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Scrooge Month Day 7: George C. Scott in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984)

Christmas Carol 1984Director: Clive Donner

Writer: Roger O. Hirson, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasance, Edward Woodward, Michael Carter, David Warner, Susannah York, Anthony Walters, Roger Rees, Lucy Gutteridge, Timothy Bateson, Nigel Davenport, Joanne Whalley, Kieron Hughes

Notes: This production of A Christmas Carol was a made-for-TV movie in the United States, aired on CBS, and netted George C. Scott an Emmy nomination for best lead actor in a miniseries or special. It was good enough to get a theatrical release in Great Britain. Scott himself, interestingly enough, owned the rights to the film, and it went into syndication for many years, gaining a large following. It wasn’t released on VHS until 1995, however, with a DVD release following in 1999. The film is still popular today, and is often seen on AMC at this time of year (although a few years ago, the Hallmark Channel managed to work it in between installments of their 60-day marathon of different original movies in which former sitcom stars or models play the children of Santa Claus attempting to find true love in the modern world).

Thoughts: From the first frame of the film, this edition of A Christmas Carol takes a markedly different tone than most. It opens up with Roger Rees’s narrator reciting the first line of the novel: “Marley was dead to begin with…” The scene is a hearse carting old Jacob’s coffin through the streets of London, and you get this terrible, all-pervading chill that makes you feel like you’re about to get the hell scared out of you.

Then the mood whiplash hits you, with a cheery fanfare and a burst of music that shows people walking around the city, cheerfully wishing one another Merry Christmas and celebrating with music and packages and a guy playing a trombone which – I know from experience – will freeze right to your lips on a day like that if you’re not careful. It’s a great contrast to Scrooge’s counting house, where Scrooge (George C. Scott) is berating Bob Cratchit (David Warner) for his picky request of a lump of coal to keep himself from freezing to death. Ah, we’re in familiar Dickensian territory now. When Roger Rees – now playing Fred – walks into the office, we’re getting right into the most well-known lines in Dickens’s remarkable catalogue.

Scott takes a different tack with Scrooge than many of his predecessors. While many of them being the film as an incurable grump, taking no joy at anything, Scott’s Scrooge is not above a good laugh in the face of his ever-so-foolish nephew. In this opening sequence, the filmmakers start adding to the Dickens story. In an early scene, for example, Scrooge encounters Tiny Tim (Anthony Walters) waiting outside for his father. It serves no real purpose other than to show Scrooge being a jerk even to a little crippled boy. Traditionally, Scrooge (and the audience) doesn’t usually see Tim until Christmas Present pops over to the Cratchit house. This, plus a few other minutes of Scrooge making deals, all go just to show him as an even nastier, more miserly creature than usual. Scrooge is usually a pathetic, greedy man. This is the first version of the story I’ve seen in which he actually seems to exude a little evil in his demeanor.

I really like Frank Finlay’s design as the ghost of Jacob Marley. We get the traditional brushed iron moneyboxes blending nicely into the iron chains, all of which match his clothes and skin and cold, dead eyes perfectly. The chains cross in front of him, meeting in an enormous lock that gives the whole thing a look of being intentional, being planned. A lot of Marleys have the chains just draped on them. This is a Marley for whom the chains were specifically forged.

Angela Pleasance’s Ghost of Christmas Past has a unique look as well. She carries her “cap” – the light of truth – which often accompanies one of the candle-like versions of the character. She’s not particularly waxen in her appearance, though. With her white-blond hair, loose robes and sprig of greenery clutched in her hands, she has a sort of elfin appearance, like she belongs in a version of a Tolkien story. She gives more attention to Scrooge’s father than most versions do as well. Usually, all we hear of Scrooge Senior is that he’s “kinder than he used to be.” This time, though, Fan (Joanne Whalley) brings him to a father who coldly insists a three-day reunion is sufficient and Scrooge is to be sent straight to Fezziwig’s to begin his apprenticeship. This time around, it’s not Fan’s death that hardens Scrooge’s heart. It’s quite clearly the tender ministrations of his father. It just gets worse as he sees himself leaving his beloved Belle (Lucy Gutteridge), then flashing to a later Christmas in which she is married with children and – worst of all – pitying poor, lonely Scrooge. When he uses Christmas Past’s own “cap” to smother her away, it’s almost a blessing.

Edward Woodward’s Christmas Present is about as traditional as it gets – an enormous mountain of a man draped in his green robe and holly wreath around his head. He has an energy that’s practically bubbling out, giggling in Scrooge’s face, but like much of this movie, his laugh is cold. It’s in his scene that I’m really starting to feel what sets this version apart from most others. Usually, the point of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge has cut himself off from a warm world and he needs to find a way to let it back in. The impression George C. Scott’s version gives is that he lives in a world with very little pity, and he must work to earn back the comfort of the rest of the human race.

This segment, again, adds to the story. Bob Cratchit comes home to tell his eldest son Peter (Kieron Hughes) that Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, has offered him a job. Scrooge is convinced Fred is doing it just to spite him, but his veneer is cracking – when Bob says the blessing over their Christmas Eve dinner, Scrooge is unable to resist whispering an “Amen” along with the family, then promptly denies it to Christmas Present. When they hit the famous bit where Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s own words back at him – “decrease the surplus population” and all that – he does so not with the ironic amusement of most performers, but with a bitter anger. Once we get to the reveal of Ignorance and Want beneath his robes, it just seems like more of the same from him.

Scrooge, in fact, does his best to remain stoic, even in the Christmas Future segment while he watches Bob Cratchit discussing Tiny Tim’s death. While David Warner breaks down discussing his dead child, displaying depths of compassion not seen since his turn as Sark in TRON, George C. Scott just stands off to the side offering commentary. He’s seen it all, he needs to go. He has a sadness in his voice, but he’s trying to bottle it right up until the spirit shows him his own grave.

If this version of A Christmas Carol has a failing, it’s in its nihilism. This is a bitter London full of bitter people. Scrooge comes across not as the outcast he’s made himself, but as another cold man who reluctantly, in the end, decides to try to make his way into the minority of happy people. Sadly, this is probably a bit more realistic a depiction of the time period than most other versions of the story. Even if that’s true, though, it gives this film a powerful strike against it: we never feel like this is a Scrooge that has earned his redemption. Scott’s performance is good, but the world he inhabits feels a bit off, and for that if no other reason, this just isn’t one of my preferred versions of the Dickens classic.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!

Robin Hood Week Day 5: Cary Elwes in Robin Hood-Men in Tights (1993)

Robin Hood-Men in TightsDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: J.D. Shapiro, Evan Chandler, Mel Brooks

Cast: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck, Mark Blankfield, Dave Chappelle, Isaac Hayes, Megan Cavanagh, Eric Allan Kramer, Matthew Porretta, Tracey Ullman, Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

Plot: With King Richard away in the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Richard Lewis) and the corrupt Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) have seized power in England. Really… if you guys have been reading these articles all week this should be no surprise by now. In Mel Brooks’s parody of earlier Robin Hood films (most notably the Costner and Flynn versions), we begin in Khalil Prison in Jerusalem, where Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes) has been taken captive. He meets a Moorish prisoner named Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), imprisoned for jaywalking. Together they free the captives and Asneeze asks Robin to look after his son Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), an exchange student, when he returns home. Robin agrees and swims from Jerusalem back to England.

Robin finds Ahchoo and rescues him from a band of the Sheriff’s men. They return to Loxley Hall to find it repossessed by the Prince’s accountant, leaving behind only Robin’s old blind servant Blinkin (Mark Bankfield). The Sheriff of Rottingham pursues a boy who killed a deer on the King’s lands, but Robin humiliates him and drives him off. In the palace, Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck) confides to her servant Broomhilde (Megan Cavanagh) her wish that she could find her one true love: the man with the key to her “heart.” (Also her chastity belt.)

Worried about Robin’s return to England, Prince John turns to his gnarled, witchlike servant, Latrine (Tracey Ullman), who offers to brew a potion to disable Robin. In the forest, Robin meets Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlett O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), battling over the right to use the bridge over a ludicrously small creek. After besting John and saving his life… sort of… Robin invites the two of them to join his band of Merry Men. Robin barges into one of the Prince’s feasts, charming Marian and antagonizing the Prince and Sheriff before battling free.

Robin’s men stop the wandering Rabbi Tuckman (Mel Brooks), who agrees to join them – along with his stores of Sacramental Wine. As the men “bless” everything in the forest, the Sheriff turns to Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise), a lord who suggests using an archery contest to trap Robin. Overhearing the plot, Marian and Broomhilde rush to the forest to warn him, arriving just after the show-stopping “Men in Tights” musical number. Robin professes his love to Marian and promises to avoid the contest, a promise he promptly breaks.

The disguised Robin nearly loses to one of Don Giovanni’s men before checking the script for the movie and confirming that he has another shot. With his “Patriot Arrow,” he annihilates the target. He’s captured and almost killed, but Marian promises to marry the Sheriff if he allows Robin to live. Ahchoo saves Robin just before she can say “I do,” and the Prince’s men go to battle with Robin’s. The Sheriff drags Marian away hoping to consummate the marriage, only to be stymied by Marian’s Chastity Belt. Robin and the Sheriff duel, breaking open a medallion from Robin’s father and revealing the key to Marian’s belt. The Sheriff impales himself on Robin’s sword while trying to stab him from behind, and Latrine offers to save him if he’ll marry her. He agrees, and immediately regrets it. Robin and Marian plan a wedding, but are interrupted by the return of King Richard (a cameo by Patrick Stewart), who has his brother arrested and makes Robin a knight. Tuchman finishes the marriage ceremony and Robin and Marian dance away… only to find Robin’s key doesn’t turn in the lock.

Thoughts: Just as the Kevin Costner Robin Hood hit when I was 13 and looking for adventure, this version hit when I was 15 and looking for things to be cynical about. A Mel Brooks comedy was just the thing. And like the Kevin Costner version, I still like this film despite its flaws. Unlike the Costner film, though, I find the flaws in this movie a bit harder to defend.

Brooks is credited with co-writing the screenplay with the two men credited for the story, one of whom never wrote anything else and the other of whom went on to write Battlefield Earth. When you realize just how drastically this film lacks the sharp verbal wit of Brooks’s superior films, the preceding sentence makes a lot more sense. The best Brooks movies (by which I mean Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) were so great because of how sharp and clever the writing and characters were. This movie doesn’t quite rise to that level, relying more on anachronistic dated references like Ahchoo’s pump sneakers and a kid parodying Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. Anachronisms in Brooks comedies isn’t new, of course, but compare the impromptu musical numbers and wild finale of Blazing Saddles with Blinkin holding a braille Playboy magazine in this movie and tell me they belong in the same conversation. Other nuggets feel like lame Mad magazine gags (Will Scarlett O’Hara – “We’re from Georgia”), or the “Wide load” sign on the back of Loxley Hall as it’s carted away.

The best bits, in fact, are the ones that harken to Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a movie a good 75 percent of this audience never saw. Robin and Little John’s battle at the creek is great – the two of them duel over the right to cross a body of water approximately ten inches wide, their fighting staffs breaking in half over and over until they’re left swatting at each others’ fingers. The battle at the feast is set up much like the fights in Flynn’s movie, with added visual gags which work infinitely better than many of the verbal jokes in the film. The archery contest, similarly, is really funny. Brooks is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall, but having every character stop to check the script to make sure Robin was entitled to another shot… I don’t really know why, but I still chuckle at that.

A great Brooks comedy always has great performances, but this is the only one I can think of where the performances actually save the weak material. Cary Elwes is really great here, only a few years after The Princess Bride and playing a broader version of the swashbuckler from that film. While he does his share of mugging for the camera, he does it with charm and wit. His famous dig at Kevin Costner (“Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent”) is the one thing everybody remembers from this movie even 20 years later, and he sells it with real panache. Had he been born sixty years earlier, I think Elwes would have gone down as one of the all time great movie heroes. As it is, he has that one great movie, this lesser movie, and Saw. Wow, it’s depressing when you think of it that way.

Amy Yasbeck isn’t a bad Marian. While not a classic beauty, she has a sweetness to her that feels like it’s been amplified for the sake of the comedy, but remains sincere at heart. Richard Lewis and Roger Rees, similarly, work well in this film. While Lewis would never fit in to a straight version of Robin Hood, he’s perfect as this sort of weasely, incompetent Prince John. Roger Rees, probably best known for his recurring role in Cheers, is the perfect smarmy right-hand man. He’s the enforcer, with a little bit of muscle to back up the Prince’s gutless orders. At the same time, though, he’s a bumbler himself, constantly tripping over his words and never exuding any real menace.

This isn’t the best Robin Hood movie, I concede. And it’s certainly not Brooks’s best movie. But if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s this: at least it’s not Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and 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!