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Scrooge Month Day 6: Scrooge McDuck in MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1983)

Mickey's Christmas Carol 1983Director: Burny Mattinson

Writers: Burny Mattinson, Tony Marino, Ed Gombert, Don Griffith, Alan Young, Alan Dinehart, based on the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Alan Young, Wayne Allwine, Hal Smith, Will Ryan, Eddie Carroll, Patricia Parris, Dick Billingsley, Clarence Nash

Notes: Paired with a re-release of the 1977 film The Rescuers, Mickey’s Christmas Carol is significant in the annals of Disney animation for several reasons. It was the first theatrical short starring Mickey Mouse in 30 years; it was the final time Donald Duck’s original voice actor, Clarence Nash, would voice the character; and it was the first time Alan Young would voice Donald’s Uncle Scrooge, a role he has continued with through the classic DuckTales TV show and every other depiction of the character right through the present day. Despite its short length, the film is remarkably faithful to the Dickens novel, keeping most of the important scenes and characters, although racing through them in the 26-minute running time. The Disney characters who take part in this adaptation include Scrooge McDuck (Young) as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mickey Mouse (Wayne Allwine) as Bob Cratchit, Donald Duck (Nash) as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, Goofy (Hal Smith) as Jacob Marley, Jiminy Cricket (Eddie Carroll) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Willie the Giant (Will Ryan) as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Black Pete (Ryan again) as one of the few versions of Christmas Yet to Come to actually have lines. Other minor characters and background extras come from various Disney shorts and films starring animals, particularly The Wind in the Willows and Robin Hood, which you may remember I talked about here once before.

Thoughts: This is the shortest version of A Christmas Carol I’ve talked about yet, and is probably the shortest I’ll discuss all month, but it’s also one of my favorites. Part of that can no doubt be chalked up to nostalgia – I was six years old when this cartoon was released, and I think I saw it in the theater, but I honestly can’t say for sure. Regardless, I am sure this was the first version of the story I remember in any detail, and as such it holds a special place in my heart. That said, it’s worth talking about even without the nostalgia factor because – again, despite its short running time – it’s really good.

First of all: Alan Young. I’m not sure how many people are aware that Uncle Scrooge has the voice of Wilbur from TV’s Mr. Ed, and I’m not sure how many would care if they did, because his work with this character is by far a more enduring legacy. Scrooge McDuck is a character who has to be firm and grumpy, but with a good heart at the core. In truth, from the outset he was a (slightly) milder version of the Dickens character Carl Barks named him after. Young’s voice performance is flawless.

The “casting” all around is good. Mickey Mouse – so long portrayed as a sweet, well-meaning everyman is the natural choice for Bob Cratchit. Jiminy Cricket is Pinocchio’s conscience, and as such is the logical choice for Christmas Past. Willie and Pete, both nominal “villains” in their usual Disney performances, fit their roles well, with the man-child Willie making an even larger version of Christmas Present than we usually see and Pete taking real delight in his nasty work. The only one that doesn’t really seem to fit is Goofy as Jacob Marley – a character full of regret. Even if Goofy had anything to regret (he doesn’t – the character is far too innocent for that), he’s not self-aware enough to realize it. I imagine he was given the part simply because they felt the need to get all of Disney’s top three characters into the cartoon somewhere and they just couldn’t think of anything other way to include him.

The only major character omitted from this version of the story is Scrooge’s sister, Fan. Considering it was billed as a Mickey Mouse cartoon, that’s understandable – kids may be able to accept ghosts and hellfire and redemption, but I doubt any parent wanted to have a discussion with their children about the potential of a mother dying in childbirth. Besides, there’s a long precedent in Disney cartoons of obvious orphans whose parents are never referenced (Donald and Mickey’s nephews and Donald himself being the prime examples).

Scrooge’s reformation is a bit more subtle in this film, although we do see the stages. After Christmas Past shows Scrooge the scene where he breaks the heart of Isabelle (Donald’s girlfriend Daisy, which must have been kind of awkward on the set), Scrooge berates himself for being foolish. A few seconds later, though, as Christmas Present preaches generosity, Scrooge stubbornly argues that he has no reason to be generous to others, as no one has ever shown such kindness to him. In response, we go to the Cratchit house, where Tiny Tim himself encourages his family to thank Mr. Scrooge. That’s all we get from Christmas Present, though, as he’s left standing between a pair of giant footprints before a cloud of cigar smoke whisks him to the cemetery. He’s scared now, and you can feel it, but instead of asking about himself, he inquires as to Tim’s welfare. It’s a good moment, and it’s heartbreaking a moment later when we see Mickey Mouse, in tears, laying a crutch on a tombstone. If that isn’t enough to give kids watching permanent scarring, Christmas Future whips off his hood, lights a match on Scrooge’s tombstone, and kicks him into the open grave, where fire being blazing from the coffin and reaches for Scrooge just before he’s whisked home for the joyful finale.

It is still a Disney cartoon, and as such has to work in some comedy amidst the dark subject matter. The balance is good, and never at the expense of character, whether we’re looking at a verbal gag, a bit of ironic wording, or a quick sight gag. The moment where Scrooge tells Fred he’s coming to Christmas dinner after all, Fred and the horse look each other in the eye and Nash gives the line reading of his career: a simple “Well I’ll be doggone” that never fails to get a laugh out of me.

I do so love this cartoon, and not just because I got to watch it and write the whole article in less than a half-hour. It’s a wonderful rendition of Dickens’s story, even in its condensed form, and it just came out on a 30th anniversary edition Blu-Ray and DVD, along with several other classic Disney Christmas shorts, and one brand new one. If you don’t already own it, get it here.

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 11: A Flintstones Christmas (1977)

flintstone-christmas-collectionDirector: Charles A. Nichols

Writers: Duane Poole & Dick Robbins

Cast: Henry Corden, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Gay Hartwig, Lucille Bills, Virginia Gregg, Hal Smith,  John Stephenson

Plot: It’s Christmas Eve in Bedrock and the Flintstones and Rubbles are finishing up their preparations. Wilma (Jean Vander Pyl) and Betty (Gay Hartwig) try to persuade Fred (Henry Corden, taking over the role seamlessly from the late Alan Reed) to play Santa at the orphanage’s Christmas party that night, but Fred refuses and heads to work. When he arrives his boss, Mr. Slate (John Stephenson) informs him that his wife wants Fred to play Santa for the same party. This time, to protect his job, Fred agrees. At home, Fred and Barney (Mel Blanc) prepare for the party, but hear a thumping from the roof. They find Santa Claus (great voice actor Hal Smith, who played Santa in no less than five different cartoon series over the years) in the snow. Although Fred is skeptical at first, Barney finds the sleigh and reindeer, proving they’ve got the real Santa in the Flintstone house.  Santa sprained his ankle on Fred’s roof, and Barney suggests Fred as a substitute while he heals. Santa gives them a dose of magic and sends them on their way.

Things go relatively smoothly for Fred and Barney’s first few deliveries, but some turbulence knocks the sack of presents out of the sleigh. Barney calls Santa on the sleigh’s CB radio (it was the 70s, people), and Santa tells them to go back to the North Pole for another load. As they wait for the sleigh to be reloaded, Fred and Barney take a tour of Santa’s high-tech operation and pitch in making some toys. They get back in the air and speed up their deliveries, realizing Fred is still scheduled to play Santa for the orphans. Back in Bedrock, the children are starting to get upset – almost as upset as Mr. Slate. Fortunately, Fred and Barney finally arrive, spilling in through the chimney with such a spectacular entrance Mr. Slate forgives their tardiness… until Fred realizes they’ve given out all the presents already. With a little of Santa’s Christmas magic, Fred produces more, and the children are overjoyed. As they open their gifts, the boys return home to send Santa on his way. Wilma and Betty return home, angry at their husbands for rushing out of the party, and Santa ducks out before they see him. Although the girls don’t believe Fred and Barney’s story about filling in for Santa, they forgive them and begin trading gifts. Fred is horrified to realize, in all the commotion, he didn’t get Wilma a present, but Santa saves the day one last time, slipping one down the chimney. Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm spot Santa flying away, and their fathers join them at the window, waving goodbye, while the girls just chuckle at the four kids looking up at the skies over Bedrock.

Thoughts: Like Fat Albert, this 1977 special takes characters from a popular cartoon show and gives them a Christmas adventure, although unlike Fat Albert, by 1977 the original run of The Flintstones had been over for several years. Fortunately, with animation, it’s easier to do a reunion special without worrying about actors getting older or passing away or refusing to reprise their role – in almost every case, a new voice artist is always a possibility. This special managed to get most of the original voices back, but one wonders if Mel Blanc felt a little confused that he was remaking a cartoon he’d done 13 years prior.

A Flintstones Christmas borrows much of its plot from the 1964 episode of the TV show, “Christmas Flintstone” (brilliantly clever with titles, these Hanna-Barbera folks), specifically the story of Fred filling in for Santa Claus after he injures himself. This special adds in more and different music and ages the children – Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm are elementary school age, whereas they were still babies in the original. They also trade out B-plots – in the original, Fred was working as a department store Santa for extra money, whereas here he’s dealing with Mr. Slate and playing Santa for orphans. The B-plot is used to give urgency to the A-plot as well, while in the original Fred was pretty much done with his gig when he stumbles into the real Santa and is called upon to fill in. Still, if one were to sit down for a marathon of the assorted Flintstones Christmas specials and episodes throughout the years (something a guy like me is honestly very likely to do), you’d be a bit shocked when you essentially saw the same show twice.

Having dealt with that particular elephant in the room (I’m going to ignore the one about characters celebrating Christmas before the birth of Christ), let’s talk about the story for what it is. The notion of Fred filling in for Santa is a wonderfully natural one – the heart of the character is that of a sort of good-natured lummox. For all the times throughout the years where Fred gets short-tempered or angry, at the core of the character is a deep, abiding love for his wife and friends, the sort of thing that lends itself perfectly to playing Santa. The actual mechanism for getting him into the suit was pretty clever for the time, although it seems that Disney picked at this cartoon when they made Tim Allen’s more morbid The Santa Clause.

Although there was music in the original version of this, this version has much more of it, almost making it into a full-blown musical as both Fred and Barney break into song about how much they love Christmas at assorted points in the show. While none of the music has broken out and become of particular note, it’s perfectly passable and a nice addition to the cartoon. The animation style is really indicative of the sort of thing we got from Hanna-Barbera, up to and including a nice little Rube Goldberg-style montage sequence in Santa’s workshop, where Fred and Barney spill out onto the conveyer belts and get temporarily caught up in the mechanisms of the toymaking machines. We saw this sort of thing a lot in the old Hanna-Barbera cartons, second only to the “hall of doors” chase scenes they did so often, particularly in Scooby Doo.

In terms of sheer volume, the good folks at Hanna-Barbera may have been second only to Rankin and Bass for producing great Christmas cartoons. However, there aren’t a lot of ‘em I could use for this project, as so many of them are feature film length, regular episodes of assorted TV shows or, saddest of all, not available on DVD. Maybe next year. But for now we’re not quite done with the Hanna-Barbera characters… not yet.