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Back to the Feature: Scrooge (1970)

That tagline is my feelings exactly

                Oliver! by Lionel Bart is a pretty fun show. It’s not necessarily good, but has some entertaining songs and relates adequately but certainly not exceptionally a Dickens classic. It was a big risk to make a musical of such a revered work of literature but it paid off in 1968. The very next year, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It makes sense that some studios would want to try to adapt other popular works of literature and hey, even other Dickens novels into musicals. This must have been the thinking behind 1970’s Scrooge, a musical based on A Christmas Carol which is a lovely little disaster.
                First off, the idea to do a musical based on A Christmas Carol isn’t a good idea to begin with. The only attempt that actually works is A Muppet Christmas Carol and that’s because not only are the songs pretty well written and well placed but they service the surprisingly close to the book story and the general tone of the Muppets themselves and their variety show format. You know it’s not supposed to be serious, it’s cheesy on purpose, and will cut out most of the darkest material (not to mention the Muppets put so much effort into their production). Theoretically a live-action musical could work, but there has yet to be a good one. It’s a story with a very serious message and dark implications in addition to the joy, so the light-hearted nature of a musical they’d be going for would be really distracting. Not to mention, no one wants to hear Scrooge sing!
                Yet that’s what we endure in this film among a number of other terribly strange things that make no sense and dishonour the spirit of the original story. Chief among them is the cheapening of certain scenes for musical and comedic effect. That is, I say comedic effect, but there’s not one scene or change that’s legitimately funny. There are laughs to be had, but none of them intentional. They’re all -just at the expense of how over-the-top the film is and how horribly it’s failing as an adaptation and standalone movie. The film is utterly atrocious. It’s not however without value. The production design is good as is often the case with musicals made during that time period, it’s bright, and it’s less than two hours. Apart from that there are a bunch of hilariously bad characterizations and songs.
                Everyone knows this story. Miser Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas as well as the most wonderful of human virtues: kindness, charity, selflessness. In short he’s a cold capitalist who conducts business at the expense of anyone and everyone beneath him and is driven by greed and narrow-mindedness (just think of a typical American presidential candidate). However on Christmas Eve, the ghost of his late business partner comes to warn him that three spirits will visit him. Through their intervention, he is to reform his ways to escape a treacherous fate after death. And he does just that in his travels and experiences with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. In this film, Scrooge is played by Albert Finney.
                And Albert Finney is both this film’s best and worst quality. He is a great actor. I’d definitely recommend seeking out Two for the Road a very fascinating romantic drama he did with Audrey Hepburn, and Amazing Grace where he was superb as hymnist John Newton, as well as his smaller parts in Skyfall and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. On this film alone though I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought he’d somehow mistakenly wandered on to a set and started doing impressions of his senile Welsh grandfather with a stroke. It is REALLY bad. Fascinatingly so, in how over-the-top and unapologetic he is.  Finney is way too young for the part being not even forty when the film was made. Why he was chosen I can’t imagine, and the old age makeup he has throughout is distracting. In addition, he wobbles around talking out the side of his mouth and every reaction is either over or under emphasized. His performance I get is to reflect the silly tone of the film but he overdoes it more than a few times. A lot of the time it’s enjoyable, but there a good number of moments where it’s awkward; where Scrooge has to be reserved in more of a tender or dramatic moment, and he’s just standing there squinting and slant-jawed. He’s referred to at one point as a “weird little man” which is the perfect description of this Scrooge. It’s one of the most embarrassing performances by a great actor, and though it can be fun, the material doesn’t work in its favour. If it did, this act could be one of the great over-the-top performances. But it doesn’t and weird as it sounds, Albert Finney is no Tim Curry.
But Albert Finney is not the only great actor to be turning out an embarrassing performance. In the role of Jacob Marley, this film also features Alec Guinness. My god, Alec Guinness what are you doing? You’re one of my favourite actors! You were Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, you were George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you were freaking Obi-Wan Kenobi! How the hell did you end up in this, and doing such a pathetic job?? Half the time he seems bored, which is quite the contrast to Finney. It’s as though he was forced into the costume and to read these lines against his will. Apart from them, none of the rest of the cast make an impression. David Collings is just dull as Bob Cratchit, Kenneth More is at least trying as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Edith Evans is an odd choice for the Ghost of Christmas Past, who’s portrayed as nothing like in the book, and is just a generic old Victorian woman (in a fancy hat).
One of the first musical numbers is Scrooge singing about how much he hates people, which I know what you’re thinking, sounds like a parody of a Christmas Carol song. It’s so uninspired and bland, it’s appalling, and it’s only the first of many. The songs in this movie are awkward and often feel forced. They need to have a song at a certain place because it’s a musical so they try and insert one or two into each of Scrooge’s time frames. When Scrooge is with Belle she sings a song called “Happiness” which as you can tell by the title is really boring too and doesn’t contribute much to the plot considering a scene later she’s very sad. It looks to be just an excuse to shoot in a pastoral countryside and have her and Scrooge in a romantic little boat on a river. On his first appearing, the Ghost of Christmas Present sings a song that illustrates his most basic characteristic “I Like Life”, which is also painfully forced. Hell even A Muppet Christmas Carol had the more festive “It Feels Like Christmas” which sets up both the goodwill the spirit’s trying to convey to Scrooge as well as acting as showcase for the environment of Christmas Day. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence features a song called “Thank You Very Much”, and including a song at all in this grimmest part of the story takes balls, but this one’s also reaching. ‘Scrooge is dead, people are happy, write a song about that’, was probably the demand on a rushed and unimaginative songwriter. Scrooge actually gets caught up in the song which is fairly clearly about his own demise and has to be pulled out by the Ghost, which is actually kind of funny. But the problem is it’s upbeat and jovial at a very inopportune part of the story. We’re forced to transition directly from that to the Cratchits mourning over the dead Tiny Tim. It’s such a huge shift in emotional focus it’s impossible to take the next scene seriously. And it’s not helped by the fact that pretty much everything from this stave in the book apart from the Cratchits is cut.
We’ll get to the reason it was cut in a moment. But it was the culmination of a lot of weird choices the film made. For one thing, this was a movie way too comfortable with flying. Marley takes Scrooge flying out among the wandering spirits which is unnecessary and takes away from the impact (not that there really was one) of the preceding scene. He also goes flying with the Ghost of Christmas Present during his song. The one flying sequence in A Muppet Christmas Carol didn’t even look that good, and that was over twenty years later. Suffice it to say, here they’re really poor and pointless. A lot of the drama of Scrooge’s visit in the past is tainted by the fact he was apparently called “Ebie” as a kid which is hysterical. And some of the choices are occasionally offensive. There’s a rather insulting implication in that Scrooge drinks from the Ghost of Christmas Presents’ “milk of human kindness” (whatever the hell was wrong with the torch??) and if affects his behaviour, helps him open up to holiday cheer. I hate that this seemingly accredits his change to a magic elixir instead of his own nature being changed by the enlightening experiences. It completely negates the moral of the story to suggest his change was merely a potion of sorts.
But then we finally come to the elephant in the room of this adaptation. After discovering he’s the man who’s dead and that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is really Skeletor, Scrooge falls down the open grave into the chasms of hell, where he reunites with Marley and tours the place. Of all the shark-jumping moments, this one’s the shark-jumping-est. Other adaptations (like both Disney versions) have had Scrooge fall towards his casket which I’ve always thought is an odd addition to the scene before waking up (the revelation and emotional turmoil of the scene itself isn’t enough? And in doing this you skip on Scrooge’s pleas of reformation). But this film goes the extra mile. As soon as Scrooge awakens in Hell you know the film just gave up and is going for ludicrous now. To literalize hell takes away from the mystery of Marley’s torment, again shitting on his earlier scene, and is also just plain stupid! I was baffled how long it went on! But as much as I hated it, it is hilarious in how over-the-top it is. How they bring out shirtless executioners from a Wizard of Id to wrap Scrooge’s chain around him. Yeah, that chain that works as a disturbing implication, is real and visible now! And it’s all succeeded by the finale, when Scrooge wakes up and is ecstatic at his second chance. Admittedly, Finney’s over-the-top performance is a bit more welcome in this scene as it’s a fairly exorbitant reaction to begin with. That is until he’s out on the streets and becomes a crazy old man in a toy store. Or some failed SNL sketch. In most adaptations, Scrooge IS supposed to be over-excited and enthusiastic (though the subtlety of George C. Scott’s portrayal is terrific), but it’s supposed to be believable people would see him as just that, excited and enthusiastic. The way Finney goes about, in addition to his already heightened performance, he looks like a raving lunatic. This is a Scrooge who Bob Cratchit would be completely right to tackle and call for a straight-waistcoat. But as for the scene itself, we get a few reprisals of earlier songs including “Thank You Very Much”, and the film just trolls us by putting Scrooge in a Father Christmas outfit despite this being set decades before Father Christmas was a popular thing. It’s the perfect ridiculous, stupid ending to a ridiculous, stupid film.
                1970’s Scrooge is one of the worst adaptations of A Christmas Carol. I don’t know if I can quite call it the worst because it is entertaining in how bad it is. Finney is certainly the worst Scrooge, whom you can’t take seriously for a moment. Therefore you can’t take the story seriously for a moment. It really does feel like a parody of a Christmas Carol musical retaining no more than an iota of the original book’s spirit. The weird and absurd choices, the terrible, obligatory, and uninspired songs, and sad, awful performances by great actors like Finney and Alec Guinness, make this such a poor film, and one of the worst Dickens adaptations. It was directed by Ronald Neame who produced David Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist and who I can only guess was tired of doing Dickens’ works justice. So he achieved this injustice. This Christmas season at some point you’re likely to see a version of A Christmas Carol, and though there are a number of so-bad-it’s-good moments in this film, you’ll get a richer experience out of almost any other!

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