Christmas Carol Movies, Stave IV: Scrooge (1970)

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There are two ways to look at Scrooge, the 1970 Christmas Carol adaptation that recast the Dickens classic as a musical.  One view is to wonder why in the world this classic story needs choreographed musical numbers and what is sometimes only barely on-key singing by the lead character. The opposing view is a more direct appeal: when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, what fits the mood of that sequence any better than Ebenezer singing and dancing through the streets of London?

After the jump, they’re going to sing again, aren’t they?

When Scrooge was released in 1970, it garnered a raft of BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations (and a win for Albert Finney in the lead role), but America’s most influential movie critics stood resolutely against it, which has helped to sharply divide opinions on this adaptation for decades. And so let’s get this out of the way early: Albert Finney’s singing voice isn’t great. There’s a certain 3-minute scene towards the end that should’ve been cut completely and threatens to ruin everything. And the film loses much of Dickens’ own grim social commentary somewhere in all the choreography.

But with that all being said, this movie is just a relentless thing. It somehow manages to work even though it probably should not. 

A couple of things helped forecast that a musical version of “A Christmas Carol” could work. Earlier in the 1960s, Oliver!  – both the stage play and movie adaptation of Oliver Twist – had done massive box office numbers and locked down about every award there was to win, so the notion of a Dickens’ based musical shouldn’t have seemed all that crazy. 

And we improbably got a great preview of what such a thing might sound like from an improbable source, a 1962 made-for-TV special called Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Don’t laugh! While you might not be too far off in thinking that NBC executives thought of this as an easy seasonal cash-in, somehow animation studio UPA managed to secure the services of Jule Styne (who scored the musicals Gypsy and Funny Girl among others, and wrote a number of hits for Sinatra and Doris Day) to make that animated hourlong special into what was essentially a musical. While the animated show is as Magooey as you’d expect, the songs and musical score are absurdly great.

This musical version of the book couldn’t have happened without a driving force behind it like Leslie Bricusse. Bricusse was already establishing himself as a force in British musical theater  and motion pictures before Scrooge came along – he’d done the music and screenplay for Doctor Doolittle and Goodbye Mr. Chips in the years just before Scrooge – and the year after Scrooge he’d do all the music for Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. And director Ronald Neame had a long list of credits to his name, including producing David Lean’s lauded adaptation of Great Expectations. The creative minds behind Scrooge knew their business, in other words.

Spooky factor: 7 Marleys out of 10. 

One of the neatest tricks that Scrooge pulls off is managing to be the creepiest, scariest proper ghost story of Christmas Carol yet released in movie form. Sir Alec Guiness plays a suitably spooky Marley in a more corporeal form than either the 1938 or 1951 Christmas Carols used, with one chilling extra attribute: this Marley can float, and does so with dramatic effectiveness. (This Marley also gives us the first thing approximating a jump scare in Christmas Carol movie history.) Extra points for spooky here are awarded for the first appearance of the ghostly hearse in the films we’ve covered, as well as replacing the normal hands of the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come with skeleton arms and fingers. And the phantoms that howl around London? That’s a wonderful effect that is so well done for this that it’s easy to surmise that Steven Spielberg might’ve cribbed it to use in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Unfortunately, we’ve got to deduct some points too and it is for the colossal misstep that happens in the movies final third. For whatever reason, Bricusse’s screenplay decides to give us an extended scene of Scrooge in Hell, and if that ever worked at all for contemporaneous audiences, here in the 21st Century it absolutely does not. It comes at a point in the story that should be brimming with anxious gravitas, and instead it’s red Oompah-Loompah time. The awfulness of the Hell sequence is mitigated by at least being mercifully brief. Thankfully the film gets things back under steam shortly after.

Canonical Factor: 5 Dickenses out of 10. 

If it hasn’t been clear so far, let’s reiterate this: 1970’s Scrooge is a musical, with original songs and choreography.

There are no original songs or choreography in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

So. Yeah.

To be a bit more analytical here, Bricusse’s script and the vision of director Ronald Neame almost completely sets aside the stern social commentary and moralism of the book and instead makes the movie focus in laser-sharp on Ebenezer himself – it is called Scrooge, after all. In that regard, the movie does stay pretty close to the original. Though it does build out the character some, it is far more deft and less heavy-handed in doing so than the 1951 Alastair Sim Christmas Carol. Thus taken as just a character study, this version is nicely executed. (This focus away from the social commentary also gives poor Kenneth More, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, almost nothing to do in his sequence. He even nods off at one point at Fred’s Christmas dinner party out of boredom.)

For a musical, then, this is just canonical enough. Well…everything except the Hell scene. What in the world were they thinking there?

Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): 8 Muppets out of 10.

I’d watched this movie twice this year, and with the movie’s lively song soundtrack sloshing around in my head, I went to look up some of the contemporaneous reviews of Scrooge from its original theatrical release. It was a little surprising to see that one criticism leveled at the film (mostly from the Big Three of American film criticism: Kael, Canby, and Ebert) was the (lack of) quality in Bricusse’s original score and songs. So yes, there’s no “Candy Man” or “Pure Imagination” here.  Let’s get that out of the way.

But songs like “Thank You Very Much” and its reprise and on-screen choreography are about as memorable a holiday ear worm as you’re likely to get in any December. And less celebrated numbers like “December 25th” and “I Hate People” and its answer song “I Like Life” are pretty terrific. A personal favorite is “Happiness”, which Belle (played wonderfully by Suzanne Neve) sings beautifully over her failed engagement to Scrooge. It allows us to realize that this failed relationship didn’t break just a single heart and leave a mark on only Ebenezer; it’s hurt her deeply as well, and we see that it isn’t lightly that she releases him from his pledged betrothal.

In the end, it’s the songs that carry the day with 1970’s Scrooge. After seeing how quickly – if canonically – the Alastair Sim version wraps up the story on Christmas morning, I will happily take all the  dancing through the streets of London singing “Thank You Very Much” that this movie is willing to give me.

Scrooge Factor: 5 Bah Humbugs out of 10.

Albert Finney was just 33 when Scrooge went into production with him in the title role. That obviously required both makeup and acting choices to set the right age for the character in this production. The makeup is interesting. There are times when Ebenezer Scrooge looks just looks too much like an aging hippie running an organic soup booth at Woodstock. But there are others where he does look legitimately old. Finney also seems to struggle at times with the role, his voice going up into a high nasal register that sometimes sounds too much like a younger adult doing an unflattering (and unconvincing) imitation of an old man.

Finney’s relative youthfulness does allow him to play a younger Scrooge during the Fezziwig and Belle scenes, and that portrayal helps to highlight the transformation present in the older Scrooge. If there’s another knock on Finney, it’s his singing. His voice is a serviceable enough croak, but isn’t going to make anyone forget Pavarotti either.

Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 4 crutches out of 10.

The Tiny Tim of  Scrooge is only slightly more vacant-eyed and hollow-voiced and chirpy than his 1951 counterpart, so kudos to him for at least still seeming human. This Tiny Tim also has a pudding bowl haircut that helps enhance the creepy factor a bit as well. Overall, though, this is a fairly benign Tiny Tim, one who isn’t spattered with too much makeup to make him look sickly or poor.

Final thoughts:

There were few times in the history of cinema more exciting than the era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. It was also a time of huge transition in film appreciation as well as in the critical response to every aspect of movie culture. Within that context then, it’s not that surprising that more serious and influential critics were left cold by Scrooge upon release in 1970. Indeed, big budget musicals were seen in this framing as a sort of regressive pedestrian attempt to preserve the establishment and crumbling studio system. In his review of this film, Ebert also invokes the sorry spectacle of Paint Your Wagon, the 1969 western-themed musical that was one of the dullest, most uninspired square john releases of the entire era. That essentially reveals everything about the critical zeitgeist stacked against this musical adaptation.

But Scrooge has survived, and endured in finding its audience. The songs really are quite good. The acting is generally fantastic, and the musical trappings don’t get in the way of the narrative too much. This 1970 Dickens adaptation set a high bar for future film iterations of the story, one that would soon see us to a legitimate challenger for an actual definitive version of the story.

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