It is one of my favorite Hollywood "What If" stories. And -- appropriately enough -- you can read a full-blown account of this tale over on one of my favorite blogs, Mark Evanier's great "newsfromme.com."
Here's the Reader's Digest version: W.C. Fields (Who was a Dickens scholar, by the way) has just recently appeared in MGM's 1935 version of "David Copperfield." And Fields had gotten the best reviews of his life for his portrayal of Mr. Micawber.
Photo courtesy of Google Images
Given that both moviegoers & the critics clearly loved seeing W.C. play a Dickens character, this legendary screen comic was anxious to return to the well. Which is why Fields reportedly approached MGM executives and proposed that he play Ebenezer Scrooge in a big-screen version of "A Christmas Carol" that that studio could then produce.
Of course, what W.C. didn't know was that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was already making plans to have Lionel Barrymore star in a movie version of Dickens' classic holiday tale. A project that -- as I recounted in this past Saturday's installment of JHM's newest series -- eventually became the version of "A Christmas Carol" that Reginald Owen starred in.
It must have been disappointing to Fields to have MGM execs casually dismiss his suggestion that he be allowed to play Scrooge. Though I'd imagine that Fields felt a similiar disappointment in early 1940, when Orson Welles -- as a possible follow-up to "Citizen Kane" -- proposed having Fields & John Barrymore appear together in a feature film version of "The Pickwick Papers" that Welles would then write & direct.
Unfortunately, given that W.C. was under exclusive contract to Universal Pictures at this time, he wasn't allowed to go work on an RKO production. Which is why Fields reluctantly had to turn Welles down. Which then forced Orson to abandon this project entirely and go forward with production of "The Magnificent Ambersons" instead.Anyway ... For decades now, film buffs have wondered what it would have been like if MGM had greenlit that version of "A Christmas Carol" that W.C. Fields had proposed. What sort of spin this legendary comic would have put on the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Well, thanks to master impressionist Rich Little ...
Copyright 1997 Sony Pictures
... we now have a rough approximation of what Fields would have looked like & sounded like if he'd ever had ever gotten the chance to play Dickens' miserable miser. Though I doubt that -- even given some of the crazy comedies that W.C. wrote & appeared in over the course of his career -- that Fields would have ever opted to create a straight-forward spoof of "A Christmas Carol" the way that Little has.
Truth be told, this 1978 holiday special was actually an expansion of a bit that Rich used to perform in his act. In fact, you can see a version of this routine on "The Ed Sullivan Show: A Classic Christmas" DVD. Though -- in this early, early version of the routine, Rich has George Burns narrating the story, Jack Benny playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and Ed Sullivan himself playing the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Given the popularity of this particular piece of material (Little actually used this routine as the basis for one of his very first LPs), how audiences really responded to the idea of having a celebrity appear in every single role in "A Christmas Carol," Rich kept expanding & expanding this routine 'til he had an hour-long teleplay. Which he then took to the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
The CBC evidently just loved the idea of this Canadian-born talent starring in what basically amounted to a one man show. So they quickly put "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" into production.
The end result is an entertaining spoof of Dickens' classic holiday tale. Though one wonders how much cleverer this show would have seemed if it were just a half hour long, rather than a full hour.
Anywho ... "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" is Dickens' classic holiday tale as seen in a funhouse mirror. Where -- instead of being a money lender -- Scrooge is now the owner of a ship-in-a-bottle factor. And given that Fields was supposed to have been this legendary drinker, it's Ebenezer's job to first empty the bottles. Then Bob Crachit has to construct the tiny ships that go inside.
Cpoyright 1997 Sony Pictures
"And who's Bob Crachit supposed to be?," you ask. Would you believe old Mr. Center Square himself, Paul Lynde?
Which I know may seem like a very odd choice to play Scrooge's much put-upon clerk. But let's remember that "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" is supposed to be a spoof. More importantly, Little deliberately wrote this holiday special to be a showcase for some of his strongest impressions. Which is why he's got Johnny Carson playing Scrooge's nephew, Fred ...
Copyright 1997 Song Pictures
... And how (through the magic of split screen) Rich gets to play both Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy as the two gentlemen who come to Scrooge's office seeking donations for the poor.
1Copyright 1997 Sony Pictures
Mind you, some of Little's casting choices are downright inspired. I mean, Richard Nixon as Marley's ghost? That's a really funny idea.
And please note that -- instead of dragging heavy chains, keys and locks around -- this version of Scrooge's old partner has old reel-to-reel tapes draped around his neck. Which is a neat little nod to the Watergate scandal.
Anyway ... Following in the well-worn footsteps of all the other versions of "A Christmas Carol" that have come before it, Jacob warns Ebenezer that he is to be visited by three spirits. The first to arrive -- the Ghost of Christmas Past -- is played by Humphrey Bogart ...
... Who takes Scrooge back in time to visit Old Fezziwig's annual holiday bash. Only in this version of "A Christmas Carol," Fezziwig is played by Groucho Marx and Ebenezer's best friend, Dick Wilkins, is played by Jimmy Stewart.
Before you know it, it's time for the Ghost of Christmas Present to make his entrance. And who has Little "cast" in this role? Peter Falk's Lieutenant Columbo.
The Ghost of Christmas Present now takes Ebenezer to Bob Crachit's humble home. Where Emily Crachit is played by Edith Bunker of "All in the Family" fame, while Tiny Tim is noted author Truman Capote.
After that bizarre vignette, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be arrives in the persona of Inspector Clouseau.
Clouseau then takes Scrooge to the exchange. Where they spy three businessmen gossiping about the miser's recent demise. Only in this version of "A Christmas Carol," the three businessmen are played by John Wayne, George Burns and James Mason.
After a long night of visiting Christmas past, present and the future, Scrooge finally sees the error of his ways. But who does Ebenezer spot in the street as he throws open his bedroom window but Jack Benny. Who -- in this expanded & revised version of Little's old nightclub routine -- is now playing the little boy who Scrooge sends to fetch the prize turkey at the poulterer.
Okay. Admittedly this is a very gimmicky version of "A Christmas Carol." But given Little a little credit. Rich was smart enough to keep this show fast paced. He doesn't allow any of his celebrity impressions to linger long enough on screen to actually wear out their welcome.
Then add to that this show's top-notch production values (The excellent make-ups that Jackie Wilkinson created for all 16 of the celebrities that Little plays over the course of this program particularly deserve a nod) and "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" is a fun little show. One that actually acknowledges that it's perhaps taken one too many liberties with this classic holiday tale by first showing us a shot of Charles Dickens' grave, then by showing this same headstone topple over.
Copyright 1997 Sony Pictures
Okay. As I mentioned early, "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" would probably seem twice as clever if it were only half as long. But why quibble about something like that? This handsome holiday special is still a fun little riff on Dickens' classic holiday tale.
You wanna know the one downside to "Rich Little's Christmas Carol"? It's been almost 10 years since this holiday special was last made available for purchase on VHS. And (to my knowledge) this program has never been available in the DVD format.
However, just three weeks ago, that all changed. When Little made a DVD version of this Emmy Award-winning TV special available for purchase through his official website. So -- if you'd like to get your very own copy of "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" (Which features an audio commentary by Rich himself about the making of this special) -- you can do so by clicking on this link.
Speaking of television specials ... Tomorrow, I'll talk about a version of "A Christmas Carol" that started out as a live musical extravaganza in the 1950s, only to then be transformed into an animated Rankin-Bass special.
This is potentially the strangest one yet, but I'm intrigued now. I may have to go order a copy.
Not to be pedantic, but it was "David Copperfield" that W.C. Fields appeared in as Mr. Micawber. Not "Great Expectations."
Thanks, Jim, for rekindling my memory of this comical take on "A Christmas Carol". I remember this special from my youth when it was telecast annually on HBO (along with Jim Hensen's "Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas"!) during the the late 70s and early 80s. Back then, HBO was THE premium network on cable TV, and they offered a lot of delightful family fare then, like Fraggle Rock.
Unfortunately, I felt HBO lost their family touch years ago, and have longed since abandoned that channel. This will at least remind me of the great fun stuff they used to showcase. I immediately ordered the DVD of "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" from the eBay link you provided. I so desperately need a healthy boost of nostalgia right now, and this special might just be the ticket for me!