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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!

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Robin Hood Week Day 2: Brian Bedford in Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood 1973Director: Wolfgang Reitherman

Writer: Larry Clemmons & Ken Anderson

Cast: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Phil Harris, Roger Miller, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Carole Shelley, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, Ken Curtis, Billy Whitaker

Plot: When good King Richard (a lion) left for the crusades, he left his brother Prince John as ruler of England, despite the fact that they were both voiced by Peter Ustinov. The rooster minstrel Alan-A-Dale (Roger Miller) tells us the story of the crusader who fought against John – a clever fox named Robin Hood (Brian Bedford), who defended Sherwood Forest with his friend, a bear named Little John (Phil Harris). The two outlaws disguise themselves and rob a coach carrying Prince John and his right-hand snake, Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas).

John’s flunky, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) makes the rounds to collect the exorbitant taxes from the townsfolk, snatching up every cent Robin’s friend Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) has managed to smuggle to them, even snaring a rabbit child’s birthday present of a single coin. As he leaves, Robin arrives in disguise and gives the boy a bow and arrow, along with one of his hats. The boy, Skippy (Billy Whitaker) leads his friends to play, but loses the bow in a palace courtyard. When he goes to retrieve it, he encounters Maid Marian (Monica Evans) and her friend Lady Cluck (Carole Shelley). The kids question Marian about her past relationship with Robin, and Skippy winds up playacting a “rescue” of Marian, culminating with her giving the unsuspecting boy a kiss.

Back in the forest, Robin is busy mooning over Marian himself when Friar Tuck brings him the news of an archery tournament, with the prize to include a kiss from Marian. Robin cannot help himself from entering the tournament, albeit disguised as a stork. He wins easily, but his disguise slips and he’s captured. Before the Sheriff can execute him, Little John forces the Prince to release him, and taking Marian with him, Robin and the others flee into the forest.

When Prince John learns how the people of Sherwood have begun to mock him, he triples the taxes and arrests anyone who can’t pay. The Sheriff tries to empty the church’s poorbox to line John’s coffers, sending Friar Tuck into a rage. He’s arrested and John sentences him to death in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding. Disguising himself as one of the Sheriff’s Vulture henchmen, Robin sneaks into the palace late that night. Little John frees the Friar and the rest of their friends who have been arrested, while Robin sneaks off to steal the sacks of money in Prince John’s private quarters right under the sleeping prince’s nose. As he makes off with the last of it, Sir Hiss wakes up and alerts John (in a cartoonishly violent way). After a daring escape, Robin dives into the moat, followed by a shower of arrows, and Prince John believes him dead… but he pops up and chimes out “A pox on the phony king of England!” sending Prince John crying for his mommy.

Eventually, King Richard returns to England and pardons Robin and his men, placing John, Sir Hiss, and the Sheriff in irons, just in time for Robin and Marian’s wedding.

Thoughts: As with many people my age, this was the first version of Robin Hood I remember seeing, and in fact was the only version I was aware of for many years. In fact, even though Roger Miller’s Alan-A-Dale starts the movie by pointing out there are many versions of the Robin Hood and that this is, in fact, the version told by the animals, I remember being distinctly surprised when I got a little older and realized that Robin Hood was not, in fact, an original Disney character, and that what’s more, most versions of him were human and did not start anthropomorphic animals. Then I had to stop and look up what “anthropomorphic” meant, because I was like eight years old.

What’s more, this is the first time I watched this movie in years, and I’m catching a number of things I never would have noticed before. For example, the first scene with Robin Hood and Little John, after some cartoon antics escaping Prince John’s men, sees them engaging in a moralistic debate over the ethics of the whole “robbing the rich to give to the poor” angle. It’s a bit more thoughtful than one would expect from an early-70’s Disney movie, but it’s highly appropriate. In fact, there’s a lot of ethical moralizing in this movie. Whereas Errol Flynn (despite his loyalty) blamed Richard for leaving England in the hands of his brother to engage in the Crusades, Disney lightens it up a bit by making Richard the victim of the hypnotic Sir Hiss, who sent him off on what John calls a “silly crusade.”

The 70s were sort of a nebulous time for Disney. Walt was gone and, although it was still many years before the company’s second renaissance would begin with The Little Mermaid, it was also long before they would really hit the skids in the 80s. There’s a roughness to the quality of the films of the period, and while it now marks them indelibly as products of their time, it’s also the time in which I was introduced to Disney animation. I’ve got a soft spot for it. Even this film has a lot going for it in terms of animation and performance – the way Sir Hiss slithers his body underneath himself to simulate the elbows of a petulant teenager is a great image that gives you the perfect amount of character development. Brian Bedford and Phil Harris as Robin Hood and Little John remain the voices I hear when I think of the characters, and folk singer Roger Miller made for a fantastic bard.

Despite the animal players, the movie has lots of tiny moments that humanize the characters, such as Robin’s gift to the rabbit boy. As the kids leave, he gives the mother a sweet speech about keeping faith that Nottingham will return to glory. While Errol Flynn was loud and bombastic with his approach to rousing the townspeople, Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood is a quieter hero, one who sneaks in and out, going unnoticed until he’s discovered. Of course, once a disguise fails and he’s made, he’s just as likely to bring forth a spectacle as any other incarnation of the character. (The disguises, it’s worth pointing out, are only slightly above Bugs Bunny quality in the concealment department, but they usually work exceedingly well.)

The movie also sidesteps the usual beginning of the Robin/Marian relationship. In the Flynn movie, and in most other versions, the two are initially at odds, as he’s an outlaw and she’s a ward of the King and (technically) under the protection of the Prince. In this version, Marian loved Robin as a young girl and still does, eliminating the need for him to win her over and cutting right to the chase. I would imagine this is in deference to the cartoon nature of the film – while the scenes of Robin winning Marian over can work really well from an emotional standpoint, I can imagine in 1973 the animators thought a young audience would lose patience with such a thing.

Compared to the Errol Flynn film, the villains are far less menacing. Prince John is a spoiled mama’s boy with no air of danger about him whatsoever. Sir Hiss – a stand-in for Sir Guy of Ginsbourne – is a pompous, browbeaten serpent. The only thing about him that’s even remotely dangerous is his ability to hypnotize people, which he never even really uses to any serious effect once the story begins. (Dispatching Richard on the Crusades, the most important plot point to his hypnotism, happens before the film opens.) Only the Sheriff is an improvement in the villain department from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that says more about the latter’s buffoonery than anything in favor of the Disney version. He’s less oafish and more dangerous than the other two, but still not the sort of villain that would give any kid trouble sleeping.

The biggest complaint I’ve got about the film is the ending. The final rescue at Prince John’s palace is fine, but Richard’s return to the throne and the arrest of the villains happens entirely off-camera. It’s not all that satisfying to cut from Robin’s escape, even as the prince pouts, to seeing them in chains with nothing in-between. Sure, these cartoons films are often short (at a crisp 83 minutes there’s little filler in this movie), but it certainly feels as though they could have given us just a bit more closure.

This isn’t the grand adventure of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood nor the attempt at an epic that the character would take later. It is, however, a grand and entertaining family version of the film with some sweet music, excellent voice performances, and mid-era Disney charm. It’s hard to say anything bad about that.

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!