[1 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is no more miserable a miser than Ebenezer Scrooge. Proprietor of Scrooge and Marley moneylenders, practically every merchant in London owes a debt—not of gratitude but of usury—to this horrible old goat. While Scrooge seems to hate all of life in general, there is no more wretched a time for him than Christmas, a season of good cheer and generosity. Owning neither of those aforementioned emotions, but imbued with a substantial wealth of wickedness, the terrible tyrant dismisses his nephew’s holiday invitation, bullies those collecting for charity, and hollers at his hapless employee, the humble Bob Cratchit. Indeed, Scrooge considers the entire celebration a load of “humbug,” and can’t be bothered with its benevolence.
However, things will not be quite so normal this Christmas Eve. Scrooge is shocked to find himself visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns the villain of his vainglorious ways. Marley further condemns Scrooge to be visited by three other spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Be—to show Ebenezer that only by allowing the festiveness of the feast into his soul will he be able to avoid a horrible fate, both in this world and in the hereafter. It will be a journey both enlightening and frightening as a standard Christmas carol turns into the portents of doom for one Ebenezer Scrooge.
Perhaps better at capturing the spirit of Dickens’s beloved Christmas classic than the exact particulars of the plot, Scrooge is still a potent, powerful Yuletide treat. Made in 1970 near the end of the musical’s prominence at, and dominance of, the box office (Oliver! was a universal smash—and Oscar winner—just two years before), this recasting of A Christmas Carol and the tightfisted Ebenezer Scrooge was the brainchild of legendary lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Famed for his partnership with Anthony Newley (the two were responsible for such time-honored favorites as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off, as well as some well-remembered duds like the original Doctor Doolittle), Bricusse decided to go it on his own in this, his second solo outing providing both words and music. The results are something splendid indeed, a mix of Old World Victorian sentiment with traditional big-budget musical splendor, creating a sumptuous figgy pudding of a film.
Granted, Bricusse is not blessed with Newley’s gift for instantly hummable melody (only the rousing “Thank You Very Much” and “I Like Life” tend to stay with you after the final credits roll). But thanks to the daring, dynamic direction of Roland Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch), the superficial tenets of the tunes are replaced by a real feeling of lushness and depth. Neame gives us a London circa 1860 that we can really sense and experience.
There is an amazing sequence toward the beginning of the film—as Bob Cratchit buys his family’s Christmas feast—where the class system in English society is clearly and cleverly delineated (Cratchit buys the same items as the rich patrons do, with either side of the street representing the chasm in financial standing and means). From the gloomy expanse of Scrooge’s creepy mansion to the iconic elements that we expect from A Christmas Carol (the boisterous Spirit of Christmas Present, the cadaverous Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be), Neame’s eye for detail and design land us squarely in the time and place of this striking, sensational vista.
One of the main reasons why this version of Dickens’s classic is so potent is that Scrooge does a very nice job of rounding out the title character. Usually portrayed as a strange, psychotic skinflint who needs to be bombarded by glad tidings and fear factors before he repents, there is almost always a kind of whiplash schizophrenia to the character as he’s been personified over the years. But in Albert Finney’s case (with additional thanks to Michael Medwin’s wonderful script), this Scrooge is a bastard to be sure, yet one with a heart once much softer, but now hardened by the hardships of life in general. Allowing us a chance, through vignette and song, to learn how Ebenezer Scrooge was abandoned as a boy, unloved as a child, and confused as an adolescent youth, the buildup of personality layers make the parsimonious prig more pitiable than vile. Surely, he says things that stink of sadism and scorn, but there is also a hint of sadness and sorrow in those terrible tirades.
At only 34 years of age, Albert Finney is absolutely brilliant in this film, giving perhaps one of his best Method performances. Some could confuse the occasional theatrics and desire to be even more direct with the role as over-the-top histrionics. But remember what was just said before—Finney was only thirty-four at the time he made this movie, and never once do we doubt Scrooge’s position, age, or resentment. Indeed, when we see the older and younger Ebenezer together during a Christmas Past flashback, we are taken aback for a moment by how startling the actor’s transformation is. Hunchbacked, barking his orders in bitter bon mots, and contorting his face in an attempt to hide all the hidden pain he is feeling, Finney is fabulous, the main reason why any fan of A Christmas Carol would want to visit this song-filled retelling. With a remaining cast that is equally adept at playing both the seriousness and the celebration of the story, you will probably not find a better performed version of this tale anywhere.
Another plus for Scrooge is its attention to terror. Other versions of the Dickens tale forget that it is supposed to be a ghost story, a spook show in which ethereal elements conspire to convert a penny-pinching soul. Instead of serving the spiritual aspects to heighten the horror, many of these miscues downplay the phantasms for a more syrupy, saccharine take. Thankfully, Scrooge avoids this silly soft soap to give their take on A Christmas Carol some spectral teeth. As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness is brilliant, bringing a resigned evil to the role of the messenger of the macabre. His Marley even manages to survive a forgettable song to guide the scared but surly grouch through a whirlwind of creepy spooks (the effects are very good for pre-CGI creations). Though the last act journey to Hell seems a tad out of place (obviously used to really get the message across about Scrooge’s afterlife fate), it is this decision to heighten, not hide, the horror that makes Scrooge such a sweet, substantive seasonal treat.
And don’t be put off by thoughts that this is a musical; indeed, it plays more like an operetta than a song and dance production. Finney is in fine voice (perfectly matching his character’s crotchety conceits), and the compositions all have a mostly downbeat tone, lending the sentiments that much more seriousness. Certainly, the penultimate number “Thank You Very Much” is carved out of the same West End wood as, say, “Consider Yourself,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” or “Every Sperm is Sacred” (with the Pythons’ lifting some of Scrooge‘s staging for this wacky Meaning of Life sing-along), but when Scrooge and his lady love Isabel share their romantic intentions, it is with a little set of sonnets, each intermingling into the other to perfectly capture the mood and melancholy of their doomed relationship. Too bad Bricusse couldn’t find the same sort of salient melodic cue for his other heart-tugging number, Tiny Tim’s “The Beautiful Day.” Though achingly rendered by boy soprano surprise Richard Beaumont, the tune is so minor, so tossed off and over with before it can settle in and have an impact, that we almost forget it is supposed to be Tim’s signature internal joy.
Indeed, most of the music in Scrooge is equally evasive. Bricusse’s desire to downplay the showstopper for a more muted, emotional scoring leaves the audience a little bewildered as to why the harmonious moments need to be included at all. The “Christmas Children” number gets annoying by the 15th or 16th inclusion of the word “Christmas,” and “December the 25th” is just an excuse to run the “-ith” rhymes into the ground. While the finale, in which Scrooge experiences his change of heart and gives presents to everyone in town, does a nice job of wrapping up the aural attractions by reprising almost every song sung, what Scrooge really needed was a sonorous end number, something like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, or “Being Alive” from Company. Though it’s rather nitpicky to intone the lack of dynamics in the soundtrack, the truth is that for any and all of its minor flaws, Scrooge simply “feels” right, presenting the Dickens favorite in a totally fresh and yet completely familiar light