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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!

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.