Scrooge Month Day 3: Fredric March in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1954)

Christmas Carol 1954Director: Ralph Levy

Writer: Maxwell Anderson, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, Bob Sweeney, Christopher Cook, Sally Fraser, Ray Middleton, Dick Elliott, Bonnie Franklin

Notes: This 48-minute version of A Christmas Carol was produced as an episode of the CBS variety show Shower of Stars.  The network was heavy on dramas at the time and created this more lighthearted musical/variety show as a way to open up their own programming to different audiences. Aside from having the magnificent Basil Rathbone as Marley’s ghost, this special also features an early TV appearance from future sitcom star Bonnie Franklin as one of the Cratchit children. This particular episode was nominated for four Emmy awards, including best original music composed for TV to Bernard Hermann and Best Actor in a single performance for Fredric March as Scrooge. It won the Emmy for best art direction of a filmed show. Rathbone would later go on to play Scrooge himself in the film The Stingiest Man in Town, which I somehow don’t have a copy of on DVD. Maybe some other year, guys.

Thoughts: When I heard this was a musical version, my mind automatically went to the idea of some heavily produced Broadway-style extravaganza. As it turned out, that’s not what we got at all. Instead, the music is very traditional in nature, performed in a chorale style that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Church. Much of it is produced by a group of carolers who wander in between scenes with Scrooge and company, another song turning up at Fezziwig’s party during the Christmas Past segment. Tiny Tim gets a solo in the Cratchit house, but it’s really quite subdued, sweet, and sad.

The only song that really feels like most musicals is Christmas Present’s, which he sings the instant he meets Scrooge, with the film going so far into musically-inspired lunacy that he pulls a long garland from Scrooge’s robe, makes the hands of a clock wiggle around, and shuts some doors telekinetically. But it’s just the one scene that takes this tactic. The rest of the film is more of a practical musical than a traditional one. Later musical versions of the story wouldn’t bother with attempts to explain where the music came from.

In an interesting Wizard of Oz-style twist, the two more talkative ghosts are played by actors doing double-duty as one of the characters significant to that segment of Scrooge’s life. Sally Fraser plays both his lost love Belle and the Ghost of Christmas Past, while Ray Middleton bounds in as the bombastic nephew Fred and returns as the thunderous Ghost of Christmas Future. It’s an unusual conceit, and one the film carries very well. Fraser is lovely as both the Ghost and as Belle, carrying that sort of classic beauty and charm actresses of the 40s all seemed to have. (Yes, I know this was 1954. She still had the charm of an actress of the 40s, and that alone makes it clear why March’s Scrooge grew so infatuated with her.) Her performance, however, is a bit stiff. The same cannot be said for Middleton’s Christmas Present, who appears in the midst of a song and practically explodes cheer all over Scrooge.

All of these songs, of course, come at the expense of a little story. The Fezziwig party is pretty much the only part of Scrooge’s past we get to see, with Belle dumping his greedy ass right after they perform a duet about being with your loved one at Christmas. It’s a bit disconcerting, actually, without the usual lapse of many years during which we presume he got colder and crueler. In the Christmas Present sequence, the traditional guessing game — which makes Scrooge realize just how poorly everybody thinks about him — is moved from Fred’s home to the Cratchit house, cutting out Fred’s scene. It comes at the expense of character. The Bob Cratchit who defends his stingy employer to his wife seems unlikely to make the same man the object of ridicule, even if there’s no real malice behind it (Fred, it should be pointed out, usually doesn’t mean it to be cruel.) Even Christmas future skips most of the prelude stuff and jumps right to the cemetery, where Scrooge sees his own tombstone, then Tim’s, then breaks down crying until he pops into his bed. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come gets a sort of name drop from Ray Middleton, but otherwise is absent.

Rathbone’s Jacob Marley is fantastic. He’s not loud and terrifying, not a sort of jump-in-your-face apparition as some of them are. Instead, his version is rather quiet and matter-of-fact, staring at Scrooge as if he can barely see him. Somehow it’s even more disquieting that way than if he simply chose to scream at us all and warn Scrooge he’s going to Hell, damn it, if he doesn’t straighten up and fly right.

March is a solid Scrooge. He pulls off the transition from angry to joyful mostly convincingly, although at the end, when he shows up at the Cratchit house, he’s got a bit of the crazy eyes going on, particularly in the closing musical number, where the camera focuses on him fidgeting for two minutes instead of showing absolutely anything else. Before that there’s a nice bit where he leans on Bob Cratchit just a little, but in the interest of making him lighten up. It’s a fun way to show just how profound the change in Scrooge is, allowing him to take a tool from his Old Self and put it to use as his New Self.

I like this version. It’s not great, but it’s quick and has some very good music (Hermann deserved that Emmy). If you happen across it in your holiday viewing this year, it’s well worth watching.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on December 4, 2013, in 4-Icons, Fantasy, Musical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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