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Scrooge Revisited Day 2-Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979)

american-christmas-carolNote: 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.

Director: Eric Till

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Ken Pogue, Gerard Parkes, Susan Hogan, Chris Cragg

Notes: This TV movie from 1979 cast the then-34 Henry Winker, riding high on the success of Happy Days, as Scrooge substitute “Benedict Slade.” The film transplants the events of Dickens’s novel from Victorian London to Depression-Era New England, but keeps the most important beats of the timeless tale of a miser faced by ghosts to drive him towards redemption.

As usual, I don’t want to waste time rehashing a well-trod plot, but it’s worth pointing out how the film branches out at the beginning. The first real act of Scroogery comes on Christmas Eve when Slade and his Cratchit stand-in, Thatcher (R.H. Thompson) repossess the property of an African-American farming couple, the Reeves (Dorian Harewood and Arlene Duncan). They then pull the same stunt on the headmaster (Fraggle Rock’s Gerard Parkes) of the very school he once attended, and a university shop that makes the terrible mistake of selling books instead of something profitable. By the time Slade and Thatcher arrive home with a truck full of goods taken back from people who couldn’t pay, you start to feel that Slade may actually have Scrooge beat when it comes to being a jackass. When Thatcher tries to convince him to put money into reopening the town quarry, since Roosevelt has all these plans that will require slate, he thanks him by firing him. Just as Slade destroys a first edition of A Christmas Carol he took from the university shop (this bit, incidentally, made me hate the man as much as any movie villain I’ve ever seen), the visitations from the spirits begin…

Thoughts: From the beginning, Benedict Slade is a different kind of take on Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the makeup job is awful. Winkler, who again was only 34 at the time, is layered under slabs of makeup that don’t serve to make him look old so much as they make him look like he’s late for a Halloween party. (There’s an unintentionally funny bit when he encounters the first ghost and accuses him of being under heavy makeup like “that man who played Frankenstein,” while Ken Pogue is playing a ghost and yet still looks more natural and lifelike than Winkler.) The film spends an inordinate amount of time with Christmas Past, I think, largely so that we can see Winkler’s face without the ridiculous makeup. He does make up for it, I should note, by sporting a bitching mustache.

Bad makeup aside, though, Winkler’s performance is actually pretty good. He’s got a nasty, bitter tone in his voice that fits in with all the Scrooges we’ve loved before, and you definitely get the impression right off that this is a man who keeps rage close to his heart. As we get his backstory, he comes across as a much more rounded Scrooge than many other incarnations – as a young man he seems earnest and sincere. His first steps down a bad path come not out of greed or spite, but because he is trying to look forward for the sake of his business while his mentor (Chris Wiggins) insists on miring himself in the past. Wiggins’s character owns a woodshop, making furniture by hand, and Slade leaves him for the sake of a company that is progressing in the direction of automation and mass production. By the time he does anything that could legitimately been seen as corrupt, he’s already gone quite far down the path of trying to do what he thinks is best for his business – and what’s more, history proved him right.

That goes a long way to selling his redemption – when he approaches Thatcher during the “Christmas Present” segment, asking forgiveness for not knowing that Thatcher’s son was sick when he fired him, you believe his contrite nature. The final scene with the Thatcher family, when Slade hands young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) one ticket after another to get him to the clinic in Australia that can cure whatever it is he’s suffering from, Winkler is nailing it. Even when Mrs. Thatcher hugs him, he pulls off a wonderful little beat where he gets anxious, not used to physical contact after all these years, that fits the character marvelously.

Writer Jerome Coopersmith picked a good time period to set the story – placing in during the Depression makes it easy to show the rich/poor gulf between his version of Scrooge and… well, everybody else. What’s more, it allows him to play a little on racial tensions in a way that Dickens never does. Although the film doesn’t make it explicit, it can’t be a coincidence that the first nasty thing Slade does is to a black family struggling to survive the Great Depression.

The film makes some interesting choices in regards to the ghosts. Rather than trying to make the ghosts creepy or ethereal, Slade is visited by spirits who take the form of the people he screwed earlier in the day. Christmas Past is the bookstore owner (David Wayne) whose copy of A Christmas Carol bit the dust, Christmas Present is Parkes, and Christmas Future is Harewood. I’m honestly not sure what the thought process is here – to give it a bit of Wizard of Oz flair? To make the interaction between Slade and the ghosts more personal, since he personally wounded each of them? Harewood in particular is odd, dressing him up in 70s-era clothes complete with a shirt open to his bellybutton and gold chains. While using “future” radio broadcasts to herald his arrival is an interesting touch, the clothes he wears would be enough to make any reasonable person fight against such a horrific future.

In the end, this is a pretty good iteration of the story. It recontextualizes Dickens in a different time and place in a way that fits the new setting, while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Although it keeps most of the skeleton of the story the same, there’s just enough of a change to the set dressing to make it feel like a different experience. It’s not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a bad one at all.

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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The Christmas Special Day 19: A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

muppet-family-christmasDirectors: Peter Harris & Eric Till

Writer: Jerry Juhl

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Steve Whitmire, David Rudman, Caroll Spinney, Gerard Parkes

Plot: Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson) and many of the Muppets are off to spend Christmas at Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house (Fozzie and Ma Bear performed by Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson, respectively). They arrive to find that Ma is about to leave, having planned on taking a vacation to Florida for the holidays. Doc (Gerard Parkes) and his dog Sprocket (Steve Whitmire) are renting the house for a quiet holiday. When the Muppets arrive Ma decides to call off her vacation, and Doc finds himself surrounded by strange creatures. (Perplexed, he asks Sprocket if the Muppets are like the “Fraggles” his dog often reports encountering back home.) As everyone settles in, Kermit gets a call from Miss Piggy (Oz again), who is finishing up a photo shoot and plans to join them later. A Turkey (Whitmire again) arrives at the door, having been invited by the Swedish Chef (Henson), and the poultry-loving Gonzo (Dave Goelz) tries to convince him that a turkey at Christmas is more likely to be the main course than a guest. As more Muppets arrive, the farmhouse begins to descend into chaos: the Turkey tells Chef that Sprocket is the turkey, Fozzie Bear attempts to start up a new comedy routine with a Snowman (Richard Hunt), and the Turkey starts to hit on Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla. Scooter (Hunt) cheers everyone up with some home movies of the gang as babies, and just before Gonzo and the turkey come to blows, a group of carolers arrive: the Muppets’ friends from Sesame Street. They come in, Bert and Ernie (Oz and Henson) engage Doc in small talk about the letter B, and Christmas Eve.

Chef gets the Turkey into the kitchen and begins sizing him up for the pan, but the Turkey deflects his attention by pointing out the most delectable dish of all: Big Bird (Caroll Spinney). The news reports a terrible storm approaching, and Kermit begins to worry about Miss Piggy, who still hasn’t arrived. The different groups begin bonding, with Janice (Hunt) and Cookie Monster (Oz) “sharing” a plate of treats, drawing Animal (Oz)’s admiration, Oscar the Grouch (Spinney) offering to share his trash can with Rizzo the Rat (Whitmire), and Bert and Ernie leading the Sesame Street gang in a performance of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Kermit gets a call from Piggy and tries to convince her to stay off the road during the storm. The pigheaded (rimshot) Muppet doesn’t listen, though, and tries to hail a taxi. The Chef summons Big Bird into the kitchen, planning to prepare him for dinner, but is touched when Big Bird – feeling sorry for him spending Christmas so far away from his home in Sweden – gives him a present of chocolate covered birdseed. When Doc sees Kermit staring out into the snow again, he offers to head out and look for Piggy. As Kermit waits, his nephew Robin (Nelson) summons him to the cellar, where he’s found what he believes to be a Fraggle hole. The two frogs wind up in the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock, where the Fraggles are in the midst of their own midwinter celebration, in which Mokey (Kathryn Mullen) is giving Boober (Goelz) a yellow pebble – which has been a present from Fraggle to Fraggle 37 times. Boober gives the pebble to Robin. As the Frogs return to the farmhouse, Doc arrives on a dogsled wearing a Mountie uniform – all things Miss Piggy just happened to have for him when he found her in the snow. After all, Miss Piggy knows how to make an entrance.

With everyone finally safe and warm in the farmhouse (which is now so tight on space Gonzo and Animal have to sleep on hangers on the wall), Ma Bear officially welcomes everyone to her home and Rowlf the Dog leads the extended Muppet family in their annual Carol Sing. The music summons the Fraggles into the farmhouse, and they join in. Gifts are exchanged – Kermit gives Piggy a mink, and Robin passes the Fraggle Pebble on to Grover – and in the kitchen, Jim Henson himself watches on and smiles… then recruits Sprocket to help him wash the dishes.

Thoughts: We finally get to Jim Henson’s most famous family of characters, the Muppet Show Muppets, making the Henson company’s final entry in our countdown. This special hits on several levels. First of all, it’s full of fantastic Christmas music – in and of itself, that’s enough to make it worth watching. We get a lot of traditionals in the Carol Sing at the end, as well as plenty of other songs throughout. There’s also a song plucked from Fraggle Rock – the joyful “Pass it on” – and the show caps off with a slightly modified version of “Together at Christmas” from The Christmas Toy.

It’s also impressive just how many different stories the special manages to juggle. Kermit and Piggy’s story is ostensibly the A-plot, but it doesn’t really have much more screen time than the Chef’s attempts at dinner, Gonzo’s rivalry with the turkey, Fozzie’s new act, Ma’s effort to find room for everybody, or the introduction of the Fraggles to the rest of the family. All of these things could command a larger chunk if they eliminated the other stories, but it would be a real loss to do so.

It’s also worth noting that most of the stories are pretty original – no retreads of Dickens or Capra or O’Henry, even though Henson has turned to that well before. It’s interesting to note, though, that of the four specials we’ve watched from the Henson company, all four have dealt with gift-giving and self-sacrifice on a fairly significant level. Food for thought.

But the thing that makes this legendary for fans of the Henson company is because this is the only time the casts of all three major Henson families came together on-screen. We saw the Muppet Show and Sesame Street characters interact on several occasions in the past, but throwing in the Fraggles (at the height of their popularity when this special was made) makes it… well, extra-special. There’s even a small bit with the Muppet Babies, when Scooter shows the home movies, allowing us to see them as puppets for only the second time. (Their debut was in the feature film The Muppets Take Manhattan – for their own show, they were animated.) Unfortunately, due to rights issues with the music used in that scene, most of it was cut from the special’s DVD release. There are actually several scenes removed or abbreviated for this reason, so a complete version has never made it to DVD. Even worse, because of the fracturing of the Jim Henson company, in which the Muppet Show characters were sold to Disney and the Sesame Street characters given to the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), the three families are now all owned by three different companies. Because of this, the DVD has been out of print for years, and can only be obtained used. Good luck – I managed to snag it when it was new and I’ve been watching the same disc for ten years, and it’s now extremely hard to come by. (Although you can find the whole thing on YouTube, and it’s worth it.)

Jim Henson was one of those creators that comes along once in a generation. While he wasn’t the sole force behind the creation of the Muppets, and probably gets too much credit for Sesame Street in some circles, the fact that he was the epicenter of so many different creative movements in his too-short time on this planet is nothing short of astonishing. The fact that so many people continue to use his creations to tell new and wonderful stories 20 years after his death is astonishing. He made something magical and lasting, and this special is one of the few places you can see the scope of his talent all at once, all together, as it should be. That, in and of itself, is a Christmas miracle of a kind.

The Christmas Special Day 16: The Christmas Toy (1986)

christmastoyDirector: Eric Till

Writer: Laura Phillips

Cast: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathryn Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Camille Bonora, Brian Henson, Marsha Moreau, Zachary Bennett, Jim Henson

Plot: Rugby the Tiger (Dave Goelz) and the rest of the toys in Jesse and Jamie’s playroom (Zachary Bennett and Marsha Moreau, respectively) have an active existence, coming to life and playing whenever their children leave the room. They have to be careful to be in the same spot where the humans left them, though, for if they’re found out of place, they’re frozen forever. When the toys learn it’s Christmas Eve, Rugby is astonished. He remembers last Christmas, when Jamie found him in his brilliant box beneath the tree and he became the center of her world… he never imagined it would happen again. The old teddy bear Balthazar (Jerry Nelson) tells the toys to be ready to welcome the new toys into their midst, pointing out how the doll named Apple (Kathryn Mullen) was upset when Rugby stole her spotlight the year before. As Bathlazar tries to talk to Rugby about what’s about to happen, the catnip mouse named Mew (Steve Whitmire) tells them Rugby has left the playroom to get back under the Christmas Tree, where he believes he belongs. A clown doll named Ditz (Goelz again) steps out of the room to call Rugby back, but he’s found by the children’s mother, who tosses him back into the playroom. Ditz is now “frozen” – unable to move, unable to speak… essentially dead. The rest of the toys sadly bring him to a sort of graveyard in the closet for other frozen toys. As the rest of the toys grieve, Mew sneaks out alone to try to save Rugby.

Mew finds Rugby trapped in the linen closet, locked in after he got mixed up with some clothes. When he tells Mew how spectacular Christmas is (for Rugby, that is), Mew decides to help him back under the tree, showing him the real cat’s trick for opening the door. Back in the playroom Apple assembles a rescue party to go after Rugby and Mew. Rugby makes it to the Christmas tree, where a lovely box for Jamie is waiting to be opened. Mew gets the ribbon off just as Apple and the others find them. She implores him to leave the box alone, but Rugby ignores her. When he opens the box, instead of it being empty, he finds a new doll, a beautiful warrior woman who proclaims herself to be “Meteora, queen of the asteroids (Camille Bonora)!” Meteora rushes off and Rugby tries to seal himself inside her box, but Apple re-tells him the story of last Christmas from her own perspective, when Rugby took her place as Jamie’s favorite toy. As Rugby finally realizes the truth, he still tries to get in the box, and Apple and Mew remind him that he’ll be frozen if the humans find him. Meteora knocks over a chess set, and the noise summons Jamie and Jesse’s father. Before he sees the toys, Mew lets out a very convincing “meow.” Believing it’s just the cat, father goes back to bed. The other toys convince Meteora to return to her box by singing her praises and telling her how she’ll be recognized as a star come Christmas morning. Once she’s wrapped again, they head back towards the playroom. Just as most of them make it back, though, Mew slips from Rugby’s tail and is caught in the hall as the children’s mother opens the door. Rugby rushes to try to save him, but he gets trapped in the linen closet again when mother finds Mew and takes him downstairs to the cat. Heartbroken, Rugby retrieves his friend’s frozen body and tearfully sings him a song to tell him he loves him. Miraculously, Mew begins twitching, and wakes up. In the playroom, the rest of the toys take up the song as the frozen toys in the closet pick themselves up and stumble back to life. The next morning, Jamie and Jesse bring their new toys to the playroom (while the cat, Luigi, drops off a new mouse), and the rest of the toys welcome them. Rugby feels a moment of sorrow while Jamie tells Meteora she loves her, but spirits are lifted all around as she says the same to Apple, and to Rugby himself.

Thoughts: Once more to the Jim Henson company, friends, and to one of my favorite lesser-known Henson productions. The Christmas Toy, from 1986, was one of these specials that led into a (sadly short-lived) TV series, The Secret Life of Toys, about toys that come to life and play whenever their humans leave the room. Nine years later, of course, Pixar Animation would take the basic plot of this special and turn it into a billion-dollar franchise for Disney. And I’m not just talking about the “toys coming to life” part – let’s be fair here, everyone who has ever been a child has imagined that their toys come to life and have adventures of their own when they aren’t around. Of course, there’s also the notion of the comfortable favorite toy suddenly having his prominence threatened by the introduction of a cool new space toy… who doesn’t realize she IS a toy and thinks she’s really in… outer… space… Okay, look, I love Pixar as much as anybody, but if Jim Henson’s ghost had started haunting the crap out of their studio after the first Toy Story came out, he would have been entirely within his rights.

I remember watching this special as a child (I would have been nine the year it came out, so it’s likely I was part of the audience for the premiere) and loving it immediately, even wearing out a VHS copy taped from ABC. Looking back at it as an adult, it’s impressive to me how dark Henson and company were willing to get with these characters. Rugby, at the beginning of the special, is terribly arrogant and unlikable. When he starts singing that he was “the greatest Christmas toy of all,” you kind of hope he does get frozen.

Then there’s the “frozen” concept itself – for a small child, this could be terrifying. Think about it here… you’re little, you’re just starting to gain a comprehension about what death actually is and what it actually means… and then you watch a Muppet special where the lovable mouse drops dead because somebody looks at it. I don’t actually remember the spin-off TV show very well, but I’m pretty sure they dropped this particular aspect when it went to series, and that’s probably a good thing. It definitely adds a note of suspense and danger to the story, but it may have been too difficult to deal with on a weekly basis. (If you really want to be a stickler for continuity, you can probably argue that whatever Rugby did to bring Mew back at the end of this special broke that spell forever, but if you’re thinking that hard about it you’re probably thinking too much about this. Yes, I am speaking from experience.)

Like any good Christmas special, of course, the unlikable character finds redemption in the end. And like any good Jim Henson production, that redemption comes with the help of his friends. The relationship between Rugby and Mew is wonderfully constructed. They’re not buddy-buddy like Kermit and Fozzie or Bert and Ernie. Instead, at the beginning, Mew hangs out with Rugby mainly because all of the toys reject him (he’s “just a cat toy”), but Rugby gives him slightly more attention than the others. It’s not even good attention – Rugby mocks and degrades him more than anyone, but Mew latches on to him anyway. When Mew saves him, twice, we see Rugby’s attitude shift, becoming more accepting not only of Mew, but of Meteora as well. And all of it is part of his true education – the growing knowledge that he isn’t the center of the universe after all, but merely an important part of it for one child. Once again, Henson is teaching children a lesson: “It ain’t all about you, kid.”

The music is okay here, but the final number is fantastic. “Together at Christmas,” Rugby’s song to Mew, briefly became something of a Henson anthem, and we in fact will hear it once more a few days from now, when we pay our fourth and final visit to the Henson workshop, and look in on his most famous creations.

Speaking of those creations, like Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, this film sadly isn’t available uncut. Both Emmet and the Toys are still owned by the Jim Henson Company, but a few years back they sold the Muppet Show characters to Disney, which means they had to trim the introduction for both of these films, starring Kermit the Frog, to put on DVD. (Sesame Workshop got special permission from Disney to use Kermit in some of the DVDs of their older shows. I don’t know if Henson even asked…) The special is lovely in its own right, but the beginning is terribly abrupt, you feel like you’ve turned it on after it already began, and that’s why. The DVD itself is horribly barebones, not even taking you to a menu before starting the film. If they ever decide to dress this up and do a better home video release, I hope they come to some sort of agreement to give us Kermit’s welcome back again.