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Scrooge U : Part VIII -- Williams wins an Oscar

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Scrooge U : Part VIII -- Williams wins an Oscar

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Okay. I know. We all love those moments in "A Christmas Carol" after Scrooge has been redeemed. When the old skinflint tries to make amends to all those he's wronged over the years. That's when Dickens' classic holiday tale becomes truly heart-warming.

But -- prior to this point in the narrative -- "A Christmas Carol" is a ghost story. And a pretty frightening one at that.

And nobody knew that better than animation master Richard Williams. Who -- in 1971 -- crafted perhaps the most chilling version of this holiday tale ever produced.

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

Until he was given the opportunity to direct this half-hour-long holiday special, Williams was probably best known for the stylized credit sequences & animated vignettes that he'd created for such 1960s films like "What's New, Pussycat?" "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade." It was those sequences -- plus a well received series of TV commercials -- that eventually brought Richard to the attention of animation legend Chuck Jones.

You see, ABC had just hired Jones to be its new Vice President of Children's Programming. Which meant that he was in charge of developing new kid-friendly series & specials for that television network. And after seeing William's work (Particularly Richard's stuff from "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Which resembled 1800s pen & ink drawings come to life), Chuck reportedly thought this guy could do something really special with Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

Copyright 1977 The Bobs-Merrill Company, Inc.

So these two animation masters met to discuss the project. But before he'd agree to direct this holiday special, Williams allegedly set two conditions:

1) Richard wanted this new animated version of "A Christmas Carol" to resemble (as closely as possible) the style of John Leech's illustrations from the original 1843 edition of Dickens' holiday tale.

2) Williams wanted this version of "A Christmas Carol" to be dark & scary as possible. To really play up the supernatural elements of the story.

Jones supposedly agreed to both of these conditions. He even reportedly offered to use his position as the executive producer of this holiday special to run interference for Williams. Given that ABC executives were almost certain to freak once they saw how dark Richard intended on getting with his version of "A Christmas Carol."

This perhaps explains why this animated version of Dickens' holiday tale is the only one with a secondary title. Which flat-out warns the viewing audience that "A Christmas Carol" is " ... A Ghost Story of Christmas."

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

Given that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is only 26 minutes long, Williams doesn't waste a second. Starting with this animated special's masterful opening shot (Where -- in one continous pan -- the camera completes three full inversions over a scratchy pen-and-ink drawing of 1840s London before finally arriving outside of Scrooge & Marley's counting house), we're quickly introduced to Ebenezer, Bob Crachit, Scrooge's nephew Fred as well as those two gentlemen who are seeking contributions to the poor.

With Michael Redgrave handling the voice-over narration and Alistair Sim reprising his brilliant performance from the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol," you're immediately sucked into Williams' confident retelling of this holiday tale. Your eye is completely captured by the various animation techniques that are used in the making of this TV special. Which literally brings Leech's illustrations to life.

But then Scrooge heads for home. And -- after spying Jacob's face on his door knocker -- Ebenezer goes inside the house. And that's when Richard really starts piling on the frights.

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

I mean, Williams doesn't even allow Scrooge to put on his night shirt before he starts serving up the scares. Even before Ebenezer can climb upstairs, Richard has four ghostly horses pulling a loaded hearse suddenly fly by him ... And then disappear in the gloom at the top of the stairs.

And Marley ... Jeese, this may be the scariest version of Jacob Marley to ever appear on screen. When Scrooge's old partner finally unties that bandage that's holding his jaw in place. And his mouth gapes unnaturally because Jacob's jawbone is now resting in the middle of his chest ... That's just ... disturbing.

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

Williams even manages to turn the Ghost of Christmas Past (Who is usually portrayed as this innocent youth who's wise beyond their years) as something sinister. He achieves this effect by having that character animated to always look as though ... Well, as a person would see the Ghost of Christmas Past if they were having double vision. So literally, the entire time that this character is on screen with Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past seems to be coming in and out of focus.

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

And leave to Richard to insist on including that portion of the Ghost of Christmas Present's tale that most film-makers deliberately delete. As in: That moment in Dickens' story when this holiday spirit whips open his robe to reveal Ignorance and Want at his feet.

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

Yeah, the middle section of this animated version of "A Christmas Carol" just keeps getting darker & darker, grimmer & grimmer. We first meet the businessmen at the Exchange who won't go to Scrooge's funeral unless a lunch is provided. Then the charwoman & the laundress selling Ebenezer's lines & bed curtains to Old Joe at the Rag & Bone Shop. Followed by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be showing Scrooge his own corpse laid out on his now-stripped-bare bed.

Copyright 1993 HGV Productions Inc.

Then Tiny Tim's death is revealed, followed by Scrooge's own headstone. And then finally -- finally ! -- this animated holiday special begins to lighten up. And I mean that literally. Given that -- when Scrooge throws up his window to ask that young boy who's passing in the street if the prize turkey is still at the poulterer -- it's a bright, clear day in London. Sunshine floods this once-shadow-filled city as Ebenezer rushes around, making amends.

Admittedly, this is an extremely concise, fast-paced version of "A Christmas Carol." But it still packs a punch. This 26-minute-long animated special has all the heart & hits the very same emotional beats that all the best full-length versions of Dickens' holiday tale do. But what makes Williams' version truly unique is that it's a legitimate ghost story. More importantly, it's not afraid to pile on the scares.

Given the quality of the animation & the storytelling, it's not all that surprising to learn that the Richard Williams' version of "A Christmas Carol" was acclaimed. But what is rather surprising is that many animation professionals were so taken with Williams' work that -- after a brief theatrical run (So that this holiday TV special could then rightfully be considered for an Academy Award) -- this film was then nominated for Best Animated Short of 1972.

And you want to hear something truly crazy? It actually won!

Copyright 1977 The Bobs-Merrill Company, Inc.

Mind you, not everyone who works in the animation industry was thrilled that a holiday special that had been originally created for television wound up winning that year's Oscar. And these industry insiders eventually raised such a stink that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was then forced to change its qualifying criteria for animated shorts (Translation: Any short that appears on television prior to its mandatory qualifying run in theaters is now automatically disqualified).

Which now makes what happened to Richard Williams' version of "A Christmas Carol" seem all the more remarkable. That this dark, grim take on Dickens' holiday tale could be first be embraced by so many people. Then go on to claim top honors in Hollywood

"Now wait a minute," you say. " If this is an Academy-Award winning short and it was so widely acclaimed back in the 1970s, then why isn't it shown on television anymore? Or -- for that matter -- why isn't there at least a DVD version of Richard Williams' 'A Christmas Carol' available for me to see?"

I honestly don't know what to tell you, folks. I know that this version of "A Christmas Carol" did continue to air on ABC for a couple of years about its 1971 debut. But then ABC took this holiday special off of its seasonal broadcast roster because -- the way I hear it -- certain executives in children's programming (Wait a minute ... Didn't Michael Eisner work in children's programming at ABC back in the 1970s? ... You don't suppose ... Nah ... Forget  I said anything ... Anyway ...) thought that this show was 'way too scary for kids.

So ABC stopped broadcasting this version of "A Christmas Carol." And none of the other networks acquired the rights to Williams' holiday special because (again) this animated version of Dickens' holiday tale was thought to be too scary for kids. So the show just sort of fell through the cracks.

But you wanna hear something funny? Back in 1993, Fisher Price began making this version of "A Christmas Carol" available for sale through its now-pretty-much defunct VHS division. And -- according to this family-friendly firm -- Richard Williams' extremely scary take on Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale was suitable viewing for ages 3 and up.

Five years later, Anchor Bay acquired the rights to distribute a VHS version of this highly acclaimed film. But once their rights lapsed ... I'm not sure who wound up with control of this holiday special.

But what I do know is that VHS versions of Richard Williams' "A Christmas Carol" are currently going for beaucoup bucks on the secondary market. Right now, Amazon.com has used copies of the Fisher Price version of this film starting at $38.95. As for the Anchor Bay version of this holiday special ... Well, used copies of that version of "A Christmas Carol" are now starting at $249.99.

You read that right. $249.99. And that's just the lowest price that Amazon currently has listed. There are other copies of the Anchor Bay version of "A Christmas Carol" going for as high as $349.90.

"But ... But ... But ...," you sputter, "Who would pay that much for a used VHS copy of an old ABC special?" Animation fans, my friends. People who saw this version of "A Christmas Carol" back when it originally aired on ABC in 1971 and remember how masterful it was. They're the ones who are now willing to pay top dollar in order to see this Richard Williams masterwork again.

Which really makes you think. Given the pent-up demand that's obviously out there right now among animation afficiandos, some enterprising entertainment company could really clean up if they were to make Richard Williams' "A Christmas Carol" available on DVD.

Well, here's hoping that that's one holiday wish that finally comes true soon.

Anyway, that's my story on Richard Williams' version of "A Christmas Carol" ... Tomorrow, it's a celebrity-filled version of Dickens' classic holiday tale. Sort of.

Your thoughts?

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  • I believe that the rights to this unique and beloved film are still held by the original production entity, ABC.

    Which means that the rights owner who is not distributing this gem is...

    The Walt Disney Company.

  • >>"But ... But ... But ...," you sputter, "Who would pay that much for a used VHS copy of an old ABC special?"<<

    I.  Do Not. Sputter.  I NEVER sputter.

    I have been reading this group for how many years now, and I resent the constant -repeated- implications that I must react to any disagreement in a Jim Hill article by developing a sudden stuttering impairment like Nigel Bruce in the old Sherlock Holmes films.

    For the last six months, I am not the only JHM reader to bear this accusation, and I want it known that I make all my protests with care and eloquence.  Let those also on this board who do stand up for their rights.  :)

  • I hope this someday gets released on DVD--this looks excellent. Disney does have a tendancy to sit on old shows they have the rights on (although, to be far, they're finally releasing classics like The Tick and Darkwing Duck onto DVD)

  • I first saw SCROOGE as a kid when it played at Radio City Music Hall, and it was the most memorable times ever. The audience loved it. Since then I always considered a cherished part of the season.

  • $249? sputter  wheeze  gasp  - whoever pays that has money to burn, plain and simple. I'm sure it's a great movie and scary and super-groovy-cool, but I'd rather have 12 regular DVD's. Like I yell at the screen when watching Antiques Roadshow, "get the money in cash, and run!"

  • I would like to congratulate you, Jim, on getting so far in your series. Now I can only wish that you would "revisit" a certain Star Tours series. Thanks for all of the great things you write for the Disney online community.

  • Just unpacking the Christmas boxes, and came across my VHS of Williams' "A Christmas Carol."

    It's from 1993, an ABC Video release, and bearing the line "© 1972 American Broadcasting Company. All Rights Reserved."

    I won't sell it, even for the whacked out prices cited.

  • Hey everybody.  Its online at Google Video: the entire 24 minutes and 58 seconds.  Enjoy!


  • Thanks for that link!  I'm trying to figure out how I've seen this before, being a child of the 80's...hmmm.  Anyway, I was glad to have seen it again!

  • Smilee might have seen a broadcast airing on the Family Channel/Fox Family during one of the first "25 Days of Christmas" series in the mid-to-late 90s, when they were showing a lot of obscure and seldom-seen Holiday-themed programs.

  • I saw this special about six years ago as part of one of those cheapie VHS public domain kind of tapes you find at K-mart.  If memeory serves me it had a couple of Fliesher Brothers Christmas cartoons and then this masterpiece came on.  I remember being shocked seeing the names Chuck Jones and Richard Willimas in the opening credits.  When it was over I remember thinking that I had just seen one of the best versions of the Christas Carol.  I'm willing to bet that this is in the public domain.  It sure would be nice to see a pristine DVD of this Academy Award winner.

  • Mahwonic7:  I'm almost ready to put up a few bucks and take that sucker bet.  It is NOT going to be Public Domain, except by gross accident - this is Disney (who now owns ABC) we're talking about here!

     Disney, where every time Mickey Mouse (as 'Steamboat Willie') even gets /close/ to having the Copyright time limit lapse, they get Congress to extend the limit out another ten or twenty years again.

    --<< Bruce >>--

  • Disney cartoons in public domain include "The Mad Doctor", "Minnie's Yoo Hoo", "Hooked Bear", "Suzie the Little Blue Coupe" and "The Cookie Carnival", as well as most of the government-sponsored WWII propaganda 'toons.  Prior to the law changing, copyright holders had to send in a form and a small payment to renew their copyrights.  Sometimes, oversights happened.  Or a copyright wasn't considered valuable enough to go to the trouble of renewing.  

    The reason you don't see the Disney stuff on dollar DVDs that much is that Disney's lawyers file nuisance lawsuits.  Whether the suits have merit or not, you still have to defend yourself in court, and when you're selling $1 DVDs, that doesn't leave a big legal defense fund.  Easier to just stick with Superman and Herman & Catnip.

    There are also cases where the copyright wasn't filed properly in the first place.  A PD outfit would be on very shaky legal ground releasing one of these, but that hasn't stopped some of them (Rankin-Bass's "The Hobbit" for instance).

    Then again, the public domain guys aren't always all that careful about checking.  I don't know what the status of this "A Christmas Carol" is.

  • Thanks for writing this up. I found your blog after telling someone about "this great, creepy, gothic version of 'Christmas Carol' that was on when I was a kid (I'm thinking late 1970s or so). Some of the moments are burned in my memory, like rats, the old ladies stripping Scrooge's house for the linens. This was a truly dark and macabre retelling, of course the better to underline just what rotten fruit would be sown by the man's current philosophy. It makes his rebirth that much more joyful and jubilant. Any filmmaker of substances knows that you can't have true light without the balance of darkness. And stories of unending bleakness and horror (I'm thinking the recent trend for torture-porn horror) without lightness as an apertif just don't work. Williams and Jones knew this, and those images from my childhood, and moments you refer to, are as pure and unforgettable as holiday storytelling gets. Though YouTube limitations require that versions uploaded are sliced into parts (and Disney hasn't bothered to squelch these), Google Video appears to have the whole thing. Time to go streaming to my tv....

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