Of the more than two dozen filmed adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the 1970 musical Scrooge is one of the best. In one sense the story is nearly foolproof; it's hard to completely muck up the strong, inherent sentiment of the tale and its rich, delightful, and occasionally frightening characters.
The familiar story finds Ebenezer Scrooge (Albert 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, heartless man and from the afterlife warns Scrooge to mend his ways before it's too late. Marley sends three more spirits to haunt Scrooge that evening: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Edith Evans), Present (Kenneth More), and Christmas Yet to Come (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 undyingly cheerful man beloved by his large family.
Scrooge was produced in the wake of the very successful stage musical-turned-Best Picture winner Oliver! (1967), based on Dickens' Oliver Twist. Beyond the rather blah M-G-M version of A Christmas Carol, made in 1938, the most popular film adaptation of had been Scrooge (1951), a near definitive version starring Alistair Sim in the title role. The 1970 Scrooge makes no attempt to compete with the Sim version, just as the 1967 Oliver! deliberately veered from David Lean's classic film.
As a musical, the film only partially succeeds. It probably would have worked better to limit the musical numbers only where they naturally fit, such as at the parties of Scrooge's nephew (Michael Medwin) and first employer, Fezziwig (Laurence Naismith). These numbers work better than those where Scrooge sings petulantly about how mean he is, or awkwardly by a transparent Jacob Marley, or by obnoxious Cockney children who taunt Scrooge with a gratingly ironic "Father Christmas." The film also ends with an overlong musical finale that seems to go on forever. (Fortunately, the film ends with a charming little epilogue which makes up for the excess that came before.)
Much like It's a Wonderful Life, Scrooge seems to have found its audience mainly through yearly airings during the holiday season. The widely syndicated version cut the film down to accommodate a 2:30 time slot, and in so doing deleted a long sequence set, essentially, in Hell. Viewers familiar only with the television version are surprised by this sequence, which has lavish production design but seems to exist solely to give Alec Guinness a larger role. The sequence is so un-Dickensian, and so hammily played by both Guinness and Finney (while stopping the narrative, er, dead) that it's quite an embarrassment.
Mostly, though, Scrooge is a fine film that works wonderfully well when it sticks to the original material. Scrooge is usually portrayed by an older actor so that, in flashbacks to Scrooge's youth, a look-alike actor generally plays Scrooge as a young man. Here, 34-year-old Finney convincingly plays Scrooge at various ages. George Frost's makeup is wisely restrained for old Scrooge, while Finney's playing of both the younger Scrooge and especially old Scrooge gazing sadly on his wasted life is particularly fine. Finney tends to chew the scenery as the older Scrooge, but balances this with real tragedy. It's like Scrooge himself is well-aware of his exaggerated meanness, that he has knowingly become a caricature of himself as a way to deal with his great sadness.
Guinness' Marley should be less silly and scarier than he is, while Kenneth More's Ghost of Christmas Present is jollier than that character should be – for my money Edward Woodward's terrifying portrait in the 1984 George C. Scott telefilm is the definitive version. More, an underrated actor, brings great charisma to the character. Laurence Naismith, whom genre fans will remember from several Ray Harryhausen fantasies, gives his all as Fezziwig, while Anton Rogers steals his big scene singing "Thank You Very Much," on Scrooge's coffin. The song was nominated for an Oscar and, incidentally, resulted in one of the strangest production numbers in the Academy's history.
The excellent if underfinanced TV movie with Scott seems to have become the Scrooge of choice in recent years. It has, arguably, an even better cast of British veteran actors (excepting Scott, of course, who is nonetheless fine). But really each sincerely-made adaptation has its own merits; looking for the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among the various films is part of the fun. And this Scrooge has a lot going for it.
Picture & Sound
Prior home video versions of Scrooge sounded great with its directional stereo and rich orchestral arrangements. This new 16:9 transfer, however, puts even the old letterboxed laserdisc to shame. Seen on big television monitors, Oswald Morris' lush photography and Terence Marsh's production design really shines in this transfer, as does director Ronald Neame's excellent 'scope staging. An original overture is included.
None, and that's a pity. One hopes the DVD sells well and prompts a Special Edition down the road. Neame is a wonderful raconteur, and an audio commentary with him and Finney would doubtlessly be fascinating, especially given Neame's prior work adapting Dickens with David Lean, and Finney for his take on playing a character now the same age as he really is now. A Dickens expert and a comparison of the various film versions would also have been nice.
A September release for this title seems a bit premature. I don't know if anyone'll be racing out to buy Scrooge just now. Obviously, this is a film that works best when seen somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but is also good enough to be enjoyed any time of year.