Director: Ronald Neame
Cast: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 75%
PLOT: In 19th-century London, a bitter old miser who rationalizes his uncaring nature learns real compassion when three spirits visit him on Christmas Eve (except this one is a musical).
[SPOILER ALERTS! (For anyone whose souls are so dead they have never seen or read “A Christmas Carol” before…)]
I happened to watch this musical version of “A Christmas Carol” shortly after watching my absolute FAVORITE version, the CBS TV movie starring George C. Scott as Scrooge. The two could not be any more different, but I can say that, were it not for an absurd cartoonish moment near the finale, this musical would be tied with the TV version as my favorite adaptations. More on that cartoony moment later.
Albert Finney was only 34 years old when he played the skinflint Scrooge in this version, and I have to say, the makeup and acting ability on display to turn him into a crusty, hunched-over old man are phenomenal. There’s a scene where movie magic allows Finney to be onscreen as old Scrooge AND young Scrooge at the same time; as a child, I was convinced they were two different actors. It’s truly astonishing.
The musical numbers lend a slightly corny air to the storytelling, diminishing the gothic nature of the ghostly visitations. However, it does make the movie more FUN than other adaptations. The songs (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse of “Jekyll and Hyde” fame) do capture the spirit of the scenes, in particular “Thank You Very Much” (sung, in a moment of delicious irony, at Scrooge’s death during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) and my favorite INDIVIDUAL number, the jig danced at Fezziwig’s party: “December the Twenty-Fifth.” (I would imagine some of these are available on YouTube, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie and wants a sneak preview before committing to the whole thing.) The weakest number would have to be the (thankfully) brief song by Jacob Marley, played with vigor by Alec Guinness. Let us all give thanks Obi-Wan Kenobi was never called on to sing in the cantina on Tattoine.
But the absolute highlight of the movie – really, the BEST reason to watch the film, in my opinion – is the grand finale. (You’ll have to bear with me, I love this moment, and I want to make sure my description convinces anyone who HASN’T seen the movie to take the plunge.)
It takes place after Scrooge has awakened on Christmas day, a changed man, and has purchased the enormous turkey. As he skips merrily to Bob Cratchit’s house, with several children in tow, he starts to sing the song originally sung to him by the Ghost of Christmas Present, “I Like Life.” This kicks off the longest sustained sequence of pure joy in a musical that I can recollect off the top of my head. Scrooge nearly cleans out a toy store and dons a Father Christmas costume (prompting a delightful reprise of a song called “Father Christmas). At one point, a troop of bell-ringers perform an elaborate, smile-inducing bit. As he begins to rip up his debt sheets, another song is reprised, “Thank You Very Much.” The gathering crowd swells until the narrow street is jam packed with dancers and singers. His encounter with Bob Cratchit while decked out as Father Christmas is flat out hilarious. The finale swells and swells, getting more and more joyous, until it feels like the entire city has turned out to get in on the fun.
Watching that number again today, I found, to my delight, that I was, ah…getting a little verklempt. Now, don’t get excited, I’m not saying I shed actual tears. I will say, though, that it wouldn’t have taken much to push me over the edge. THAT’S why the movie is so good. It’s very, VERY close to perfect.
Why ISN’T it perfect? Oh, but let me tell you why.
Whenever this movie was shown on television, a curious thing always happened. In the TV version, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scares Scrooge into falling into his own grave, and he falls and falls…abruptly, everything goes black, and we see him lying in what appears to be a coffin-shaped hole in the ground. And then there was a commercial. And when we get back to the movie, Scrooge is struggling on the floor next to his bed, with his bedsheets wrapped around his head and neck like snakes, and he sounds like he’s choking, and the movie proceeds from there.
Well…what happened? There’s obviously footage missing, right? For years and years, I assumed that, whatever was missing from the television airings, it was too terrifying to show on TV. Maybe he wakes up in Hell, and snakes attack him, which would explain the bedsheets.
Nope. The DVD version ends the mystery.
In a TERRIBLE move, Jacob Marley shows up again to escort Scrooge to his new quarters in Hell. This time, Alec Guinness REALLY camps it up, trotting along down the corridors of Perdition as if the ground was too hot to keep his feet down any longer than he has to. The set design for this version of Hell looks more like a forgotten room in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory than anything else. Marley presents Scrooge with the chain he was forging in life (you know the story), and it’s so big, he says, “they had to take on extra devils in the foundry to finish it.” I mean, really? They couldn’t have just cut right to him waking up in bed after falling? They had to add this utterly unnecessary cartoonish button?
It’s this scene that prevents me from marking this movie as a “10.” Remove that altogether, we’ve got near perfection. Alas.
But, setting that aside, this is a truly great Christmas film. It makes the story fun, especially that finale. If it doesn’t reach the gritty realism of the George C. Scott version, well, we’re kind of talking apples and oranges here. This is a real treat.