At times wonderful and in a few ways quite bad, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Scrooge (1970), like the 1951 Alastair Sim classic of the same name*, has for many become an annual ritual. It's not as good as the Sim version, still widely regarded as the best, nor is it as good as the later, faithful television movie adaptation starring George C. Scott, which suffers from a too-tight budget but otherwise is sublime. There are, of course, still other versions and variations widely available. MGM's 1938 A Christmas Carol is generally mediocre though the 1935 British Scrooge, with Seymour Hicks, is atmospheric if imperfect.
The addition of musical numbers enhances this Scrooge some of the time, but obvious attempts to duplicate the success of Oliver! (1968), the Dickens-novel-turned-musical that won the Best Picture Oscar, often don't work and while handsomely produced the film is also padded and awkward in ways that diminish its effectiveness.
At its center is Albert Finney, an unusual and inspired casting choice. Usually Scrooge is played by an older actor well past 50 but Finney was just 33 at the time, and thus able to play Scrooge as both a young man as well as the cantankerous miser he'd become in his old age. Like the rest of the film this casting doesn't totally work but does have certain advantages.
Paramount's new Blu-ray of this Cinema Center Films presentation (CBS's feature film division, with the picture first released by 20th Century-Fox in the U.K. and by National General in the States) improves upon their earlier DVD version. It's not a gigantic leap, but the colors are warmer, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is richer, and the image, a lot of it using anamorphic soft-focus photography, a bit sharper than before. No extras save for a dog-eared trailer, a surprise considering how perennially popular this is.
The familiar story finds Ebenezer Scrooge (Finney), a wealthy but notoriously stingy and misanthropic old man, haunted by the spirit of his late business partner, Jacob Marley (Alec Guinness). Marley, too, was a cold and heartless man yet, from the afterlife, warns Scrooge to mend his ways before it's too late. Marley informs Scrooge that three more spirits will haunt him that evening: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Edith Evans), Present (Kenneth More), and Christmas Yet to Come (played by choreographer Paddy Stone). Through them Scrooge sees visions of his own, wasted existence, which is contrasted with that of his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit (David Collings), an indefatigably cheerful chap - at least until tragedy strikes - and beloved by his large family.
Scrooge was directed by the great British cinematographer, producer and director Ronald Neame (Great Expectations, Tunes of Glory) but produced, adapted, and featuring songs by Leslie Bricusse, who'd previously written both the songs and screenplay to Dr. Doolittle (1967). As such it plays a bit like a Broadway show during tryouts, a show with extraneous musical numbers that have yet to be pruned or at least tightened before opening night.
Some are integrated logically and well: for instance, the catchy song heard over the titles, "A Christmas Carol"; "I Like Life," robustly sung by More's Ghost of Christmas Present; and especially the haunting "Happiness"/"You...You," the latter performed by Finney's older Scrooge lamenting his younger, foolish self.
The most popular number, "Thank You Very Much," a darkly funny number celebrating a death, was a clear attempt to top Oliver!'s "Consider Yourself" and done on a similarly grand scale, its chorus led by wily character actor Anton Rodgers. It's a fun, catchy number and later nominated for an Academy Award. (On Oscar night, Burt Lancaster, Ricardo Montalban, and Sally Kellerman bizarrely performed it in multiple languages. I can still hear Burt's "Molto, molto grazie! Molto, molto grazie!")
However, a long reprise of the song minutes later, coupled with "Father Christmas," a grating, cynical number from the beginning turned on its head for the finale, seems to go on forever, and loses sight of the story's intimate, personal nature.
Most of the time Finney plays Ebenezer Scrooge broadly, to the point where he's so over-the-top that he becomes almost comic and cute. And yet at other times both Finney's performance and Bricusse's screenplay emphasize more than most adaptations the tragedy of Scrooge's lost love, Isabel (Suzanne Neve). Interestingly, Finney plays the younger Scrooge as equally cold-hearted, only handsome and confident.
The supporting cast is generally good, especially More as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Laurence Naismith, an ideal Fezziwig if there ever was one. Alec Guinness's ghost of Jacob Marley is curious, to say the least. Animated though not as effective as Frank Finlay in the Scott version, Guinness is in fine form during Marley's big scene, but apparently Bricusse or Guinness wanted to beef up the part, resulting in what tuned out to be the worst scene in the picture.
It follows the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence, with Scrooge arriving in Hell where Marley sadistically introduces the miser to his new residence: a frozen reproduction of their business, Scrooge's private Hell being to spend eternity there. Not only does this scene deviate light years from Dickens, Guinness is unpardonably hammy and the sets look like something better-suited to Irwin Allen's universe. Ironically, when the DVD was released in 2003 many viewers were surprised to find this scene in the film: throughout the 1970s and '80s, when Scrooge was shown in syndication on local TV stations across the United States, this scene was invariably cut out.
Video & Audio
This latest, 1080p home video release of Scrooge improves upon the 2003 DVD in most ways, though rather pointlessly it's missing the original overture that was included on that version. The picture is a bit sharper, but Oswald Morris shot the film in 'scope (Panavision) and frequently uses filters and soft-focus for effect, so the real benefits come in the form of warmer colors and a better sense of textures (clothing, interior sets, etc.). The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is great, however. The film was apparently blown-up to 70mm for some engagements, and presumably this mix is derived from those multi-track magnetic stereo separations. A Castilian stereo mix is included, along with English, Castilian, Japanese, and Dutch subtitle options. Sadly, no Extra Features save for a trailer in such poor condition that it hardly qualifies as a supplement.
Though not quite the best of the various Christmas Carols already out on Blu-ray (the Sim and Scott versions are available, too), the 1970 Scrooge has a charm all its own and, as they say, is fun for the entire family. Recommended.
* Trivia Question: Which version of A Christmas Carol won an Academy Award? Hint: It starred Alistair Sim - yet it's not the 1951 version.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.