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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 1: Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Adventures of Robin HoodDirectors: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller

Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter, Una O’Conner

Plot: In the year 1191, King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) left England to reclaim the Holy Land in the crusades, with his bitter brother Prince John (Claude Raines) in charge. When Richard is captured in Austria John – a Norman — seizes the opportunity to increase his power over the Saxons of England, raising taxes and seizing goods and services on the populace… even enslaving people who refuse to toil for his crony, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). The Saxon Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) begins to resist the Norman oppression of the Saxons. As John hosts a banquet, Robin himself arrives. Robin makes it clear his intention is to rouse the people of England into revolt against John, then fights his way to freedom in front of Norman noblewoman Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland).

Returning home, Robin and Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) encounter a large man (Alan Hale) crossing a stream. Robin and the man battle, and Robin is knocked into the water. Laughing at the scuffle, they befriend the man – John Little – and together unite a band of free people of England who swear to fight John and defend all innocent – Norman and Saxon alike — until the return of King Richard.

As Guy leads a procession through Sherwood Forest, Robin’s men capture them all, humiliating Guy and the Sheriff of Nottinham (Melville Cooper). Robin attempts to impress Marian with their frivolity, but she remains cold. Her heart begins to change, though, when she realizes Robin and his men intend to return the goods they have stolen to King Richard and he introduces her to some of the Saxons suffering. For the first time, Robin exposes Marian to the misery John’s rule has wrought.

The Sheriff proposes a trap for Robin – an archery contest with a golden arrow presented by Marian as a prize. Robin enters in disguise and, after several rounds, wins. As Marian presents him with his prize, Sir Guy exposes him and he is captured. Robin is sentenced to death and imprisoned, and Marian rushes to his men to help plan a rescue. They disrupt his execution and flee. That night, as he comes to thank her, he overhears her professing her love for him, and he shares his own.

A bishop brings John the news that King Richard has escaped his captivity and returned to England. John sends an assassin to kill him, but Marian overhears his plan. Before she can send word to Robin, she is discovered by Sir Guy and arrested. Robin and his men capture Richard, not realizing who he is at first, and impress the King with their loyalty. They are together when they learn of Marian’s execution, which is scheduled to coincide with John’s coronation. Robin and Richard lead their men into battle. Robin kills Sir Guy and frees Marian, and the forces loyal to Richard overwhelm those of Prince John. Robin is made Baron of Locksley and given Marian’s hand in marriage. Richard banishes John and his men from England and calls for Normans and Saxons alike to share the freedoms of true Englishmen.

Thoughts: For generations this was not only the benchmark of Robin Hood movies, but the archetype against which all swashbucklers would be measured. Errol Flynn is truly magnificent in the title role, cutting a dashing figure of such strength and earnestness that one couldn’t help but want to follow him into battle.

This is, I confess, the first time I’ve ever seen this version of Robin Hood, but it’s one of those movies that’s known so well through parody and inspiration that I may as well have. Dozens of cartoons, TV shows and other films have liberally borrowed chunks of this movie wholesale. Flynn’s performance hasn’t informed too many of the modern Robin Hoods, each of whom seems to want to offer a different take on the character, but any other time a film tries to give a taste of Golden Age glory in an adventure tale, Flynn is the inspiration. You can feel pieces of his performance in Cary Elwes’s Westley from The Princess Bride, spoofed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and as the hero Timothy Dalton’s villain pretends to be in The Rocketeer.

Although Robin is the hero here, and a great one at that, Flynn isn’t afraid to let him feel a little humiliation. His defeat against Little John at the stream is an iconic moment, and one that’s easy for him to laugh off. His first encounter with Eugene Pallette’s Friar Tuck follows a similar pattern, but Tuck fights a bit more ferociously, and Robin comes across as a bit of a bully before he extends his hand in friendship.

Olivia de Havilland is radiant as Marian, and does a good job of selling her change of heart. In the early scenes it’s easy to feel discomfort – even disgust – during her dealings with Robin. As she starts to realize the truth about John’s rule, her emotional metamorphosis is slow, but convincing. By the time we reach the scene where Robin is sentenced to death, you can tell she’s in love with the man and trying desperately not to show it in the face of his enemies.

The villains are an odd collection. Rains’s Prince John comes across as a bit of a lightweight, but he’s at least sharp enough to have Rathbone’s Guy of Gisbourne as his enforcer. He’s not a physical threat on his own, but you can believe he would command a man of Gisbourne’s menace. The Sheriff, on the other hand, is a real goof. He’s cowardly and ineffective, with only the inspiration for the archery contest keeping him from being entirely useless. A comic relief villain isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but considering how elevated the Sheriff often is in Robin Hood lore, I was a bit surprised to see him as the clown in this early, iconic cinema version of the story.

The fight scenes are particularly impressive for the time period. Intricately choreographed, Flynn and his men put up an impressive front against the worst Prince John can send against them. Although there is a good dose of Hollywood magic to it (the swords, for instance, are not particularly convincing as weapons, although they’re handled very well), it’s the sort of thing that you forgive as a staple of the time, even as the presentation is wonderfully entertaining. The archery scene is another one of those moments that has been endlessly parodied and referenced, and it’s done fairly well. In these long-ago days, before CGI and the effort to give us an arrow’s-eye view of the winning shot, it’s presented in a very straightforward, simple style that nonetheless pleases the eye and brings a smile to a real lover of old cinema.

The final, climactic battle feels like a template for all great swordfights. Watching dozens of men fight and dozens of swords flash at once is a blast, the sort of thing every kid who’s ever picked up a branch and pretended it’s a blade dreams of. While Robin and Guy are having their own final confrontation, the directors start getting fancy: they walk off-camera and we watch as their shadows carry on the fight. Close-ups of the two of them as they grapple ratchet up the tension until Robin deals the final blow, and Guy’s plunge down the stairwell looks painful enough to be real.

One thing that rather surprised me about the film was just how much of it had the overtones of racism. Granted, the Saxons and the Normans are pretty indistinguishable to a viewer, but the oppression of the Saxons cuts a deep swath through the American heart. It’s impossible to hear the disgust John espouses without it evoking the nastier aspects of our own past. In truth, considering that this film takes place in the 12th century, it works well as a reminder that ignorance isn’t exactly a new invention. At the same time, fortunately, it does give us some hope that even 900 years ago, there were men willing to stand against it.

This movie is justifiably hailed as one of the all-time great adventure films, and it’s as fine an example of golden age cinema as I can imagine. For many, for decades, Errol Flynn was Robin Hood. And in truth, when you watch this movie, he always will be.

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!

Sherlock Holmes Week Day 1: Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Hound of the Baskervilles 1939Director: Sidney Lanfield

Writer: Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Basil Rathbone, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry, Ralph Forbes, Mary Gordon

Plot: Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) concludes the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville was caused by heart failure. Many people in town are outraged by the diagnosis – they believe he was murdered. His young heir Henry (Richard Greene) is summoned to take his place as head of Baskerville Hall. The news reaches the ears of the great detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his comrade, Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce). Mortimer calls on Holmes and tells him of a legend of a terrible hound that has slaughtered members of the Baskerville family for over 200 years as punishment for the bad behavior of their patriarch, Hugo (Ralph Forbes).

Henry arrives in England, but is threatened within minutes by a note tied to a rock and thrown through his carriage window. Mortimer and Henry go to Holmes for help, and the detective saves them when a man in a hansom cab points a gun at them. They later question the cabby, only to find his passenger used Holmes’s name.

Holmes sends Watson to accompany Henry back to Baskerville Hall, and that night the two of them chase a prowler across the grounds. They begin to suspect the butler, Barryman (John Carradine) of using the hound legend to hide the murder. Watson meets Henry’s neighbor, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who warns him about the deadly bogs, which killed a pony just days ago. Henry is saved from falling into the same bog by John’s stepsister, Beryl (Wendy Barrie), and the two grow infatuated with one another. The group has dinner with another neighbor, Frankland (Barlowe Borland), who has a predilection towards bringing lawsuits against his neighbors – and who is planning a body snatching suit against Stapleton for excavating a skeleton that had been there for hundreds of years. Mortimer proposes a séance to contact the late Sir Charles and ask him the truth about his death, but the séance is interrupted by the incessant howling of the “hounds” outside.

The next day, Henry asks Beryl to marry him. The happy moment is broken when first Watson arrives, then a strange old peddler who tries to sell them harmonicas and whistles. Watson is later sent a message, which he traces to the peddler hiding in a cave in the bogs. The peddler turns out to be Holmes in disguise – he wanted to watch the proceedings anonymously. As they walk back to the castle, they see an enormous hound chase a man off a cliff. The dead man turns out to be an escaped murderer wearing Henry’s clothes. Holmes deduces the man was killed because the hound caught Henry’s sent – Henry was the true target. Homes discloses the truth – the convict was Barryman’s brother-in-law, whom his wife had given shelter, food, and Henry’s old clothing. Satisfied that the murderer is gone, Henry is glad to move on with his plans for a wedding celebration.

As Holmes and Watson take a train back to London, Holmes tells Watson he thinks the real killer is still at large, and they will loop back and catch him in the act of attempting to murder Henry. That night, Henry chooses to walk home from the Stapletons’ alone, across the bog, an act that is only forgivable in that it is 1889 and he’s probably never seen a scary movie. As he leaves, Stapleton fetches a shoe stolen from Henry earlier and gives its scent to a hound he’s keeping in the bog. Holmes and Watson chase after the hound’s howls as it attacks Henry. They kill the dog and Watson takes the injured Henry back to the house, while Holmes searches the bog. Stapleton traps Holmes, then returns to the house and tells Watson Holmes is waiting for him. Alone with Henry, he tries to poison him, but Holmes arrives and stops it. He reveals Stapleton is a distant cousin and, if Henry dies, will be heir to Baskerville Hall. Although Henry escapes into the bog, Holmes says he’s placed constables along the roads. Confidant he will be apprehended, Holmes declares the case closed.

Thoughts: Sherlock Holmes has been played by dozens, maybe hundreds of actors over the years. He’s one of the most iconic characters ever created, one of the greatest icons of British literature… hell, his name has become a synonym for a genius. And even in 1939, when this film was released, Basil Rathbone was hardly the first person to play the detective. Yet somehow it’s his performance, in this film and the 13 others he would make, that would cling to the public conscious and shape the perception of Holmes for decades.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was not the first Holmes story written by Doyle, and Ernest Pascal and Sidney Lanfield don’t waste any time pretending it is. From the moment we see Barrymore and Bruce it’s as if we’re looking in on characters we’ve watched dozens of times. There’s a cursory attempt at establishing the characters in the form of Holmes challenging Watson to deduce information about Dr. Mortimer based only on his walking-stick. (Bruce’s Watson bumbles through his deduction – more about that later.) In many films, this would be somewhat annoying, it would feel like an unfair assumption on the part of the filmmakers… but somehow, this movie pulls it off. Trying to establish Sherlock Holmes, especially this Sherlock Holmes, feels utterly unnecessary. Everybody already knows who he is and what he’s like, so giving that establishment a perfunctory moment before moving on with the story feels justifiable. However, that does raise a question: as this is the film that created that iconic vision of Holmes, would it have been acceptable in 1939, before that version was created? Evidently, the audiences of 1939 didn’t seem to mind, as this Holmes was utterly embraced, but looking back on it from my perspective I’m forced to ask if I would have been satisfied with the way Holmes and Watson were introduced if they weren’t already such well-known characters.

At any rate, there’s no denying the iconic nature of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes. Although many of the traits he displays were described in the original stories, it’s his iconic image we cling to: the robe-wearing, violin-playing, pipe-smoking figure that paces back and forth in his study while pondering a case. When someone thinks of an iconic Holmes, the image invariably is Basil Rathbone wearing the seersucker hat – which Doyle never included in the original stories. There’s a power to Rathbone’s performance. From the first moments he commands the screen and draws you in, and his masquerade as the peddler is really perfect. The way he dances through his deductions remains the standard for how it is done, and even modern interpretations like the Robert Downey Jr. movies or Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance on television are a reaction to the way Rathbone carried it off. You can’t try to subvert expectations that don’t already exist, after all.

As enamored as I am of Rathbone’s Holmes, I’m less happy with Nigel Bruce’s Watson. Bruce gives a perfectly good performance, mind you, and the role brings some much-needed lightness to the rather serious story, but his Watson is a bit of a goof. Early on, when Holmes establishes his deductive skills by analyzing Mortimer’s cane, he first has Watson take a go at it. Watson, of course, should never be portrayed as being as capable as Holmes (the entire point of the character is for the audience to have a viewpoint that’s closer to their level than Holmes’s nearly-superhuman intellect could provide), but at the same time, he shouldn’t come across as incompetent either. There are times in this movie (and in the later films Rathbone and Bruce made together) where Bruce’s Watson treads dangerously close to or even crosses that line. Comic relief is one thing, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of such a fine character. To be fair, though, Watson does have an immediate distrust of Stapleton, so there’s at least a hint of intuition there.

This was the first time I’ve actually seen this movie, and I’m amazed at how neatly it establishes the whodunit formula that we’ve seen thousands of times since then. We start with an initial crime, then a series of other events that are building to a big one. We meet the characters and encounter several red herrings along the way: Frankland, Barryman, and even Mortimer for a brief moment when Holmes notices a dog’s tooth-marks on his cane. The one thing that goes against formula, and delightfully so, is the end. I’m so used to the Scooby Doo ending, where the criminal is captured and unmasked in full view of everybody, that it’s legitimately surprising when we see Stapleton preparing to kill Henry before that last murder is committed. These days, no doubt, his face would be kept in shadows until the last moment, probably the one where he tries to poison Henry. It’s actually rather refreshing.

The mood and atmosphere of this film is perfect – gloomy, foggy. The dog works well too. I’m not sure exactly how they pulled off the attacks… the first one looks like stop-motion, but the later (even from a distance) looks like Henry is wrestling a real dog. Whatever the case, the visuals are impressive enough and enjoyable even 75 years later.

This is a fun film that’s got me anxious to watch more of Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, but not quite yet. After all, this is an Icons week, and that means tomorrow it’ll be somebody else’s turn.

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!