Charles Dickens' classic tale "A Christmas Carol" is the story of the rebirth of Ebenezer Scrooge from bitter, miserly skinflint to benefactor and loving patron following one traumatic evening involving the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. First published in 1843 the story has been adapted for film, stage and television in every format from short-reel to high art, musical, animation and Muppets. Actors as diverse as Patrick Stewart to George C. Scott, Jim Backus (as the voice of Mr. Magoo), Susan Lucci, James Earl Jones and Scrooge McDuck have added to or detracted from the role.
In 1970 the musical film was produced featuring Sir Alec Guiness in the role of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late business partner and Albert Finney in the title role. This film is the one of the first times in my life I ever sat happily through a movie without a bag of popcorn.
Holiday films are very personal things and usually handed down from one generation to the next. Not this one; "Scrooge" is all mine, right up there with "A Charlie Brown Christmas" as the only two I insist on every season. I've never seen "It's a Wonderful Life" all the way through and "Miracle on 34th Street" only once. None of the contemporary releases compare to me though I can well imagine they resonate just as strongly with the youngsters who watch them for the first time.
Why this version of the story? As mentioned it was the first telling of the story that I had ever seen but also because of the beautiful and yes, "cheeky," songs included in the narrative, most especially "Father Christmas," "Happiness," and "Thank You Very Much." I mean ask yourself, whoever heard a happier tune celebrating somebody doing them all the favor of dying? Critics pretty much dismissed the film all together but this nine year old boy ate up the over the top performance of Guiness, the seething anger of Finney's Scrooge and the completely foreign language and cadence that was Victorian English.
Name it and this version had it all: flying ghosts, kids my age, the deeply infectious optimist of Bob Cratchit in the face of insurmountable problems, the additional scene in Hell which I took to be part of the original story and always felt cheated if it was edited out or not included in other adaptations. Then there was the magic of Finney's old and young Scrooge. I refused to believe for the longest time that they simply didn't wait 30 - 40 years to film the 2nd half of the picture!
The London of Dickens' writings is gritty, crowded, wallowing in despair and poverty and yet filled with such an overwhelming joy of living and beauty in both speech and manner that I immediately wanted to see and feel this world for myself. The Victorian class structure resonates today, 160 years later. Most of the vestiges of the era are gone, the workhouses, the high collared clothes and top hats and certainly the manner of speaking but such is the power of great writing and imaginative film making. I didn't believe in ghosts but I wanted to go to London.
I got my wish the very next year.