scrooge" seems to have going for it -- this ultimately isn't a very satisfying version of "A Christmas Carol."

"And why is that exactly?," you ask. Well, for starters, this is a musical. And Albert Finney -- while he is undeniably a fine actor -- just can't sing.

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

Mind you, this isn't Finney's fault. Truth be told, he was the producers' third choice to play the film's title role. Leslie Bricusse had originally written "Scrooge" to be a vehicle for Richard Harris. But when Harris passed on the project, Bricusse then offered the part to Rex Harrison. Who initially agreed to appear in this big-budget movie musical, then backed out of the project at virtually the last minute. Which is why (almost by default) Albert wound up portraying Ebenezer.

So how did the film-makers try & mask Finney's obvious lack of musical ability? By constantly surrounding Albert with actors who really could sing & dance. Like the street urchins that follow Scrooge through the streets and continually bedevil him during the movie's "Father Christmas" number.

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

It's important to stress here that -- in the scenes where Ebenezer doesn't have to sing or dance -- that Finney is fine. I mean, Albert more than holds his own with Alec Guinness. Who puts a very droll spin on Scrooge's old partner, Jacob Marley.

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

But -- of course -- because "Scrooge" is supposed to be a musical extraganza, Jacob just can't tell Ebenezer that he's about to be visited by three ghosts. First Marley has to take Scrooge by the hand, then fly him through a sky full of restless spirits while singing this mournful tune ...

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

... Only after that musical interlude is over can Jacob then tell Ebenezer about the spirits that will be arriving at 1, 2 & 3 o'clock.

That -- to be honest -- is the other real problem with "Scrooge." While many of the songs that Bricusse wrote for this movie (EX: "I Like Life," "Thank You Very Much" & "December the 25th") are memorable, the staging of this film's production numbers is consistently over the top. I mean, was it really necessary to have what appears to be the entire population of London dancing in the street to celebrate Ebenezer's death?

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

Or -- for that matter -- when Scrooge finally decides to mend his ways and wants to pay a call on the Crachit family on Christmas Day ... Was it really necessary to first have this character dress in a Father Christmas costume, then have him pulled through the streets by the cast of "Oliver!" ?

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

It's this last image that (I think) best sums up what's really wrong with "Scrooge." In this movie, it wasn't enough that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be show Ebenezer his headstone. No, Scrooge first has to fall into an open grave and then tumble all the way down into Hell. Then Jacob Marley has to escort this now-repentant miser to his new living quarters. Where Satan then sends in his minions to weigh Scrooge down with this oversized chain.

Copyright 2003 Paramount Home Video

You see what I'm saying? That's overkill, plain & simple. More to the point, it also unnecessarily extends & protracts Charles Dickens' beautiful little holiday story. Almost warping the poor thing beyond all possible recognition.

You want to know the really ironic part of this story? In 1992, Bricusse adapted "Scrooge" for the stage. And with a much smaller cast (More importantly, with a lead who can actually sing) and a book that stuck much closer to Dickens' original story, the stage musical version of "Scrooge" was far more emotionally effecting & entertaining than the film version ever was.

You see, when it comes to "A Christmas Carol," less really is more. As you'll discover tomorrow when I tell you about Richard Williams' brilliant half-hour-long animated version of this classic holiday tale.

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  • This "Scrooge" was released in November of 1970, not in 1972.

    The production overall is one of the most handsome and authentic-looking adaptations of the Dickens work, and the casting is solid and clever (Kenneth More's Ghost of Christmas Present is a standout).

    The enhancement of the love story between Scrooge and his lost Isabel is part of an overall humanization of the story meant to make it more cinematic, romantic, and emotionally involving.

    However, this is one of the shifts in focus that draws the material away from Dickens (including an inexplicable change in era from 1843 to 1860--and only some study in the sociopolitical history of England will explain properly why this is a botch), and without the same impact as other adaptations.

    The uncomfortable comic approach to Scrooge's experience after death in Hell is the complete wrong turn in thinking (and during Christmas TV airings in my far-off youth, NBC used to handily snip the entire sequence!), and part of the jarring shift in tone that makes Scrooge's redemption less sincere. (Chapter skip the Hell sequence and see how much better the picture plays.)

    All that said, this "Scrooge" is still a rich, well-made, well-acted, vastly entertaining interpretation of the book, made with sincerity and a genuine desire to create a timeless adaptation.

  • Hi all,

    Long time lurker here, just joined today.

    This is by far one of my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol

    I didnt fully appreciate it until I got older, but Albert Finney is a top notch Scrooge in my books, I like how he plays the ol' miser all hunched and bitter, which also serves as a nice contrast to the younger Finney in the xmas past scenes.

    Jim, hoping you get to the Henry Winkler American Xmas Carol

  • I'm really enjoying this series, Jim. Can't wait until you get to my favorite versions of this class; the Muppet Christmas Carol and the Patrick Stewart version.

  • Also, for those who get HDNet, the widescreen, high-definition transfer of this film is airing through December (although shorn of the Overture and Exit Music).

    It really looks magnificent, and sounds terrific.

  • I am eagerly awaiting Mickey's Christmas Carol, The Muppets Christmas Carol, and my absolute favorite, the Richard Donner film "Scrooged" with Bill Murray which is a must for me to watch this Holiday Season...

  • A nearby theatre company does "Scrooge" the stage musical every year...maybe this will be the year I finally check it out.

    And I have grown to love the music for the 1970 Scrooge, but agree that they tend to, shall we say, overdo things a bit for the production numbers. Most of them have that "Does this remind you of 'Oliver'? Well?! Does it?!" stamp on them.

  • Hi Jim,

    Usually you are right-on, but I think you are being a bit unfair on 'Scrooge'. The songs are so good that they make up for the ways the film embellishes Dickens.

    For instance, the song "Happiness" between Scrooge and his betrothed - with the in-laws following around the young couple watchfully? Excellent use of humor that moves the story along. Alec Guiness' droll lines do it throughout the movie.

    'A Christmas Carol' needs a lavish musical version, and this one fits the bill. The massive crowd scenes, the family-friendly factor, the extravagant sets, perhaps even the dramatic hell sequence (I'm stretching on that one) are all part of the genre. 'A Muppet Christmas Carol' is also a musical, but it's not as respectful to Dickens as this one. (Though you gotta appreciate Gonzo's role AS Dickens right in the movie... no doubt that version is coming up, Jim?)

    Don't discourage people from seeing this -- 'Scrooge' has become my favorite Christmas movie ('It's A Wonderful Life' and 'Muppet Family Christmas' not far behind).


  • Jeff Kurtti said:  >>"The enhancement of the love story between Scrooge and his lost Isabel is part of an overall humanization of the story meant to make it more cinematic, romantic, and emotionally involving."<<<

    That's the one outstanding point in this one's favor, that none of the others play up Scrooge's Lost Love motivation (although George C. Scott's version has it visible in the character)--

    But I'm with Jim on this one--Oh, lordy, that last half hour, once Dickens' book goes out the window.  >_<

  • Jim, JIM! I agree with others here - you are too TOO critical of this film. It is my favorite Christmas movie, and Finney doesn't HAVE to sing - he is in my opinion the best part of the movie, and I argue is the best Scrooge ever (definitely better than George C. Scott, slightly better than Sim). His redemption after the Hell-frozen-over scene (wrong-headedly played for laughs, agreed, but a large chunk of the scene was in the original book) never fails to bring a tear to my eye. This is a wonderful film, and yes, it goes "off-book" at the end, but so what? It's still great.

  • Scrooge is by far my favorite version of A Christmas Carol.  Over the top?  Sure!  And I love every minute of it.  Finney sings in character.  How is Scrooge supossed to sound when he sings?  Like Sinatra?  No!  Like an old, miserable man.  Just my .02   Happy Holidays everyone!

  • This review has fallen into the trap of thinking thats its usual for Scrooge to HAVE to sing.In fact, I think Finney works much better as a non-singing Scrooge. Take the song 'You' for example. It works much better when he growls it. Somehow, thats what you'd expect him to do and its very much in keeping with his excellent portrayal of the miser as an old man fallen into bad ways rather than being deliberately miserable.This is all the more lamentable when you see the quite likeable younger version (really the only successful incidence of one actor playing both parts in a big budget version).I like the  filler as well.It seems less contrived than the Sim version where the background is clearly an excuse to use studio loanee Jack Warner and squeeze him in somewhere significant. Of course, the hell bit IS inexcusable and clearly doesn't work.Its a shame and one of the low points in a movie that really captures Dickens' desire not to put the readers 'out of humour with themselves or with the day' Regarding the later transformations onto the stage, its ironic that Tommy Steele (Manchester 2004,London 2005) has arguably achieved the best portrayal in aiming to be as near Finneys performance as possibly - crotchety and cantankerous.Anthony Newley, who first played the part at Birmingam in 1992 and continued in it annually until his death, showed how ill-fitting the songs are for a 'real' big-voice singer. The whole show lost its air of pantomime and became a heavily-laden, stagnant 'performance' based around its big stars frequent solos.

    For me, Finney remains as one of those who has really grasped what Scrooge is,  rather than just playing him for a dramatic finale. Perhaps only Michael Hordern (BBC 1977) has come close.

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