Category Archives: Musical

Scrooge Revisited Day 1-Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

stingiest-man-in-townNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writers: Romeo Muller & Janice Torre, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morse, Dennis Day, Paul Frees, Sonny Melendrez, Debra Clinger, Bobby Rolofson, Steffi Calli, Eric Hines, Dee Stratton, Darlene Conley

Notes: Rankin and Bass, of course, were the kings of Christmas animation in the 60s and 70s. They’re the people who gave us the timeless versions of Rudolph and Frosty, several definitive Santa Claus specials, added the Heatmiser and Snowmiser to our holiday menagerie, and so on. It’s no surprise that they would eventually tackle the most famous Christmas story of them all. What is kind of interesting is that this animated special was not quite an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather a remake of a musical TV special of the same name from 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. The live action version apparently made it to DVD in 2011. Great, now I’ve got something else to look for.

Thoughts: From the beginning, this adaptation attempts to put a little coat of fresh paint on an old story, with the story narrated by Tom Bosley as “B.A.H. Humbug,” a character I’m sure children of 1978 took to like kids take to the Pokémons today. He’s largely a superfluous character, though, with some weird family history thing he has with the Scrooges that’s never really developed and you don’t really care. The film is almost operettic, with very little spoken dialogue. Nearly every line is sung, which isn’t a bad thing, except that the cast isn’t necessarily the most musical. Neither Bosley or Walter Matthau, as Scrooge, were Top 40 crooners in their day, and as a result, the songs don’t exactly land. Matthau’s singing in particular is stilted, over-enunciated, the sort of thing that sounds like somebody doing a parody of an over-the-top Broadway performer. That would be fine if this film was intended to be a parody. In a serious adaptation, though, it’s a problem when your Scrooge’s voice is the weakest part of your Christmas Carol. In truth, some of the best singing in the special comes from Robert Morse as young Scrooge in the scene where the miser is rejecting Belle (Shelby Flint).

It doesn’t help that none of them are particularly memorable in their own right. Even when it’s not Matthau singing, the songs just aren’t catchy. The best is probably “There is a Santa Claus,” sung at the Cratchit’s house, which is a nice enough piece if you can forget the fact that this is ostensibly Victorian England, where nobody called him “Santa Claus” and the practice was largely abandoned anyway. This odd version of the story not only throws in a superfluous Santa Claus song, but follows that up with the Humbug singing a song about the Nativity. I’m not about to complain about a Christmas special that actually has the guts to talk about Jesus, but it feels very out of the blue, out of place with the rest of the story. The song tries to make an equivocation between Jesus and Tiny Tim, which is the sort of allegory that probably sounded great on paper, but just doesn’t gel in practice.

When he’s not singing, Matthau is adequate as Scrooge. His voice has emotion laced through it, but it’s a little too obvious, a little too much like he’s “acting” instead of delivering the lines naturally. He’s better at the end of the cartoon, after Scrooge’s redemption, when he’s sounding joyful instead of terrified, although his “happy” singing voice is no less bombastic or forced than his stingy one. Matthau is a bit outshined, as well, by Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Past and Present. Frees was one of the usual players at Rankin and Bass, and responsible for a few of their legendary characters – Jack Frost, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a few turns as Santa Claus, as well as performing Ludwig Von Drake and other voices for Disney. His Christmas Present in particular is good, a nice, loud, round-sounding voice that’s perfect for the mountainous spirit.

I’ve got to give Rankin and Bass credit, though, for not toning down the story. The story shows Scrooge in his bed being menaced by an apparition before the opening credits even roll, then cuts back to show the traditional visit with Fred (Dennis Day) in the counting house When Scrooge goes home to see Marley’s face in the door knocker, it’s a rather gruesome sight – mouth wide open and dripping, about as grotesque as you can imagine a cartoon from the 70s ever being. I was hoping for something similarly chilling from Christmas Yet to Come, but instead the character essentially made a cameo, appearing in the traditional robe and vanishing in less time than it took to sing the Jesus song.

It’s worth noting that Rankin and Bass’s animation style had evolved considerably from their classic specials. Unlike the earlier traditionally animated films, like Frosty the Snowman or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which were more or less on-model with the stop motion characters, the character designs in this film are much closer to their 1977 production of The Hobbit – less perfectly round and more bulbous, globular, and wrinkled. Scrooge himself looks like he would be perfectly as home in their version of Bilbo’s shire.

This, frankly, is not one of their best specials. It’s not terrible, but when you inevitably compare it to Rudolph and Frosty, it’s going to fall in the pack of lesser works. The same goes for when you compare it to other renditions of A Christmas Carol. It may not be as painful as An All Dogs Christmas Carol, but it’s nothing to write home about either.

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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Scrooge Month Day 15: ??? in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE’S GHOSTLY TALE (2006)

Christmas Carol-Scrooges Ghostly Tale 2006Director: Ric Machin

Writer: Sean Catherine Derek, Charles Dickens

Cast: Tim Bentink, Brian Bowles, Theresa Gallagher, Adam Rhys Dee, Keith Wickham, Jo Wyatt  

Notes: I’m trying to figure out where, exactly, I got this version of A Christmas Carol. I’m pretty sure it was on sale at Half-Price Books for a few dollars, and I got it because I’ve got a weird obsession with such things. Also, the DVD case has a liquid pouch with glittery “snow” in it, and I’m a sucker for such things. Anyway, this animated version of the story recasts the Dickens characters: the Scrooge family are skunks, the Cratchits are rabbits, and Marley is a Cricket. Past, Present and Future are a stork, a kangaroo, and a walrus, respectively. There are no voice actors credited for this movie either on IMDB or Wikipedia, which I’ve never seen before, and makes me wonder how exactly this short (48 minute) adaptation happened other than spontaneous combustion.  There are credits at the end (which is where the above cast list came from), but the film doesn’t bother to tell you who provided each voice, so I can’t even help you there. One of the above people played Scrooge. I’m betting on Theresa Gallagher.

Thoughts: Another animated version of Dickens, this one with weak computer animation rather than weak traditional animation, it’s hard to qualify the film. This is a post-Pixar world, friends. This came out the same year as Cars and Monster House, but the quality of the animation isn’t even as sharp as that of Pixar’s earliest efforts. The animation is in computerized 3d, but the coloring is flat, like it’s trying to mimic a hand-drawn effect.  I almost want to believe this was somebody’s student animation class project (made because you don’t have to pay for the rights to Dickens) that somehow got a DVD release.

We have a narrator and the characters are familiar, but the Dickens dialogue is thrown out the window immediately. Instead we’ve got super-greedy Scrooge berating Bob Cratchit over a missing farthing he’s too blind to realize is sitting on his own forehead until Fred arrives and points it out to him. The plot – for now at least – follows Dickens fairly closely. Scrooge is grouchy to Cratchit and grouchy to Fred and even blames his food for upsetting his stomach when Marley shows up. Speaking of Marley, the flaming cricket that plays the part shows even less animation than the rest of the cast. When he flails about on his chain, it looks like a toy on the end of a stick being waved around both willy and nilly.

When Christmas Past shows up, it appears first as Scrooge’s pillow, which scares the crap out of him. Cute enough. When she turns into a stork, though, she drops a joke about “pillow talk” that almost made me choke to death on the gingerbread M&M I was eating – not because it was funny, but because the filmmakers included such a (relatively) adult joke in the middle of a cartoon that, until now, seemed to be crafted to cater specifically to the 3-to-3 ½ year old demographic. Christmas Past whisks Scrooge to the past, where he sees himself and Sister Fan making the world’s ugliest snowman.

This time, for the first time in any version of the film, we see baby Fred. He’s not the cause of Fan’s death, but he is the cause of Scrooge’s isolation. Fan had promised Scrooge he could leave school and live with her, but with the baby there’s just no room for him. Young Scrooge storms out, not hearing Fan tell her baby how much she loves and misses her brother. Old Scrooge hears it, of course, but the whole thing rings pretty hollow, seeing as how these computer animated figures move at about the speed of a radio controlled car with a missing wheel. She could have caught up with him pretty easily.

Christmas Present hops onto the scene, a kangaroo, with an Australian accent because duh. At the Cratchit house we meet Tiny Tim, who isn’t even sick in this version. He still makes Scrooge feel like kind of a jerk, though, as he expresses a child’s love for the old miser.

Christmas Future, the walrus, is surprisingly funny. He sparks with red lightning and he has a broken tusk that looks like it’s been lashed together with a leather strap. And as he talks (yep, this one talks), his big jowls flap around over the tusks. His is actually the best animation in the entire film.

This is when the film goes off the Dickensian rails. Instead of dying, we see that Tiny Tim has grown up into an old, bitter codger just like Scrooge. This doesn’t seem to make any sense at all; there’s no motivation that seems in place to push Tim down that particular path. Then the movie actually makes a funny point when it gets to Scrooge’s death. In this version, Scrooge learns that he’s been crushed to death under the weight of his own gold. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and it actually entertains me for about five seconds before the character pushes it too far and changes the subtext into text by announcing Scrooge was killed by his own greed. You know. In case anybody didn’t get that.

So at the end, the Walrus of Christmas Future tells Scrooge to open his heart and he wakes up back in his own bed, and I realize with utter shock that there are still 15 minutes left in this movie. Considering how quickly everything has been rushed through, what could they possibly have to fill up that gargantuan amount of time?

Oh god. A musical number.

Scrooge starts to dance and sing about dancing and singing, informing everybody he meets that he won’t need another chance, which is swell, but the movie seems to have forgotten one of the primary rules of musicals. Namely, you need to have a musical number before the final reel of the film, or else it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Because it does.

Then there’s the last scene, which again departs from Dickens in a big way, as Marley reappears and tells Scrooge that he’s been set free from his eternal torment. Somehow, his concern for Scrooge has redeemed Marley as well. I have to admit, as deviancies from the classic go, I’m… I’m kind of okay with this one. I mean, it does somewhat undercut the notion that Scrooge had to change before it was too late, because evidently it’s never too late in this universe, but that’s not necessarily the worst message to take away from a story like this.

This isn’t a good version of A Christmas Carol, don’t get me wrong. The animation is terrible, the dialogue is weak and the song at the end is guaranteed to make you want to plunge a stake of holly through each eardrum. That said, it’s not the worst version I’ve watched either.

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!

Scrooge Month Day 14: Kelsey Grammer in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL (2004)

Christmas Carol-The Musical 2004Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman

Writers: Mike Ockrent, Lynn Ahrens, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jesse L. Martin, Jane Krakowski, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Geraldine Chaplin, Jason Alexander, Brian Bedford, Jacob Moriarity, Julian Ovenden, Edward Gower, Steven Miller

Notes: Based on a stage musical from 1994 with music by Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken, this was a pretty good adaptation starring Fraser star Kelsey Grammer and several other TV actors. It managed to win an Emmy award for Outstanding Music Direction, as well as picking up nominations in various other awards, including a “Grace Award” nomination for Grammer as “most inspiring television actor.” The film entered the cable rotation and is now pretty easy to find, usually on the Hallmark Channel, at this time of year.

Incidentally, the title of this one doesn’t bother me the way yesterday’s Christmas Carol: The Movie did. Sure, it’s not the first musical version of the story, but relatively few of them have been, whereas calling something “The Movie” after it’s been filmed a dozen times… geez, come on. I guess I’m still angry at that stupid movie.

Thoughts: As a card-carrying Christmas nerd (note to self: have cards printed) and a fan of Kelsey Grammar since his Cheers days, I remember being particularly excited when this made-for-TV film premiered. I don’t know if I’ve watched it in full since its first airing in 2004, but I’ve definitely seen parts of it, and I even have the soundtrack mixed in with my Christmas playlist. (You mean you don’t have a Christmas playlist? Weirdo.) Watching the film is like a return to an old friend.

The film opens in an odd place – a musical number as the people of the town cheer for the oncoming Christmas, until a typically Dickensian family arrives searching for Scrooge and hoping he’ll show leniency. Everyone considers it a laughable notion. Although the man’s wife has just died and his money went to funeral expenses rather than rent, Scrooge is more than ready to boot them out on the street the next day – Christmas. The music begins and I’m quickly impressed by the cleverness of the lyrics. Lynn Ahrens weaves a good amount of genuine Dickens dialogue into the songs, altering or adding to it just enough to satisfy the demands of rhyme and meter. As a result, we get music that sounds very fresh, but at the same time, still cozy and familiar when we realize we can anticipate many of the lines.

The movie is billed as “The Musical,” but it actually goes a good bit further than many stage musicals do. In almost operatic fashion, the bulk of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. In weak musicals, the songs are incidental, crammed in-between plot points simply for the sake of having music. Great musicals use the songs to advance the plot and reveal the characters, which is what this one does. With its 97-minute running time, you could probably cut together every spoken line into less than ten minutes of video. The early moments all set up the rest of the film as well – music that will be echoed later, themes that are going to be woven into the narrative as the movie progresses. Taking a nod from The Wizard of Oz, the film also introduces us to the three actors who will play the ghosts early, each playing a person in need that Scrooge ignores and belittles on his way home from his counting-house.

Kelsey Grammar as Scrooge is a unique sight. I don’t know if he’s actually the youngest actor to have played Scrooge on this list, but he’s most certainly the youngest-looking, and as such he’s put under a gray wig and thick gray mutton chops that, combined with a squint, are intended to age him. It doesn’t exactly work, though. Grammar doesn’t look old, he looks like a young man playing an old man in a community theater production. (I should know, I’ve been a young man playing an old man in enough community theater productions myself.) His voice is wonderful – strong and booming, and he sings his songs with true power and ferocity. But after having listened to the music without watching the film for several years now, it’s hard for me to reconcile the image with the voice. Grammar’s makeup is just so goofy that I can’t separate the actor from the character, and that’s a shame.

Jason Alexander, best known from Seinfeld, suffers from a similar problem when he appears as Jacob Marley’s ghost. His makeup job is little better, topped off with wild hair and a good special effect when he touches Scrooge, but the pale pancake on his skin doesn’t quite extend to his eyes. Like Grammar, Alexander is actually a really talented actor and a remarkably good singer, but like Grammar, it’s difficult to get past the image of the character he played on TV for such a long time. His song, fortunately, is fantastic. “Link By Link” is a nice bit of self-damnation for Marley – chilling in a way that feels nicely theatrical. One could easily imagine this performance on stage, where the distance from Alexander would ironically make it easier to see the character instead of the actor. The inclusion of other, similarly-damned ghosts to serve as a chorus really ratchets up the intensity of the scene, and makes it more effective.

Jane Krakowski, another sitcom actor with either a very good singing voice or an excellent audio production team, turns up next as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Krakowski is dressed up like a teenage girl’s depiction of a pixie, which actually is a bit too young for her here, but she mostly pulls it off.  With a nice flying effect, she whisks Scrooge off to the past, beginning with the imprisonment of Scrooge’s own father for nonpayment of debts. It’s interesting – several of the adaptations I’ve seen have decided to extrapolate backwards towards what kind of father Scrooge had, and although none of them have done exactly the same thing with the non-character, almost every version that has touched upon Scrooge Sr. has successfully imagined a father that could conceivably have pushed Ebenezer in the direction we all know he wound up going.

Jennifer Love Hewitt pops in as Scrooge’s sweetheart, Emily. (Again, what was wrong with Belle? I don’t know why it irritates me so much when they change the character’s name for no reason, but it does.) She sings a lovely duet with young Scrooge (Steven Miller), “A Place Called Home,” that really resonates for anyone who’s ever been young and in love. The warmth is chilled, though, when Grammar’s Old Scrooge interrupts the duet, singing along with the agony of a man who has squandered the promise of his young self. Before Christmas Past ends, though, we get a shocking dog-kicking moment we’ve never seen in another version of the story: in later years old Fezziwig (Brian Bedford) asks a slightly older, much more successful Scrooge for help, and Scrooge stabs him in the back. At this point, I’ve watched various Scrooges drop their versions of Belle and mistreat Bob Cratchit over a dozen times, it’ll take more than that to shock me. Scrooge callously tossing aside good Fezziwig really does it.

Jesse L. Martin steps up next as Christmas Present. Martin’s Ghost really kicks things up from the usual versions of the character. Rather than singing Scrooge his anthem (“Abundance and Charity”) while atop the traditional mountain of food, he whisks him into a theater where he performs with a troop of living nutcrackers in front of a live audience, then forces Scrooge into the show. Grammar really hams it up here, bumbling around stage as if he’s never been on one before and is, in fact, terrified at the very notion. From there, it’s off to the Cratchits, where Tiny Tim (Jacob Moriarity) begins the first of many, many choruses of “Christmas Together,” which will practically be this film’s unofficial theme song by the time it’s over.

Unlike most Christmas Futures, Geraldine Chaplin isn’t a faceless spectre. Instead, she’s a speechless one, who mimes at Scrooge as a chorus of undertakers sing a grim song as they go about burying his coffin. The scene quickly shifts to Tiny Tim’s grave, where Bob Cratchit is singing a goodbye to his son. Seeing them lay Tim’s crutch on the wooden grave marker really is a powerfully sad moment, one that propels us right into the finale, as Scrooge sees his own tombstone and realizes that he will be left “scorned and unmourned.”

As much as I poked fun at Grammar’s makeup as the film began, by the end of it I wasn’t paying attention to the mutton chops anymore. His performance really is quite good, and the music in this film is wonderful. Ahrens and Menken created a sound that was very much in keeping with the tone of the original novel, stirring the heart and reminding us – as it reminds Scrooge – of the true meaning of the Christmas season. By the end, as a chorus of children and his late loved ones surround Scrooge in the cemetery and begin singing “God Bless Us Everyone,” we’ve completely bought in and we’re part of the jubilation Scrooge feels moments later when he wakes up in his own bed. His transformation made even more convincing as Grammar straightens up his posture and loses the perpetual scowl he’s worn for the entire film: he’s gone from Clark Kent to Superman. Y’know, if Clark Kent had been a raging jackass in the first place.

Anyway, Scrooge encounters the “Spirits” again, once more in the mortal forms they wore as the film began, and they dance off with a palpable sense of self-satisfaction as Scrooge rushes off to the Cratchit house to hoist Tim on his shoulders for a final rendition of “Christmas Together,” a song I’ve heard – at this point – approximately seven thousand times and damn it I promised myself I wasn’t going to get teary-eyed at this this time. Stupid beautiful music.

The best Christmas Carol? Probably not. The best musical version? Eh, it’s hard to beat the Muppets. But for a made-for NBC special starring (mostly) NBC stars, it’s pretty darn effective. I said at the beginning that it’s been quite a while since I watched this one, but I now realize I’ve got to work it back into the regular rotation.

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!

Scrooge Month Day 11: Carface Carruthers in AN ALL DOGS CHRISTMAS CAROL (1998)

All Dogs Christmas Carol 1998Director: Paul Sabella, Gary Selvaggio

Writer: Jymn Magon, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Dom DeLuise, Sheena Easton, Taylor Emerson, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles Nelson Reilly, Steven Weber, Dee Bradley Baker, Ashley Tisdale

Notes: This TV movie was the third and (so far) final film in the All Dogs Go to Heaven series, and also followed the popular TV show based on the films. In this version the evil dog Carface (Ernest Borgnine) harasses other dogs for bones and money and the like just before Christmas, prompting Charlie (Steven Weber) to re-enact A Christmas Carol in an attempt to set him straight: Itchy (Dom DeLuise) becomes Christmas Past, Sasha (Sheena Easton) Christmas Present, and Charlie Himself becomes Christmas Yet to Come. I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen an All Dogs Go to Heaven movie or TV show before, so other than the fact that it’s about dead dogs, I really don’t know what to expect. The only reason I even own this film is because it was included in a pack of animated Christmas movies on DVD I got a while back, so reviewing it will be an experience.

Thoughts: The film has a cute enough framing sequence – puppy angels (try not to let the obvious implications of that be depressing) ask the angel Annabella (Bebe Neuwirth) for a story, and she tells about how her favorite dogs once stopped her evil cousin Belladonna (Neuwirth again) from ruining Christmas. As the film shifts from Heaven down to a San Francisco decorated for the holidays, it’s clear from the production values that this was created on a TV budget. I try not to hold that against the movie – after all, so was the Flintstones special four years earlier – but the animation is really stiff compared to many of the other animated versions of A Christmas Carol we’ve watched. I also have to deduct points for an obvious “Santa Paws” joke in the first five minutes.

Despite the notes at the beginning, the film takes a long time to get to the actual Christmas Carol content, going through this long opening slog in which Belladonna plans to hypnotize every dog in the city with a giant dog whistle or… or something like that. I’ve got to admit, my attention started to wander, because this most definitely is not a movie for me. Eventually, Annabella gives Charlie a magic amulet that allows him to pull the Dickens bit on Carface, with Charlie sort of taking on the Marley role to introduce the segment. It’s here that the Carface character finally gets some (and by some I mean “any”) depth. The trip to Christmas Past shows Carface as a puppy, loved by a child but put out into the cold and rain one Christmas. It’s about as sad a sight as I’ve ever seen in animation, actually, a pit bull with a beanie propeller walking away from a kid who used to love him.

Christmas Present grinds the movie to a halt with a lame villains song about how the big bad and the minion have differing feelings about Christmas. The whole time I listened to it, I kept thinking that Bebe Neuwirth deserved better. Anyway, eventually Sasha gets around to showing Carface little Timmy, a puppy with a lame leg who was among the dogs he robbed earlier in the movie. (I suspect Timmy was NOT a regular on the TV show.) As it turns out, the money Carface stole was earmarked for a life-saving operation for Timmy, and although the puppy shows heart, he doesn’t have any sort of physical prowess. This is the first version of the story where we get an actual direct link between “Scrooge” and Tim’s death – most of the time it’s just implied that the Cratchits couldn’t afford decent medical care because of Bob’s low wages. Here there’s no denying it’s entirely Carface’s fault.

Then a boring reprise of the boring song that started Christmas Present. Ernest Borgnine – you were great, but if Bebe Neuwirth can’t make the song fly, you don’t really have a chance.

In Christmas Future, we skip the usual preliminaries where Scrooge doesn’t know who they’re talking about and go straight to Carface’s cronies talking about how glad they are to be rid of him. It’s a surprisingly edgy way to approach the subject. Then Charlie kicks off a musical number that parodies – of all things – The Mask to show Carface he’s going down to Hell if he doesn’t change his ways. Which, now that I think about it completely contradicts the title of the franchise. Actually, if all dogs go to Heaven, what incentive do dogs have to behave? They’re going to Heaven anyway, right? Either the title is lying or there’s a huge cosmic loophole here. I’m really giving it far more thought that it deserves, but it’s that or give my complete attention to this lousy musical number, so I’m going to stick with the pontificating for a bit. Christmas Future ends with Carface realizing he was a heel for helping her in her evil scheme and setting out to stop her. Which he does, of course, because kids’ movie. And at the end he gives back everything he stole and Timmy lives and I check my blood sugar levels because I’m afraid they’ve gotten dangerously high.

I like good all-ages movies, ask anybody, but I think the mistake a lot of people make is that by assuming you’re making something for a children’s market means that it’s okay to make something that fails as entertainment for everybody else. To put it another way: when a Christmas-loving musical theatre nerd like myself wants to start fast-forwarding through every song in your movie, you have done something wrong.

There are numerous shows and movie throughout history that prove this simply doesn’t have to be the case: the Looney Tunes, the Flintstones, the Muppets, Animaniacs, Phineas and Ferb and the entire Pixar library come to mind. That makes me considerably less forgiving of a film like this one, where the jokes are stale, the songs are weak, and the animation stodgy, because the creators just assumed nobody over the age of 8 was going to watch it. The thing is, it’s the franchises that do have that crossover appeal that turn out to be long-lasting and classic. I still look forward to the Muppet and Disney specials every year. I don’t remember the last time I heard anyone mention All Dogs Go to Heaven.

I do give the film credit in one instance – although we’ve thrice seen films about characters performing A Christmas Carol, this is the first one we’ve gotten where the characters deliberately invoke Dickens in order to effect change in someone who needs to learn a lesson. I’ve read a few stories based around that trope in books and comics (my personal favorite is Teen Titans #13 from 1967, “TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol” for you cool cats in the know), but for such an obvious idea, precious few movie adaptations have activated it.

My unfamiliarity with the property kind of kills my enjoyment of it. This movie builds on character relationships established in two prior movies and a whole TV series, and as I haven’t seen any of them, I feel like I’m left out of the joke. I get why this was the finale, though – it essentially ends with the redemption of (I assume) the primary villain of the TV show, which isn’t exactly something you can do during the run of the series without altering the dynamic dramatically, and an after-school kids’ show circa 1998 wasn’t about to take that sort of chance while it was still on the air. As it is, all I can really say is that the film is at best serviceable and inoffensive, but unless you’re already a fan of the franchise, it’s just not going to do it for you.

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!

Scrooge Month Day 9: Michael Caine in THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1993)

Muppet Christmas Carol 1993Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Michael Caine, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, David Rudman, Don Austen, Jessica Fox, Robert Tygner, Steven Mackintosh, Meredith Braun, Robin Weaver

Notes: The early 90s were a rough time for the Jim Henson Studio. After Jim died in 1990, there was a serious doubt in the minds of many that the Muppets could go on. But before his death, Jim had begun working out a deal with the Disney studio to produce more Muppet films, with one of them being an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. After Jim died, his characters were passed on to other performers. This was the first theatrical production for the Muppets after Jim’s passing, and the film is dedicated to him and Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who died in 1991. Although a musical and mostly comedic, this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the original novel, with Michael Caine playing Scrooge, new Muppets created for the three ghosts, and classic Muppets filling most of the other roles. Statler and Waldorf played Jacob and Robert Marley (rimshot), Fozzie Bear became Scrooge’s old boss Fozziwig, Sam the Eagle was Scrooge’s headmaster in school. Most notably, we got Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit and Kermit’s nephew Robin as Tiny Tim. The film’s stroke of genius, something that gives it an added dimension of fun, is casting the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, and allowing him to act as narrator, with additional commentary by his oft-time sidekick, Rizzo the Rat.

Thoughts: Not to put too fine a point on it, but this may well be my favorite version of A Christmas Carol. Yeah, there are probably better films, but something about this one works for me. Maybe it’s the amazing music by Paul Williams (who also wrote the songs for the original Muppet Movie). Maybe it’s the silly charm that I still feel when I see humans and Muppets walking around a set together as if there was nothing unusual about that at all. Maybe it’s because this is the movie that, in many people’s hearts, proved that the Muppets could survive after Jim Henson was gone. Whatever the reason, I love The Muppet Christmas Carol like I do few other Christmas movies.

Michael Caine is, of course, an acting legend. He’s done amazing work in dozens of fine films, such as Jaws: The Revenge, which made him the logical choice for Scrooge. His Scrooge starts out as bitter as any, but he has a quality of containment about him. He’s mean and angry, but even in the first scene you get the sense that his greatest degree of hatred is turned inward. He seems like a man ready to explode, and few people present that quality as clearly as a man who is keeping everything inside. When the film ends, when he lets his emotion finally free, it’s not anger but happiness that explodes into the old town. For all his lively parading through the streets, though, nothing serves to illustrate his reformation as well as the quiet moment where he approaches the charity collectors (here played by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker) to give them a generous donation. Bunsen is speechless, but Beaker (always speechless) finds a way to express his gratitude: giving Scrooge the scarf from around his neck. The surprised look on Caine’s face makes you believe it’s truly the first Christmas present he’s ever been given.

This wasn’t Steve Whitmire’s first time playing Kermit the Frog, but it was here that he really had to prove himself. The simple kindness and sincerity of America’s favorite amphibian was perfect for Bob Cratchit… but it wouldn’t necessarily have been all that funny in and of itself. The solution was to surround him with Muppet rats who alternately support him and sell him out when Scrooge bellows. It’s a funny juxtaposition, and when he’s paired off with Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) for the scene in the Cratchit home, her overbearing personality plays off of him in much the same way. Whitmire has had the Kermit job ever since. He acquitted himself well.

At one point, the plan was to use existing Muppets to play the three ghosts, but the filmmakers decided it would detract from the seriousness of the story. Instead, we got three all-new Muppet creations. Christmas Past is a softly floating, ethereal puppet that looks like a bizarre combination of elf and child, glowing and floating. In fact, the performance was filmed in a tank of water to give it the sort of weightless effect they wanted, then greenscreened onto the film. For such a simple effect it’s remarkably effective, giving the ghost an ethereal quality that truly makes it look like it belongs to a different world than our own (or even an alternate version of our own where Muppets coexist with humans). Jessica Fox’s Ghost takes Scrooge on the traditional trip through his past – the joy as he left school and went to Fozziwig’s Christmas party, the heartbreak of losing Belle (Meredith Braun) when she realized he loved his money more than her. The song they sing together is devastating – she sings “The Love is Gone” with fresh sadness, while behind her Michael Caine joins in. Near the end she turns back and, just for a second, you think she’s going to acknowledge the older Scrooge… but she doesn’t. She can’t hear or see him, of course, but the audience sees the agony in his face – the pain of a man forced to relive the greatest mistake of his life.

Christmas Present is presented in a form much in keeping with other versions. He’s huge, of course, but cloaked in the traditional green robe with a holly wreath and a long red mane of hair. There’s a nice tick they give the character, though – being the Ghost of Christmas Present, he has a difficult time focusing on the future or remembering the past, and frequently repeats himself. Throughout his segment, as he and Scrooge get closer and closer to the end of Christmas Day, the Muppet grows visibly older. At the end, he’s practically ancient, and vanishes with the wind. It’s a brilliant effect that gives a nice subtext to the movie. We’ve already seen that the Past is forever, and Present reminds us the now is transient. But what’s coming next, the future… that can still be changed.

Caine sells the present scenes very well. When he realizes he’s the butt of the joke at Fred’s family party, there’s genuine pain on his face. The scene at the Cratchit family house invites a few uncomfortable questions about a world where frogs and pigs are genetically compatible, and are exclusively male and female, respectively. You forget those things when Tiny Tim launches into his song, “Bless Us All.” This part improves on many versions of the story. So often, you just see Scrooge look upon Tim and start to feel bad for him… his transformation is brought on more from pity than anything else. But here, as Tim sings his song you get an impression of just how good and pure a soul he is, and when he starts to cough Scrooge’s change of heart is no longer that of a man who simply feels bad for a sick child, but a man grieving for a world that will be deprived of such light.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, even in Muppet form, is a sight to behold. Although not quite the skeletal figure he sometimes is, he’s got your standard robe and large, oversized hands that make it look like Michael Caine is being escorted by something wholly inhuman and terrible. This segment goes pretty quickly, rushing from one scene of terror to another before they get to Scrooge’s tombstone. Once again, Caine proves himself, begging for his chance to change in a way that makes you believe in him, believe it’s possible to change, maybe even regain a little of your overall faith in the human race.

Surrounding the whole film is Gonzo as Charles Dickens. His antics with Rizzo provide added energy and comedy in scenes that traditionally aren’t that funny – when Scrooge holes himself up in his mansion before encountering the Marleys, for example. Gonzo is smart enough to know when to keep quiet, though, and in fact the characters make a show of running off and hiding just before Christmas Yet to Come pops in, then make a grand return for the finale. Using him as a narrator also allows this film to layer in much of Dickens’s beautiful prose that rarely makes it to screen, as it’s not dialogue. For that reason alone, that helps this stand as one of the most surprisingly faithful adaptations of the book I’ve ever seen.

I mentioned Paul Williams’s music before, but it’s certainly worthy of its own paragraph. The opening song, “Scrooge,” is somehow gloomy and peppy at the same time – a snappy number about a miserable man. It perfectly encapsulates the character, even giving a hint that there may be goodness within him somewhere (although the Muppets quickly dismiss that notion). Kermit and Robin later sing “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas,” a lovely, happy song that’s worth singing every Christmas Eve. But the crowning gem is Christmas Present’s number, “It Feels Like Christmas.” There’s something undeniably joyous about the song, something that clutches the heart and the ear so tightly that it bubbles out of me at random moments in the middle of July.

Fair warning, though – the theatrical release of the film and some of the subsequent DVD and Blu-Ray editions left out the duet between Scrooge and Belle, “When Love is Gone.” Disney thought it slowed down the film too much, but when left out it kills the emotional impact of the scene, and furthermore hurts the finale, which contains a counterpoint mixed with “It Feels Like Christmas.” My DVD, fortunately, includes it, and I’d never upgrade to a Blu-Ray that leaves it out.

If you haven’t seen this version of A Christmas Carol before I can only presume that you hate the Muppets, hate Christmas, or hate joy itself. Again, I do not deny that there may be objectively superior adaptations of the book, but I very much doubt anything will ever take its place as my favorite.

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!

Scrooge Month Day 5: Albert Finney in SCROOGE (1970)

Scrooge 1970Director: Ronald Neame

Writer: Leslie Bricusse, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Albert Finney, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Susanne Neve, Michael Medwin, David Collings, Derek Francis, Roy Kinnear, Richard Beaumont, Alec Guinness, Paddy Stone

Notes: This version of Scrooge is a musical extravaganza that got four Academy Award nominations, including best original song and best score. Albert Finney’s Ebenezer Scrooge scored the Golden Globe award for best actor in a motion picture, musical or comedy. For the most part, this version of the story is quite faithful to Dickens, with a few small additions at the end that really make its mark.

Thoughts: To many people, the battle for the ultimate version of A Christmas Carol comes down to the Alastair Sim version we discussed a few days ago and this musical version. It’s hard to argue. There have been dozens, maybe hundreds of different incarnations of the story since then, but these two seem to be the purest and most entertaining renditions of the story ever put to film.

Credit for the longevity of this version, I think, is to be shared between Albert Finney – for a phenomenal performance as Scrooge – and Leslie Bricusse, who wrote both the screenplay and the music for this film. Scrooge’s intonation of “I Hate People” is as perfect a summation of the miserable wretch he is that I’ve ever seen. He’s cold, he’s bitter, and he’s angry at the world. Such a person is, of course, both miserable and terribly comfortable in his misery. Going back to the Sim version, the Scrooge who was afraid of change, Finney’s Scrooge comes off as a man who is also very set in his ways, and doesn’t care if that comfortable place is one of loneliness and pain.

Sir Alec Guinness steps in as Marley’s ghost this time around, and his interpretation is… unique. Guinness has this slow, deliberate walk, almost like he’s moving through water. If you really want to try to analyze it, I suppose you could intuit that ghosts have less substance than matter in the world of the living, and therefore ordinary matter has a degree of resistance that has an unexpected impact on their ability to move. Of course, anyone who would go to such lengths to rationalize such a relatively short scene in the movie would be kind of crazy, so I’m not going to try to do such a thing. Regardless, Guinness’s odd motion is creepy, even more so when he begins floating, bellowing his warning to Scrooge and bound to the Earth only by one of this oh-so-heavy chains.

Like Marley, Edith Evans as Christmas Past is unique. The filmmakers take advantage of Dickens’s non-description to whip up a character that looks, talks and dresses like the sort of uptight grandmother you see in movies where kids have to teach the grown-ups to lighten up, okay? There’s a bit of irony there – her task, after all, is to teach that same lesson to Scrooge. And what’s more, he starts learning that lesson right away. As soon as he sees himself sitting alone in his schoolhouse while his classmates rush about and celebrate Christmas, he expresses regret that he didn’t join them. This version, too, implies that Scrooge’s sister (“Fran” instead of the traditional “Fan”) died giving birth to young Fred, and as I’ve already discussed why I think that works for the character in a previous article, I won’t belabor the point.

This section also includes one of the peppiest musical numbers in the film – Laurence Naismith and Suzanne Neve as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, cheerfully extolling the virtues of “December the 25th” as a rhythmless Scrooge looks on, unable to dance. It’s a rather old-fashioned tune, one that feels like it could have spilled right out of the golden age of the Broadway musical, and I actually think it’s quite a shame it doesn’t get more play when people are lining up their traditional Christmas song lists.

Kenneth More’s Christmas Present is much more traditional – green robe, holly wreath around his head, sitting atop a mountain of food and riches, as he always makes his appearance. His powerful anthem, “I Like Life,” is a perfect counterpoint for Scrooge’s earlier “I Hate People.” At first, it feels like he’s berating Scrooge, calling the miser’s philosophy “self-pitying drivel.” As the song progresses, though, we get to the root of it – he’s putting the skinflint through a sort of spiritual boot camp, shaking down all his pretenses so that he can be rebuilt into a man who truly does enjoy the pleasures of life he’s denied himself for such a long time. Many versions of this story make the moment when Christmas Present whisks Scrooge out the window into the air into a scene of terror, but not here. By this point, Scrooge is on-board, singing along and joyously joining in on their flight above London… right until they crash into the snow outside Bob Cratchit’s house.

Christmas Future is where this version of the film really begins taking liberties, and in fact, I like the ones that they take. Rather than starting out with people talking about the death of a lonely man and Scrooge not realizing they’re talking about him, this version starts with people outside of Scrooge’s counting house, cheering for him, joyfully talking about the “wonderful thing” Scrooge has done for them. Scrooge is moved and swept away with emotion, believing himself already redeemed, and doesn’t even notice when his own casket is carried out of the counting house. The irony of the scene is made even worse as the people start singing the gleeful tune “Thank You Very Much” (the song nominated for an Oscar). He marches along, dancing with people, completely oblivious to the fact that they’re celebrating his corpse. It’s happy and chilling all at the same time.

Once we make it to the cemetery, though, things get really freaky, with Christmas Yet To Come (here a sort of fossilized corpse) shoving Scrooge into his own grave and allowing him to plunge all the way to Hell! Scrooge’s final destination if he doesn’t change is always clear in this story, but this is the first one I know of that goes far enough to actually drop him into the pit, where he wakes up in a coffin-shaped hole and is told by Marley he’s been bound to be Lucifer’s bookkeeper. Director Ronald Neame didn’t bother with subtlety here.

“I’ll Begin Again,” Scrooge’s song when he wakes up and realizes he’s not dead after all, is a fantastic number. There’s a hope, a glee, and a sincerity inherent in his words that sells every moment. When we watch this old man dancing through a drafty old mansion covered in cobwebs, you feel every bit of the change he’s experienced. Once he sends the urchin off to buy the turkey and he chirps, “I think I’m going to like children,” even the stoniest heart will have come on-board with Scrooge’s reformation.

This is one of the truly classic renditions of A Christmas Carol, one of the best ever put to film, and I think I’d have that opinion even without the powerful teaks we’re given in the Christmas Yet to Come segment. Beautiful music and a magnificent Scrooge combine to give us a film one really should watch every year. And let’s not forget the most important lesson of all: Alec Guinness really knows how to play a ghost, doesn’t he?

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!

Scrooge Month Day 4: Quincy Magoo in MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962)

Mr Magoos Christmas Carol 1962Director: Abe Levitow

Writer: Barbara Chain, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardener, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher, Les Tremayne

Plot: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is credited as being the first ever animated Christmas special, beating Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by two years. The special brought back Quincy Magoo, star of a series of theatrical shorts from the 40s and 50s, and led him into his own television series in 1964. In the framing device we learn that we’re actually watching a musical Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, one that evidently drops all references to Scrooge’s family, switches the order of Christmas Past and Christmas Present for some reason, and makes occasional references to Scrooge’s (Magoo’s) poor eyesight.

Thoughts: After three days of extremely traditional renditions of A Christmas Carol, I’m glad to be able to dip my toes into this less serious version. The opening scene, where Magoo – voiced, as always, by Jim Backus — sings about how happy he is to be returning to Broadway, sets the stage well. It’s silly, the music is catchy, and it lets you know that you’re watching a play-within-a-TV special (a conceit the Flintstones would borrow 30 years later).

Once that opening scene is done away with, though, we go into a version of the Dickens classic that is clearly adapted, but still very recognizable. There aren’t a bunch of side jokes about the theatrical production, just a few “act breaks” where we see the curtain closing. There’s no attempt to explain the translucent Marley (voiced by Royal Dano) or how such a thing would be accomplished on a live stage, to say nothing of the times when the time-travelling Scrooge appears on stage with his younger self, both of them clearly played by Magoo. The gags about Magoo’s lousy vision, a staple of most of his cartoons, are reduced to a minimum. And although much of the book is dismissed in the name of expediency, the stuff that remains is often verbatim Dickens, albeit performed by the cast of the cartoon. Backus isn’t really playing Scrooge here, he’s playing Mr. Magoo as Mr. Magoo, reading the lines of Ebenezer Scrooge, but not making a huge effort to portray a different character than he usually does in the animated series.

The decision to jump straight to Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) is baffling. Why in the world would you do the present before the past? It doesn’t particularly hurt the abbreviated version of the story, but it doesn’t help it either. The design of the character is slightly problematic as well – a red robe and long, white whiskers. No doubt most small children who watch this would confuse the character with Santa Claus. This may be deliberate, I suppose – with his compassion for Tiny Tim and the rest of the downtrodden impacted by Scrooge, Christmas Present is certainly the most Santa-like of the Spirits. Still, he’s not Santa Claus, and it doesn’t serve the special to pretend he is.

Christmas Past looks a bit better, more of the “living candle” depiction of the character that we’ve seen in some of the other renditions of the story. Of the three ghosts, Past is the one that has the most variance in his/her/its different incarnations in the media, with Dickens having a pretty vague description in the first place. That said, I find it interesting that a few versions have become common – the Candle and the Angel in particular.

This is going to sound strange, but the highlight of the special to me is actually the musical number that accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come segment. In many versions of the story, we see a gathering of people gloating over selling the deceased Scrooge’s possessions (the fact that the deceased in question is Scrooge is usually obvious to the audience, but Scrooge himself refuses to admit it yet). In this version, we get a snappy, creepy little song that feels like it should be in a Halloween special. And yes, I love that. Ghost stories, as you may know, used to be more traditionally associated with Christmas than Halloween; the reversal really only happened in the 20th century. I’m old school in this way. I love the juxtaposition of the frightening ghost story with the joy of Christmas as a way to really hammer home the lesson that Scrooge needs to learn. Dickens did it right, and the makers of this special did him right in this department.

This is a first in many ways – the first animated Christmas special, the first time we saw another fictional character “play” Scrooge, and as such it deserves a proud place in the annals of Christmas TV. And it’s a good special, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not even close to my favorite.

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!

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!

Robin Hood Week Day 5: Cary Elwes in Robin Hood-Men in Tights (1993)

Robin Hood-Men in TightsDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: J.D. Shapiro, Evan Chandler, Mel Brooks

Cast: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck, Mark Blankfield, Dave Chappelle, Isaac Hayes, Megan Cavanagh, Eric Allan Kramer, Matthew Porretta, Tracey Ullman, Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

Plot: With King Richard away in the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Richard Lewis) and the corrupt Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) have seized power in England. Really… if you guys have been reading these articles all week this should be no surprise by now. In Mel Brooks’s parody of earlier Robin Hood films (most notably the Costner and Flynn versions), we begin in Khalil Prison in Jerusalem, where Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes) has been taken captive. He meets a Moorish prisoner named Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), imprisoned for jaywalking. Together they free the captives and Asneeze asks Robin to look after his son Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), an exchange student, when he returns home. Robin agrees and swims from Jerusalem back to England.

Robin finds Ahchoo and rescues him from a band of the Sheriff’s men. They return to Loxley Hall to find it repossessed by the Prince’s accountant, leaving behind only Robin’s old blind servant Blinkin (Mark Bankfield). The Sheriff of Rottingham pursues a boy who killed a deer on the King’s lands, but Robin humiliates him and drives him off. In the palace, Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck) confides to her servant Broomhilde (Megan Cavanagh) her wish that she could find her one true love: the man with the key to her “heart.” (Also her chastity belt.)

Worried about Robin’s return to England, Prince John turns to his gnarled, witchlike servant, Latrine (Tracey Ullman), who offers to brew a potion to disable Robin. In the forest, Robin meets Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlett O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), battling over the right to use the bridge over a ludicrously small creek. After besting John and saving his life… sort of… Robin invites the two of them to join his band of Merry Men. Robin barges into one of the Prince’s feasts, charming Marian and antagonizing the Prince and Sheriff before battling free.

Robin’s men stop the wandering Rabbi Tuckman (Mel Brooks), who agrees to join them – along with his stores of Sacramental Wine. As the men “bless” everything in the forest, the Sheriff turns to Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise), a lord who suggests using an archery contest to trap Robin. Overhearing the plot, Marian and Broomhilde rush to the forest to warn him, arriving just after the show-stopping “Men in Tights” musical number. Robin professes his love to Marian and promises to avoid the contest, a promise he promptly breaks.

The disguised Robin nearly loses to one of Don Giovanni’s men before checking the script for the movie and confirming that he has another shot. With his “Patriot Arrow,” he annihilates the target. He’s captured and almost killed, but Marian promises to marry the Sheriff if he allows Robin to live. Ahchoo saves Robin just before she can say “I do,” and the Prince’s men go to battle with Robin’s. The Sheriff drags Marian away hoping to consummate the marriage, only to be stymied by Marian’s Chastity Belt. Robin and the Sheriff duel, breaking open a medallion from Robin’s father and revealing the key to Marian’s belt. The Sheriff impales himself on Robin’s sword while trying to stab him from behind, and Latrine offers to save him if he’ll marry her. He agrees, and immediately regrets it. Robin and Marian plan a wedding, but are interrupted by the return of King Richard (a cameo by Patrick Stewart), who has his brother arrested and makes Robin a knight. Tuchman finishes the marriage ceremony and Robin and Marian dance away… only to find Robin’s key doesn’t turn in the lock.

Thoughts: Just as the Kevin Costner Robin Hood hit when I was 13 and looking for adventure, this version hit when I was 15 and looking for things to be cynical about. A Mel Brooks comedy was just the thing. And like the Kevin Costner version, I still like this film despite its flaws. Unlike the Costner film, though, I find the flaws in this movie a bit harder to defend.

Brooks is credited with co-writing the screenplay with the two men credited for the story, one of whom never wrote anything else and the other of whom went on to write Battlefield Earth. When you realize just how drastically this film lacks the sharp verbal wit of Brooks’s superior films, the preceding sentence makes a lot more sense. The best Brooks movies (by which I mean Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) were so great because of how sharp and clever the writing and characters were. This movie doesn’t quite rise to that level, relying more on anachronistic dated references like Ahchoo’s pump sneakers and a kid parodying Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. Anachronisms in Brooks comedies isn’t new, of course, but compare the impromptu musical numbers and wild finale of Blazing Saddles with Blinkin holding a braille Playboy magazine in this movie and tell me they belong in the same conversation. Other nuggets feel like lame Mad magazine gags (Will Scarlett O’Hara – “We’re from Georgia”), or the “Wide load” sign on the back of Loxley Hall as it’s carted away.

The best bits, in fact, are the ones that harken to Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a movie a good 75 percent of this audience never saw. Robin and Little John’s battle at the creek is great – the two of them duel over the right to cross a body of water approximately ten inches wide, their fighting staffs breaking in half over and over until they’re left swatting at each others’ fingers. The battle at the feast is set up much like the fights in Flynn’s movie, with added visual gags which work infinitely better than many of the verbal jokes in the film. The archery contest, similarly, is really funny. Brooks is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall, but having every character stop to check the script to make sure Robin was entitled to another shot… I don’t really know why, but I still chuckle at that.

A great Brooks comedy always has great performances, but this is the only one I can think of where the performances actually save the weak material. Cary Elwes is really great here, only a few years after The Princess Bride and playing a broader version of the swashbuckler from that film. While he does his share of mugging for the camera, he does it with charm and wit. His famous dig at Kevin Costner (“Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent”) is the one thing everybody remembers from this movie even 20 years later, and he sells it with real panache. Had he been born sixty years earlier, I think Elwes would have gone down as one of the all time great movie heroes. As it is, he has that one great movie, this lesser movie, and Saw. Wow, it’s depressing when you think of it that way.

Amy Yasbeck isn’t a bad Marian. While not a classic beauty, she has a sweetness to her that feels like it’s been amplified for the sake of the comedy, but remains sincere at heart. Richard Lewis and Roger Rees, similarly, work well in this film. While Lewis would never fit in to a straight version of Robin Hood, he’s perfect as this sort of weasely, incompetent Prince John. Roger Rees, probably best known for his recurring role in Cheers, is the perfect smarmy right-hand man. He’s the enforcer, with a little bit of muscle to back up the Prince’s gutless orders. At the same time, though, he’s a bumbler himself, constantly tripping over his words and never exuding any real menace.

This isn’t the best Robin Hood movie, I concede. And it’s certainly not Brooks’s best movie. But if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s this: at least it’s not Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

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!

Movies to Watch: 1776 (1972)

1776-MoviePosterDirector: Peter H. Hunt

Writers: Peter Stone & Sherman Edwards

Cast: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Ron Holgate, Blythe Danner, Viginia Vestoff, James Noble

Why You Should Watch It: I started to write this as one of my “Gut Reactions” pieces, but that really wouldn’t be right. “Gut Reactions” are typically reserved for my immediate thoughts about films I’ve just watched for the first time, and that in no way applies to 1776, a movie I’ve seen so many times I have large sections memorized. This is my favorite musical of all time. Getting the chance to perform in it remains one of my two great unfulfilled ambitions as an amateur actor (the other being to play Max Bialystock in The Producers, if you’re curious), and I’m fairly certain I was the only nerd in New Orleans to go up to Brent Spiner at last winter’s Wizard World convention and talk to him about his work in the Broadway revival of this show instead of Star Trek. With the Fourth of July coming up next week, it’s just about time for my annual re-watch of the movie, and this year, I thought I’d mention to you guys why you should watch it too.

1776 is, in its simplest terms, a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Much of the plot focuses on the efforts of John Adams (William Daniels) and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) to spur Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) to craft the document, then the struggles of bringing it before the First Continental Congress and actually getting the thing signed. Now I know what you’re thinking here — it’s a movie about writing and signing a document? That quite literally may be the dullest synopsis in the history of cinema. But I promise you, my friends, that description in no way does this film justice. This is a movie loaded with energy, tension, just the right amount of comedy, and sincere and powerful character-driven drama.

Jefferson, for instance, needs to be convinced, almost drafted into writing the Declaration, wanting nothing more than to get home to his wife Martha (Blythe Danner at her most radiant). The comedy comes in when Adams and Franklin have to harangue him into picking up the quill, then resort to some rather extreme measures to conquer his writer’s block. Adams, meanwhile, spends much of the film in a musical correspondence with his own wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) that humanizes the man. Throughout the scenes in Congress we see a powerful, driven figure trying to do the best thing for his country — frustrated, yes, but driven. It’s only when he writes to Abigail that he lets his guard down. Franklin, meanwhile, spends much of the film as a bit of light relief, tossing out pithy quotes (including many attributed to the historical Ben Franklin) and witty observations that cut through everybody else’s crap.

Things take a sharply dramatic turn in the second act over two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Jefferson clashes with South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (a powerful performance by John Cullum), who refuses to sign the Declaration unless Jefferson remove a portion of the text that condemns the slave trade. (Yes, Jefferson the slave owner. And yes, he did try to include such a clause in the original Declaration.) Considering that we’re only lightly playing with history here, that this isn’t a Tarantino-style rewriting that will allow for the end of the piece to be changed from what we know to be true, it could be hard to draw real suspense. We know the Declaration is signed, we know the United States wins its independence, so how could we feel any tension over a delegate threatening to refuse his signature? Daniels really sells it, turning this from a rote exercise in acting out history to a powerful examination of how much of a man’s soul he’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

The second obstacle comes from Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson (Donald Madden), a British loyalist who threatens to derail the whole enterprise by refusing to approve the Declaration — a vote which must be unanimous. Again, there isn’t tension over the outcome. The tension comes in with how that obstacle is overcome. Madden’s performance is vital to this picture as well — it would be easy to paint those who didn’t want to cede from Britain as fools or zealots, but he’s neither. His Dickinson comes across as a bit arrogant, but at his core he’s a good man trying to do what he believes is right, the same as Adams, Jefferson and Franklin.

And of course, driving all of this is the music. If you can walk away from this picture without “The Lees of Old Virginia” or “But, Mr. Adams” ringing through your head, you’ve got a thicker skull than I do. Dickinson and Rutledge each also get a powerful number dramatizing their largely antagonistic roles, and there’s a heartbreaking piece (“Mama Look Sharp”) that briefly lets us feel the plight of the Revolutionary soldier, who is of course largely absent from the plot of the film itself.

I’m not a historian. I know some of the things in this movie are based on real life (Jefferson having to withdraw his objection to slavery to placate the southern states) and some are severely dramatized (such as Dickinson’s role), but most of it is in that nebulous realm of stuff that “could have happened.” Ultimately, as long as you understand you’re watching a play and not reading a historical document, this film really gives you exactly what you need. It’s a fantastic presentation of one of the most dramatic moments in history, it gives life to men who risked everything, and it reminds us of a few lessons that some people sorely need even today.