As I mentioned in this past Sunday's review of "Ebbie," "A Christmas Carol" is a surprisingly resilient story. It can survive a change of location or time period. Even giving Ebenezer Scrooge a sex change operation doesn't necessarily undercut the emotional effectiveness of this seasonal favorite.
But what happens when you do all this and then add the element of race? Surprisingly, it actually seems to deepen Dickens' classic story. As is demonstrated (in fits & starts, anyway) by the 1997 TV movie, "Ms. Scrooge."
Copyright 1999 Paramount Home Video
Emmy Award-winner Cicely Tyson plays the title role in this holiday tale, Ms. Ebenita Scrooge. Who owns a loan company in modern day Providence, R.I. Though she claims to love Christmas because " ... it's a time of year when people get overly optimistic. And then they over-spend. And then they come to me," Ebenita still barks at the Santa who's standing outside of her office collecting money for the poor. She even snatched the beard right off of this poor man's face.
Ms. Scrooge is similiarly sharp with her employees. Ebenita even turns away her own nephew, the Reverand Luke (Michael Beach) when he comes to invite her to Christmas dinner. She's obviously one tough, old bird.
And why shouldn't she be? Given that her mentor, Maude Marley (Katherine Helmond) taught her that -- in order for a woman to survive in today's business world -- you have to be tough. You have to be ruthless. More importantly, you always have to watch every single penny.
Ebenita has taken all of Maude's lessons about business to heart. Which is why she still cuts the toughest possible deals with every customer who comes through the door. And every evening -- just as old Marley used to do -- Ms. Scrooge locks away the day's earnings in that walk-in vault that's hidden in her office.
Now Maude's been dead for a decade (She died 10 years ago tonight, in fact). Which is why Ebenita's rather surprised when she arrives home on Christmas Eve and sees -- rather than her own face reflected in the glass on her front door -- her old partner's puss. Who then waggles a finger at Ms. Scrooge, as if to say "Naughty, naughty."
What follows is certainly one of the odder versions of this particular sequence in "A Christmas Carol" that I've ever seen. Not so much because it's two women playing the roles of Ebenezer Scrooge & Jacob Marley. But -- rather -- because Katherine Helmond plays Maude Marley is if she were Auntie Mame just back from a jaunty cruise down the River Styx.
I mean, Maude literally makes her entrance in a puff of smoke. With her arms held high over her head, she sings "Ta-Dah!" Marley then smiles at her old partner and says "I always did like a big entrance."
Now the two actresses who are playing this scene are clearly having a great time. And director John Korty certainly seems to have had a lot of fun staging this sequence in "Ms. Scrooge." The only problem is -- since Maude Marley isn't particularly frightening -- it's hard to take the rest of the holidays spirits who then appear in this TV movie version of "A Christmas Carol" seriously. And this is -- after all -- supposed to be a ghost story.
Certainly Michael J. Reynolds as the Ghost of Christmas Past fails to make much of an impression ...
... Which is odd. Given that the scenes that are set in Ebenita's past are among the best parts of "Ms. Scrooge." In that we get to see how Ebenita was raised by a kind & loving family in the deep South. And her father -- having just returned from a stint in the Army -- now dreams of a better life for his kith & kin. Which is why he wants to open a grocery store in a nearby town.
Now this being the South in the 1950s and all ... It's a somewhat controversial notion that a black man should be starting his own business. And while "Ms. Scrooge" never actually comes right out and talks about the racial politics of this period, we get little hints of what's going on. Like how the family has to do a lot of the work themselves in preparation for the opening of the store because no bank in town will give Ebenita's dad the money he needs to hire professional help.
And later ... When the grocery store is fire-bombed and Ms. Scrooge's father dies while fighting that blaze ... It's clear that the local community hasn't exactly greeted the Scrooge family's new business with open arms.
Now what's interesting about making this tragedy the most important event in Ebenita Scrooge's life is that it not only gives her a logical reason to become hard-hearted but it also explains her attitude toward money & property. You see, when Ebenita's father died, he left behind a mountain of debt. And the only way to pay off all of those bills was to sell off the Scrooge family home.
So you see what I mean about deepening the story? It was prejudice on the part of her neighbors that eventually led to Ebenita not have any compassion for those around her. Which is an interesting sort of backstory for Dickens' miser to have, don't you think?
Anyway ... As soon as she could escape, Ebenita left the sadness of the South behind far. Traveling up to Rhode Island, Ms. Scrooge reinvented herself as Maude Marley's hard-working head book-keeper. And then -- by saving all of her pennies -- she eventually achieved what her father had only dreamed about: A business of her own as well as lasting financial security.
The only problem is -- now that her own hard climb to the top is far behind her -- Ebenita seems to forgotten what it was like to struggle. But the Ghost of Christmas Present (Shaun Austin-Olsen) is only all too happy to show her someone who's struggling even now: Ms. Scrooge's own head book-keeper, Bob Crachit (John Bourgeois).
Now this section of this TV movie tries hard to show us how important it is to have compassion. Maybe a little too hard. I mean -- when Tiny Tim (William Greenblatt) lies dying -- was it really necessary to have what seems like the entire city of Providence turns out to try & rally this poor child's spirits? Even Ebenita's nephew, the Reverand Luke, is there to hold Tim's hand and offer comfort as this good-hearted child slowly fades away.
Whereas Ms. Scrooge ... She dies alone. In her vault, no less. Knocked to the ground by this enormous pile of valuables, Ebenita is literally killed by the things that she's been hording. All that stuff that she wasn't willing to share with the less fortunate. That's a little heavy-handed, don't you think?
And because the producers of "Ms. Scrooge" couldn't resist piling on the irony at this point in the story ... The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be (Julian Richings) now reveals to the miser that -- because Ms. Scrooge failed to fill out a will -- the IRS is going to wind up with most of her fortune.
This -- to Ebenita's way of thinking -- is the final indignity. Not that only a handful of people come to her memorial service. But -- rather -- the money that she so carefully stashed away is now going to wind up in the hands of the government.
This last bit illustrates one of the main problems with "Ms. Scrooge." In that this TV movie lacks a consistent tone. I mean, we have the all-too-obvious jokes (I.E. Ebenita snatching that beard off of Santa's face as well as Ms. Scrooge's expression of horror & disgust when she realizes that the IRS is going to wind up with most of her money), the serious social stuff (I.E. How it was the restrictive racial policies of the South in the 1950s that eventually led to the hardening of Ebenita's heart) as well as the just plain bizarre bits (I.E. Maude Marley making like Auntie Mame) popping up at seemingly random intervals. No wonder "Ms. Scrooge" seems so hit & miss.
But -- that said -- I still have to give this 1997 TV movie a few extra points for including a vignette from Dickens' original text that doesn't often appear in other adaptations of this work. Mind you, it's only a sentence fragment from Stave Five of this holiday story -- "He went to church ..." But John McGreevey (I.E. The author of the "Ms. Scrooge" teleplay) takes this tiny bit of text and uses it to create a most satisfying conclusion for this seasonal show.
You see, Ebenita hasn't been inside a church since the day of her father's funeral. So to have Ms. Scrooge -- after all these decades --finally force herself to walk through those doors, head up the aisle and then join Reverend Luke's family in the front pew ... Just the expression on her nephew's face in the front pulpit says it all.
So -- as far as contemporary versions of "A Christmas Carol" go -- "Ms. Scrooge" isn't exactly the best. But -- to be honestly -- it's not the worst either. So if this 1997 TV movie pops up on cable later this week and you need something to watch while you're wrapping presents, I guess that it might be worth a look-see.
Now tomorrow, "Scrooge U" goes to the dogs. Literally. As we take a look at yet another animated version of Dickens' timeless classic, "An All Dogs Christmas Carol."
Can't say that I was too worried by this version trying to do to much. It is firmly planted in the black/poor community and I think thats a great twist.I love the idea of the money going to the IRS - thats the kind of joke that emphasises the pointlessness of making it all in the first place (beats the 'left it to his company of course' remark that we hear in the Sim version and is subsequrently copied elsewhere).I even quite like the Marley character because he is often given a booming ghostly voice to make him appear terrifying. In fact, Dickens emphasises that everything about the apparition was virtually as it had appeared in his lifetime. His appearance and voice are the same so the most effective apparitions are those that turn up in a more understated way. I like the church sections to. You pick out the 'He went to church' reference and I think its good to do that because early American versions did show that - the 1938 Owen one made quite a feature of him going and seeing Fred there. I would guess this was to bring moral weight to his reclamation. In Ms Scrooge, the church is much less severe and simply a part of the community. I think that works well. I've always liked this version, its a brave attempt and pretty much comes off.
This was a huge surprise for me. I wasn't sure what to think when I first heard about it, but it was one of the more enjoyable female Scrooges (I'm still not sure what to think of A Diva's Christmas Carol, though I thought putting the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be as an episode of Behind the Music was a stroke of genius -- and insanity).
Would enjoy seeing this one again if I can ever catch it.
Re the above comment, I'm interested to see what's left to be reviewed. Of course the Diva's Carol has not yet been mentioned neither has the Oliver Samuels version, the Ross Kemp updated version, the Michael Hordern 1977 TV version (a really good Scrooging from the former Sim versions Marley), the adaptation A Carol Christmas and even, should you be interested, The Confessions of Carol the soft porn version from the seventies !
Jim Hill said: "And this is -- after all -- supposed to be a ghost story."
Sometimes, you can achieve the same results with a lighter touch. While Mr. Dickens did create wonderful story about a man essentially "Scared Straight", I have taken a different approach with a new theatrical version I am currently shopping.
In my new version, the Ghosts' job is to convert, but through guidance, leading Scrooge to a personal epiphany. It has been my experience that personal change through fright is a very hollow victory. If you are scared, coerced, into acheiveing something, did you do it because you wanted to? Or because you were coerced? I think playing the Spirits as Ghosts who scare Scrooge into towing the line, is an easy choice (almost a lazy choice). Exploring the deeper emotions that lead someone to adopt Scrooge's lifestyle, yields a greater harvest.
If the Spirits can persude Scrooge that change is necessary and he adopts change because, through logic and emotion, he realizes it truly is the best course, that is a triumph.
Not only does Scrooge get redemption, he gets some self-esteem and a little pride thrown in. He feels good about his decision because he MADE it. He wasn't strong-armed by a bunch of hobgoblins and undigested beef.
It's a very subtle distinction, but a very important one. When folks go to AA, their first job is to admit that there is a problem and then to plot a course of action that leads to positive change. You cannot force an alchoholic to change. Having been the self-inflicted victim of his own miserliness for so many decades, it would almost be a passion for him, a religion....an addiction. And he does not know anything different, nor does he want to know.
While I enjoy many of the versions of this classic that are out there, none of them have ever tackled this idea, and it has become a very interesting spin. Enough with the "Ghosts" - bring on the Mentors and Educators!
What an excellent comment from the above. It is a distinction I have been making throughout Jim's fine series. You can actually see that, for the most part, these versions rely on the scare tactics for the simple reason they are more visually appealing to the film-maker.The actuality is that Scrooge isn't scared into change until the final coup-de-grace by the gravestone (by which time he was already contemplating 'a change of life'). Reading the book this year, with these thoughts in mind, I noticed Scrooge's redemption starts with the very first scene shown him by the Ghost of Christmas Past. For heavens sake, why don't we have one film version that has the guts to show that. Many people have been on here describing Sim, Scott and Stewart as 'real' portrayals. This just says to me that as Brian Sibley observed in the 'Humbug' documentary, the book is more widely known than read. People actually seem to equate the story with the 1951 remake rather than the book itself. I think that's a shame because so much is lost and what those people are admiring are extemporised scenes by far inferior dramatists to fill out the gaps they have created from simplifying the book and mis-interpreting Scrooge's character.All that you're left with then is a fairy tale - a nice story but without the delicacy and genius that Dickens himself wrote in.