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Scrooge Month Day 12: Sir Patrick Stewart in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1999)

Christmas Carol 1999Director: David Hugh Jones

Writer: Peter Barnes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Joel Grey, Ian McNeice, Saskia Reeves, Desmond Barrit, Bernard Lloyd, Dominic West, Laura Fraser, Ben Tibber, Rosie Wiggins

Notes: In the 90s, Sir Patrick Stewart performed a one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol, which garnered great acclaim for several years. The TNT Network, recognizing a good thing when they see it, then produced this film starring Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart got a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor in a television movie or miniseries and both the movie and Stewart were nominated for Saturn Awards, the big prize for science fiction and fantasy. It’s a very straightforward version of the story, with the inclusion several scenes from the novel that many adaptations omit.

Thoughts: Patrick Stewart rarely fails to bring the Awesome, let’s be honest. Even when he’s in a bad movie, he’s typically the bright spot in a miasma of mediocrity, and here I am specifically thinking of X-Men: The Last Stand. So it’s not surprising that in this made-for-TV movie, he puts forth a Scrooge every bit as powerful and definitive as Alastair Sim or Albert Finney.

This film kicks things off with Marley’s funeral, a spot adaptations don’t cover that often, and from the start we see screenwriter Peter Barnes trying to bring in some of the Dickens language into the film. Although there’s no narrator as in the Muppets film, here we have some of the narration dropped properly into the mouths of Scrooge and others – the opening diatribe about why a doornail is considered particularly “dead.” When reading the book, that tangent in the first paragraph of the first page has always felt a bit odd to me. Here, it serves to show the mundane way Scrooge treats the death of his partner and sole friend. Much of the dialogue is verbatim Dickens, and Stewart delivers each line with the power and certainty that always drips from his voice.

In the opening scenes we see that this isn’t a Scrooge that explodes in anger or mocks those foolish enough to entreat him for donations to the poor. Stewart’s Scrooge is rather quiet and subdued. Even when he threatens a caroler with a beating, his voice doesn’t raise above the level of a bitter growl. Even in his quiet moments, though, Stewart is perhaps the most intimidating Scrooge we’ve met yet. So often Scrooge is portrayed as a feeble old man. Here he moves with weight and rage that is almost visible around him

TV or no, this Christmas Carol has some of the most impressive special effects we’ve seen yet. Bernard Lloyd appears as Marley’s ghost: he has a spectral form, his hair constantly shifting as though blown by a breeze that doesn’t affect anything else in the room. At one point his jaw falls open in a rather hideous sight that probably gave the willies to a few kids watching this. On a performance level, this gives us the chance to see Scrooge interacting with that rarest of things for him – an equal. He speaks to Marley with a casual familiarity that we didn’t see as he spoke to Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant) or his nephew Fred (Dominic West). Even now, before his redemption has begun, we see that Stewart’s Scrooge is more layered than most of those who came before him.

Joel Grey’s Christmas Past is perhaps my favorite of the human actors to portray the part. He has a light air about him, and constantly stands bathed in light. It’s a twist on the “candle” conceit that many versions go with, and it suits him nicely. He comes across as a little patronizing towards Scrooge, which the old codger sort of deserves at this point in the story. As Scrooge starts to feel the effects of his own past, such as when he sees his sister (Rosie Wiggins), we see the Ghost’s smile change from one of condescension to pride that he’s having the proper influence already.

I haven’t said much about the assorted Fezziwigs in this project, because there’s rarely much to say. He’s the jolly shopkeeper Scrooge apprenticed under, he throws a slammin’ Christmas party every year, but he doesn’t have too much to do. Ian McNeice, however, really steals his scene this time around. The man brings so much joy and energy to the screen that you want to watch a whole special about him. Even his musical number plays the character as a sweet, good-hearted ham, like everybody’s goofy uncle that makes the same lousy jokes at every Christmas dinner, but you love him and you love them and it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas if they were missing. Even Scrooge himself defends the man with a real ferocity when Christmas Past dares to disparage him. Somebody at TNT take note, if McNeice is available and amenable, I want to watch A Very Fezziwig Christmas next year.

Next it’s Desmond Barrit’s turn as Christmas Present, complete with the green robes and holly wreath. Barrit is a more low-key than most Presents. He’s not loud or bombastic, and in fact he seems almost sluggish as he walks around sprinkling his “milk of human kindness” onto the food of the poor. He doesn’t have the judgment of Scrooge in his voice that many people do, but rather a profound sadness. I’ve got to say, much as I like this version of the story, I’m not really keen on Barrit’s ghost.

Christmas Yet to Come here is a shadowed figure with glowing embers for eyes. Of the ghosts in this film, though, it’s also the least convincing. The unaltered, human hands that reach out from beneath the robes to point Scrooge around are somewhat jarring, and only further serve to make you feel like you’re looking at a guy wearing a false head on top of his own like a theme park costume. The other ghosts, including Barrit’s, all have a sufficiently otherworldly (or at least Dickensian) look to them. Christmas Yet to Come looks like something a moderately-skilled cosplayer puts together on his weekend off.

Fortunately, the rest of this sequence is considerably more effective. Scrooge’s pain when he realizes he’s watching the results of his own death comes across perfectly, with Patrick Stewart agonizing over the idea of looking at his own body and asking to see emotion connected to his death. From there we cut to a young couple rejoicing in that they’ll have time to get the money to pay their mortgage now – not exactly what Scrooge had in mind. The scene in the Cratchit home is a real gut-punch, as Bob talks to Tiny Tim’s body, still lying in his bed. It’s rare we actually see the dead child – most adaptations show Bob coming home from the cemetery or visiting the grave. Something about seeing him lying there makes the scene all the more heartbreaking.

The Redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge at the end, like the bitter one at the beginning, is also a little subdued. Stewart doesn’t simply explode out of his bed, but he goes through some really clever ticks – touching his hand to make sure he’s corporeal, choking a bit before he remembers how to laugh and finally spinning into a man wrapped up with joy. Maybe my favorite bit comes when he asks the passing child to go and buy the turkey for Bob Cratchit, he actually has to take a moment to force out his newfound generosity. He’s made the decision to change, but just for a second we get a reminder that old habits die hard. Once he hands over the first few coins to the child, though, it’s like the dam has burst – he gives the man with the turkey extra money for a cab, walks through the streets depositing coins in the cups of beggars, and even engages the children in a snowball fight. He has to push the wall down, but when it’s down by God it stays down. Even then, though, it’s hard for him to knock on Fred’s door, and he almost passes by entirely. He’s willing, but ashamed at his past, and he has to overcome it. Bless ya, Sir Patrick, for making Ebenezer Scrooge a real human.

Although this isn’t the best adaptation of the novel (as I said, the latter two ghosts were really quite weak), most of the performances are pretty good, and Patrick Stewart puts out one of the finest performances as Ebenezer Scrooge I’ve ever seen. It’s worth watching this movie for him alone.

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 8: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

twas-the-night-before-christmasDirectors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the poem by Clement Clarke Moore

Cast: George Gobel, Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes, Bob McFadden, John McGiver, Alan Swift

Plot: Two months before Christmas, in the little town of Junctionville, NY, both the human and mouse populations found themselves getting their letters from Santa Claus returned unopened.  Father Mouse (George Gobel) discovers an anonymous letter in the newspaper calling Santa a myth and a lie, signed “All of us.” Father Mouse’s son, Albert (Tammy Grimes), is revealed as the author of the letter. Albert, a brainy sort, refuses to believe in things he can’t see or touch. Meanwhile, Father Mouse’s human clockmaking partner, Joshua Trundle (Joel Grey) convinces the town to construct a huge clock to play a song in praise of Santa in the hopes of getting back in his good graces. Father shows Albert around town, pointing out children heartbroken by Santa’s rejection, but Albert remarks that grown-ups don’t care about such things. Father tries to show him how wrong he is by taking him to Trundle’s clock.

On the day Trundle’s clock is unveiled, it mysteriously malfunctions, and the town gives in to despair. By Christmas Eve, the Trundle children don’t even want to hang their stockings or decorate the tree. The mice are in similar desperation, and Father stumbles upon a sobbing Albert, who confesses he broke the clock when trying to study the machinery. Albert vows to repair the clock before midnight, finally understanding that he has a lot left to learn. As the town sits up on what they’re certain will be a sad Christmas Eve, the clock strikes midnight and begins chiming Trundle’s Santa song. In the sky, a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer swoop down, and the Trundle and Mouse families watch as St. Nicholas makes his annual visit, right on schedule.

Thoughts: Like the many Rankin and Bass specials based on songs, Jerome Coopersmith had the task of expanding upon a rather thin plot. The original poem, of course, is simply about Santa popping in, getting caught by Dad, and popping back out again. No drama, no antagonist, and the mice that aren’t stirring also aren’t talking. Thank goodness the Rankin and Bass folks were here to fix that. Oddly, the result is an almost completely original story – the poem really only factors into the very beginning and very end narration, with everything in-between existing in a little world of its own.

Albert is an interesting character – someone who refuses to believe in anything abstract or esoteric. At the time, marking such a character as the misguided one in need of a lesson was standard operating procedure. Watching this cartoon today, however, I have to marvel at how different things are. In today’s culture, Albert would far too often be the one dealing out the lesson, ridiculing characters who draw upon faith. I rather prefer this version of the paradigm. The song “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand” is perhaps one of my favorites in all of the Rankin and Bass universe – something sweet and hopeful, but at the same time recognizing the need for good people to step up and work towards their dreams. As messages go, it’s a timeless one that more and more I feel like the modern world is forgetting.

It’s also interesting that this is one of the few Rankin and Bass cartoons – either stop-motion or traditionally-animated – that is presented as a period piece. Most of the Santa-centric cartoons that touch upon the real world – Frosty, for instance, or The Year Without a Santa Claus – all took place in the present day, with only Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town going into the past for the origin. This cartoon, though, seems to take place in a turn of the century sort of community. The story probably would have worked just well if set in 1974, but something about the more old-fashioned setting sets it apart a bit, giving it a slightly different flavor from the rest of the Rankin and Bass catalogue.

If the story has a weakness, it comes in Albert’s redemption. Like so many Rankin and Bass antagonists, we see someone who is more misguided than evil, and in his case, works frantically to fix his mistake. This is all well and good, but Albert’s actual transformation falls short. This half-hour short (25 minutes without commercials) simply doesn’t give us enough time to really watch Albert evolve as a character. Father Mouse’s song and the visit to the clock don’t seem nearly powerful enough to cause the sort of change of heart we see in Albert just in the nick of time. The ending is still very good, but it feels unearned.

twas-santaWhat’s really odd, though, is how off-model Santa and his reindeer are in this film. The Rankin and Bass cartoons have a certain style whether they’re stop motion or cell animation, and even Frosty the Snowman sticks fairly close to style. While the human and mice characters easily look like they could pop into any other R&B production and be perfectly welcome, Santa… Santa. The “right jolly old elf” himself looks more like Alfred E. Neuman wearing a Santa suit than anything else. (Either that or he was a test model for the Hobbits in the Rankin and Bass adaptation of that novel, which came out in 1977.) Then, Santa speaks in a booming, deep (and uncredited) voice. It’s a good Santa voice, again one which would feel at home in any of these films, but feels completely alien to the Santa design in this cartoon.

These things take me out of the cartoon briefly, but only briefly. Despite being based on one of the most famous Christmas verses ever written, it’s actually one of the most original cartoon Rankin and Bass ever produced, and in and of itself, that’s enough to make it one of the better ones from any studio, ever.