Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Spirits of Christmas

"There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish. The thing is to try to do as much as you can in the time that you have. Remember, Scrooge, time is short, and suddenly, you're not there anymore."

Ghost of Christmas Present (Kenneth More)

Nearly five years ago, I noticed that one of my favorite — and relatively unknown — Christmas movies, "Scrooge," was being shown on Turner Classic Movies, and I tried to notify my readers of that fact. I discovered rather belatedly that I had missed the 40th anniversary of the movie's release by about five weeks.

Well, here I am, five years later, and today is the 45th anniversary of the theatrical debut of "Scrooge," a musical adaptation of the familiar Charles Dickens tale, "A Christmas Carol." I'm not really sure I have much to add to what I wrote in 2010. Well, maybe a few things.

A couple of days ago, I mentioned that I am not a fan of musicals, and the movie about which I was writing at the time — "Guys and Dolls" — was a big reason why. I also mentioned, though, that I do like some musicals — and "Scrooge" is a big reason why that is true, I suppose.

But, really, I'm not sure why my reaction to those films is what it is. Why do I like one and not the other?

Maybe it is because I could always see the moral in "Scrooge," and I couldn't really see one in "Guys and Dolls" — other than "crime pays" or something similar.

I liked Albert Finney in the title role — but I've liked Finney in just about everything I've seen him in. Sometimes I have been baffled as to why he accepted an offer ("Looker" comes racing to mind) — but, having agreed to do the part, he always seems to give it everything he has. Far more often than not, he has risen to the occasion.

"The notion of Albert Finney playing Ebenezer Scrooge is admittedly mind–boggling," wrote film critic Roger Ebert, "and so is the idea of 'A Christmas Carol' being turned into a musical. But 'Scrooge' works very nicely on its intended level and the kids sitting near me seemed to be having a good time."

Ebert criticized the music, too: "(Leslie) Bricusse's songs fall so far below the level of good musical comedy that you wish Albert Finney would stop singing them, until you realize he isn't really singing. He's just noodling along, helped by lush orchestration."

That acknowledgement prompted Ebert to ask a question: "[W]hy does 'Scrooge' work? Because it's a universal story, I guess, and we like to see it told again."

I have always been a devout believer in the adage that a book is better than any movie that is based on it. But sometimes the movie tells us things the book apparently did not.

I was very young when I read "A Christmas Carol," and I don't remember a detailed discussion of Scrooge's lost love (played in the movie by British actress Suzanne Neve). It may have been in Dickens' original novel. I hope it was — because it certainly added a layer to Scrooge's personality to which many could relate. Darn few of us have not had the experience of losing a love.

Most of us overcome it. Some, like Scrooge, do not.

In general, it seems Ebert was pleased with "Scrooge."

"Alec Guinness contributes a Marley wrapped in chains; the Christmas turkey weighs at least 40 pounds; Tiny Tim is appropriately tiny, and Scrooge reforms himself with style," Ebert wrote. "What more could you want? No songs, I'd say."

OK, he didn't care for the music. I get that. It wasn't great, I'll grant you. But I could tolerate it. (Ironically, the music was virtually the only part of "Scrooge" that was nominated for Oscars. "Thank You Very Much" was nominated for Best Original Song, and the music in the movie was nominated for Best Original or Adaptation Score.

(The movie also received Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction.)

And just as I admire Finney's work, I also admire the work of Guinness as Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley. Some critics liked his performance. Others did not; I recall reading a critical review that dismissed Guinness' Marley as a "gay ghost." Personally, I liked the performance. I thought it was suitably ghostly — and, as Ebert observed, "wrapped in chains," as one expects Marley to be.

But I suppose it wasn't everyone's cup of tea.

After all these years, I still regard it as a classic Christmas movie, one that is always worth watching during the holidays.

Of course, if one wants to see a movie based on Dickens' classic tale, there is no shortage of versions from which to choose — but only one has Albert Finney and Alec Guinness.

In my opinion, that makes the decision much easier.