Just the name seems somewhat sacrilegious: "An American Christmas Carol."
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I mean, is it even legal to do that? Take Charles Dickens' almost quintessentially English story out of its familiar 1840s London setting and then drop it into Depression-era America? To be specific, into a bleak & cold Concord, N.H. circa 1933.
And then the audacity of casting Henry Winkler (You know? That guy who played Fonzie on "Happy Days") to play the Ebenezer Scrooge character. Who in their right mind would have ever thought that this then-34-year-old sitcom star would have actually had the chops to play this sort of part?
Well, seeing Winkler completely immerse himself in the role of Benedict Slade (Without even a hint of Arthur Fonzarelli showing through) is just the first of many pleasant surprises associated with "An American Christmas Carol." And while this 1982 TV movie may depart from the original story's setting as well as change the character names, it still faithfully follows the Dickens template.
Though fans of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" may also find something familiar about this Eric Till film. Given that -- as "An American Christmas Carol" gets underway -- the very Mr. Potter-esque Benedict Slade is driving around repossessing the belongings of various people who owe him money. Including Mr. Merrivale (Winningly played by David Wayne), a bookseller whose prize possession is an first edition of "A Christmas Carol." Which was given to Merrivale's grandfather by Charles Dickens' himself.
Which (admittedly) is a story idea that may sound somewhat ham-handed in the retelling. But I'm really not doing justice to Jerome Coopersmith's clever yet restrained teleplay. Which does such a great job of shifting Dickens' story over from its original London 1840s origins to Depression-era America.
I mean, just the understated way that Jerome handles the spirits in "An American Christmas Carol." One minute, Slade's alone in his warehouse -- taking inventory of all the goods that he's repossessed that day (Christmas Eve, of course). And the next moment, his long-dead partner Jack Latham (Played with quiet intensity by Ken Pogue) is there in the warehouse with him.
But Coopersmith doesn't resort to having Latham rattle chains or shriek in order to frighten Slade. He just has this character talk quietly about how Hell isn't quite what you'd expect. It's not " ... fire, sulfur, devils with pitchforks ... It's worse ... It's living with all of your past all of the time forever."
Of course, what's neat about "An American Christmas Carol" is that Benedict Slade lives in a world where he's actually aware of Dickens' holiday classic. So when Slade says something to the effect of "I suppose that three spirits are now going to haunt me," Latham replies: "I think of them as conductors on the Boston & Maine line. And you'd better go where they take you."
The first spirit to arrive takes the form of Mr. Merrivale. Though given that this character -- as part of his introduction -- off-handedly says that "I played a trumpet in a war long ago. You should have seen those walls come down" ... Maybe this version of Mr. Merrivale is really more than he seems.
Anyway, this Mr. Merrivale takes Slade on a tour of his past. Which starts with Benedict at the Merrimack Children's Shelter. Which is where Slade wound up after both of his parents passed away. We see Benedict being rescued from that bleak place by kindly Mr. Brewster (Chris Wiggins), who's seeking a new apprentice for his handmade furniture business.
Mr. Brewster takes the young Slade into his home. And -- as the years pass -- Benedict becomes a valued member of the firm. More importantly, Slade winds up falling in love with the Brewsters' beautiful daughter, Helen (Susan Hogue).
Unfortunately, the Brewsters are stuck in their ways. And as Mr. Brewster continues to resist Benedict's call to modernize their furniture-making operation, Slade feels that he has no choice but to strike out on his own. Find his own way in the world.
Of course, that eventually leads to Benedict meeting up with Jack Latham. Which inadvertently causes the closure of the Brewster furniture-making business. Which -- in turn -- causes Helen to spur Slade.
With all of the mistakes of his past laid bare, it's now time for Benedict to meet up with this film's version of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Who should look very familiar to all you "Fraggle Rock" fans out there. Given that this part is played by Gerald Parkes. Who then went on to play the role of Doc in the North American version of this syndicated Jim Henson Productions series.
Anywho ... We've previously encountered Parkes' character in the picture as Mr. Jessup, the current day director of the Merrimack Children's Shelter. And he now takes Slade on a trip through Concord, N.H. on Christmas Day 1933. Where we then get to see the ramifications of all of Benedict's recent actions.
The Thatcher household (Which is this story's stand-in for the Crachit family) is in particular disarray. Given Slade has just fired Patrick Thatcher (R.H. Thomson), his longtime clerk. Which means that there's just no way that the Thatcher family can now afford to send young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) to Australia to that clinic that might help him recover from his muscle-withering condition.
But then the Ghost of Christmas Present gives way to this film's version of the Ghost of Christmas Future. Which (perhaps) is the most controversial aspect of "An American Christmas Carol." Given that this character (as portrayed by Dorian Harewood) is dressed like a 1970s hipster.
Mind you, this spirit quickly explains away his modern garb by telling Slade that he's from the distant future. And from then on ... This TV movie moves straight-forwardly along the path that Dickens established with his original version of "A Christmas Carol." We first witness an auction at Benedict's warehouse. Where all of the goods that he horded are now being sold for pennies on the dollar. And the residents of Concord, N.H. seem postively gleeful for the chance to burn Slade in effigy.
Then it's a trip to the graveyard, where we first watch the Thatcher family visit Jonathan's grave, followed by Benedict discovering his own over-grown headstone. Winkler does an especially nice job with this moment in the movie, summoning up all of the fear & regret that this miser must feel when Slade sees the sorry end that he's come to.
And then -- again following the established Dickens formula -- it's Christmas morning. And Slade seizes his second chance and runs with it.
Of course, what's a nice twist on the original "Christmas Carol" is that -- as Benedict drives around town, delivering presents in "An American Christmas Carol" -- what Slade's actually doing is returning all of the items that he repossessed from his past-due customers on Christmas Eve. But -- that said -- it's still fun to watch Henry Winkler work here. The obvious joy that he's having with playing the now-kindly crumudgeon.
And as the story closes, Coopersmith really brings things full circle. With Slade dropping by the Merrimack Children's Shelter and -- just as Mr. Brewster did all those many years ago -- picking one lonely child to serve as his new apprentice. And with Benedict Slade now planning on re-opening the local stone quarry (thereby putting the town to work) as well as reviving the Brewster furniture-making business, this TV movie closes on a very hopeful note.
All in all, "An American Christmas Carol" is a very enjoyable variation on Charles Dickens' original theme. Of course, there are those who may quibble about the heavy make-up that Henry Winkler wears throughout this TV movie. Which -- depending on how it's lit -- is either extremely effective and/or looks like Henry fell asleep face down in a pool of latex.
But that relatively minor complaint aside ... If you're looking to get a break from all of those "Christmas Carols" that are set in 1840s London, "An American Christmas Carol" may be just what you're looking for. For -- though the setting & the character names may have changed -- this TV movie still captures the spirit & the heart of Dickens' classic holiday tale.
TOMORROW: See what happens when that Oscar-winning rabbit, Bugs Bunny, gets his paws on this holiday favorite.
Nice new series title. :)
Jim: Your articles are fantastic, mostly. And is it me, or does anyone else think Henry looks like Ted Danson in these shots?
It's underrated--I'd put it at #3 on the all-time, over Magoo--just because everyone wants to make the obvious Fonzie jokes...And now that we don't have those anymore, we can just sit back and watch Henry Winkler being a watchable character actor on his own. (Met him at a book-signing one time, he's a character.) :)
Besides the "new apprentice" epilogue, the one other nice improvement of realism is that in the "reformed" scene, Winkler's Slade doesn't giggle like Sim or dance in Santa Claus suits--This Scrooge still has a little more ways to go, and he still keeps a little of his old crotchetiness even when heaping generosity on the Cratchits...Perfect touch.
Michael Darling said:
And is it me, or does anyone else think Henry looks like Ted Danson in these shots?
Yes. That was exactly my thought. Strange.