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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 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!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 3: Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Private Life of Sherlock HolmesDirector: Billy Wilder

Writer: I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl, Mollie Maureen, Stanley Holloway

Plot: Many years after the death of Dr. John Watson (Colin Blakely), a lockbox is opened containing previously unrevealed tales of his adventures with the great Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) – tales too sensitive, or perhaps too personal, to share with the general public as he published their adventures during Holmes’s life. This film presents us with two such tales.

In the first, Holmes berates Watson for the romantic nature of his published tales – making him out to seem taller, more quirky and more capable than he really is (the last charge Watson vehemently disagrees with). What’s more, he’s growing bored – the criminal class has become too unimaginative for his tastes.  Holmes is turning more and more to a cocaine solution to distract himself. Concerned, Watson convinces Holmes to accompany him to a performance of Swan Lake. Holmes is invited backstage to meet the show’s star, Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who has a proposal – she wishes to conceive a child with him, hoping to combine her physical perfection with Holmes’s flawless mind. Unwilling to participate, Holmes tries to find a delicate way out of the situation, claiming to be a hemophiliac, claiming that English men are terrible lovers… Petrova is not swayed until Holmes implies that he and Watson are more “involved” than the Doctor’s published stories reveal.  Although Holmes slips from the ballerina’s grasp, Watson is enraged when he discovers the rumor. Holmes convinces Watson his reputation as a ladies’ man will protect him, but Watson is stunned when he realizes Holmes has no such protection – he has virtually no track record with women at all.

As Watson ponders his friend, a cabbie arrives with a Belgian woman named Gabrielle (Genevieve Page). Watson puts her to bed, diagnosing her with temporary amnesia, and is determined to help her. Holmes agrees, but only to get rid of her as soon as possible. The woman awakes, mistaking Holmes for her missing husband, Emil. He plays along, hoping to uncover clues. In the morning, she has regained her senses and begs the detective for help finding her husband. The investigation leads them to a message from Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), who asks them to abandon their search for Gabrielle, in the name of national security. Instead, Holmes takes her to Scotland, where he believes the solution to the mystery lies.

Holmes follows the clues to a cemetery, an anonymous man found in the river is being buried. They search the coffin to find Gabrielle’s husband, Emil, while Watson makes a very different discovery – the Loch Ness Monster. On the lake they see the creature and set out to find it, instead encountering Mycroft in an experimental submarine, its periscope disguised with a monster head. Mycroft reveals that the real Gabrielle Valladon is dead and the woman they travel with is a German spy, sent to use Holmes’s keen mind to help hunt down the missing Emil and steal the submersible from the British government. Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) arrives to inspect the submersible. Initially impressed, when she realizes it is intended as a warship, she declares it “unsportsmanlike” and orders it destroyed.

Holmes returns to Gabrielle – really Ilsa Von Hoffmanstal, and uses her to send a signal to her German friends to lure them into a trap. Mycroft will obey the Queen’s command to destroy the ship, but takes the German spies with it. Holmes, meanwhile, arranges for Ilsa to be sent back to Germany, traded for a captured British spy, instead of being sent to jail.

Some time later, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft with painful news – Ilsa was captured spying in Japan and executed. Holmes is struck silent for a moment before asking Watson for his cocaine for the first time in months. The great detective locks himself away, while Watson picks up his pen and begins to write.

Thoughts: This film has a rather odd pedigree. Originally conceived and shot as a 165-minute “road show” picture intended to tour the country and play special engagements, United Artists suffered a series of flops that led to them forcing Billy Wilder to cut it down to 125 minutes for a standard theatrical run. Fortunately, the series of short stories in the film made it easy to cut, but there are two whole episodes and a framing sequence that were excised completely. Some chunks have been restored on the film’s DVD release, but to date a complete original print has never been discovered.

I fear my synopsis doesn’t quite get across the tone of this movie. Although it deals with some serious ideas, such as Holmes’s cocaine addiction, the script itself is actually quite funny. An early scene during the ballet, for example, contains a perfectly-written and timed scene in which Watson relates the number of men who have committed suicide out of love for the prima ballerina. (I swear, that’s funnier than it sounds.) Watson’s delight at being left alone with a set of Russian-speaking ballerinas is also really amusing. Unlike the first two films in this project, this is a Watson I can get behind. He’s lighthearted, he’s unrelentingly male in his behavior, but he never comes across as goofy or incompetent, and that makes him my favorite Watson to date.

Robert Stephens’s Holmes isn’t quite as iconic as Basil Rathbone (who gets a bit of a nod in this film, as Stephens laments the fact that he has to wear a seersucker hat and matching coat because the public now expects it thanks to the illustrations published with Watson’s stories). His performance, nevertheless, is exemplary. He comes across as very clever, but a trifle less eccentric than Rathbone or Lee, which well befits the conceit that Watson has always exaggerated Holmes in his writing.

I’m not sure what the missing segments of this film are about, but the ones we get here fit together nicely, with an undercurrent of doubt regarding Holmes’s sexuality being the connecting thread. There could be no doubt that Billy Wilder, creator of classics like Some Like it Hot, would be perfect for this material. Although in the canon Holmes fiction the detective never has any real romantic connections, it always seems clear that this stems from a distrust of women. This movie brings that up at the beginning, but allows it to dangle as a sort of question mark. Is that the real reason Holmes has remained alone for so long? Gabrielle complicates things in a very pleasant way, giving us hints that Holmes’s interest in her case (despite the fact that he believes her to be a married woman) is more than simply professional without ever knocking us over the head with his attraction to the point where there can be no doubt.

By the end, the ambiguity is somewhat sponged away. It seems clear that Holmes allows his affection for the woman he called Gabrielle to arrange the freedom of a dangerous enemy spy. It’s a small but very humanizing gesture on Holmes’s part. The look on Stephens’s face as she rides away, signaling “auf Wiedersehen” with her umbrella, truly sells the storyline – there’s a bit of satisfaction mingled in with just a hint of regret.  When he reads Mycroft’s letter, the face shifts again to severe – but contained – agony.

For a while on Loch Ness the film seems like it’s going to veer a bit too far into silly territory, particularly with Watson’s determination to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster and the cheesy way the legendary beast manifests itself. When we discover the truth, though, those qualms are sponged away – the idea of Mycroft using the legend of the creature as a distraction is really quite brilliant and builds the character well. In fact, Christopher Lee acquits himself very well as Holmes in this movie, far better than he comes off as the detective himself in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the Holmes movies I’ve taken in this week so far. It will be interesting to see how future adventures with the detective really measure up.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!

The Christmas Special Day 6: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

santa-claus-is-comin-to-town-copyDirectors: Jules Rankin & Arthur Bass

Writer: Romeo Muller

Cast: Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, Robie Lester, the Westminster Children’s Choir

Plot: Friendly mailman S.D. Kluger (Fred Astaire) has once again rounded up a cart full of letters about Santa Claus. To answer all the questions at once, he decides to share with us the story of Santa’s life. Years ago, in a vaguely Eastern European land called Sombertown, a baby is found. He’s brought to the town’s mayor, the Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), who immediately sends the baby to the local orphanage. On the way, though, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn) sends up a terrific snowstorm that snatches the child away. The forest animals find him and hide him from the Warlock, taking him to a safe place – the home of an elf family named Kringle. The elves name him Kris, raising him as their own. As he grows up he learns all of their skills, including making toys. Sadly, the elves have mountains of toys that go undelivered thanks to the Burgermeister, even though they were once the royal toymakers to the king. Kris eventually grows into a strapping young man with the voice of Mickey Rooney. He vows to set out and begin delivering the toys, with an official red-and-white Kringle suit and a penguin named Topper. In Sombertown, though, the Burgermeister has outlawed toys entirely. Ignoring the decree Kris hands out toys to children, but a schoolteacher named Jessica chastises him for breaking the law. The Burgermeister declares Kris a rebel and orders him arrested, but Kris distracts him with a yo-yo and escapes. Kris and Topper turn up in the lands of the Winter Warlock and are captured. Before he can destroy them, Kris gives him a wooden train, and Winter’s frozen heart melts away, restoring his humanity. Winter offers to use his magic to help Kris in exchange for toys once in a while, and he demonstrates his power by showing him a vision of Jessica, who is wandering the woods looking for him. She’s got a handful of letters from the children asking for toys to replace the ones the Burgermeister destroyed, and Kris begins using the Warlock’s tricks to watch over them, to be sure they’re being good, for goodness sake.

The next night Kris returns to Sombertown with a sleigh full of toys and a list of the good children (which, naturally, he checks twice), and the next morning the Burgermeister is again outraged at the proliferation of toys. He orders the doors and windows locked all over town, but Jessica and the animals continue to deliver letters to Kris. Refusing to disappoint a child with a special request, Topper suggests Kris try entering homes through the chimney, a task which quickly becomes standard operating procedure. The Burgermeister turns over all the houses looking for toys, so Kris starts hiding them in stockings hung to dry by the fireplace. The Burgermeister finally uses Jessica to track down the Kringles’s home, and Kris, the Kringles and Winter are all captured and arrested. Jessica tries to break Winter out of prison, but the only remnant of his power are some magic kernels of corn. She feeds them to eight of Kris’s reindeer friends, who gain the ability to fly. They sweep into the prison and break out the inmates, taking them away. With the Kringle home destroyed by the Burgermeister, Kris and his family are now outlaws. Kris grows a beard to help disguise himself (doesn’t bother to change his bright red clothes, but, y’know, a beard… that should do the trick) and decides to use an alias. The eldest Kringle shows him a medal with his birth name on it: Claus. Taking back his real name, he asks Jessica to share it and the two are married in the woods on Christmas Eve while the Kringles decorate the pine trees and place their wedding gifts beneath the boughs. With his last burst of magic, Winter fills the trees with brilliant lights.

Kris and the Kringles march further north and build a home, where they continue to make toys for years. Eventually, the Meisterburgers die out, and Kris is able to make his journeys more freely. The letters from the children grow more and more frequent, though, and he decides to restrict his deliveries to one night a year, the holiest night, Christmas Eve.

Thoughts: Although, as we’ve seen, Rankin and Bass made a cottage industry out of turning Christmas songs into Christmas specials, this may be their crowning achievement of adaptation. The song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” has even less of a plot than Rudolph or Frosty’s titular claims to fame. It’s basically a reminder to kids not to act like jerks because Santa won’t give them any loot on Christmas morning, and as this is a one-hour special, they’re going to need a lot more to go on. Romeo Muller, who has earned a permanent spot in Christmas Heaven for writing so many of these, does an absolutely heroic job weaving the tale of Santa’s life. This is without a doubt the longest synopsis I’ve written yet in the Christmas project, and that’s due entirely to the complexity of the story and the number of important touchstones along the way.

Muller manages to work in most of the major points of the Santa legend – the elves, the toymaking, the reason Christmas Eve is so sacred to him. For the most part, he does it very organically, almost seamlessly. The only thing that breaks the spell, that reminds you that he’s going through a checklist of Santa Facts, is that every so often Fred Astaire and the children break in with some narration to point out that you just learned something important: “So that’s why he makes such wonderful toys!” Yeah kid, we got that. No need to call attention to it. Muller also gives Santa a Mrs. Claus, elves, flying reindeer and the charming voyeuristic powers that probably weren’t nearly as creepy in the pre-Internet days.

There are a few interesting trends in here that would later reach out and lay branches in future Rankin and Bass productions. We’ve got multiple antagonists, at least at first, in the Warlock and the Burgermeister. The Warlock’s menace ends quickly, though, and he reforms, becoming a friend to our heroes. We’d see this later in other cartoons, including Jack Frost in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, the Miser Brothers in Year Without a Santa Claus. It’s a good way to work in themes of redemption into these cartoons without actually making an icon like Santa or Rudolph a jerk at any point in their respective careers. Not every villain can be redeemed, of course, but the way we see the Burgermeister waste away in self-imposed loneliness and misery says a lot for the power of having a winning personality.

The story is a tad anticlimactic – the Burgermeister never really gets his comeuppance, he just loses his prisoner and it’s implied that he dies a pathetic wretch. But Fred Astaire comes in at the end of the special and delivers a speech of pure sincerity to rival “Yes Virginia.” It’s a beautiful moment and it leads right into the musical finale.

This isn’t my favorite of the Rankin and Bass specials, and none of the elements created for this show specifically have ever really caught on with the public at large the way some of the other Rankin and Bass creations have. (Not even Topper. What’s up with that? Topper is awesome.) But on the whole, it’s a fine origin for Santa Claus, one that is perfectly satisfying for any child who wants to know all of the things kids tend to ask about Santa. Even after all these years, it’s still a joy to watch.